The mystery of Donald Trump and the New Jersey cemetery

BEDMINSTER, N.J.— In rural New Jersey, the president’s business has proposed an unusual real estate project.

It wants to build a cemetery.

Or maybe not. Or maybe two.

According to plans filed with local and state authorities, the Trump Organization has proposed to build a pair of graveyards at the site of its tony Trump National Bedminster golf course.

One would be small, 10 plots overlooking the first hole. It was intended — or so they said — for Trump and his family. “Mr. Trump . . . specifically chose this property for his final resting place as it is his favorite property,” his company wrote in a filing with the state in 2014.

The other proposed cemetery would have 284 lots for sale to the public. There, buyers could pay for a kind of eternal membership in Trump’s club — even if it isn’t clear Trump himself would ever join them.

Those are the plans.

But Trump has been talking about cemeteries here for 10 years — and he’s shown the same unpredictable decision-making style about his death that he has about so many things in his life. His plans have gone through at least five major overhauls. Trump has reconsidered his own burial spot at least twice.

Local officials were left puzzling, wondering what angle Trump was playing.

Did the world’s most famous Manhattanite really want to be buried in nowheresville New Jersey?

If not . . . well, why in the world was he pretending like he did?

“It never made any sense to me,” said Robert Holtaway, a longtime town official who heard Trump’s plans on the Bedminster Land Use Board. But, he said, “we don’t question motives. We’re there as a land use board.”

The two latest cemetery plans have now both been approved by local officials. But construction has not begun on either one. The question of how to proceed — or whether to proceed — is now left to Trump’s sons Eric and Donald Jr., who have taken day-to-day control of the Trump Organization.

Both Eric Trump and a Trump Organization spokeswoman declined to comment about what they planned to do.

President Trump already has a family burial plot: his parents and his brother Fred are buried together at All Faiths Cemetery in Queens.

So it was a surprise, back in 2007, when Trump announced he wanted a mausoleum for himself in New Jersey.

“It’s never something you like to think about, but it makes sense,” Trump told the New York Post. He was 60 years old at the time. “This is such beautiful land, and Bedminster is one of the richest places in the country.”

The plan was big: 19 feet high. Stone. Obelisks. Set smack in the middle of the golf course. In Bedminster — a wealthy horse-country town 43 miles west of New York City — officials had some concerns about hosting a reality TV star’s tomb. The huge structure would seem garish, out of place. And there were ongoing worries that the spot might become an “attractive nuisance,” tempting curiosity-seekers to trespass on club grounds.

Trump offered a concession.

The tomb would be versatile.

It could also be a festive wedding . . . tomb.

“We’re planning a mausoleum/chapel,” Trump said, according to a news report from the time.

That didn’t do it.

“Give me a break. Give me a break,” Holtaway, the town official, remembered thinking. “Why would anyone ever get married in a building with no windows?”

Trump withdrew the plan to be buried in New Jersey. But five years later, he was back with another one. Now, the mausoleum was out — but, instead, he had a plan to build a large cemetery with more than 1,000 graves, including one for him.

The idea, apparently, was that Trump’s golf-club members would buy the other plots, seizing the chance at eternal membership.

“It’s one thing to be buried in a typical cemetery,” said Ed Russo, a consultant who represented Trump here. “But it’s another if you’re buried alongside the fifth fairway of Trump National.”

The town was, again, skeptical. So Trump whittled it down to just 10 graves, enough for himself and his family members.

Which family members, exactly?

“Only the good Trumps,” Russo said, according to a video of the town land use board. He did not elaborate.

The town approved.

The state approved, granting a cemetery license in late 2014.

Then Trump changed his mind.

Russo told the town that Trump might want to be buried somewhere in Florida, after all. Trump lived part time at his Mar-a-Lago Club before his election (and, now, after the election as well).

Then, with approval for the small cemetery in hand, Trump came back with a new plan, for a bigger cemetery. This time, the plan was for 284 graves. The cemetery would be run by a nonprofit, and Trump’s golf course would handle maintenance, grass-cutting and gravedigging.

This plan, on the surface, made little sense.

For one thing, it would be a very poor way to make money.

The cemetery business is bad in New Jersey, because the land is expensive, plots sell for cheap, and cremation is stealing their customers.

You need volume to succeed. And the volume at Trump’s cemetery would be very low.

Trump’s cemetery — with people selected by a kind of membership committee — would handle just one to two burials per year, officials said. Cemetery plots in New Jersey cost, at most, a few thousand dollars each. The money, such as it was, would go to the nonprofit company.

But maybe the point wasn’t to make money. Could this whole thing have been a scheme to reduce the Trump Organization’s real estate taxes? After all, nonprofit cemeteries pay no taxes on their land.

That’s possible, experts said.

But, in this case, the savings would hardly be worth the trouble. That’s because Trump had already found a way to lower his taxes on that wooded, largely unused parcel. He had convinced the township to declare a farm, because some trees on the site are turned into mulch. Because of pro-farmer tax policies, Trump’s company pays just $16.31 per year in taxes on the parcel, which he bought for $461,000.

“It’s always been my suspicion that there’s something we don’t know,” about the explanation behind the seemingly inexplicable cemetery plan, said Bedminster land-use board member Nick Strakhov. So why were they doing it?

“I did not ask,” Strakhov said. “It’s an obvious question.”

The land use board approved unanimously, after some inconclusive quizzing (Strakhov had to be absent and didn’t vote).

Now, the Trump Organization still needs to apply for state approval for this larger, public cemetery.

And it still needs to settle the larger question: Does President Trump still want to be buried in New Jersey? Other presidents have chosen to be buried at their presidential libraries. Trump, like any president, also has the option of Arlington National Cemetery.

A White House spokeswoman said she did not know of any public statements by Trump on the subject.

Seeking answers, The Washington Post reached Russo, the consultant who had spent years as the point person for Trump’s cemetery plans. Russo has written a book about his work with Trump on various land-use projects. It is called “Donald J. Trump, An Environmental Hero.”

It was a brief call. Russo said he was driving, and that he might call back.

The Post tried to get in one quick question. Were the cemetery plans still on?

Russo laughed. “Pretty funny,” he said. “I have to drive here. So I will do that.”

He did not call back.

Jonathan O’Connell contributed to this report.

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