Funerals – High Costs, Add-On’s and Your Last Chance To Be A Big Spender! Is The New York Times Article Accurate?

April 21, 2009

It’s always interesting to read about funeral perceptions and where the industry / profession is headed.  A New York Times article written by Gabrielle Glaser addresses that very issue.  The question is – based on what we are hearing – how much truth is there to the idea that folks are spending the same or more for their funerals – since it’s the last thing they can do for their loved one?nytlogo152x23

Let’s take a look at sections from the article and perhaps you can comment with your thoughts.

EVEN in these hard times, Peter Moloney, a funeral director, believes that people should have what they want.

The funeral industry is offering customized products — including urns with a theme.

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  19death4-190wildflower 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.”

Now it is true that Long Island may not be main street America, but it is interesting to ponder if those who live outside of the more affluent areas of our country feel the same when it comes to add-on’s and personalization with added costs.  Prior to the economic downturn, there was evidence that personalization and memorial add-on’s were helpful in increasing the average traditional funeral.  The effect of which was, for most firms, a way to stabilize their revenue loss from increasing cremation.  The NY Times article goes on to say:

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.

A NEW DIRECTION?

Many firms are reporting an increase in cremation that placing accelerating pressure on their traditional revenue stream making it harder to support the large facility required for traditional funerals and the debt load associated with those buildings.  On average cremation is one-third or less the cost of a traditional funeral and is becoming increasing popular as evidenced by the inclusion of popular movies like the “Bucket List.”

“It’s rather amazing the death care references made in that movie,” states American Funeral Financial VP Chuck Gallagher – formerally a sales VP with Stewart Enterprises.  “Not only was cremation embraced with ease, but both characters romanced the idea that their remains could be placed on a mountain far from where any family member could visit or remember.  For that matter, their remains were placed in a ‘Chock Full of Nuts’ container.”

The Times article goes on to state:

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 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.

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.

The Times article (you can read the full article here) is full of ideas that are catching on in various markets and circles.  The following questions remain:

  1. Are families spending the same amount or more for funerals today as compared to two years ago?
  2. How significantly is cremation rising in your market?
  3. Are low cost alternative – Costco – affecting your business?
  4. Do you think as Baby Boomers age and die their generation will radically change the market place for funeral goods and services.

YOUR COMMENTS ARE WELCOME.

Advertisements