The Business of Death
You might say Jessica Mitford is rolling over in her grave. Back in the 1960s, she attacked the U.S. funeral industry for making gracious dying a "huge, macabre, and expensive joke on the American public." A self-described muckraker whose bestselling expose, "The American Way of Death," sparked congressional hearings and industry reforms, Mitford was outraged that you couldn't kick the bucket in the U.S. for under a thousand dollars. (She passed away herself in 1996, at age 78.)
That was forty years ago. Nowadays, dying in the United States is an $11 billion-a-year industry, with average funeral costs running upwards of $6,500. And while funeral homes still dominate -- a full 85 percent of which are family-owned and operated -- creative entrepreneurs are starting to look beyond the great beyond, turning the afterlife into a booming aftermarket with everything from funeral-planning and last-wishes websites to final resting places ranging from the ocean floor to outer space.
As with most things, what's driving the surge in new products and services are baby boomers. When Mitford's expose hit the bookstore shelves in the early '60s, there were roughly 179 million people living in the U.S. and about 1.7 million deaths per year, according to National Center for Health Statistics. Last year, with the population closer to 290 million, there were 2.4 million deaths, or about 8.5 deaths for every 1,000 people. Aging boomers are expected to start swelling those ranks to 9.3 per 1,000 by 2020, the center forecasts. By 2040, it says, there will by an estimated 4.1 million deaths a year, double the number today.
Yet, it's not just the growing number of deaths that's expected to give funeral and memorial businesses a boost. Aging boomers are already making "funeral decisions based on different values than their previous generation," according to a recent report by the National Funeral Directors Association, a trade group based in Brookfield, Wis. Shunning the rites and rituals of their forebears, baby boomers are instead "seeking a service that is as unique as the person who died," the report says.
"Today's consumer wants things done their own way," says Bob Biggins, the group's president and the owner-operator of Magoun-Biggins funeral home in Rockland, Mass., since the late 1990s. "What we're seeing is people saying 'this is a momentous occasion for our family and we want to observe it in a special, unique way."
Even for more traditional services, there has been a rise in personalization, such as the use of video tributes, or something as simple as the display of a favorite set of golf clubs or knitting needles, Biggins says.
Still, according to the Casket & Funeral Supply Association, only about 75 percent of all funerals in 2003 involved a casket and some form of traditional ritual or ceremony. By contrast, a national study by the Funeral and Memorial Information Council released last year found more Americans are now choosing cremation over burials -- 46 percent, up from 39 percent in 1995. Of those who preferred cremation, only about half wanted their remains kept in an urn, the study found. The rest wanted their ashes scattered over some favorite place, left in a cemetery, or brought home. Tellingly, about 14 percent had no idea what they wanted done with their remains, the study found.
That's where clever start-ups are stepping in. Fueled in part by the Internet, the past five years or so have seen the rise of a host of unique products and services for those looking for new and exciting ways to mark their eventual demise.
At websites like TheLate.com, a free online death-notice service based in Suffolk, England, users can open guest books, post family history, even leave last-minute wishes for loved ones, all in a secure online account.
"During our research, we found that many people have that shoebox at the bottom of the wardrobe, or envelop in a drawer somewhere, setting out their wishes for when they die," says Jane Spender-Rolfe, the site's founder. "We have also heard how on many occasions such documents and information had not been found in time, and how funeral and even burial wishes had sadly not been followed."
Where death notices in local newspapers are posted only for a few days and can easily be missed, announcements on TheLate.com can turn up anytime in an online search, anywhere in the world.
Yet, beyond easing the process of funeral planning, small start-ups are also expanding the range of options now available to mark the end of life.
For $1,295, Space Services, Houston-based private aerospace company, will launch the cremated remains of a loved one into orbit around the earth. For $12,500, the remains, which are held in a 7-ounce capsule, can be dropped on the moon's surface or sent drifting into deep space.
The company, originally founded to establish commercial space flights, debuted the service in 1997, launching into space the remains of two dozen people, including Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.
More recently, it sent up the ashes of James Doohan, the actor who played Scotty on the original 1960s sci-fi series and in several films. Since appearing in the series, Doohan had "promoted space exploration and travel where ever he went. He would have given almost anything to be able to actually go into space," the actor's wife, Wende Doohan, wrote in a message posted on the company's website.
Space Service's next "memorial space flight" is set for December. It expects be carrying about 200 capsules, bringing in more than $5 million for the year.
For those who would rather stay closer to their loved ones in the afterlife, LifeGem uses a advanced high-nitrogen, low-oxygen technique to turn the carbon from cremated remains into a diamond for memorial rings or necklaces.
Formed in 2001, the Elk Grove Village, Ill.-based company charges anywhere from $2,699 to $18,999, depending on the size and cut of diamond, and expects sales this year to reach $7.5 million.
Wearing the diamonds, says one customer, helps "celebrate life, rather than mourn death."
Though clearly on the fringe of the industry, Biggins says, these and other new services are likely to expand even further in the years ahead.
"We live in a society where folks are looking for alternatives," says Biggins, who describes himself as a more traditional funeral director. "There are entrepreneurs out there who are giving them what they want. That's a good thing for our profession."
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