Funeral Homes Feel Economy?s Bite

December 1, 2009
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image DANVILLE ? Grief and a ?Payment Due? notice are the only real inescapable parts of death and taxes.

Area funeral directors say the troubled economy has customers reassessing how much they can afford for loved ones? end-of-life services, leaving them balancing financial reality against the desire to provide a proper sendoff.

?Right now you?re seeing so many people come in with so many concerns about finances, they?re afraid to talk to you,? said Ryan Anderson, owner of Anderson Funeral Home in Hoopeston.

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He said tough times are hitting funeral homes as hard as any other industry and owners everywhere are trying to figure out the proper business response.

?The industry is changing, it?s making adjustments,? said Anderson, who took over the Hamilton-Orr Funeral Home in 2006 after working there since age 15.

?The services are still the same, but people are being more cost-conscious as far as their spending,? said Tim Leek, owner of Leek and Sons Funeral Home in Danville. ?I?ve always had great prices anyway, but people are paying more attention.

?When you don?t have a job, what?s considered ?reasonable??? he asked. ?For now, it?s business as usual. I don?t know what?s coming down the road.?

Linda Darby-Sempsrott, one of the owners of the Sunset Funeral Home chain, with six area locations, said tough times make people re-evaluate all priorities ? even something as somber as final arrangements.

?It?s really making people measure what?s really important in life,? she said. ?The most important thing is to memorialize in some way. Our history lies in cemeteries throughout the world.?

Rite choices

All of the directors say affording a funeral is possible for anyone based on the numerous choices of products and services offered these days.

Customers have their choice of a low-key or high-end affair based on individual financial concerns. They can also choose from several levels of pre-planning and insurance policies to ensure the cost of a funeral doesn?t hit them or family members upon death.

Anderson said some of the services his business used to charge for, such as video work, are now free.

?We?ve tried to offer people more things,? he said. ?We try to offer more service to people and not charge them for every little thing we do.?

He said the days of being a salesman and a funeral director have all but ended.

?Now I ask people what they want to spend first,? he said.

Leek said, ?People are realizing, ?You don?t have to get the most expensive service.??

Leek said smaller-size funeral businesses might have an advantage in tougher economic times because they are likely to offer additional service as part of a burial package.

Darby-Sempsrott said Sunset works hard to provide choices that ?meet all financial needs,? but she is also concerned over developments where some retailers have forayed into the casket-selling and funerary business. She said the concern is customers looking to cut expenses may also unknowingly sacrifice quality.

?The whole retail side has really increased,? she said. ?But I?m pretty sure a lot of those caskets are foreign-made and of lesser quality. Sometimes customers don?t know what they don?t know.?

Ashes to ashes

An acceptability and increase in the selection of cremation over traditional burial has not driven away business.

In fact, most local owners have turned it into a niche of their own ? either offering the service through a third party or building their own cremation facilities.

The National Funeral Directors Association reports that in 2007 nearly 35 percent of ?dispositions? in the United States were carried out using the method of cremation, a process that?s normally less expensive than a full burial.

And that may be rising, according to a 2005 survey conducted by the Cremation Association of North America, which claimed almost half of respondents planned to use cremation when they die ? compared to just 31 percent when the survey was first conducted in 1990.

But the same statistics show, while customers may be choosing a different method, they are increasingly inclined to include a service or ceremony ? though not necessarily a burial. Nearly 60 percent are likely to purchase a display urn.

?Yes, (cremation) has risen,? Darby-Sempsrott said, ?but it?s been projected to do that for a lot of years. They can have everything a traditional service would have. There?s still a lot of options with cremation.?

She said people have ?all types of feelings? over cremation because the method is ?irreversible.?

Leek said he?s also seen a rise in cremations.

?I wouldn?t be surprised to see the cremation rate go up a little higher,? he said, ?though they usually do have a service.?

More visible

Knowing that people don?t by choice visit a funeral home, many operators have tried to take the negative impression out of their business by becoming more visible in the community they serve.

Anderson?s has sponsored hay rides and offers candy on Halloween. Sunset rents its rooms out for meetings and constructed and opened the swan pond near its cemetery to the public.

?We do a lot of things that aren?t standard for a funeral home,? he said. ?It?s good to look at the funeral business from the other side of the fence.?

Source: Commercial News

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