Running a crematory correctly

Date Published: 
October, 2005
Original Author: 
Tom Smith & Tom Pfeifer
Spring Grove Cemetery & Arboretum, Cincinnati, Ohio
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, October 2005

Having a crematory gives you a chance to talk to cremation families about services and memorialization, which is what funeral directors and cemeterians are really interested in.  But first thing first: Make sure you do it right.

WHAT: Whether you operate a cemetery or a funeral home, whether you've been in business for a year, 50 years or 150 years, whether the cremation rate in your area is 5 percent or 55 percent, you should be thinking about how to serve cremation families.

WHY: For years, the Cremation Association of North America has been compiling statistics and making projections showing that the cremation rates across North America will continue to climb. They still vary a lot from one area to another, but no matter where you are, you can count on serving more cremation families every year-if you want to stay in business.

The most recent Wirthlin Report found that 46 percent of Americans surveyed plan to choose cremation, and CANA predicts the cremation rate will be 43 percent by 2025.

In Ohio, the cremation rate in 2002 was 22 percent; by 2010, the Ohio rate is supposed to be 31 percent. There's no stopping this.

HOW: If you don't already have a crematorium, think about adding one. If you do, make sure you operate it with due diligence. If you're a cemeterian, you need to be constantly thinking of what to offer cremation families.

Spring Grove added a crematory in 1967, placing it in the Memorial Mausoleum, built in 1963 with plans for adding the retorts. We have two retorts. The cremation rate was still very low all across the United States—the national average was 3.5 percent in 1959, but Spring Grove was thinking ahead.

Fife wasn't here yet, but Smitty was working as a student: "I remember being called over by the operators to look at it, and I remember thinking 'This place is full service all the way around."

The sales manager for the mausoleum, Leo Mistak, who served as CANA president in the late '60s, was certainly aware of the need to plan for a rising cremation rate.

He was undoubtedly one of the people making sure Spring Grove added the planned-for retorts sooner rather than later. (Spring Grove has continued its affiliation with CANA; Spring Grove Chief Financial Officer Chris Krabbe is currently second vice president of the association.)

There was one other crematory in the area when Spring Grove added its retorts; today there are many more in Cincinnati and in nearby Dayton, as well. Most are affiliated with a funeral home or cemetery; one is affiliated with a burial vault company.

By the early '70s, we were handling 300 or more cremations a year, though only about 7 percent of our cemetery business involved cremation. Today, with all the competition out there, we're doing more like 200, but 21 percent of our cemetery business involves cremation.

We also sold thousands of cremation certificates years ago. These preneed certificates were a great deal for people, because when they're redeemed, people are getting a cremation performed for a 30- or 40-year-old price!

Even so, it's good for Spring Grove, too. Several people come in every week to redeem these certificates, or funeral directors send along an order that includes contact information.

We make sure we call people and ask if they can come to the cemetery so we can share with them the wonderful cremation memorialization opportunities we have here—a lot more than we had in 1967! (And which we'll describe in detail in the next issue.)

Training and maintenance
We keep four or five staff members trained as cremation technicians; they take turns working on Saturdays. All have gone through CANA training and been CANA certified.

All the cremation technicians spend time learning from James King, our main cremation tech, who also takes care of the building. We then send them through the training program CANA runs down in Orlando, Florida.

Because we're only doing about 200 cremations annually, our cremation technicians are doing other things most of the time. They probably only spend 20 percent of their time on processing and doing cremations. They are also responsible for handling inurnments and shipping cremated remains.

Even though we're not a high-volume operation as far as our crematory, we make sure the crematory is run according to the same high standards people expect from anything associated with Spring Grove.

Periodically a crematory operation somewhere receives a "black eye" that gets in the press. You want to make sure your facility is above reproach. If your operation is not CANA certified, you probably need to be.

Most of the training revolves around paperwork, making sure everything is documented correctly and proper signatures are gathered. Every "i" has to be dotted and every "t" has to be crossed.

In addition to that initial training, we routinely schedule training meetings for the cremation technicians, usually each quarter.

Someone different from the staff runs through the entire procedure of processing a cremation, from start to finish. We just want to make sure every technician is handling cremations the same way.

Even though we're training four people to handle about 200 cremations, because of the repercussions that would be involved if we didn't do everything exactly right, we believe proper training is very cost effective.

You simply cannot run a crematory and take the attitude that it costs too much to send people to CANA for training or to have periodic procedure review sessions.

You also have to budget for maintenance. When you're talking about something where the temperature is 1,800 degrees every time you do a cremation, there are going to be maintenance and repair costs. Periodically you have to rebuild and reline the inside of the retort, and occasionally the stack will require repair.

Of course, Spring Grove's crematory is old. If you install a new unit, you'll be getting something much more efficient. The people who sell and install your crematory should be able to give you guidance on maintenance schedules.

When you have a cemetery, one of the ways you hope to balance out the cost of running and maintaining a crematory is by providing memorialization options that are so exciting and compelling that people are choosing inurnment or interment at your property.

The fact is, when you look at the charge for simply performing a cremation, it's a wonderful service for the customer, but for the cemetery the dollars are pretty low when you consider the training and professionalism involved in providing the service.

Capturing a big percentage of your cremation customers on the memorialization side is how you generate income that makes cremation a win-win situation for families and for the cemetery.

Next month we'll talk about how cremation memorialization has evolved at the Grove and how we make sure we leave options for future generations.

Next: Cremation memorialization, past, present and future.