Living

Even death isn't recession proof: Funeral homes cut costs

WASHINGTON — Funeral directors are turning down their thermostats, doing their own laundry and not buying new hearses, according to a new National Funeral Directors Association survey.

The reason: Funeral home revenues are weakening as more consumers opt for cremations, cheaper caskets, shorter viewing periods and cheaper wakes. Also suffering are trusts and stock funds in which funeral homes invest money from clients who prepay for their funeral arrangements.

Other than economizing themselves, funeral homes have few choices, according to fourth-generation funeral director Jim Mumaw of Mumaw Funeral Home in Lancaster, Calif.

"Our profession's different from a lot of retail professions," he said. "When things get slow you can't go out and have a sidewalk sale to bring people in."

Hence, "I'm cutting the grass this year," said James Olson, director of the Lippert-Olson Funeral Home in Sheboygan, Wis., and a spokesman for the association.

New hearses often are the first cutback. They cost about $80,000, according to the association. The trade-in market for them is small and they get poor fuel economy.

Sheets and towels used to move bodies are increasingly laundered in-house, according to the new informal survey.

Consumers are spending less on funerals, too, mainly by switching from caskets to cremations.

Cremations rose 46 percent nationwide from 1997 to 2007, according to association figures. The switch to cremation, which represents from 24 percent to 35 percent of all funerals, has undercut the market in metal caskets. Funeral homes sell them for an average of around $2,250, according to the directors association.

(Total U.S. funeral costs averaged $7,323 in 2006, according to the association's latest figures, not counting cemetery and monument costs.)

More than two-thirds of funerals in Nevada, Washington, Oregon and Hawaii now involve cremations. They're below 15 percent in Mississippi, Texas, Kentucky and Alabama.

One factor: the cost of cemetery plots. Their value rose with real estate but hasn't declined as property prices have fallen, said Dennis Werner, a spokesman for the Cremation Association of North America. He expects cremation rates to rise significantly this year, based on conversations with funeral directors.

Olson, funeral directors' spokesman, said he's adapting to his clients' new thriftiness in many ways. He now offers families the option of catering wakes with cheese and crackers instead of lunch or dinner, he said. Viewing times often are shorter.

Fancy ornamental hardware sales are off, too, funeral directors say. Sheet metal urns are outselling copper and bronze ones. Mahogany-stained coffins are supplanting solid mahogany ones.

Still, funeral home directors can anticipate rising demand. The current U.S. death rate of 8 per 1,000 per year is projected to rise to 9.3 by 2020 and 10.9 by 2040.

ON THE WEB

The National Funeral Directors Association

The Cremation Association of North America

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