Spokane Journal of Business

Baby boomers fuel funeral shifts

Cremation rates rise; families personalize urns, caskets, services

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Baby boomers, who make up the largest demographic group in the U.S., are changing the funeral industry and the way it handles death, say industry watchers here.

Boomers have different attitudes about cremation, burial, and funeral services than previous generations, says Duane Broyles, president of the Fairmount Memorial Association, a nonprofit organization that operates four cemeteries and a funeral home in the Spokane area.

One of the biggest trends in the industry is a growing cremation rate, he says. Fairmount Memorial Association handles about 1,700 burials annually, and nearly 50 percent of those are cremations, Broyles says. In the funeral industry, the word burials encompasses cremations, interments, and the placing of remains in crypts and mausoleums. Our prediction is that within a few years the (cremation rate) will be at 65 percent, he says. Baby boomers are directing the disposition of their parents, and theyre opting for cremation.

Wilbert Precast Inc., a Spokane manufacturer that serves Inland Northwest cemeteries, has increased its production of cremation niches steadily over the last 25 years, says President Dan Houk.

The company builds cremation niches, burial vaults, crypts, and mausoleums. Wilbert Precast employs 75 people, including about 60 in Spokane. It also supplies funeral homes and cemeteries with urns and other miscellaneous funeral products.

So far this year, demand for cremation niches at rural cemeteries is up from 2004, Houk says. Additionally, the company currently is constructing nine columbarium walls, or walls with niches for holding cremation urns, for three Spokane-area cemeteries. Depending on the project, Wilbert prefabricates the walls at its plant and installs them, or it pours concrete on site to build the walls.

Were doing a lot of these niches in places like Kellogg, Idaho, Colfax, Davenport, and in Coeur dAlene, he says.

Broyles says money isnt the driving the trend.

Cost is maybe a factor in about 17 percent of the cremations, he says. The other reasons are absolutely about preference.

In fact, baby boomers want elaborate funerals. That means video biographies and carefully chosen music. Caskets, urns, and tombstones are personalized, and everything is tailored to honor the individual, he says.

The baby boomers want a life celebration, Broyles says. They were raised on Disney. They have a whole different perspective on funerals. Theyre saying My dad was somebody, and they want people to know that.

Cremation niches

Cremation niches are small spaces that can be placed inside a mausoleum or in outside walls or benches.

Niches can be simple or elaborate. Their prices can vary cemetery by cemetery, but generally they are priced here mostly at between about $900 and $7,500. That can be much cheaper than burial plots, which start at $1,000, not including grave markers, which start at $250 and go up. Larger niches can hold up to four urns, providing a comparatively inexpensive alternative to buying large family burial plots or to building a mausoleum.

Outdoor niches have polished stone fronts. The higher-end niches have glass fronts, allowing urns and personal items of the deceased to be displayed. Some of the niches at Pines Cemetery in Spokane Valley are equipped with lights to illuminate the urn and personal items at night.

While glass front niches are growing in popularity, many people opt to bury cremains, or the ashes of a cremated person, in graves, Broyles says. Other people decide to scatter their relatives ashes in the Inland Northwests rivers, parks, or mountains, he says. For those customers, Fairmount Park offers memorial placards.

We have a lot of options for people for cremation placement, he says. Even if the ashes have been scattered, weve found that people need a place to go to grieve or to remember.

Some religions forbid cremation, including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says Broyles.

The Roman Catholic Church previously frowned on the practice, but cremation among Catholics is on the rise, says Dennis Fairbank, general manager of Catholic Cemeteries of Spokane.

The churchs attitudes about cremation changed in the early 60s, says Fairbank. Its now recognized as a natural form of burial.

Urn choices

Bronze urns were the only option for decades, but baby boomers changed all that when they started demanding additional choices, Broyles says. Over the last 10 years, more and more people requested different styles of urns. Initially, he says, people would supply their own urn by buying ceramic containers at specialty shops, until the urn industry caught up with demand.

The industry was slow to respond, Broyles says. We had to talk to the manufacturers and tell them that if they didnt start offering other choices, they were going to be out of business.

Todays urn selections include wood, marble, and clay. Urns also come in different shapes and sizes. Urns can be decorated or engraved to reflect the deceaseds personal interests, such as his or her favorite motorcycle, or love of nature. A likeness of the decreased also can be engraved on the urn.

In addition to cremation and conventional burials, people can put their loved ones in a crypt or in a family mausoleum. Crypts contain the body and typically are placed within a mausoleum.

In some cases, individual crypts are built outdoors and above ground. Crypts often are priced at between $2,900 and $6,000, but that amount can be higher. Broyles says a private sarcophagus for two can be priced at $30,000.

The crypt market has been steady for the 28 years that Broyles has worked in the funeral industry.

Its very consistent, he says.

Many private mausoleums have space for the whole family and cost in the six-figure range, Broyles says.

Some people drive a Cadillac, and some people drive a Hyundai, he says. Some people want their own mausoleum.

Catholic Cemeteries of Spokane expanded its mausoleum in 1998, says Fairbank.

We have about 20 percent that choose entombment, Fairbank says. There is still good demand.

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