For the big funeral home companies, death has not been a sure thing.
Once Wall Street darlings as they bought up scores of independent funeral homes, their acquisition sprees have turned into debt-ridden disasters. At the same time, consumers are looking at alternatives such as cremation and low-cost services, and people simply keep living longer.
With the companies selling off, consolidating and closing properties, some analysts expect the surge in deaths -- albeit delayed -- from the baby boom generation of 78 million will not translate into the profits the companies once counted on. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, a person born in 1940 could expect to live 68 years. By 2001, that increased to 77 years.
Just a decade ago, many thought that the funeral business would be a recession-proof way to profits, said Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance.
"What that model does not take into account is that more and more consumers are unwilling to be led around by their pocketbooks and charged outrageous prices," Slocum said.
William Chappell, an analyst who follows the industry for Suntrust Robinson Humphrey in Atlanta, said the companies bought too many properties at unrealistic prices.
"The acquisitions did make sense for the right prices and certain properties," Chappell said. "But it came to the point where Wall Street was rewarding them for the acquisitions and not paying attention to what they were paying for them."
In 1999, there were five publicly traded funeral companies that had $16 billion in market capitalization and $9 billion in debt. By 2002, the four remaining companies had market capitalization of $2 billion -- and were still carrying $9 billion in debt, Chappell said.
And the companies were forced in 2001 to restate earnings because of a federal accounting change. Before that, they immediately counted revenue from pre-planned funeral contracts. But under the change, that revenue could not be counted until the service was delivered.
The one-time leader of the industry, Loewen Corp. of Canada, filed for bankruptcy reorganization and emerged as a trimmed-down Alderwoods Group. Stewart Enterprises Inc., based in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, cut its staff by 300 jobs in December and said it would sell or close 10 small funeral homes and cemeteries.
Slocum questioned whether a "cookie-cutter approach," while highly successful in some retail sales, is effective in the funeral business.
"The funeral industry is a very personal business with personal relationships with the families we deal with," said Mark Musgrove, president of the National Funeral Directors Association.
Then, there is the issue of cost. Slocum said the average cost of a U.S. funeral ranges from $5,000 to $6,000, if the customer wants a grave site, coffin, embalming and limousines for mourners.
"You don't have to buy any of that," he said.
And, more and more consumers are not. According to figures from the Cremation Association of North America, the percentage of the dead that are cremated has risen from 3.5 percent in 1960 to nearly 28 percent today.
Musgrove, who owns a funeral home and crematorium in Eugene, Ore., said the rising popularity of cremation is steeped in cost factors -- as low as $300, as high as $2,500 -- and the trend for families to live farther and farther apart.
"When you're not in the same area, you don't have family around and you have limited friends, families look at that and don't see the value in having a burial place that would be a family plot," Musgrove said.
Slocum noted that many families who are not opting for cremation are taking a closer look at nontraditional funerals, which Slocum calls a return to an earlier age in the United States when a coffin was bought from a local carpenter, family members washed the body and the deceased was viewed in the home.
"What the industry calls a traditional funeral, in large part, is really a commercially created tradition, mostly since the 1950s," Slocum said.
Musgrove said his funeral home, along with many others, are providing services for families that want to design their own funerals. For example, Musgrove has renovated his chapel to a more secular approach, including banquet tables, a kitchen, viewing equipment for pictures and portable microphones.
"People are moving much more toward personalization of funerals, having very personalized services with memorabilia, personalized music, videos," he said.
Chappell said the future could still be good for the big funeral companies. He said the firms are taking the right approach by selling off and closing nonprofitable properties to reduce debt.
"They have a fixed business, and it's a matter of getting people to come through the door and buy the higher-priced products," Chappell said. "They own the land and they own the funeral homes. It's just a matter of how much money they can leverage through those properties."