Published: June 23, 2011
Updated: 2:13 p.m.

Crystal Cathedral cemetery's future uncertain



The cathedral, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy Oct. 18, filed a reorganization plan last month that includes a $46 million offer from Greenlaw Partners to buy the cathedral and its core properties on the 30-acre campus, including the 1.5-acre cemetery. According to the terms of the offer, the core properties would be leased back to the ministry with most of the cash from the deal going to creditors who are owed millions.

After four years, the ministry would have the right to buy back the property for $30 million. Greenlaw would get the right to build hundreds of apartments on some of the 30-acre property. This plan is awaiting approval from creditors and the court.

It is the possibility that the cemetery could be bought by a developer that would build multi-storied apartment complexes overlooking family plots and mausoleums that bothers the Crean family and others who have loved ones buried there or who plan to buried there. Officials who run the cemetery say they cannot make any promises to prospective customers because of the church's precarious financial position.

Crean's son, Andy Crean, said his family is "disappointed" with the state of the Crystal Cathedral. His family owns a plot with nine burial sites at the Memorial Gardens, he said.

"My father bought the spaces years ago and his intention was to help out the church," he said. "But we want him and our family to rest in dignity – not next to a three-story apartment complex."

Crean said the family is discussing moving his father and their own plots to Pacific View in Corona del Mar.

"Our family is from Newport Beach anyway, so it makes sense for us," he said.

Among the other celebrities buried in the Memorial Gardens are Marie Callender and Thurl Ravenscroft, the voice of Tony the Tiger and Laguna Beach's Pageant of the Masters. Famed pianist Roger Williams, who played for the cathedral's "Hour of Power," has purchased a mausoleum there. His space is decorated with a stained glass panel that shows Williams in a white suit playing the piano. Also to be buried in one of the other mausoleums is the family of Paul Crouch, co-founder of the Trinity Broadcasting Network.

The prices range from $1,400 to $4,850 for niches to $225,000 to $250,000 for family estates that can accommodate up to 10 caskets.

Lillian Forry, whose husband, Harry Sterling Forry, is buried at the cathedral, is also worried about the fate of the cemetery. As she stood in front of her husband's wall crypt on a recent morning, Forry said she wonders if the church will honor her contract.

"I'm 82 years old," the Anaheim resident said. "There is a space next to my husband with my name on it where I hope to go eventually. What happens to my contract if the church does not have ownership of the property?"

Forry said she paid a total of $12,681 in 1996 for the two spaces, which included a $586 endowment care fund fee. Forry said she was never a cathedral member, but used to drive her late husband to the in-car worship services.

Dolores Rommel, a member of the cathedral since 1970, is in the same position as Forry. Her husband's grave and her own property are directly above Forry's. Both of their properties face the cathedral's glass tower.

"If they build a bunch of apartments next to the cemetery, that's going to change everything," Rommel said. "Right now, it's a tranquil, beautiful cemetery. How

will they close it off at night? How will they prevent vandals from getting in?"

Rommel said she and her husband were members of the Eagles Club and have donated thousands to the cathedral over the years. Rommel recalled having a "wonderful funeral" for her husband with bagpipers and doves.

The questions are many at this point and there are no real answers, says Marcia Nixon, who has been the cemetery's director for the last 18 years. She says it has been difficult to market and sell spaces at the cemetery after the church filed for bankruptcy.

"I don't blame people for not buying," she says. "They have to look at the future."

But, Nixon says, she plans on being buried there, and the Schuller family has a vested interest in the cemetery. Nixon points to a large red granite sarcophagus at the cemetery's entrance.

"That's where Dr. Schuller and his wife will be buried," she says. "They have their heart and soul in this place."

Schuller's uncle and aunt are also buried in the Memorial Gardens.

Nixon, who sits on the board of the Cemetery and Mortuary Association of California, says what happens to the cemetery will depend on who gains control of it.

"I cannot imagine that the city, the county or the state will allow anything to happen to this property," she said. "The developer who buys the property will obviously know that they have to maintain a cemetery. I only see it improving and getting better."

The cemetery has about 6,000 spaces. Nixon says although it is small, the space has been used efficiently.

The state, county or city cannot exercise any type of control over a church cemetery, said Russ Heimrick, a spokesman for the California Cemetery and Funeral Bureau. The state only regulates private cemeteries, and church cemeteries are off limits, he said.

"If this were a private cemetery, the state can step in and make sure that the contracts are honored," he said. "It appears at this point that it would be the bankruptcy court's role to make sure that happens."

Heimrick said the county or city do not have any say in the matter either.

Nixon said despite dwindling sales, the cemetery is still in good financial shape thanks to an endowment that "has not been touched." For every purchase at the cemetery, a small portion goes into an endowment fund that is used for cemetery maintenance.

For example, Nixon said, if a customer pays about $9,750 for a lawn crypt, about $700 will go to the endowment fund and the rest to the church's general fund. That contribution is much more than what the state mandates, she said.

"The endowment money is safe and has been prudently invested," Nixon said.

But as far as the future is concerned, she says, she simply doesn't know.

"I don't have a crystal ball," Nixon says. "I cannot promise anyone anything."

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GARDEN GROVE – John Crean, Orange County's famed entrepreneur and philanthropist, is buried in the Crystal Cathedral Memorial Gardens – on the very grounds of the megachurch founded by his dear friend Robert H. Schuller, one of the beneficiaries of his generosity.

But Crean, one of the main donors who helped Schuller raise the glass sanctuary and iconic tower from the ground, may be moved to a different resting place, possibly in Newport Beach, given the Crystal Cathedral's financial woes that have left it bankrupt and up for sale, his family members say.