EVEN in these hard times, Peter Moloney, a funeral director, believes that people should have what they want.
Although not all of his customers can fully express their wishes, Mr. Moloney and his brothers, who own six funeral homes on Long Island, have worked hard to arrange customized send-offs. And the touches are as varied as the customers themselves.
Bike lovers pay an extra $200 or so to take their last ride in a special hearse towed by a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Gardeners select wildflower seed packets to include with their funeral programs. One gentleman wanted to be remembered for comforting his grandchildren with ice cream, so, after the funeral, mourners were greeted by a man in a Good Humor truck, handing out frozen treats.
“You have to give people something special,” says Mr. Moloney, who is 44 and a fourth-generation funeral director. “If you’re not, someone else will be. That means adjusting to what people want today.”
A growing willingness to cater to individual tastes is helping the funeral industry hold its own during the recession. While some people spend an extra $1,000 or more on 14-karat gold mementos, others want less expensive or environmentally friendly options. So funeral homes are renting out coffins as well as Harleys, and some minimize the use of chemicals.
Even in a tough economy, of course, people in the funeral business have something that executives in many other industries don’t: a guaranteed, and expanding, pool of customers.
“The honest-to-goodness truth of the matter is that everybody does die,” says Arvin Starrett, a spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association and the owner of Starrett Funeral Home in Paris, Tex.
Revenue in the American funeral industry will grow 1.2 percent this year, to $20.7 billion, estimates Toon van Beeck, a senior industry analyst at IBISWorld, the research firm. That’s down from a 2 percent gain last year — but, hey, it’s still growth when companies in other industries are reporting double-digit losses.
Americans may be living longer than ever, but the reality of a graying nation is stark. The annual death rate of about 2.5 million has been rising about 1 percent a year, and is expected to spike in the early 2020s as older baby boomers reach their mid-70s.
Nevertheless, the death industry is facing something of an existential crisis. Cremation, which can reduce costs by half or more, is a strong trend. (The average cost of a funeral and traditional burial is about $8,000.) Families are increasingly abandoning traditional religious funerals, which are typically organized by funeral directors, in favor of secular ceremonies they may arrange themselves. Natural burials, which avoid embalming and concrete burial vaults, are more commonly considered than they once were, while a minority of families are bypassing funeral homes altogether to take care of their dead themselves.
People in the industry believe that they can continue to prosper by adapting and evolving. But some insiders suggest that the business could be headed for a restructuring as radical as that sweeping through the music or newspaper industries, especially as baby boomers approach their final act.
The same generation that questioned convention in sex, birth and marriage will probably do the same in death care, says Char Barrett, 48, a funeral director in Seattle and the owner of A Sacred Moment, a business that helps families prepare the bodies of loved ones at home. For a home funeral, she charges $1,450 to $2,595.
“It’s your funeral, your choice — and the industry needs to recognize that,” Ms. Barrett says. “Or it can stay in the box, and drive itself out of business.”
A Preference For Cremation
A PREFERENCE for cremation is already transforming the funeral industry in the United States. Cremations will account for a projected 38 percent of all deaths this year, compared with 26 percent in 2000, according to the Cremation Association of North America, an industry group based in Chicago.
A possible reason for this, says Ron Hast of Tiburon, Calif., a funeral director for 51 years and publisher of Mortuary Management, an industry magazine, is that, in the end, people want simplicity. “Cremation plays a big part in that,” he says.
As Americans become more mobile, they have moved away from hometowns and from some traditions. So final goodbyes become secular. “Here in Marin County, the yacht club is church,” Mr. Hast says.
Even within churches, shifting preferences and guidance have rewritten funeral rites. In 1963, the Vatican lifted a centuries-old prohibition on cremation, and more Catholics are choosing it. “Few of us die in the same neighborhoods where we were born, so often when a person dies, there are fewer long-term connections,” Mr. Goodness says.
And if you care a little bit less about ceremony, and are ready to allow your body to go up in smoke, then all of the trappings of traditional funerals matter less as well — like fancy caskets, says Jerry Sullivan, a second-generation funeral director in Chicago.
“Back in the day, families might spend $10,000, $12,000 on a solid African mahogany casket, have an all-out wake and such,” he says. “Those days are over.”
Today, many funeral directors offer hardwood or metal rental coffins for a short period before cremation, Mr. Sullivan says. He charges roughly $1,000 to rent a hardwood casket for a daylong viewing; a body is placed in a combustible container of cardboard or soft wood, and inserted into the rental coffin lined with fabric.
“We were early adapters,” says Mr. Sullivan, who has rented coffins since 1976. “You want to stay alive in this business, you anticipate your customer’s needs.”
For those who are budget-minded, but don’t want to rent, they can buy coffins at Costco, which offers a selection from $924.99 to $2,999.99.
Many funeral directors are compensating for lost revenue as the Moloneys have, by offering new services like video tributes, grief counseling referrals and memorial items including ceremonial urns, keepsake jewelry, wind chimes and sundials that hold a portion of cremated remains. Some are even selling sterling silver or 14-karat gold “Thumbies” — earrings, charms, pendants and cufflinks that are fashioned from the thumbprint of their loved one and can cost $1,000 apiece.
They pull in profits from the rental business, too. Morticians can recoup the cost of an ornate coffin after a dozen or so rentals, but use it for several years.
Still, the funeral industry faces competition from a growing number of companies, which, like Costco, are providing goods or services that cater to the cost-saving or environmental concerns of a new generation.
Consider Paul Firnstein, a retired advertising executive who moved to Ashland, Ore., from upstate New York in the early 1990s. Members of his small synagogue lacked access to the simple coffins required by Jewish law. So Mr. Firnstein, a carpenter, set about making them himself in kits that families could assemble themselves. Word spread about his business, Ark Wood Caskets, first locally and then, with Internet advertising, nationwide. His coffin kits sell for $599, and fit into a slender cardboard box.
“You can stand the box up in the garage, or put it under the pool table for when the time comes,” he says.
Mr. Firnstein also says he is fielding more calls from families interested in natural burials. Adherents of the movement wrap bodies in simple shrouds or in biodegradable coffins and bury them in woodland cemeteries.
Such simple burials are traditional in many faiths, and were long the standard practice in the United States until the Civil War, when the development of modern embalming and the expansion of the train system altered the landscape of death and gave rise to the modern mortuary practice.
No one keeps statistics on natural burials, but interest is growing, says Mark Harris, author of a 2007 book, “Grave Matters: A Journey Through the Modern Funeral Industry to a Natural Way of Burial.”
“It’s not just this chic eco-trend for greenies,” he says. “It’s based on simplicity and thrift, and has broad appeal.”
Since 2005, the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization in Santa Fe, N.M., has certified cemeteries and funeral providers that follow certain environmental guidelines. It has a list of 220 funeral homes that identify themselves as willing to handle unembalmed bodies, 17 cemeteries that, among other practices, avoid chemicals, and 14 coffin companies that use nontoxic, biodegradable materials.
LAWS vary by state, but it is legal in most states to care for the dead at home. New York is among the few states that require a licensed funeral director or undertaker to handle most death care needs. The online Home Funeral Directory, based in Austin, Tex., shows a list of 41 organizations that help arrange home funerals. Many of these charge fees for conducting home death-care seminars and workshops.
Char Barrett, the funeral director in Seattle, spent 25 years in corporate sales and nonprofit management before attending mortuary school. Two years ago, she founded A Sacred Moment and has since assisted with 54 home funerals. She offers Web seminars and workshops that help families prepare bodies at home for burial or cremation, and works closely with others who provide customized merchandise.
One of those merchants is Marian Spadone, an artist in Portland, Ore., who designs and makes burial shrouds for her four-year-old company, A Fine Farewell. She says she laughs along when people make wisecracks about her “burial burritos,” and even when they call her the “Death Shroud Lady.”
“A lot of people think it’s weird at first,” she says.
Her shrouds start at $895, can be made to order, and can be used in coffins or to wrap bodies before burial or cremation.
“People spend all this time planning how they will decorate their home or have a wedding,” she says. “Why wouldn’t you do the same when you say goodbye?”