At every reunion, and in between, the family communes with its past on the 22-acre cemetery, which it still owns. The property has gleaming connections to historic names. It was designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect behind New York’s Central Park. The mausoleum, where Pratt and seven of his eight children rest, was designed by William Bunker Tubby and has stained-glass windows created by Louis Comfort Tiffany. (The eighth child did not want to be buried there, Mr. McLane said.)
“It’s the last remaining piece of Pratt property in Glen Cove,” Mr. McLane said of the burial ground, officially known as the Dosoris Cemetery.
Family cemeteries, a relic of another age, continue to bind relatives in ways that today’s wealthy might wish for.
“People can tour the property and reconnect,” said Mr. McLane, who works in the family office division of BNY Mellon. “It is a little bit of the glue for the family at this time, since the family is so dispersed around the country.”
Some cemeteries have also become the connective tissue for families of far more modest means.
Part of this results from rules of the Internal Revenue Service, which grants nonprofit status to these cemeteries under section 501(c)13 of the Internal Revenue Code. The rules require families to maintain a detailed list of all descendants eligible to be buried there. Despite having a 19th-century business link, Rockefellers cannot not be buried in the Dosoris Cemetery unless they have married a Pratt.
Another way these cemeteries keep families together has to do with the land itself. It is a physical link to the past, without any of the bad feelings or friction of a home that can linger over the generations.
“In our family, it provides a certain amount of continuity,” said Andrew Edmonds, the president of a family cemetery he didn’t want identified. “If you have a large family, as we do, it brings the family together. They’ll support the cemetery. There’s family history there.”
That continuity is not without work. Mr. Edmonds’s family cemetery has two people working full time to keep the genealogical records of relatives who are spread around the world. Knowing the family members — and ensuring none profit from the cemetery — enables the cemetery to retain its 501(c)13 status. If it were to be audited and found not compliant, the I.R.S. could disallow charitable donations to it or subject investments to federal tax.
“When a cousin has a baby, we have to keep track of that,” Mr. Edmonds said. “Marriages and divorces and such — it’s a remarkable amount of work to maintain all that.”
His family’s cemetery also has a sizable endowment to cover the costs. Not all private cemeteries have one.
Bill Sanderson, a partner at the law firm McGuireWoods in Washington, and his father, John, a certified public accountant, visited their family cemetery in Cartersville, Va., about an hour west of Richmond, this week. Mr. Sanderson took his 2-year-old son, Luke, for the first time, and his nephew Clinton came along, too.
He said members of the family had been going to the property since the 1830s, when the first Sandersons who came to Cumberland County began dying. His grandmother left an endowment of $1,200 to maintain the cemetery, so paying for its upkeep has fallen to his family.
“This was always part of my growing up,” Mr. Sanderson said. “We lived in Richmond, and once a year we’d deal with the cemetery. You’d go there and meet a guy who’d cut some trees down or mow the grass.”
Mr. Sanderson said he always went back to this cemetery. “The people who are buried there are so ancient in terms of my connection that it is almost a genealogical exercise,” he said. “There is also the connection of, does the tree need pruning? Or, is the stone tipped over? That is less of a celebration and more maintaining a connection to this place.”
It is this connection, created by wealth but maintained by obligation, that keeps these families thinking about long-lost cousins.
Of course, not all members of a family feel the same kinship to a cemetery, just as they wouldn’t to a family home. David Hunt, a Pratt descendant who is chairman of Charles Pratt & Company, which manages the family’s wealth, said that when he was growing up around Katonah, N.Y., he rarely went to the family cemetery.
“It didn’t have the same sense of place to me,” he said, noting that relatives on his father’s side are buried in Bedford, N.Y. “I’ve been out there a couple of times, not often, but for various events. I respect the locale.”
Since retiring from the Central Intelligence Agency and becoming more involved with the family office, he said, he has come to appreciate the Dosoris Cemetery more.
This is an advantage of a place. It’s there, no matter when a relative goes to it.
“A lot of these families have family meetings and wealth advisory services, with the relevant family dynamic services,” said Stephen Chambers, deputy manager of the history division at the Winthrop Group, which researches family and corporate histories. “But having a place, a cemetery, where there is some physical evidence of the past, it does provide a different entry point for the family.”
Mr. Chambers said these cemeteries worked well as a starting point for a broader embrace of a family’s history, even if its golden age might have passed.
“One of the biggest shifts with this is families thinking about cemeteries not as a way to fixate on this morbid space of death, but that families are all about birth and life and death and the cemetery is a natural part of that,” he said.
Pierre du Pont, a partner at HPM Partners, a wealth advisory group in New York, said private family cemeteries as well as genealogies and regular meetings helped to propagate family values and principles across generations. But when he has spoken to clients about their own family cemeteries, he cautions that they require thinking out 100 years or more.
“If there’s a piece of property that is important to the family, if it’s where the business and family has its roots, go there,” Mr. du Pont said. “Create an artifact. Pay for a tent or endow some funny trust whose sole purpose is to put up a tent every five years and pay for alcohol. That’s what ties a family tighter.”
Maintaining cemeteries — beyond I.R.S. compliance — is not cheap. Mr. McLane, who serves as the chairman of the Dosoris Cemetery Trust, said the annual upkeep, which includes a full-time caretaker, was $125,000 to $150,000.
When rare trees planted by Olmsted fall down or the mausoleum needs repair, he said, the trust needs to ask members of the family for donations.
“The cemetery has an endowment, but these endowments don’t go on forever without some additional capital,” he said. “The hardest part of this is getting people to recognize that this is a place where everyone should be together.”
Mr. Edmonds cautioned families to be careful managing those endowments to make sure they didn’t run out. “I can’t suddenly decide to sell hot dogs,” he said. “We can only turn to our family. There are very few who handwrite significant checks. We have to be incredible stewards.”
In this new Gilded Age, private cemeteries for hedge fund and technology billionaires have yet to take off. These billionaires prefer philanthropy as a way to preserve their legacy, not parcels of land in places their descendants may never visit.
Mr. McLane, in his day job as an adviser to family offices, sees this as a missed opportunity.
“With family foundations, over time, different generations of the family have changing philanthropic intent,” he said. “Those are challenges for family foundations. What’s unique about a cemetery is it’s a common theme just around the legacy and history of a family.”
Mr. Sanderson seems to embrace this view as he and his father and, now, his young son return to their cemetery.
“My dad made a spoken or unspoken commitment that the grass is always going to be cut,” he said. “There is an unspoken commitment between my dad and me that as long as I’m around I’ll do it, too.”
In that lawn are the roots of his family.