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Recession reaches to death industry

Even death isn't immune to the lousy economy.

People keep dying, of course, but the recession and its aftermath force families to find cheaper ways to send loved ones into the hereafter. The death industry — tombstone carvers, coffin salesmen, cemetery managers — suffer the scaled-back consequences.

"Before, if you had a $25,000 insurance policy on Uncle Bob, you would spend every dime to make sure he had a good funeral and the biggest monument possible," said Doy Johnson, executive vice president of the Elberton Granite Association. "In today's economy, when Uncle Bob passes away, chances are you'll spend $750 on cremation and put the other $24,250 in the bank."

Johnson estimates that headstone and monument sales are off about 15 percent since the recession started in late 2007. Meanwhile, a generational shift toward cremation that was already under way gets a boost as cost-conscious Americans opt for cheaper burials.

Still, the death industry isn't taking the erosion of profits lying down. Funeral home directors offer on-site crematoriums and reception halls for nondeath gatherings. Cemetery owners transform burial grounds into fairgrounds or concert venues in hopes of appealing to future clients.

Lauren McDonald III just opened a funeral home in Dahlonega, Ga., with gas fireplaces, iPad docking stations and a chapel that transforms into a banquet hall.

"I can sit back all day with a casket and a vault, but it's what sets you apart that makes a difference," McDonald said. "We want family and their friends to be comfortable. It's all great for business."

No matter the religion, bodies have to be disposed of somewhere. Increasingly, they end up in urns.

Nationwide, 36 percent of dead Americans are being incinerated. The Cremation Association of North America (CANA) predicts nearly 60 percent of Americans will be cremated by 2025.

"Here in the Bible Belt we've got old-timey families that just don't get that concept of cremation," said Stan Rogers, who runs the four cemeteries in Rome, Ga.

Cremation, with a basic urn and some extras, costs $1,650 on average, according to CANA. A traditional funeral runs $7,775, without cemetery, headstone or flowers, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

More cremations translate into fewer burials, coffins, vaults and graveside markers. Ten years ago, casketmakers sold 1.9 million coffins. Last year, they sold 1.7 million.

Prepaid funerals, a big moneymaker for undertakers, also suffer. Five years ago, McDonald & Son Funeral Home and Crematory in Cumming, Ga., took in maybe $100,000 a month in preplan contracts, in which families can pay up front, before someone dies. Lauren McDonald says he averages less than $70,000 a month these days.

Cemeteries report fewer advance sales. Rome's four cemeteries sold between 200 and 250 pre-need plots a year before the recession. Now they average 150 pre-need and at-need sites annually.

Josh Slocum, executive director of the nonprofit Funeral Consumers Alliance, hopes pre-need deals continue to dwindle.

"The tough economic times should remind people that you can't show your love to the deceased by bankrupting yourself," said Slocum, whose watchdog group is based in Vermont.

Recession reaches to death industry 11/21/10 [Last modified: Sunday, November 21, 2010 3:30am]
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