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Increasing Economic Decline Having an Effect Even in Death

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.

"The officer said he was pretty reasonable," Ramsey said. "It was just on me and her to pay for the whole funeral. We wanted to do it as cheaply as possible."

The small funeral homes being squeezed by this cost-cutting are at the far end of the spectrum from the mega-corporations that make headlines by laying off thousands. An estimated 90 percent of funeral homes are locally owned, and a member survey by the National Funeral Directors Association found that more than 50 percent had been family owned for three generations.

"We're among the last bastions of small business in this country, ever since the local pharmacy disappeared," Lynch said. "We haven't remained in business by being insensitive. It says right on our price list that if a family can't [afford the cost] that they're welcome to discuss it with us."

Even before the recession, the funeral profession was being buffeted by changing lifestyles and attitudes toward death. For example, cremation has become increasingly popular, particularly since the Catholic Church ended a ban on it in 1963. Funeral directors have adjusted to the times.

"Some of the older, more traditional places now are offering both traditional and lower-cost services," Thibadeau said.

Ann Ittner of Washington turned to Thibadeau after a friend recommended him as a reasonable alternative to more expensive funeral options.

"That was a huge difference for me," said Ittner, who had Thibadeau arrange her husband's cremation.

"When people die, you don't want to think in those terms. You want to do right by them, but those coffins can cost 10, 15 or $20,000."

And there is evidence that families are price shopping a bit more than they did during good economic times. Stephen D. Lohrmann of Cremation and Funeral Alternatives in Silver Spring reports a sharp increase in the number of callers inquiring about prices.

"They want someone who is ready to take care of the body and the basics," Lohrmann said. "They want to handle the service themselves at their church or somewhere else. A lot of funeral homes charge the family extra for that."

Although death still brings the bereaved through undertakers' doors, the dramatic drop in the number of people making advance plans for their deaths worries funeral directors.

"When times are tough, people say 'Should I put this $8,000 in an account for my funeral or should I just hold onto it in case I lose my job?' " Lynch said.

David Farris Jr., a fourth-generation undertaker in southwest Virginia, says advance business for cemetery plots in Forest Hills Memorial Park in Abingdon was off 60 percent in January from the same month a year earlier.

"If this recession continues," Farris said, "we're going to see a ripple in a few years -- perhaps in 2015 -- of people dying without having made plans."

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