Funeral recession: Cheaper methods of honoring dead forces industry to adapt 

The recession is not only affecting how people live, but also where they end up after they die.

Cremation has emerged in recent decades as an accepted alternative to the more expensive casket burial, and the practice is gaining even more popularity as the down economy forces consumers to skimp on expenses. Requests for cheaper, less-elaborate memorials have forced funeral businesses, including many in San Mateo County, to consolidate and evolve, experts said.

Religious views and traditions once dictated how people memorialized loved ones: a casket, an embalming, a full service with a viewing of the deceased and a costly plot of land at a cemetery, not to mention many other accompanying charges, least of all flowers.

In 2006, the average cost for a basic funeral — not including cemetery, monument, flowers, et al. — was approximately $7,000, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

But, the growing need to save on costs — along with a general disdain for tradition that has been led by baby boomers — has steered families toward the cremation route, which costs just one-fifth as much as a casket burial and ceremony, according to funeral directors.

In 1985, less than 15 percent of deaths in the U.S. led to cremations, according to the Cremation Association of North America. That number jumped to 24 percent in 1998 and 36 percent in 2008. In five more years, nearly half of deaths nationwide are expected to result in cremations, the association said.

“Even though their religion might say don’t, they have to,” said Marjorie Bridges, an executive with the Funeral Consumers Alliance of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties. Many folks don’t have the savings and cannot rely on Social Security payouts to cover the cost of elaborate services, Bridges said.

Moreover, baby boomers, long known for challenging traditions, are coming up with more-creative, and many times less-costly, ways to memorialize their loved ones, said Mark Musgrove, a funeral director in Oregon and former National Funeral Directors Association president.

“The baby boomers are doing their own thing,” Musgrove said. “They are a different generation than we’ve seen before. Some families choose to do something else with cremated remains, keep them or scatter them somewhere themselves.”

The break with tradition has forced the funeral business to change, Musgrove said.

“Cemeteries are smaller nowadays,” he said. “Some businesses are selling additional properties. It’s very expensive to maintain cemeteries and funeral homes. Funeral homes are large facilities. Usually they’re downtown in expensive types of properties.”

That has been evident recently in San Mateo County, where five funeral homes and a cremation business are up for sale. They include Nauman Lincoln Roos Mortuary in South San Francisco and Chapel by the Sea Coastside Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Pacifica.

And selling the funeral businesses hasn’t been easy.

“It’s kind of been a tough process because money is tight,” said Century 21 Hometown Realty’s Steve Murphy, the real estate agent for the Pacifica and South San Francisco funeral businesses.

Some businesses are now specializing in cremations due to their rising popularity, while others are working to develop a lower-cost option for consumers, Bridges said.

“We have to be better business people than we were in the past,” Musgrove said.

And that’s not just to make ends meet. While people are seeking a cheaper option to the traditional funeral, they are becoming more creative in the ways they want to memorialize loved ones, Musgrove said.

“They want to bring in memorabilia, multiple speakers, sharing times where we pass microphones around,” he said. “We help families produce videos, and a lot of funeral homes will webcast funerals so out-of-towners can watch.”

“In the old days, it was pretty cookie-cutter types of funerals,” Musgrove said. “We have music, we have speakers, we have eulogies, we have some religious elements sometimes, and sometimes not. They looked different.”

But, Musgrove said he enjoys the challenge.

“They may look different, but that’s fine,” he said. “That’s great.

As the times change, so to do our after-life options

Options aside from traditional cemetery burial with a headstone are expanding, with technology playing a partial role, along with concern for the environment.

Technology is playing a new role in memorials, with families wanting funeral ceremonies webcasted for out-of-town folks. In recent years, solar-powered LCD screens in headstones that play videos for visitors have been pitched.

Cremation, which is becoming more popular as a lower-cost option during the economic downturn, also has the pull of being environmentally conscious, since the process avoids the use of embalming chemicals or fertilizer for cemetery maintenance.

Other trends include who people are — or are not — being buried next to.

Baby boomers, for instance, who have chosen not to have children but a pet instead, are requesting that their furry friends be buried alongside them rather than at a pet cemetery, or at least nearby, said Mark Musgrove, a former president of the National Funeral Directors Association.

“We also have broken ground in one of our cemeteries to include a pet cemetery,” Musgrove said.

And, there are stories of folks that have changed their minds about being buried next to their former spouse, as once planned, said Marjorie Bridges, an executive with the Funeral Consumers Alliance of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

“He dies, and he bought side-by-side [plots] for he and his wife, and then she is remarried, so she doesn’t want that lot anymore,” Bridges said. “She can sell that lot.”

— Mike Aldax

Dealing with the dead

The U.S. funeral industry has seen a shift in death services.

102,877 Funeral workers employed nationwide in 2007

22,107 Funeral homes nationwide in 2000

21,495 Funeral homes nationwide in 2005

19,902 Funeral homes nationwide in 2010

79 Percent of deaths casketed in 1998

71 Percent of deaths casketed in 2008

Source: National Funeral Directors Association

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