When Lee Webster’s mother died, her body was laid out at home. Family members came and went for the weekend, before loading her body into Webster’s van. They played her mother’s favorite music while driving the corpse to a crematorium in St. Johnsbury. The next day family members picked up the remains, and Webster’s mother was buried in the family plot in East Montpelier Center.
“It was simple,” said Webster, president of New Hampshire Funeral Resources Education and Advocacy, a nonprofit that advocates for informed consumer choice in the funeral industry. “It was just us taking care of business.”
Usually, death is big business. Nationally, the funeral industry generates $20 billion and employs more than 130,000 people. In 2017 the average burial cost $7,360, according to the National Funeral Directors Association, while the average cremation cost $6,260. Although death is an emotional and spiritual event for many people, it’s also a financial one.
Webster’s mother’s funeral was unusual — few people in modern America dress their deceased loved ones and hold home wakes. However, it does represent important ways that the funeral industry is changing, both within the Upper Valley and beyond. The industry is facing increased demand for personalization and pressure to provide affordable services. Interest in home funerals, which Webster advocates for, has increased. With the annual death rate expected to increase by 1 million nationally by 2037, according to census data, the industry is under pressure to evolve.
“It’s definitely a changing business,” said Mike Stringer, owner of Stringer Funeral Home in Claremont.The business of death
The funeral industry may generate a lot of revenue, but it also has many costs. Funeral homes maintain lavish buildings that are impeccably cleaned and landscaped. They keep a fleet of vehicles, including hearses for transporting the dead and limousines for carrying family members. They have staff on call all day, every day, prepared to retrieve a body when someone dies. This is on top of typical business costs like payroll, insurance and taxes.
And yet, when a loved one dies or a person opts to pre-pay for their own funeral, no one is thinking about the business side of things.
“They’re skeptical about funeral homes and funeral directors,” Stringer said. “They think they’re going to pay more than they should. Others think ‘wow, that’s all it cost.’ ”
Stringer Funeral Home oversees 175 to 200 funerals each year. The cost of cremation and a memorial service is between $4,000 and $5,000, Stringer said. If a person wants a traditional Mass and burial the price could double, due to added costs such as caskets or a church soloist.
David Ahern, owner Ricker Funeral Home, said that like many business owners he has seen his costs increase, but unlike other types of businesses funeral homes can’t exactly drum up more customers.
“There’s no other additional business, but the volume of the expenses are bigger,” said Ahern, who oversees about 175 funerals each year.
Ahern said that he has never had to turn a family away, but that time management is a critical skill for running a successful funeral home. When booking services Ahern has to consider not just his own staffing, but also the schedule of clergy, cemeteries and civic groups that may be involved with the funeral.
“Schedules can get tight, so we have to be careful with our appointments,” he said. “The key is not to overschedule.”Ashes to ashes
While there are no doubt changes ahead, the funeral service industry has just undergone a period of dramatic change caused by the increase in cremation. A generation ago, cremation was rare, but in 2017 51.6% of Americans who died were cremated. Closer to home the rates are much higher: 71.6% in New Hampshire and 69.7% in Vermont, according to the Cremation Association of North America.
With more and more people choosing cremation, the industry has had to adjust its business model, said Jeff Knight, owner of Knight Funeral Home, which has locations in White River Junction and Windsor and oversees about 200 funerals each year.
“When cremation was at 1%, funeral homes built their overhead fees into the price of a casket,” he said. However, those fees are now itemized, in part to meet new regulations on the industry and in part because businesses need to spread the costs to the majority of the customer base, who are no longer purchasing caskets.
Knight Funeral Home installed a crematorium in 1987, which allowed the company to expand business into a new service area — cremating corpses for other funeral homes. The crematorium’s location in White River Junction made it easy to provide the service for funeral home throughout the region, Knight said.
Other funeral businesses moved more aggressively into the cremation space. The Phaneuf family had operated funeral homes in New Hampshire, but in the 1990s opened a sister company, The Cremation Society of New Hampshire, to specifically provide lower-cost cremations.
“Any time you’re dealing with full service funeral home you’re paying for the overhead, even if you don’t want it,” said Arthur “Buddy” Phaneuf, president of the cremation society. “They have hearses, limos, and they have to keep their doors open as more and more people are opting for cremation.”
All of that leads to an inflated cost for the customer, Phaneuf said. At the cremation society, cremations with no services start at $1,095, much cheaper than many funeral homes. (Stringer Funeral Home, for example, charges $1,650 for a basic cremation.)
While cost is a major consideration for many people in making funeral arrangements, Phaneuf says that most people prioritize value, and more and more feel that they simply don’t need the pomp of a funeral home service.
“It’s not that people can’t afford that, they just don’t see the value in it,” he said.Providing personalization
Today, consumers want the options for personalization in their funeral services.
“From my experience with the baby boomers, they require lots of options,” said Ahern, of Ricker Funeral Home. “They like to mold and create, which is a wonderful thing.”
This has led to more people planning and paying for their funerals well ahead of time.
“I hear all the time, ‘I want to get this taken care of so my kids don’t have to worry,’” Stringer said.
Planning a funeral “pre-need” saves consumers money because they are paying today’s rates, while providing funeral homes with a slightly more predictable cash flow.
However, the push for personalization also leads consumers to cherry pick what services they want — and don’t want — from the funeral home. Although a funeral done entirely at home, like Webster did, remains rare, more people are opting out of services that are not meaningful to them. And, no surprise, they only want to pay for what they use.
“The industry is very concerned because they’re seeing a huge uptick of families only wanting to do pieces and parts,” said Webster, who speaks nationally on the home funeral movement. “The funeral industry themselves is hiring people like me to come in and explain what families really want: authenticity.”
Local funeral home directors haven’t seen too much of this, they say, but they do see more people questioning costs.
Webster said that there has been a shift in how people relate to funeral home directors. Consumers are more likely to push back, price shop and challenge assumptions, rather than just follow the status-quo from the industry, she said.
“It’s a different way of seeing commerce,” she said. “People think, ‘I want to hire service, but you’re not God, you’re just someone I want to hire.’”
Webster said that she sees the funeral industry changing in much the same way medicine has changed, as customers (like patients) demand more control and input. In order to keep pace, she says, the industry will have to adapt.
“It took 50 years for the industry to figure out people wanted cremation. They dragged their feet,” she said. “They have to be more savvy and much more nimble.”