Increasing Economic Decline Having an Effect Even in Death

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By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 2009

In sour economic times, people are turning to cheaper ways of dealing with death.

They are choosing steel and pine over more expensive copper and mahogany coffins. They are opting for cremation instead of buying a burial plot. Visiting hours at funeral homes are being cut short, and fewer limousines are being used. And far fewer people are planning their funerals in advance.

"A lot of people are leaning toward a do-it-yourself service after a cremation," said Jamie Thibadeau, a Silver Spring undertaker who advertises affordable prices. "Since we're considered an alternative, lower-cost funeral home, we're seeing an increase in business overall right now."

The average funeral in the United States costs $7,323, but choosing an item such as the Persian Bronze Champagne coffin with velvet interior ($7,995) quickly bumps the bereaved past that average. The simple pine coffin (no interior, no handles) runs $995 with Thibadeau. A slightly more elaborate pine coffin is advertised online elsewhere for $699 (delivery included).

"Some families are just spending the least amount they can when a family member dies," said Michael H. Doherty, who runs Fairfax Memorial, a family-owned funeral home and cemetery. "People really watch what's being spent on funerals."

In relatively affluent Fairfax, cost-cutting at the time of death has been less pronounced, but the tradition of planning a funeral in advance has fallen victim to economic pressures.

"We have seen that drop way off," Doherty said. "People are afraid to spend money."

The faltering economy has brought to death the same sort of tough choices it has required in other aspects of life.

"There's a myth that funeral directors are recession-proof," said Pat Lynch, a suburban Detroit undertaker who is treasurer of the National Funeral Directors Association. "In good times, someone might say, 'We'll spend $10,000 on this funeral,' but not these days, when many people are in a tremendous financial crunch."

More often than not, cost-conscious families still want the same funeral service but they look to save money on what undertakers call "merchandise." In addition to less expensive coffins, the bereaved can pay less for the vault in which the coffin sits. In rural Virginia, vaults are not required in many private country cemeteries.

Some families have eliminated visiting hours to cut costs. Although embalming remains routine in the United States, it's generally not required, and more people are forgoing it. Graveside services sidestep the expense of a church or the rental of limousines to transport close friends and family from service to cemetery. The cost of cremation, which can eliminate the price of a coffin, can vary by several hundred dollars from one establishment to the next.

When Jeff Ramsey's father-in-law died suddenly in Rockville in October, he and his wife "didn't have the slightest idea of what to do" until a Montgomery County police officer gave them the number of Thibadeau Mortuary Service. Money is tight for the family.

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