By: Robin Ford Wallace, Reporter
“It’s kind of like being a doctor,” said Terry Nida. “You’ve got to have empathy instead of sympathy.”
It was a beautiful October morning and the Sentinel was talking with Nida and his manager, Bill Fairbanks, in the little office of Nida’s business: Lake Hills Memorial Gardens.
“Not a lot of people can work in this kind of work because it’s the death industry,” said Nida. “They can’t handle the death side of it.”
Nida had contacted the Sentinel because he wanted the community to know that Lake Hills, the only perpetual care cemetery in Dade County, was in good hands. He had recently bought it and he wanted to announce some of his plans for the place.
The Sentinel was happy to oblige. The Sentinel’s coverage of the death industry has, after all, some room for expansion. In case the reader’s knowledge of the field is equally sketchy, let’s start with the basics.
First, what is a perpetual care cemetery? “Every space that we sell, we have to set so much money aside to make sure it’s always kept up,” explained Nida.
This is not true of the other cemeteries in Dade County, he said, which are all family-owned or connected to churches. In these private graveyards, the usual tendency is for graves to be looked after well at first, perhaps by family members or a church caretaker.
But after a period of years, people move away or die themselves and that care lapses. “All of a sudden you see these cemeteries that are grown up, trees have fallen over, stones have fallen over, and nobody goes in and maintains them,” said Nida. “Not all of them, the majority of them, though, you can look and see where graves are sunken in.”
An old family cemetery abuts Lake Hills as if to illustrate his point. There, trees grow among the weathered stones, dropping leaves and branches. Lake Hills by contrast is manicured green grass acre after acre, spotted with tidy bronze markers. Choosing perpetual care means shifting the responsibility of care away from chance and away from one’s heirs, explains Nida. “It’s kind of peace of mind, that you can think we’ve got everything taken care of,” he said.
Dade County’s Getter family started Lake Hills Memorial Gardens in the 1960s, says Nida, and when he bought it he took over the maintenance trust and the accompanying mandate to look after the grounds. If Nida sells, the next owner assumes that onus, and if he should go into bankruptcy the state would take over through a receivership arrangement. “We’re regulated about as much as banks are,” said Nida.
State law requires a prospective cemetery operator to begin with 10 acres of land and an initial trust investment of $25,000, says Nida, which in general means it’s easier to buy an existing memorial garden than to start a new one.
Nida himself owns half a dozen cemeteries scattered around northwest Georgia. “I don’t just go out and buy every cemetery that comes along,” he said. A place has to be in pretty good shape to begin with, he says, and then his centrally located staff of about 15 is able to commute to the outlying cemeteries to keep them looking their best. At Lake Hills itself, he explained without a trace of humor, he keeps only a skeleton crew.
Nida stressed that his few cemeteries make him a small businessman in a field often dominated by mega-corporations that own hundreds of funeral homes as well as perpetual care gardens.
How does a man get into business like this? For Nida, it was strictly serendipity: He had trained as an engineer and was working at a lumber company when his mother-in-law, then office manager for Tennessee-Georgia Memorial Park in Rossville, asked if he were interested in a job there. He bit, and worked there 20 years before he bought the place in 2004. “It’s more than making money for us, me and my wife,” he said. “It’s more of a ministry. People do die.”
It’s a people business, says Nida. Probably 75 percent of the clients – called the “at need” in the industry – have made their arrangements beforehand. “It’s a lot easier for a husband and wife to sit here and pick out together the kind of marker they want,” said Nida’s manager, Fairbanks. “It’s much easier to do it now than it is when one of them loses the other.”
But for the other 25 percent, the survivors, perhaps parents still in shock from the accidental death of a child, or a newly bereaved spouse, must make cemetery arrangements on the worst day of their life. Funeral homes don’t generally handle that end of the process, explains Nida.
And that’s where the sympathy vs. empathy comes in. “You’ve got to separate yourself from the emotion side of it but still know the hurt they’re going through,” said Nida.
But a people business is still a business, and Nida like other businessmen must meet the changing needs and demands of the market to stay afloat. “Cremation is a concern,” he said. “It takes a lot away from us because they don’t buy a vault, they don’t buy a space a lot of times, they don’t buy opening and closing or a memorial, either.”
In the Chattanooga/North Georgia area, he said, cremation has gone from one or two percent to about 30 percent of the market just during his career. In other areas of the nation it’s much higher, about 75 percent in Denver, he estimates.
Still, everybody wants to be remembered, said Nida, and Lake Hills meets that need by offering cremation benches or monuments with cremains niches to memorialize those who have chosen that route.
Some cemeteries offer much more, says Nida. “They may have a walkway, or they may have a little path with a little stone there, you know, water flowing down through there, big fountains and so forth,” he said. “Baby boomers, they want something done different. They’re going to do their own thing.”
Nida wants the public to know that in addition to the cremation niches and benches, under his tutelage Lake Hills has gone from strictly brass markers to offering upright tombstones as well.
Another innovation Nida is introducing is above-ground mausoleums – “A lot of people don’t like the idea about going into the ground” – and a stand of patriotic flags marks the area that he has chosen for one more new idea, a veterans’ section.
Nida says that a cemetery plot in Lake Hills runs around $1,000, but that doesn’t include any of the extras. “It’s probably about $3,500 by the time you buy a space, a vault, memorialization and opening and closing, somewhere between $3- and 4,000,” he said.
Again, Nida says most people find it contributes to their peace of mind to make pre-need arrangements, but he adds it also saves money. “If you do it ahead you get several discounts,” he said. “We’ve got two for one right now.”
Lake Hills Memorial Gardens may be reached at (706) 657-4242.