Another Sign Of The Recession — Cremation On The Rise

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The recession has forced consumers to cut back on spending in almost every area of life. Now death, it seems, is no exception. The funeral industry is changing to accommodate budget-conscious families and the number of cremations is on the rise.

"These are tough economic times," said National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) spokesperson Jessica Koth, "and what we are hearing from our members is that more and more families are opting for cremation" as a low-cost alternative to a traditional burial.

It's not the service or the casket that breaks the bank, Koth said. According to NFDA's data, the average funeral package (with a casketed service and a burial) costs $4,277. A casketed service and cremation costs slightly less, about $4,054.

The issue is that these packages don't include the grave, which can practically double the cost of a funeral.

At Ocean County Memorial Park in New Jersey, for example, plots start around $925. But in cemeteries as in real estate, location is everything.

Sheri Richardson Stahl, who runs Island Funeral Home in Beaufort, S.C., said there are no public graveyards in the Hilton Head area, so plots at the nearest semi-private cemetery start at $2500 and "can easily reach $10,000."

Add in caskets, opening and closing fees, headstones, embalming and a vault, and things start getting expensive, according to Ocean County's sales director Jeff O'Neill.

For this reason, he has started to sell more above-ground mausoleums, which can be more cost-efficient.

"With the rise in cremation over the past decade, cemeteries have to come up with other options to permanently memorialize remains," said O'Neill. Unlike urns, niches, which are small marble or glass memorials, can be kept in the cemetery.

Island Funeral Home itself hasn't seen much of a rise in cremation due to the recession — their cremation rate, 78 percent, was already double the national average.

But Stahl, who is also a board member of the NFDA, has certainly noted the nationwide increase in cremations, as well as its effect on more traditional funeral homes.

"There are many funeral directors who are resistant to cremation," she said. "If you have that mindset in this economy, you're in trouble."

Stahl added: "The funny thing is… when someone says I want to be cremated, that's just one of 99 decisions. Plenty of times, cremations are just as expensive as burials."

So why is the sudden increase attributed to the recession? That's easy, Stahl said. "It's still perceived as the cheaper option, and that's all that matters."