Dominic Seman could have done anything when he left the Army three years ago. He considered going to the police academy. He could have gotten a job with a trade union or become an auto mechanic. But he literally chose to build his future in a dying industry.
Mr. Seman decided to buy cemeteries and make a living operating them.
Today, at 34 years old, he owns three graveyards in Allegheny County — Woodlawn Cemetery in Wilkinsburg; William Penn Cemetery in Churchill; and Hollywood Cemetery in Sheraden.
The work isn’t that complicated. He doesn’t mind mowing grass and digging graves. He described himself as an old soul and the job of burying bodies and tending graves is one that suits his personality.
“I don’t think there are too many people who would be interested in doing this.”
— Dominic Seman
“I don’t drink or go to bars or have too many friends,” Mr. Seman said. “I come to work. I’m by myself. No one bothers me. I don’t have problems.
“I wear work clothes all the time. People just think I’m a worker somewhere. When you tell people you own a cemetery, they don’t believe you.”
From a value standpoint, he believes he got a great deal.
Woodlawn Cemetery and William Penn Cemetery were owned by the same woman — Inez Kress. She and her husband purchased them in 1988. He died in 1989.
She didn’t want the cemeteries to begin with, according to Mr. Seman. He has a long history with Woodlawn because his father had been the caretaker since 2003 and he used to help his dad from time to time since the age of 14.
He said Mrs. Kress leaned more toward office work. The cemetery business was not her cup of tea. “She could have walked away,” he said. “Anybody can walk away from a cemetery with no legal problems. If you can’t take care of it, then what are they going to do? They can’t put you in jail.”
He said she felt a moral obligation to keep it operating.
When he offered to buy the two cemeteries, he was ending a four-year commitment in the Army’s infantry division. She had become older and she saw his offer as an opportunity to move on with her life, even though she originally wanted $1 million for both and he was offering only “a few thousand.”
He said that while he was in the service, his father informed him that a man had offered to purchase the Woodlawn cemetery for $200,000. The first person who had ever been interested in buying it, the man spent a few months observing the operation and finally backed out.
“If I were to leave this place, all three of my cemeteries will be abandoned, and no one will take them over. They would turn into forests again.”
— Dominic Seman
Mrs. Kress became discouraged. That is when Mr. Seman offered to take it over and she accepted the offer.
Property records do not indicate exactly how much Mr. Seman paid for either cemetery and he declined to disclose his purchase price. County records reflect only that his name was added as an officer on the cemetery’s board of directors. The previous owners’ names were removed.
Meanwhile, his opportunity to buy the third cemetery came because Mrs. Kress was friends with the owners of Hollywood Cemetery. The husband and wife had moved to North Carolina.
They would come back to handle a burial, but they weren’t taking day-to-day care of the cemetery. When they heard Mr. Seman had purchased Mrs. Kress’ cemeteries, they offered to sell for whatever he would pay.
The owners of the 50-acre cemetery had been asking $1.5 million, but it had been up for sale for the past 50 years. They dropped the price to “a few thousand dollars” when he expressed interest, he said.
“I looked at it as a way to make money,” he said.
Woodlawn Cemetery had three employees, when he was considering the deal, and he thought they spent more time watching TV than handling chores. “That let me know there must be money in this business. I know myself and I knew I could do more work than these people were doing.”
For the most part, he works alone with an occasional helper. Mr. Seman said the three cemeteries produce a total annual gross revenue of about $200,000, which is a far cry from what they used to earn in the 1920s, but still enough to support him.
$500 - $700
Price of a burial plot in one of Mr. Seman’s cemeteries
William Penn is the most profitable. It does between 70 and 100 burials a year. Hollywood Cemetery gets 12 to 13 burials a year. Woodlawn Cemetery gets maybe two or three.
Mr. Seman can sell burial plots for $500 to $700. He also collects a $1,700 fee for opening and closing each grave.
He said the first two cemeteries he bought had roughly $100,000 in each perpetual care fund. Hollywood Cemetery had no money in its fund.
He said that while the Woodlawn Cemetery endowment fund was being managed by a trustee, it was earning about $800 a year, but he’s handling that himself now and claims to be earning about $900 a month.
Mr. Seman has no wife, no children or heirs who would continue the work he is doing to keep the cemetery grounds manicured. He doubts that he will be able to sell the cemeteries, because there was so little interest before.
“If I were to leave this place, all three of my cemeteries will be abandoned, and no one will take them over. They would turn into forests again.
“People don’t want to work today. I like it. I like the idea of owning a cemetery where I can cut grass and make some money. But I don’t think there are too many people who would be interested in doing this.”
Tim Grant: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1591.