Will the industry adapt to changing attitudes?
The “American way of death” has undergone substantial changes since author Jessica Mitford made that phrase famous half a century ago in her expose of funeral business practices. Cremation is now more prevalent than burial in the United States, “green” cemeteries and other non-traditional options are growing in popularity – and some funeral homes are adapting by opening their doors to a wide range of events: weddings, birthdays and family reunions. The funeral industry is relatively decentralized and still dominated by family businesses; only one company, Service Corporation International, has a market share exceeding 5 percent.
Key takeaways include:
Funeral industry revenue has increased more slowly than the overall U.S. economy, and some forecasters project that revenue growth will decline in coming years.
The death rate in the United States is expected to rise in the coming decades as the large Baby Boomer generation ages.
The federal government has attempted to regulate funeral pricing practices since 1984, but some consumer advocates argue that the rules are outdated.
Resources for Further Study
Mitford, Jessica, “The American Way of Death Revisited,” Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. The updated version of Mitford’s original 1963 book on funeral-industry practices adds chapters on pre-paid funerals, the role of global corporations and an evaluation of the 1984 Federal Trade Commission regulation that the original book helped to create.
Wilde, Caleb, “Confessions of a Funeral Director: How the Business of Death Saved My Life,” HarperOne, 2017. A funeral director overseeing his family’s funeral home recounts memorable funerals and the lessons learned from dealing with death as a professional services provider.
Eveleth, Rose, “How Lincoln’s Assassination Launched the Funeral Industry,” Smithsonian Magazine, Aug. 13, 2012, https://tinyurl.com/
Quirk, Vanessa, “‘We’ve mastered weddings – but the funeral needs a lot of work’: Inside the new death industry,” Quartz, April 4, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/
Sanburn, Josh, “More Americans Than Ever Are Choosing to Be Cremated,” Time, July 13, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/
Reports and Studies
“Deathcare Accounting,” Service Corporation International, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/
“Service Corporation International’s (SCI) CEO Tom Ryan on Q1 2018 Results - Earnings Call Transcript,” Seeking Alpha, April 26, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/
McGinley, Devin, “Funeral Homes in the US,” IBISWorld, June 2018 (subscription required), https://tinyurl.com/
Oliver, Kelsey, “Cemetery Services – US Market Research Report,” IBISWorld, December 2017 (subscription required), https://tinyurl.com/
Slocum, Joshua, “Death with Dignity? A Report on SCI/Dignity Memorial High Prices and Refusal to Disclose These Prices,” Funeral Consumers Alliance and the Consumer Federation of America, March 2017, https://tinyurl.com/
The Next Step
Campbell, Hayley, “A New Way to Dispose of Corpses – With Chemistry!” Wired, March 27, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/
Erizanu, Paula, “The biodegradable burial pod that turns your body into a tree,” CNN, Jan. 11, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/
Tangermann, Victor, “7 Futuristic Things To Do With Your Body When You Die,” Futurism, June 1, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/
Scutti, Susan, “Half in US choose cremation as views on death change,” CNN, Aug. 9, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/
Shkolnikova, Svetlana, “Cremation is now America’s final disposition of choice, set to be NJ’s top pick by 2030,” NorthJersey.com, April 23, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/
Solomon, Adina, “A Dying Industry? Memorial Makers Want to Avoid That,” U.S. News and World Report, May 17, 2018, https://tinyurl.com/
Federal Trade Commission
600 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, DC 20580
A federal agency that enforces the Funeral Rule, which regulates how funeral homes sell their services and protects consumers from having to pay for services they do not want.
Funeral Consumers Alliance
33 Patchen Road, South Burlington, VT 05403
A nonprofit consumers rights and education organization.
126 Fifth Ave., Suite 801, New York, NY 10011
An online comparison tool and conduit through which consumers can contact funeral homes. Users get a 5 percent discount if they purchase services using the site.
International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association
107 Carpenter Drive, Suite 100, Sterling, VA 20164
A trade association that represents funeral directors, cemetery and crematorium owners.
8112 Sea Water Path, Columbia, MD 21045
This nonprofit provides information about funeral services and death rituals according to Jewish traditions and organizes conferences and training sessions for community leaders who help provide those services.
National Funeral Directors Association
13625 Bishop’s Drive, Brookfield, WI 53005
A trade association representing funeral directors and other providers of end-of-life services.
People’s Memorial Association
1801 12th Ave., Suite A, Seattle, WA 98122
A nonprofit group founded in 1939 that seeks to help consumers by negotiating lower rates and sample contracts with funeral homes.
Service International Corporation
1929 Allen Parkway, Houston, TX 77019
The largest U.S. private-sector provider of funeral services. Its funeral homes are typically branded with the name Dignity Memorial.