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Funeral industry prepares for boomers

Posted: Friday, May 24, 2002

NEW YORK (AP) -- Death is hopefully decades away for Karen Bradford, but the 48-year-old is already preparing. She has purchased burial plots for herself and her husband, and is comfortable talking about what she views as the inevitable.

''Death is a basic part of life,'' said the Riverside, Calif., woman, who also takes a relaxed view of funeral service planning. ''When my mother died a few years ago, we had a great big party. We got up and told stories and there were some extremely funny moments. I expect my funeral will be informal too.''

It will be many years before the majority of the 76 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 need a funeral home. But the generation used to doing things its own way is already influencing the industry as many boomers begin burying their parents and thinking about their own funerals.

''Many of the boomers wrote their own wedding vows, demanded rights to homeschool their kids, natural birth and made us recycle. They're taking charge of funeral rituals as well,'' said Lisa Carlson, executive director at Funeral Consumers Alliance, a public advocacy group.

Experts say boomers want to make sure that they and their loved ones are remembered in ways that reflect individual lifestyles. Although they are not the first to express this desire, the sheer size of the boomer demographic is prompting change in a business that already has U.S. revenues of $9.5 billion.

''If you went into a funeral home 30 years ago and said, 'My dad was a farmer and I want to use his tractor in the processional and put the casket on bales of hay and show pictures of him farming,' the funeral director would have said, 'I'm sorry we don't do that,''' said Bill Bates, chief executive of Life Appreciation Training, which teaches funeral directors to customize funeral services. ''Today, the funeral director would say, 'Come right on in.'''

At Art Caskets in Dallas, buyers can choose from three dozen casket designs ranging from the religious to the more irreverent themes, including ''Return to Sender,'' golf and auto-racing motifs. Prices average about $2,900 and go higher for special orders.

''Boomers themselves are still a small part of our customer base because they're in their 40s and 50s. But a lot of boomers are interested in our products for their parents. Our military designs, for example. A lot of folks get those for their parents and grandparents who served in the war,'' said Catherine Welpton, office manager at Art Caskets.

The desire to be unique has also translated into less formal services with music and discussion replacing more formal and somber ceremonies.

''They want the service to be upbeat and affirmational, a celebration,'' said Dr. William Ritter, senior minister at the First United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Mich.

As a result, a number of funeral homes are scaling back chapel space in favor of more open, relaxed settings. They're also making catering services available.

''We have a fireplace, warm colors and comfortable furniture, so families can have food and drink and talk,'' said John Horan, a funeral director in Denver, describing some of his newer homes.

Cremations are on the rise, primarily because of price and simplicity. As boomers age, that trend is expected to accelerate.

''We operate about 400 cemeteries and in about half of them we have created special repositories and gardens for cremated remains,'' said Jerald Pullins, president and chief operating officer of Service Corp. International, the largest funeral services company in the world. ''Some of them have memorial walls, niches and family areas. It's all been in the last five years and they've been extremely popular.''

Service Corp. also launched three years ago a Web site that allows mourners to post pictures and tributes for of a deceased love one starting at about $100 and up. Today there are some 10,000 memorials online, and those numbers are expected to grow.

But that doesn't mean boomers will buy just anything put in front of them. Years of media reports about dishonest funeral directors, plus the fact that a lot of boomers use the Internet to research and are knowledgeable, have created skepticism.

''Funeral directors talk about being perceived with mistrust very frequently. Customers come in with their guard up,'' said Bill Bates, the Life Appreciation Training chief executive.

Indeed, distrust of the industry was one of the reasons that Denise Fitzpatrick set aside money for her funeral, selected a coffin and picked out a tombstone a few years ago.

''I did this to spare my family grief and to keep things from becoming too expensive,'' the 50-year-old said. But there were other reasons as well. ''I also feel like I'm a fairly typically boomer. And boomers want to be individuals -- including in their funerals and burial plans.''



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