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Final Arrangements: Putting a personal stamp on the trip from here to after

Last in a series

Wednesday, May 26, 1999

By Gary Rotstein, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the cremation display room of his sprawling Beechview funeral home, Richard C. Beinhauer provides almost too many attractive options for a final container.

  Flames reaching more than 1,600 degrees burn inside one of the region's crematoriums. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette)

It's so hard for a customer to decide among them, just like browsing in a favorite gift shop or gallery.

There are more than a dozen all-wood caskets, ranging from a basic $75 box to the $1,400 oak model, designed to carry a deceased loved one through the cremation process. There are bronze, brass, marble, ceramic and fine wood pieces to contain the ashes left afterward, inside either urns for a mausoleum niche or jewelry to be worn or sculptures to be displayed.

And there are the dolphins.

These are mantelpieces of three high-polished dolphins bounding majestically in cast bronze waves, with an opening underneath to insert cremains. The dolphin urn costs $537 for the regular size and $1,500 for a large model.

Beinhauer admires the artwork at either size and price.

"If I didn't tell you what it was, you'd say, 'Where did you get that beautiful piece of sculpture?'" says the Richard Dreyfuss look-alike, whose family has been a leader in the funeral and cremation fields here throughout the 20th century.

The brick-lined oven two floors below is still warm from the 1,600-degree heat generated to cremate the most recent Beinhauer customer. That individual became part of one of the clearest trends in the way Americans handle death, with more people being cremated every year and the funeral and burial industries pursuing new ways to capture revenue from them.

Whether people are cremated or buried the traditional way, the industry is increasingly providing urns, caskets, monuments and services tailored to suit individual backgrounds and lifestyles, with Beinhauer's omnibus display just one example. The baby boomers who will fill funeral homes, cemeteries and crematories in the decades to come expect more style and choice than their parents.

That evolution has prompted Matthews International Corp., a Pittsburgh-based leader nationally in production of grave memorials, to expand to 6,000 different designs rather than limit consumers' options, said David J. DeCarlo, president of the company's bronze division.

"Personalization -- that's the key," he said.

cremation has long been the preferred method of body disposal in many countries in Europe and Asia, but never in America. Today, however, cremationists represent a significant minority that is growing every year.

  More from the series:

Some commonly asked questions about death decisions, purchases and customs

Otherworldly ways to mark a passing

Additional resources

Final Arrangements, Part I: A time of reckoning for the region's funeral trade

Final Arrangements, Part II: For Mrs. McNair, tradition guides the journey home

Final Arrangements, Part III: Cemeteries must compete for customers

Ordering Reprints of "Final Arrangements"


The Cremation Association of North America reports that 23.6 percent of Americans who died in 1997 were cremated, a five-fold increase in a quarter-century. Based on current growth, the group estimates that by 2005, one out of three who die will be cremated.

Cremation rates vary widely around the country, with the highest percentages on the West Coast and the lowest in the South.

Pennsylvania has always been lower than the national average, with the state Health Department reporting a 1997 cremation rate of 18.8 percent for those who died in the state and had their bodies disposed of here.

Allegheny County's rate was lower, 16.6 percent, and most surrounding counties had less cremation than that. Most funeral homes don't have cremation ovens themselves, but they coordinate the practice for families at the small group of crematories in the area, most notably at Beinhauer's and at Allegheny and Homewood cemeteries.

It hasn't been a custom encouraged over the years by the U.S. death care industry, considering it has the potential to reduce revenues and runs counter to much of the training provided in mortuary school.

"There are a number of [funeral directors] who think cremation is a third-class method of taking care of people ... who in the past said, 'I'm not a garbage collector, and I'm not going to pick up bodies to be cremated,'" said Ron Hast, a Los Angeles funeral director who publishes a trade magazine and newsletter.

Most in the industry have become more accepting in recent years, recognizing the inevitability of consumer trends and sensing that if they don't find a way to make a profit from cremation products, someone else will. Sales of many other death-related products including caskets are relatively flat -- just like the nation's death rate.

"What the smart ones are doing, and we're not the only one, are setting up a cremation division," said Joe Weigel, spokesman for Batesville Casket Co., the nation's largest casket manufacturer.

In a 1995 death care industry study of American adults, 43 percent said they would opt for cremation when they die. The baby boomers are likely to send the actual rate at least that high once they become the predominant group dying in the country, between 2010 and 2030.

Cost savings, concerns about land use and preference for simplicity are cited most commonly as reasons for cremation. People who forego embalming, visitation, a typical casket and other funeral home expenses and elect to keep ashes at home or scatter them -- rather than place them in a cemetery -- can easily save $5,000.

Pittsburgh area funeral directors note, however, that people who are cremated here often still want open-casket visitation and traditional services beforehand. Cemetery operators say many families prefer a permanent location for an urn and marker that they can return to visit.

Cost is not necessarily as big a factor as might be assumed, because surveys show people of higher education and income are more likely than others to choose cremation.

Blacks, although they tend to have less income, choose cremation far less than whites.

"People of color feel like they've already been burned on Earth in life, and they don't want to be burned in death," said Hill District funeral director Karen West Butler.

it's not just the manner in which people exit the world that is evolving, but how they shop for the trip. Celestial Burial Case, a 3-year-old business with storerooms in Lawrenceville and Greensburg, posts a sign that says "funeral merchandise direct to the public" and displays two caskets in the store window for people to see as they walk along Butler Street.


ConsumerCasket USA, based in Erie, has the soft recessed lighting and modern plant-and-poster decor of a Pier I Imports showroom, for those interested in perusing its casket and cremation supplies. The key distinction is you're picking out a casket or urn instead of a wine rack or scented candles.

Both Celestial Burial and ConsumerCasket market themselves nationally over the Internet, and the latter publishes a large catalog for mail-order sales. Both are run by mortuary school graduates who say today's consumers are better educated and able to pick merchandise and services without using a funeral director as their sole guide.

"We're saying that, finally, there's a choice to make a decision [of where to purchase a casket] now that people are willing to do some research," said John Parillo Jr., Celestial's founder and general manager.

People can buy caskets in advance from the third-party stores and await delivery from a warehouse later, or can purchase them upon a death and have them delivered within 24 hours. Funeral directors are required by the Federal Trade Commission to accept the caskets without imposing a handling fee, a point that both irritates and threatens local funeral directors even though most say they've only been losing a couple of casket sales a year, if that.

Casket retailers say they can undercut funeral homes' costs because they don't have the same kind of overhead and other services to cover. Consumer advocates say they're happy to see the discounters providing the competition, but caution people to be even more careful about pre-paying for their products than they are with funeral homes or cemeteries.

Specialty casket sellers have a scant track record in business and even less regulatory oversight than the rest of the death industry to protect the consumer's investment, said Lisa Carlson, executive director of the Funeral and Memorial Societies of America.

"Without a doubt, consumers that shop around for a casket can save a huge amount of money," she said, "but I tell consumers not to buy caskets pre-need unless they're going to take it home and put it in the attic."

While the concept of casket competition is commended by many non-funeral directors, there's no indication as yet of any major impact from it. No reliable sales numbers are available, but the head of the Casket and Funeral Supply Association of America guessed that such discounters represent less than 1 percent of casket sales in the country.

One specialty store that opened two years ago in Indiana, Pa., called Funeral Merchandising, has failed to meet sales targets of 40 to 50 caskets a year.

"We've made enough to keep in business, but it's not as lucrative as we hoped," said owner John Lefdahl, a licensed funeral director who hopes to boost his volume by building a funeral home from which the caskets will be sold.

besides having more places to shop, death consumers also have more choices among individual products.

Casket decisions once came down to picking wood or metal -- with metal most often preferred in this steel town -- and a few variations in quality, color and price level for either material.

A sampling of bronze work -- from sculpted portraits to identification and dedication plaques -- that has been created at Pittsburgh-based Matthews International Corp. (Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette) 

Manufacturers are generating more caskets every year with university logos, occupational symbols, drawers inside for keepsakes and notes, pockets for photos to accompany the deceased, and other special engravings or artwork.

Matthews International has relied for decades on basic bronze as the staple of its monument business, but now it's churning out green, teal and blue markers from research showing people want more colorful options. Smaller monument dealers are using computers and lasers to duplicate all kinds of images sought by customers.

Instead of just making urns as vases or boxes for simple storage, manufacturers are turning them out as benches, sundials, boulders and other naturalistic objects that few would guess contain someone's ashes. Cemeteries are creating separate scattering gardens and burial grounds for cremation instead of putting them alongside casket burials.

Funeral ceremonies more often now include a display of candid photos of the deceased and the activities of his or her life, the sounds of the music he or she enjoyed, a display of the clothing they found most comfortable -- all replacing cookie-cutter services of old.

"We have a much more educated consumer now, and they're going to challenge funeral directors in the area of individual memorialization, things that haven't been prevalent," said Robert Harden, executive director of the National Funeral Directors Association. "Funeral directors are going to have to adapt to the changes the consumer wants."

James M. St. George, 33, the owner of ConsumerCasket USA, found that the solemn, casket-oriented approach to his business turned off potential customers when he started five years ago.

He's gone to a more casual, sunlit atmosphere, where the employees wear golf shirts instead of suits and artistic memorial products replace caskets as the first objects the customer sees in the store. It's all in hopes of attracting younger purchasers. And with the Internet and mail-order catalog, people can shop conveniently from home for death supplies.

"Traditional funeral directors don't know how to handle the baby boomers," said St. George, who comes from a family of funeral directors. "The G.I. generation's No. 1 fear in a funeral home is making the wrong decision. They deal with that by having the funeral director lead them to make decisions. The baby boomer's No. 1 fear is being ripped off, so they're not going to let a funeral director direct them on what to do."

Why all the fuss about baby boomers, when they won't begin joining the ranks of the elderly for more than a decade yet, and may not die for several more decades after that?

It's the simple math of the savvy businessman who's in it for the long haul. While the number and rate of annual deaths in the United States has been steady for several years, they're to rise again early in the next millennium. The rate of 8.6 deaths per 1,000 citizens is to climb to 10.2 by 2020, and the 2.3 million annual deaths are to reach 4 million by the year 2050.

And even if they're not the ones dying yet, young people are influencing their parents' funerals and burials. The customs and rituals of death, after all, are intended to benefit the living as much as -- or more than -- the dead.

add up all of the new-millennium change taking place in the tradition-bound death care industry, and a dizzying list emerges: more corporate ownership; more salesmanship in advance of death; more cremation; more consumer information and choice; reduced ceremonies and rituals; less time spent in the funeral home; fewer personal ties to the people handling your family's death.

Some of those trends might be good, some might be bad, and some just represent modern business practices and social customs that blur the distinctions between selecting death options and picking a new car.

"The American way of death is changing, from a mobile society and a loss of traditional values," said Dave Regina, president of Forest Lawn Gardens in McMurray. "I think we have to be aware that certain things important to people 30 years ago aren't as important any more."

The trends can ease the burdens for survivors of the deceased, such as the memorial services that can be scheduled for the weekend after cremation, instead of requiring relatives around the country to drop everything and catch flights on a day's notice for funeral ceremonies.

But traditionalists worry when death customs are made too easy, when bodies are removed from sight, when people spend a few hours rather than days discussing the death with friends and relatives.

"Death can't be looked on as an imposition," said Patrick McGowan, a young funeral director in Sheraden. "The family and friends and neighbors need to go through this. It can't be looked on as something swept under the rug. Southwestern Pennsylvania seems always to be behind the rest of the country -- in this case, it's good."

Of course, people in the industry like McGowan also have financial incentive to support longer visitation periods, more ceremonies and traditional merchandise purchases. But they receive support from therapists who believe survivors need to experience a loved one's death intimately in order to resolve it.

"In general, it helps people to see the body and touch it to get through the loss and make it real," said Tamara Balliet, bereavement care coordinator for Forbes Hospice. "It gives the community the same thing, but there always has to be a caution that everyone does grieve differently, and we mustn't assume that what is correct for most families is correct for all families."

Different cultures, different religions, different clergy all have different theories of what benefits the dead and helps grieving people most. Some priests and ministers work closely with their neighborhood funeral directors and admire the way they help people address their grieving; others are appalled at funeral and cemetery practices that they feel pressure families into exorbitant decisions.

The Rev. Rodgers Wood, recently retired from Christ Episcopal Church in Ross, became increasingly irritated with funeral costs and cemetery salesmen in his area and encouraged parishioners to be cremated and then buried for $100 in the church's memorial garden, accompanied by a Eucharist service.

"It's not standing around in the funeral home trying to pretend everyone looks nice, or whatever you say," Wood said. "It isn't necessary to have three days of visitation and stand around. What people need are friends around -- the living people, that's what funerals are for."

Disagreements on the best practices clearly abound, but if there's one point of consensus among consumer advocates and industry leaders alike, it's that consumers will be best served by informing themselves ahead of time about options and prices and discussing it with other family members.

Michael Knox, a psychologist and professor of medicine at the University of South Florida, outlined in his book, "Last Wishes," all of the issues people should be addressing in writing before their death, so relatives, funeral directors and others know their preferences. The deceased and his or her survivors, he said, all benefit from confronting the prospect and working out the details.

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