NEWS

When economy slows, even death takes a cheaper route

Melissa Westphal

Bob and Kristan McNames are the new kids competing in the funeral service business.

The couple opened Grace Funeral & Cremation Services using their previous experience working for funeral homes in Illinois and Wisconsin to branch out on their own.

They’re trying to differentiate themselves from the pack by offering a relaxed, modern-looking facility; password-protected funeral webcasts for out-of-town friends and relatives; caskets made of bamboo, urns made of gelatin and sand, and other eco-friendly options.

“People come in and are surprised that it doesn’t look like a funeral home,” Kristan said. “The easiest way for people to make decisions on what to do about funerals is to talk about what they want to happen. Funerals should be affordable, and we can work within a family’s budget.”

That last statement is especially important during a tough economy, when even the funeral industry isn’t immune to a recession. There are more than 21,000 funeral homes in the U.S., and the industry generates about $11 billion in revenue each year, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

But a survey this year by the group showed that people are cutting back by choosing less expensive caskets and opting more for cremation services. Half of the respondents made fewer pre-need sales in 2008 compared with 2007.

Those changes haven’t escaped the notice of Randy Earl, secretary of the National Funeral Directors Association and co-owner of Brintlinger & Earl Funeral Homes in Decatur.

“They’re trying to do less and save as much as they can,” he said. “Our industry is no different than anything else. I’ve had two or three families come in who wanted to cancel pre-arranged contracts because they needed the money. In 40 years, I’ve never seen that happen.”

Earl said he’s most worried that people might abandon family traditions or rituals because of cost. For example, people may decide to have a service at the funeral home rather than a church, which can add extra costs.

The McNames opened Grace Funeral in space at the former Colonial Village Mall next to Heartland Community Church to keep their overhead costs down.

Scott Olson, general manager of Olson Funeral & Cremation Services Ltd. in Rockford, thinks people are researching funeral services more and “being more careful in where they’re spending money.”

Not everyone prefunds funeral services, Olson said, so officials try to encourage people to at least arrange the details if they’re not in a position to pay ahead of time.

“People are more interested in finding out their options prior to a funeral, which is a good thing,” he said.

Better education and research is a good thing for the industry, said Paul Lizer, owner of Delehanty Funeral Home Ltd. in Loves Park. Lizer said funerals are a major expense that, like anything else, should be given great thought.

“With funerals, people are becoming wiser. Funeral homes should work with you on balancing economics with the desires and needs of the family,” he said. “It’s less that we’re doing fewer funerals or people are spending ‘X’ amount less. I think they are trying to balance what they can afford to meet their needs.”

Melissa Westphal can be reached at (815) 987-1341 or mwestpha@rrstar.com.