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Shifts In The Funeral Industry

By Terry Reilly, posted Apr 7, 2017
Doug Bevell, Wilmington Funeral & Cremation founder and funeral director, says cremation services have become more common. (Photo by Chris Brehmer)
Just as the cost of living varies widely around the country, so too does the cost of dying.

For a simple, immediate burial in the Wilmington area, the median price is $2,870, according to according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance. That reflects basic costs before a formal funeral ceremony, and cemetery fees and gravestones are an additional $2,000-$4,000.

In Washington, D.C., the median price is the nation’s highest at $3,512, while in Tucson, Arizona, median costs come in at less than $1,500.

It’s a sensitive subject – people are more likely to talk about comparing house prices than burial costs and shopping around might be the last thing on grieving families’ minds. But like other sectors, services run the gamut, and the industry is subject to its own trends.

In Wilmington, burial costs can range from $1,600 to $4,000, according to the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit group that tracks costs in local markets around the country. For direct cremations – without a formal funeral services – the costs in Wilmington range from $1,000 to almost $3,000.

The price differences can be explained by the quality of the facility and the personnel involved, said Rick Andrews, owner of Andrews Mortuary in Wilmington.

“We’re not discount but full service. Discount places offer little in service; they don’t plan, organize or guide people,” he said. “We don’t want people to overspend. We try to provide the nicest facility and most experienced people – it makes a huge difference when guiding people. Some people are not looking for that experience.”

It’s a little easier to shop around for funeral arrangements thanks to a 1984 federal law that requires funeral homes to provide a copy of their General Price List (GPL) when first discussing arrangements.

The 19,000 funeral homes that handle 2.4 million annual deaths in the U.S. are not required to post prices online, and few do. Today the funeral industry in Wilmington and the nation is adjusting to the surge in cremations that is fundamentally changing the $16 billion annual business.

In 1960, only about 3.6 percent of the deceased were cremated, and the average cost of a funeral was $706. By 1980, cremations hovered just under 10 percent.

But last year, the National Funeral Directors Association reported that the tipping point occurred in 2015 when the number of cremations surpassed burials in the U.S.

Over 70 percent of the estimated 3.1 million deaths in 2030 are projected to elect cremation in the future, the association forecasts.

“Funeral professionals have been serving families that prefer cremation for years,” Bob Arrington, the National Funeral Directors Association’s president, said about the report. “To us and the families we serve, cremation isn’t just a ‘trend.’ Whether a family chooses cremation or burial, funeral directors want to help families understand the many options they have to commemorate the life of their loved one.”

Andrews said the shift also has taken place locally.

“I’ve been doing this for 40 years, and cremation used to be an occasional thing. For us, it is now more than half of our business – a dramatic change,” he said.

Andrews added that revenue had not been significantly impacted by the cremation trend. What has affected his business is an attitude change.

“The most dramatic change is people who choose to have no service at all – a disturbing thing for me. A life was lived and ended, and it’s like that’s it. It’s sad. It does not have to be expensive to gather people to remember a life,” he said.

Even with the switch from burial to cremation, consumers are not saving that much. The national median cost of a traditional funeral was $7,181 and $6,078 for a full-service cremation – plus burial plot, headstone and graveyard expenses.

With 44 years in the business, Doug Bevell, founder of Wilmington Funeral & Cremation, has embraced the new landscape.

“We’ve had to totally change our way of doing business because of cremations. We do a lot of celebrations of life – videos, catered receptions, butterfly and balloon releases, compared to the traditional dark suit affairs,” he said.

With about 75 percent of his business now involving cremations, Bevell recently built a crematorium and viewing area in Hampstead adjacent to his funeral home.

“It’s a tribute center where families can watch the cremation start. Few people wait around, but they can watch from a window,” he said.

Other aspects of the traditional process are changing as well.

“If choosing a burial, many are opting not to do embalming. Instead they do a burial quickly and then a memorial service. It’s totally changed,” he said.

Embalming is not legally required except in special circumstances. There too, prices range can vary widely – from $500 to $1,000 in Wilmington.

In Wilmington, purchasing a casket or urn outside of a funeral home is possible because of business owners like Jim Currin.

While making arrangements for his mother’s funeral in Burlington, Vermont, he came across a business selling just caskets. He liked a casket priced at $1,500.

When he went to a funeral home to make arrangements, the same casket cost $4,100. He bought the $1,500 casket and had it shipped to the funeral home. Currin knew that it was against federal law for a funeral home to refuse a casket purchased elsewhere.

Four years ago he moved to Wilmington and opened Wilmington Casket & Urn.

“I needed something to do and I wanted to help people. Fortunately, I didn’t do it to make a lot of money. I almost broke even last year,” said the 74-year-old retired engineer.

Currin said he sold over 500 urns and less than 50 caskets last year. Butterfly-decorated urns are the current best-seller with an environmental urn not far behind.

“Biodegradable urns are becoming more popular for scattering ashes on the ocean. People tell me a favorite spot is the jetty near Fort Fisher where the river carries the ashes to the ocean,” Currin said.

The unique demographics of the Wilmington area drives another component of the funeral business. A need to transport the deceased back to hometown cemeteries up north first attracted Bevell to the industry.

With a full-time staff of 17, Bevell transports 20-25 a month. He also voluntarily takes unclaimed veterans from the local morgue for burial in the Coastal Carolina State Veterans Cemetery in Jacksonville.

“I started shipping bodies of people who had moved down here but had a family cemetery up north,” he said. “If it’s feasible, we’ll drive someone’s loved one to the burial destination.”

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