The Funeral Biz: Out With a Bang!
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.
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.
“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 dÃ©cor. 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.
Verlin Stoll, Crescent Tide Funeral Home, St. Paul
Traditionally, funeral home directors are in the business because it’s the family business. This was good, because it allowed funeral homes to maintain longstanding traditions. This was bad, however, because funeral homes maintained high prices attached to those longstanding traditions.
Verlin Stoll saw this as his opening. He decided to become a mortician not because he particularly wanted to help people—though he does—but because he saw it as a beautiful business opportunity: the chance to become the Target of the funeral industry.
Cremation: Growth out of Ashes
The growth of cremation in Minnesota can be traced largely to the entrepreneurial vision of the Waterston brothers. In 1980, when Kevin Waterston and his brother took over their father’s funeral home, only 8 percent of Minnesotans chose cremation. But the Waterstons saw a change coming. Long before cremations were common, they began widely advertising their cremation business as a funeral option. It started slowly.
“In 1980, our first year in the cremation business, we were doing maybe 10 or 12 cremations a year,” Kevin Waterston says. “We thought we could make it simple for people to prepay for their cremation and so we created the Cremation Society of Minnesota. We advertised heavily on radio, TV, and the newspapers, and we still do.”
It worked better and faster than the Waterstons ever imagined. This year more Minnesotans choose cremation than choose burial. And 20 percent of those that choose cremation opt to do it through the Waterstons’ Cremation Society.
“I knew even before I went to college that funeral homes were charging more than they had to,” Stoll says. After studying the business of funeral homes at the University of Minnesota’s School of Mortuary Science, he was convinced he could successfully introduce a low-cost alternative to the local market. Early this year, he opened Crescent Tide, which offers prices so low it’s made him the dartboard photo of other local morticians. For a simple cremation, he charges $750—about half of that charged by the Cremation Society. For a full funeral? “We charge $1,650, and most other funeral homes charge more like $4,000 and up,” Stoll says.
How does he do it? Not all that differently than any other discount operation. “We don’t have the overhead of a big building or a big chapel or off-street parking,” Stoll says. “And our philosophy is different. I figured out how much we needed to charge at the small scale at which we wanted to work, and from there I figured out how much we needed to charge to make it work, not how much we could charge.”
Stoll says that during his first three months in business, he averaged about 55 “cases” a month, enough to keep him in the black. And word of mouth is only now starting to build. While all that is making him popular with clients who are happy with a pared-down funeral at a greatly pared-down price, it’s not raising his popularity with his fellow Twin Cities funeral professionals.
“We’re not actually getting blacklisted,” he says. “But I’m just sort of an outcast, I guess.”
Brad Royce, Bradley Royce Funerary Urns
Brad Royce has been a fixture on the local art scene for the past few decades. But it wasn’t until he started making elaborate flower boxes that he inadvertently became part of the funeral industry.
“I was working on these flower boxes and decided to put feet on them. And after I did that, I decided they were not just boxes, but that they looked like funerary urns,” he says. “That was not something I started out to do, but that’s how it worked out.”
Royce made his first sale to a friend whose father had just died and been cremated. Since then he has been selling the urns at art shows and, especially, online. He hand-carves them and paints them white, which sell for $450, or in colors, which can go for up to $3,500.
Royce considers making the urns an important task; the urns are far more than something that just contains the remains of the deceased. “I want to make a symbolic piece,” he says, “for both the living and the deceased, which will memorialize the significance of a person’s life and its connections to others.”
Mike Zoff, Affordable Coffins and Artery, St. Paul
Mike Zoff’s family ran a funeral home, but Zoff chose to pursue other paths, most recently selling real estate. “But about two and a half years ago,” he says, “my sister-in-law died and I was asked to make the arrangements. Even though I was familiar with the subject matter, I was astounded at the increasing costs families must endure to bury their loved ones.”
So with the real estate market in the doldrums, Zoff decided to change careers and do something about those high costs. “I made it my mission to provide a sturdy, dignified, and reasonably priced coffin,” he says, “for the many people who wonder why they should throw thousands of dollars into something that’s just going into the ground.” Zoff’s basic coffin is made of 3/4-inch plywood and sells for $295. His most expensive design goes for $425; a commercially available higher-end coffin can sell for several thousands of dollars and up.
“I may sell them inexpensively,” he says, “but they’re not made cheaply. At this point, I’m a one-man show: I control all my costs, I run my shop, and all the labor to make the coffins is mine.”
So far, with virtually no marketing, Zoff is selling two or three caskets a week. With his low overhead, that’s enough to keep him in the black. Eventually he’d like to expand his business to a line of metal caskets that he says will appeal to more conventional clients. He plans to open a few more stores in the next year or two. “Low-cost services like mine are a fast-growing segment of the business.”
651-208-6902, affordable coffinsandartery.com
Sue Kruskopf and Nancy Bush, MyWonderfulLife.com
Sue Kruskopf, a partner in Minneapolis advertising agency Kruskopf Coontz, and her pal Nancy Bush, an ad salesperson, can discourse for hours about funerals and end-of-life rituals. And while that may not make for sparkling cocktail party chatter, that knowledge is vital to their efforts to serve baby boomers looking for a new approach to death.
Kruskopf and Bush run MyWonderfulLife.com, a site that dispenses information about funerals, ranging from the slightly off-the-wall—a list, for example, of “Our 10 Favorite Funeral Favors,” includes such funeral gift-bag suggestions as custom DVDs, wristbands, and recipe books—to the sublime, including research on funeral options from around the country. Mostly, though, the site offers a practical way to organize your post-death wishes. There’s a place to leave letters to loved ones; a record of all your important information, such as bank accounts and a will; a place to detail who you want to get your meaningful possessions; and information about how you’d like your funeral to be run, including music, favorite literature, and even the option to design your own headstone.
It all started when Bush lost her husband about six years ago. She wanted a beautiful goodbye service for him, and so she and Kruskopf “pulled together an incredible celebration of his life,” Bush says. Though they didn’t know it then, they were on the leading edge of baby boomer funerals.
“Friends came up to us after the funeral, and told us they thought it was phenomenal, more like a celebration than a funeral,” Kruskopf recalls. “And with feedback like that, people telling us ‘I want to have a funeral just like that,’ we started to think we might be onto something.”
So they began researching the subject and discovered that while 70 percent of baby boomers say they don’t want a traditional funeral, they had no idea of what might be available as an alternative. That was irresistible bait to the entrepreneurs.
The website has been operating since 2008 and has more than 11,000 members. It’s free, and part of the fun for the two women has been to figure out how to monetize the enterprise. “Initially we were going to put advertising on it, until we realized it’s a little too personal for advertising,” Kruskopf says. “So we’re looking at partnerships with a number of businesses, including co-branding opportunities for funeral homes. We’re working with the insurance industry because people on the site ask how they can pre-pay.”