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The Dirt on Extreme Downsizing

July 17, 2015 Barbara Ballinger

We boomers have carefully planned most of our real estate moves—starter apartments and homes to get on the equity upswing, places to live as we raised families with good schools nearby and “location, location, location” our guiding mantra, maybe a larger home if we wanted to trade up, and now a place to trade down or downsize as we started to discard too many furnishings and possessions, and simplify our lives. Being single after my long-term marriage ended in divorce and giving up my former family home proved a great incentive for me.

But few of us, including myself, had thought ahead to our ultimate resting place. Why would we? Like other boomers who are active and healthy, we’re going to live forever, and not just in our dreams, or so we think.

I never gave the idea much thought until my first grandson was born 17 months ago—handsome and healthy. Yet, the night he was born I couldn’t stop crying, and the tears weren’t just from happiness. Suddenly, my mind did a flip-flop, and for the first time I was face-to-face with my mortality. Would I live long enough to witness all the wonderful milestones in his life—first steps and words, kindergarten, prom, graduations, first love, and if lucky, his wedding some day.

When I shared my concerns, friends questioned my sanity. Who thinks like that at such a deliriously gleeful time, they shot back, especially because longevity seemed on my side. My mother still lived alone, then at age 94 ½; my dad had died, but lived until almost age 80 when Alzheimer’s stole him away in more ways than one.

I had always been a relentless planner, thinking ahead and organizing for important events. Now, with the birth of my grandchild and new grandmother status, I realized I had a new concern. I had dropped the ball. No longer was I young or would I live forever.  Moreover, since I was single. I neglected to realize there were worse things than a dateless Saturday night or New Year’s Eve—being alone in perpetuity trumped that. And in this case there were many possibilities I’d have to weigh on my own: an in- or above-ground, casket, vault, crypt for two, mausoleum for many, or cremation, and then whether to invest in a special urn and inter it, ask one of my children to consider taking it for their mantel or favorite table, or scatter my ashes, and then where.

I wasn’t sure if the same rules applied that I had mastered when buying various houses and which I wrote about all the time. Would “location, location, location” still be the benchmark since resale wasn’t an issue? Should I first search possibilities online? Would a view matter?  And what about a corner lot? That might mean more noise and less privacy.

I didn’t know, but understood clearly the economics of supply and demand: Good cemeteries were filling up with real estate at a premium, and prices for gravesites kept climbing. It was crunch time. I needed to put down a deposit, or, maybe, full asking price. But where?

My parents’ family plot was in a bucolic cemetery in suburban New York, where many area temples owned land. While I wouldn’t be in the same suburb where I grew up, at least I could be side-by-side with my father and near family friends who played significant roles in my life. The glitch; there was no room for me in their final “neighborhood.” All four plots my parents purchased decades before were spoken for, and I disliked the idea of being rows away.

I asked my closest childhood circle, all boomers, about their plans. I kept hearing the same response: What plans? Susan, a friend from 2nd grade, who resided in upstate New York, said she and her husband weren’t sure. Her parents occupied slots in a family mausoleum in another suburban New York cemetery with her mother sandwiched between her two husbands. She didn’t think there was room for them there, let alone me.

David, a friend since kindergarten, said his parents were at the same cemetery as my dad but in a different temple lot. He graciously explained there was room for me, but he and his wife might not be interred there. Since they lived in California and his wife wanted to be cremated, he didn’t expect to return east. While his parents were lovely, without him nearby, it didn’t seem the best fit.

It was time to think outside the box. I asked Margaret about whether there was room where her late husband Nolan was buried, and she would be some day. After all, I had lived in their city of St. Louis for 23 years until I relocated back East, and I still loved it. Moreover, we did so much else together—wrote articles and books, celebrated Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, toasted weddings, and sadly, observed deaths. She said I could join them but wondered: “Your kids will never visit you; won’t that bother you?” I replied, “With their busy lives in other cities, they rarely see me alive, except for holidays and family vacations. When your children visit you, they can say ‘hi’ to me, too. And this is the town where I lived for more than 23 years.” At least, I was relieved. I had a live option.

Before finalizing in my mind that I might be shipped back to the Heartland, I asked Fixup, who had stepped into my life and I expected for the long term,  if he had a preference. Though he lived in a different city, he said, “I’m game for any place as long as it’s not cremation. Below ground and near you would be great.” We had the beginnings of a plan.

Then I asked a local friend, Maureen who co-owned a favorite store in my village about her plans. She was from Chicago but had lived so long in our East Coast ‘hood that I reasoned she might prefer to remain…forever. She suggested we gather an interesting, diverse group of friends. It sounded like the equivalent of one of our lively dinner gatherings but in perpetuity. And her shop even sold chic placemats, dishes, glassware, cutlery, candleholders, and more to make it festive.

That said, it was time to find land: a water or mountain view, space so nobody was on top of another, shade trees for hot summer sun and our area’s glorious fall colors, and within walking distance of the small village we both had come to love. A savvy real-estate salesperson could make a killing, if he found us the listing. He might even want in.




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