Families, businesses adapt to growth in cremations - Omaha.com
Published Thursday, May 31, 2012 at 1:00 am / Updated at 2:45 am
Families, businesses adapt to growth in cremations

What families do with Grandma when she dies is changing.

That's been bad news for some funeral homes and cemeteries, where bottom lines suffer as cremation grows in popularity.

Traditional burial is still the norm nationally and in the Midlands, but each year, the number of bodies destined for the crematory instead of a casket rises.

“When I was in school, they kind of mentioned cremation a little bit, but we didn't spend that much time on it,” said Greg Nabity, funeral director at Pruss-Nabity Funeral Home in Wahoo, Neb. “Now it's growing and growing and growing.”

The shift toward cremation has prompted some funeral homes and cemeteries to get creative. “Scattering gardens” are blooming and niches to hold urns are multiplying at cemeteries and churches across the country. Some funeral homes are creating offshoots to provide low-cost “direct cremations” to customers who don't want pricey services and merchandise.

At the 10 funeral homes in Omaha and Council Bluffs that Bill Cutler III co-owns, the cremation rate has grown from about 7 percent to 32 percent over the past 25 years.

(His businesses operate as Cutler-O'Neill-Meyer-Woodring Funeral Home and Crematory and Heafey-Heafey-Hoffmann-Dworak & Cutler Mortuaries and Crematory.)

A scattering garden is in the works in Council Bluffs at one of the four Walnut Hill Cemeteries, which are run by Cutler-O'Neill. In addition to the garden, Walnut Hill will have 80 urn niches and space dedicated specifically to the burial of cremated remains.

“It's like any business,” Cutler said. “You have to manage your business based on what your customer wants.”

In Omaha, Bohemian Cemetery at 52nd and Center Streets expects to open a 5,000-square-foot scattering garden by midsummer. It's also constructing 96 new spaces for urns because existing slots are already occupied or spoken for.

Meanwhile, more than 20 acres of potential burial space on Bohemian's southern half are untouched, and the rest of the property isn't at capacity.

The average cost of funerals and associated merchandise has risen well into the thousands, but cremation is making profit margins “very, very, very thin,” said Bob Arrington, a funeral director in Jackson, Tenn., and member of the National Funeral Directors Association executive board.

“If you've got a 25 or 30 percent cremation rate, when cremation is usually a third of the cost of traditional burial, all of the sudden that revenue disappears, yet the utility bill is the same, your gas bill is the same, you pay employees the same,” he said.

Profit margins have plummeted 249 percent between 1980 and 2010, industry data show.

During that time, the number of cremations compared with overall deaths in the U.S. increased from 9.72 percent to 40.62 percent, according to the Cremation Association of North America.

The trend toward cremation, like many others, has moved in slowly from the coasts and is more visible in the eastern part of the state than in rural swaths of Nebraska and Iowa.

Click here to continue with the story.

The Good Shepherd Garden at Forest Lawn Memorial Park. The Omaha cemetery is constructing a "scattering garden" for ashes. MARK DAVIS/THE WORLD-HERALD

Planning for when the time comes

Navigating the logistical side of death can be difficult for families. Click on the tabs below for some guidance:

Burial or cremation?

Individuals should discuss with their families whether they prefer burial or cremation. With traditional burials, families often need to talk about the casket, vault, cemetery property, service locations, music, pallbearers, officiants, lunch, clothing and flowers. If you've chosen cremation, you need to decide whether you want a visitation and where and when or if you want to have a memorial service.

Traditional funeral before cremation

Just because you or your family have chosen cremation doesn't mean you can't have a traditional funeral service. Bodies can be embalmed, dressed and placed in rental caskets for ceremonies and then cremated and buried afterward.

Funeral home costs

Prices for similar after-death services can vary greatly among funeral homes in the same area. A federal funeral law makes it easy to shop around. Funeral homes are required to provide a printed price list to customers, and they have to give prices over the phone if you ask for them.

Payments from insurers

Funeral homes increasingly expect payment for services up-front. Life insurance can be used to pay funeral expenses, but you should ask the funeral home if it takes direct payments from insurers. If not, you may have to pay initially and be reimbursed by your insurance company.

Urns and their benefits

Urns provide no benefit for cremated remains other than looking pretty. Expensive urns don't “preserve” ashes any better than a cheaper container.

Cremation practices vary by religion

Most Christian denominations allow followers to be cremated. After cremation, Catholics' remains are supposed to be placed in an urn niche at a cemetery or buried, rather than scattered or kept at home. Orthodox Judaism, Islam and some conservative Christian sects don't permit cremation. Hinduism requires it.

Legal guidelines on scattering ashes

Technically, you can't scatter cremated remains wherever you want, although regulations governing the spreading of ashes are rarely, if ever, enforced. Omaha doesn't have anything in its municipal code that prohibits the scattering of remains on public property. Lincoln, however, has interpreted its burial regulations to mean that cremated remains can be scattered only in cemeteries. Nebraska state parks don't have anti-scattering regulations, but to legally spread remains in national parks, individuals are supposed to apply for a special use permit and pay associated fees. Some parks charge would-be scatterers, some don't.

Sources: Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance; Marty Conboy, Omaha city prosecutor; Lynn Johnson, Lincoln city park and recreation director; Jim Fuller, Nebraska Game and Parks Commission administrator; U.S. National Park Service; Greg Nabity, funeral home director.

Michael Jones, funeral director at Pauley Jones Funeral Homes and Cremation, which has three locations in southwest Iowa (Harlan, Avoca and Walnut), said he didn't know of any existing scattering gardens or “direct cremation” businesses in the area, where small towns are steeped in tradition and burials are by far the norm.

In 2010, 36 percent of Nebraskans and 31 percent of Iowans who died were cremated, according to the cremation association's figures.

Three years ago, Nabity, the funeral director in Wahoo, decided to take advantage of the cremation trend and develop a niche service of his funeral home, called Nebraskacremation.com.

“The need for this, specifically, is cost,” Nabity said. “The people we help aren't necessarily people who don't have money. They just don't want to spend money on a funeral service or higher-priced cremation.”

Fees for services such as embalming and cosmetics account for a large chunk of funeral homes' revenue. But when someone is cremated without a visitation, the funeral home doesn't get paid for embalming, dressing or putting makeup on the body. Nor is there a charge for using the funeral home for visitation or chartering limousines.

Additionally, caskets, vaults and other merchandise aren't necessary, although some families do bury cremated remains.

“Since the economic downturn, I've had many people tell me they're choosing cremation for the first time in their family,” said Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a nonprofit consumer education and watchdog organization.

“When it comes down to whether you're going to pay the mortgage or spend $2,000 on a dead person, the choice seems pretty clear,” Slocum said.

Jim Wintz, president of the Nebraska Funeral Directors Association, attributed cremation's gains less to price and more to a shift in religious acceptance and familial preferences. Cremation can be more convenient for families spread out across the country.

“Like everything, cost is a factor, but oftentimes it is not the predominant factor,” Wintz said.

Cremation can be — but isn't always — a cheaper option. The national average cost of cremation without memorialization is $1,650, compared with $7,300 for a traditional burial without memorialization, according to the cremation association.

Nabity's Nebraskacremation.com charges customers $990 to pick up the body, take it to an Omaha crematory, cremate it, file the necessary paperwork and return the remains to the family.

Nabity said there's significant demand for the stripped-down service, and business is good — so good, in fact, that income from the cremation offshoot is supporting the funeral home that operates it, Nabity said.

Nabity said many customers end up scattering the remains in an area that was meaningful to the deceased.

The drawback to that, though, is there's rarely a memorial left to visit.

Families wonder, “ ‘Oh, we've scattered Grandma down the river, now what do we do on Memorial Day or a holiday?' ” said John Yirak, president of the Bohemian Cemetery Association.

Scattering gardens such as the one Bohemian is developing allow families to memorialize the deceased by engraving names on plaques or slabs of stone.

The gardens also help cemeteries recoup some losses from forgone burial plots.

Other examples of scattering gardens are at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Omaha and the city-owned Bellevue Cemetery.

Construction of a columbarium, or a structure to house niches, for 1,000 veterans' ashes at Fort McPherson National Cemetery in Maxwell, Neb., will be completed this summer.

Omaha's Catholic Cemeteries is working on plans for a new columbarium and additional mausoleum space for remains.

Bohemian is spending about $100,000 to add its urn niches and scattering garden filled with plants, shrubbery, flowers and mulched beds, Yirak said.

The cemetery will charge $300 to scatter ashes and $200 to engrave names on 2-by-8-inch pieces of granite.

Space for urns will run between $800 and $1,200, depending on location, and engraving on the niche door will be $300.

In contrast, buying a burial site and paying to open and close it would run about $1,600 to $1,800 at Bohemian.

At Walnut Hill, the Council Bluffs cemetery, it will cost about $200 to spread ashes in the garden and $1,525 for a two-urn niche.

The Cremation Association of North America projects the cremation-to-overall-deaths rate to increase to more than 46 percent by 2015.

With that kind of growth, Arrington, of the funeral directors association, said he expects scattering gardens and low-cost cremation providers to multiply.

Yirak agreed, calling the scattering garden and new urn spaces at Bohemian — part of a larger, multiphase development plan — the “wave of the future because funerals cost so much.”

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