The good news is that more people are dying. And the funeral business needs some good news.

From 1986 to 2006, funeral home profit margins declined by almost 50 percent, according to the Federated Funeral Directors of America. Reasons for this include a significant increase in lower-margin cremation services, changing demographics, and the changing mores of the baby boom generation. Yet these last two factors also hold the promise of rejuvenated business that could start beginning next year.

The demographic influences are clear: People are living longer than ever before. The death rate is now 43 percent lower than it was in 1960, with the average American living to 78 years old. In Minnesota, age-adjusted deaths have fallen 11 percent just since 2000, from 754 deaths per thousand to 671 deaths per thousand. That’s a lot of clients funeral directors are not getting—yet.

0113-Funeral_pic1-(1).jpg Sue Kruskopf and Nancy Bush

No funeral director wants to appear morbidly joyful about the flood of deaths in the near future, but they all understand that there’s a windfall coming soon. Boomers represent almost 30 percent of the population, about 78 million Americans. And when boomers begin their heavenly ascent, they’re going to be doing it in numbers rarely seen before in this country.

But they’re not going to ascend the way their parents did, and that means that competition has finally arrived in an industry that has never before had to deal with it. While this has complicated the lives of many funeral directors and slashed their bottom lines, it has brought opportunities for a new generation of funeral entrepreneurs.

A Livelier Way to Go

Larry Willwerscheid is a fourth-generation funeral director. With his cousin Steve, he owns two funeral homes in St. Paul, and one in West St. Paul. John Adam Willwerscheid, their great-grandfather, started the business in 1886 to serve St. Paul’s German population. “Thirty years ago,” he says, “funerals used to be all the same. Everyone had a limousine, they had one visitation the night before and one at the funeral home the day before,” he says. “Today, people do what they want, rather than the standard thing.” And that significantly affects the bottom line.

Death Your Way

Personalization has taken some exotic turns in the memorialization business. A few decades ago, you died, you had a gravestone or a crypt, and that was it. Today, that gravestone can show photos and videos of the deceased, and even have a recording of the deceased’s voice you can listen to. You can have your cremated remains mixed with gunpowder and turned into fireworks for a very flashy last show. There are companies that will arrange a burial at sea, and there’s at least one that will launch your remains in a rocket, either to orbit the Earth (for $5,300) or land on the moon ($12,500). For $17,000, a suburban Chicago company called LifeGem will compress your remains into a .75-carat diamond or other jewel. Another company mixes the deceased’s remains with concrete and plans to use that as building material for Atlantis, a small city it wants to construct under the Pacific Ocean.

—S. K.

“When my dad was in the business, every funeral was a traditional one. Back then a full-service funeral would have cost between $2,000 and $3,000 [in 1980s dollars]. But those funerals were expensive and I don’t think people today see the value in a $10,000 funeral [in today’s dollars],” Willwerscheid says. One key difference between then and now is that there were few available alternatives to a full funeral. Today, cremation has increasingly become an acceptable, and increasingly popular, lower-cost option.

“People who are looking at cremation are looking for something simpler than a traditional burial,” says Kevin Waterston, who, with his brother, owns and operates the Cremation Society of Minnesota. Not least, though, people are looking for something cheaper than a traditional burial, which in Minnesota averages about $6,500 a shot. The Waterstons charge $1,395 for the average cremation, a process that eliminates the need for a burial plot, a vault, a casket, a limousine and the other paraphernalia of the traditional funeral.

Not that there is any universal funeral ritual these days. “You’ll always need ritual, but the type of ritual is changing as the baby boomers reshape what a ritual means,” says Angela Woosley, a teaching specialist at the University of Minnesota’s School of Mortuary Science.

More and more, she says, boomers want to create their own funeral rituals, and funeral homes are scrambling to catch up and stay current. On the way out is the funeral where the only speaker is the member of the clergy running the service. Today it’s just as common for friends and family to speak at funerals. Rock and roll and other kinds of pop music are replacing dirges and classical music. Video monitors or television sets play memorial videos as attendees enter. And the traditional post-funeral luncheon run by the ladies of the church is being taken over by funeral homes themselves. Willwerscheid, for example, has converted a chapel in each of its homes to a gathering place where lunch can be served.

“Funerals have moved closer to a celebration of a person’s life than of their death,” Woosley says. “There’s a personalization that’s taking place at funerals. Heavy velvet curtains and candles are out, replaced with a brighter d├ęcor. I’ve heard of an ice cream social reception after the service, and having classic cars from the decedent’s collection parked in front of the church. One person who owned a towing company had seven of those huge tow trucks parked outside his funeral. In Forest Lake they held a funeral for a person who loved playing bingo, so at the reception they had little bingo cards and card-stampers as a centerpiece on the table.”

This kind of personalization can follow through to the presentation of the deceased themselves. “My first arrangement, we buried the person in Mickey Mouse ears because she was a big Mickey Mouse fan,” Woosley says, “I’ve heard of many people being buried in Vikings or other sports team jackets.”

New technologies are moving in to fulfill baby boomer desires. For the ecologically minded who want a “green” funeral, there are several options, including last rites without metal caskets, vaults, or even embalming. Bradford Funeral Home in Stillwater is the second mortuary in the nation to offer alkaline hydrolysis as a body disposition method. That process reduces the body to bones and a sterile liquid that can be disposed of in the wastewater stream. Though that might sound rather macabre, consider these statistics from the Green Burial Council: Traditional U.S. burial disposal methods consume 90,000 tons of metal, 1.6 million tons of concrete, and 800,000 gallons of formaldehyde-based embalming fluids, which are dumped into the environment each year.

Green consciousness isn’t the only modern influence on how funerals are conducted. Like almost every other category of business, the death business has been buffeted by the changes wrought by digital technology. “Baby boomers are very savvy consumers, and they use the web to shop around for everything,” Woosley says. With that has come plummeting prices for almost everything, from the funeral itself to the cost of caskets and flowers.

But the web has changed more than the way we shop for funerals. Facebook has created a “memorialization” page to keep the loved one’s Facebook site online. A service called Eternal Voicemail (evidently we can’t escape voicemail, even in heaven) keeps the deceased’s last voicemail message on line, and anyone can call in and even leave messages. There are grief recovery webinars, automatic shiva reminders for Jewish mourners, and, for about $500, a funeral can be streamed live, online, to the other side of the world.

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