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Americans Opt for Cheaper Funerals

Less expensive cremations are up while traditional burials are down

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Nina Keck

The turn away from traditional funerals is taking a financial toll on the US granite and marble industry.
The turn away from traditional funerals is taking a financial toll on the US granite and marble industry.

For years, the U.S. funeral industry was considered recession proof but today, even the bereaved are scaling back and paying more attention to cost.

Many families are forgoing traditional burials for less expensive cremations. It's a change that's having a big impact on all aspects of the funeral industry.

Cutting costs

Lisa Alexandropoulos jokes that most of her friends are funeral directors. She owns a company that sells granite monuments in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Her husband installs burial vaults - the concrete containers that surround a casket.

"Down our way, cremation is up 60 percent," she says. "He used to do 30 funerals a month, minimum. He is down now to about seven or eight a month. It has had a huge impact on us."

Funeral director Gary Stanley in Vermont, where costs for a full funeral start around $7,000 - more than a month's income for many middle-class American families.
Funeral director Gary Stanley in Vermont, where costs for a full funeral start around $7,000 - more than a month's income for many middle-class American families.

Cremation rates have been rising for years. In parts of the country, as many as 70 percent of Americans now choose it over a traditional burial. Alexandropolous says cremation has become even more popular since the economic downturn.

"You can do a direct cremation for $995, whereas a full burial - an average full burial cost is about $8500. So that's a huge difference money-wise."

Those costs can vary greatly, depending on the area of the country and the extra services requested.

Sales down

Randy Garner, spokesperson for the Vermont Funeral Directors Association, says in a small rural state like Vermont a full funeral and the added cemetery costs might start around $7,000 - more than a month's income for many middle-class American families.

"In general, I would say for a full funeral with casket, vault, visitation, all of that, versus having the body cremated immediately and just having a memorial service followed by a burial in a cemetery, something of that nature, it's probably 35 to 40 percent less cost," says Garner, comparing traditional funerals to cremation.

Garner says funeral directors in Vermont have seen revenues drop by 10 to 15 percent. With fewer people choosing traditional burials, casket and cemetery plot sales are down as are sales of headstones, like the ones crafted by Lisa Alexandropoulos. That's taking a toll on the U.S. granite and marble industry.

Granite Industries of Vermont employs 61 people and had sales last year around $12 million. Company president Jeff Martell says that's down from the year before.

"I personally travel to Ohio, Michigan and Western Pennsylvania and have just recently - in June - went on a two week trip out there and the retail monument dealers that I called on - I made probably 50 sales calls in those two weeks - were all down significant numbers 15 to 20 percent."

Time for reinvention

Besides shrinking demand, granite manufacturers are also facing increasing competition from China.  

Martell says he doesn't expect the funeral industry's fortunes to improve any time soon. Americans, he says, have become too mobile to be tied to one place - in life or in death.

"The traditional family had the grandfather in the town - say it was Barre, for instance. You know, the kids stayed in Barre and the grandkids stayed in Barre. That doesn't happen anymore," says Martell. "So there's not such a priority on visiting or going to the cemetery and saying, 'Oh, there's gramps,' and 'There's mom and dad and I want to go to that same cemetery.'"

Lisa Alexandropoulos agrees.

"I think the monument business and the funeral business is never going to be as it was again. I think people now have put their foot down. They don't want to spend that kind of money to put in the ground, they don't want to spend that kind of money just to have it out in the cemetery. And that's why all of us are going to have to reinvent ourselves."

The industry will need to adapt to a generation that has different ideas than their parents or grandparents about the dearly departed.

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