Cremation's increasing, and so is the creativity of funeral directors

Date Published: 
October, 2005
Original Author: 
Danielle Skinner
ICFA Communications Activities Manager
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, October 2005

How is the rising cremation rate changing the way you deal with your funeral home's customers and the community?

Funeral service professionals may not be able to change the rising cremation rate, but ignoring it won't make it go away. From California to New York and everywhere in between, funeral homes are experiencing increases in their cremation numbers and changing how they do business accordingly.

"We're definitely seeing a lot more cremations," said Rick Williams, president of Williams Funeral Home in Milledgeville, Georgia. "I can remember back in the '60s when my dad first opened the funeral home, we would have one or two cremations a year. Very, very few. And now it's certainly grown quite a bit.

"We're trying to be responsive to the public's requests by providing the services they want and finding unique ways to help them memorialize their loved ones."

Williams is not alone; more and more funeral directors are changing their approach to cremation, perceiving it less as the enemy and more as an opportunity to provide new levels of service to their families.

They are learning that cremation does not have to mean a minimal service—or no service at all. There are a number of ways funeral directors can ensure that more cremations do not lead to disappearing profits.

Providing even more cremation options can help bring in more business and help your firm gain a competitive edge over others in the area. The important thing is to keep families informed of their options. People can only purchase a product or service if they know it is available.

To better assist their families, many funeral homes are creating entire selection rooms devoted to cremation, expanding their selection of cremation products and building their own crematories.

ICFM talked to eight funeral service professionals across the country about how they are responding to cremation.

SUSAN BRING, president of Bring Funeral Home Inc., Tucson, Arizona, and STANLEY STOBIERSKI, owner and president of Heritage Memory Mortuary, Prescott, Arizona, are no strangers to cremation. With a statewide cremation rate close to 65 percent, neither feels threatened by the high numbers.

''I think that one of the big mistakes people make with cremation is just talking about it like it is negative," Bring said. ''Too many people approach it from the standpoint that it is in lieu of burial, but it doesn't have to be. The important thing is to keep families informed of their options."

Bring does that by getting involved in her community with a program she calls "Necessary Conversations." She and her staff visit local organizations such as hospices, churches, schools, mobile home parks and businesses. They explain the options available and encourage people to make their wishes known to their families.

Stobierski owns several funeral homes in Arizona and is in the process of building a crematory which should be completed early in 2006. He agrees with the philosophy that cremation should not limit choices.

"Our feeling is that cremation has to be taken just as earth burial or entombment would be, and it's a matter of us creating different types of funerals with cremation." 

To better assist cremation families and make them aware of all their options, Stobierski and his staff have created a cremation room with cremation caskets and other products, including a larger selection of urns and keepsakes.

NATHAN BITNER, president of Hetrick Funeral Home Inc., Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, is another strong believer in the importance of keeping families informed and making quality service the first priority.

"There have been times when the family didn't want a memorial service, but still wanted a two hour time when people could come and express their sympathies and condolences to the families," Bitner said. ''We try to accommodate all requests."

Making more services available to cremation families and being receptive to their specific needs has helped Hetrick Funeral Home maintain a very low direct cremation rate. In recent years, Hetrick has expanded its selection room to include a wider selection of cremation caskets and urns and keepsake items such as necklaces, bracelets and fingerprint jewelry.

Families who come to Moloney's Lake Funeral Home in Lake Ronkonkoma, New York, are attracted to the beautiful setting of the funeral home as well as the many options that are available to them.

F. DANIEL MOLONEY JR., owner and funeral director, works hard to bring in more cremation families, in spite of some unique challenges created by New York state law, which prohibits funeral directors from owning their own crematories. Because Moloney owned a crematory before the law went into effect, Moloney's Lake Funeral Home is one of only a handful of firms in New York that have one, yet he is not permitted to advertise this fact.

Instead, his ads emphasize other qualities that would appeal to cremation families, such as the Mother Teresa Tribute Center, a stand-alone building on the grounds of one of their funeral homes that can hold up to 100 people. This tribute center, where food and drink can be served, can be used for committal services, group meetings and more, but its primary function is to offer families a more comfortable setting to say goodbye to their loved ones.

All five of the Moloney funeral homes have memorialization centers with a variety of products, including urns, jewelry, candles, religious items and cremation casket units, set up in such a way as to make families feel less intimidated.

These efforts seem to be paying off. "Our direct cremation rate has actually gone down over the past five years, though the cremation rate has gone up," Moloney said. "So we think that the things we're doing are putting us in the right direction and attracting those families that are looking for innovative ways to memorialize."

Williams Funeral Home in Milledgeville, Georgia, is the first and only funeral home in its county to have a crematory. RICK WILLIAMS, president, saw the need for one just over three years ago. In addition to handling their own cremations, they perform cremations for other local funeral homes.

Williams also stresses the need to educate families about all of their options. By spending time talking to families about cremation, he has found that more people are opting for embalming, viewing in a rental casket and funeral services in the chapel followed by cremation the next day.
"As things keep evolving and society keeps changing, people want to know their options," Williams said. 'The more options that are out there for them, the more they can take advantage of them."

In the past, Williams said, it was rare to see older people choosing cremation, but that is not so much the case today. Cremation is growing among people of all generations. ''I guess people are looking for the simplicity and the ecology," he said. ''People get warm and fuzzy feelings for different reasons. We're definitely seeing a lot more cremations."

When MARC BURR, a fifth-generation funeral director and president of Burr Funeral Home and Cremation in Chardon, Ohio, started offering LifeGem more than two years ago, the concept of turning cremated remains into diamonds was a new, exotic option. His own mother left the room in disgust in the middle of Burt's local television interview about the new service.

Since then, the concept has caught on and Burr has sold four LifeGems in the past two years, each costing as much as $10,000.  One family in particular stands out in his memory because he can still recall the smiles on their faces the day they picked up the diamond. To them it was a perfect and permanent remembrance of their loved one.

“There are many other folks who probably wouldn't think it is appropriate, but isn't that what we're here for?" Burr said. "To help every family do what has meaning to them, not to their neighbors."
The first cremation at Burr Funeral Home was in 1912, and they have continued ever since. Geauga County, where Burr Funeral Home is located, has always been one of the highest per capita income counties in Ohio, and they are used to dealing with cremation-oriented consumers.

Burr's philosophy is to embrace change and be open to new ideas. "If a family wants to do something, and it's legal, we're going to make it happen."

In one of the more unusual services Burr remembers, the deceased's cremated remains were divided into four separate urns, each of which was given to one of the man's four siblings. They brought the urns up to the altar at a Catholic Mass, where the priest accepted them.

''You want to talk about a change," Burr said, "talk about the changes going on in the church. Specifically the Catholic Church where, in the past, the body had to be present and cremation was considered a negative, and now the priest is allowing four individual containers to be brought up front during the Mass."

Under the leadership of operations manager BRADLEY BISHOP, Allnut Funeral Homes in Fort Collins, Colorado, differentiates itself from surrounding funeral homes by incorporating innovative technology and personalization in all of its services and merchandise.

One of the products offered at Allnut Funeral Homes is software which allows families to scan photographs to their computer and personalize a scrapbook of the person's life. They also offer people the option of purchasing a package that includes video presentations, flowers, personalized folders and use of reception facilities.

Cremation families can choose from a variety of products, including jewelry, urns, sandstone benches and pillar stones, which can be personalized and placed in gardens. ''With regards to personalization, we've even transformed one of our casket selection rooms into what we call a 'celebrate life room.' We decided to take the 22 caskets out and make the space more suitable for every family, not just burial families, so that they can see all the options available," Bishop explained.

''Personalization makes the service so much better." Bishop said he always tries to honor the families' requests no matter how odd they may seem to others. He recalls one family with an apparent sense of humor who asked for tin cans to be placed at the back of a funeral coach with a sign saying "Just Buried," instead of "Just Married." He obliged, of course.

To RAY VISOTSKI, CFSP, owner and manager of George Funeral Homes in Charleston, South Carolina, quality service means doing things right the first time and focusing more on what you can do for people rather than what you can sell them.

Visotski said he does not believe in investing in a huge inventory of merchandise. Instead, he instills in his staff the importance of paying attention to details and being perceptive to the needs of families.

"We started a long time ago readjusting our prices to reflect the value of our licenses, our background and our experiences, as opposed to just trying to sell lots of stuff to make up for our profit. We don't have a big emphasis on merchandise here. Never had, and probably never will. There are so many things you can be doing for people. They need to perceive value in what you charge."

Visotski believes it is this philosophy that has helped his company increase its market share from 35 to 52 percent in the past six years.

One combination of service and merchandise they have added to increase value to families is memorial videos and DVDs. Because they are included in the basic services package, they are produced at no extra charge and have proven to be a great success.

In addition to owning two funeral homes, Visotski also owns the South Carolina Cremation & Memorial Society, a direct disposition service which rents space, staff and use of the crematory from George Funeral Home. Because of the society's low fixed expenses, it is able to offer simple cremation at discounted prices.

Since much of the society's business is done via phone, fax and e-mail, it is not uncommon for Visotski and his staff never to meet the families with whom they deal Visotski advertises the society's services by placing ads in newspapers around the state, excluding his own market, and also informs people of this option through his work with hospice programs.