Newspaper article International New York Times

Turning Graveyards into Wine

Newspaper article International New York Times

Turning Graveyards into Wine

Article excerpt

The Roman Catholic Church had a problem: meeting graveyard expenses as more people chose cremation. The answer: Bishop's Vineyard.

For an additional $1,000, a family can have a loved one buried near the chardonnay vines glistening in the sun, or if they prefer, near the pinot noir vines at a cemetery here in a San Francisco suburb.

The vines were planted 10 years ago as a less expensive and more water-frugal alternative to grass at the Holy Sepulchre Cemetery.

But this is California, the land of gold and grapes, and the ornamental grapevines are now producing prizewinning wines.

"It was kind of like Jesus' miracle when he made water into wine," said Bishop Michael C. Barber of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Oakland, which oversees 16 acres of grapes at this cemetery and two others. He became the bishop in 2013, when the wine was called Cathedral of Christ the Light before church officials came up with Bishop's Vineyard, a snappier label for a larger market.

These are challenging times for cemetery owners, who are struggling to cover their costs, primarily upkeep of the land. The burial habits of Americans have changed, and nearly half are cremated rather than buried.

American cemeteries have developed creative ways to draw visitors, holding horror movie nights, concerts in mausoleums, fun runs and yoga classes in chapels.

There is a certain symmetry to the Catholic Church's making California wine; Spanish missionaries brought grapes and winemaking to the state, probably in late 1700s. The vines also have a spiritual appeal: Wine is a crucial part of the Catholic Mass and the inspiration for Christ's first miracle, at the wedding at Cana.

Planting cemetery grapevines in 2006 was a small part of the solution suggested by Robert Seelig, the chief executive of Catholic Management Services, which oversees the diocese cemeteries, for a money-losing operation.

He cut costs, bought a funeral home with a crematory and began marketing cremations with traditional burials to counter what he saw as a "push-button fix for grieving." The grapevines were a small part of the plan.

At $50,000 an acre for planting grass, Mr. Seelig wondered, "could we plant something else? …

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