Deirdre McMurdy's Column Moneywise from the Financial Post, Saturday, November 1, 2003.



Deirdre McMurdy - Financial Post

Saturday November 1, 2003

When the hit HBO series Six Feet Under finally hit Quebec airwaves, Bridget Fetterly hosted the launch party at her Montreal home.  Her funeral home, that is.

"The show is very close to real life," says the owner of Kane and Fetterly in Montreal, of the acclaimed TV drama about a family that runs a funeral business.  "It's popularity has helped people understand a service that's always been a bit of a taboo."

It's a two-way street, however: the show's success also reflects funerals' growing demystification.  Once spoken of only in hushed tones, these days burials are consumer rituals much like weddings and birthdays, served by cottage industries of specialty services and customization options.

The outlook for funeral services is robust, to say the least.  A recent study by Benjamin Tal, senior economist with CIBC World Markets, notes that over the next decade the number of seniors over 85 will climb by more than 50% in Canada.  The domestic funeral business, meanwhile, has grown by 26% since 1995.

The average cost of a funeral in Canada is $5,000, and rising.  That's before the additional expense of a cemetery plot (up to $2,000) and a monument  ($5,000).

Keen to go out in style, Baby Boomers are increasingly pre-planning their own funerals, cumulatively laying out $400-million last year in Ontario alone.  Another $1-billion is held in "pre-need" trust accounts (set up to cover future funeral costs) in the province.

"Not only is the population ageing, it's getting more informed when dealing with death," says Suzanne Scott , executive director of the Funeral Services Association of Canada.  "Boomers want control over every aspect of their lives -- and deaths -- and they have the money to ensure that happens."

The trend to pre-pay for funerals -- or at least pre-plan them by registering your wishes with a funeral home -- is also fed by provincial regulations requiring any funeral payments to be either held in a trust account administered by a third party or in the form of a special insurance policy.

"Some people come in and choose their casket, leave the music they want to be played, choose the flowers, even pre-print the programs," says Rob Heppell, a funeral industry consultant in Victoria.  "We try to tell them they should leave some input for family and friends.  We explain that the funeral is really for those who are left behind."

Such detailed planning also reflects the push to personalize funerals in an increasingly secular society.  "Because people tend to be less religious, they're replacing the traditional part of a funeral with something else, and the funeral industry has responded with more secular options," says Mr. Heppell.

Those options include greater family participation in the service and hiring a master of ceremonies to fill the role usually played by a clergyman in leading a memorial service.  Others stage online Webcasts of the funeral (costing about $500) for those who can't attend.  Some even set up multimedia shows using family pictures, home movies and favorite music burned onto DVDs ($300).

In a bid to facilitate personal flourishes, the industry is also offering a range of new products and services.  You can order a graveside release of memorial balloons ($150-$200), white doves ($125 for one to $395 for 24) or even butterflies ($150 for a dozen,  Special wind chimes, including a special base that contains some cremated remains, cost $350.

"Thumbie" charms -- gold or silver casts of the thumb print of the deceased for a chain or bracelet -- and "keepsake" jewellery containing a pinch of a loved ones ashes are also available from many funeral homes.  Those wanting more flashy reminders can spring for Life Gems ( diamonds manufactured from the carbon contained in cremated ashes (US $2,500 to US $14,000).

Such extras are are more than a response to client demand; they also reflect the funeral industry's drive to offset revenue lost to lower-cost options like cremation, which now accounts for more than half the funerals in Canada.

A parallel price-depressing trend is "green" funerals -- burials for the ecologically conscious.  From caskets made from biodegradable materials to the use of trees instead of monuments, these rituals aim to return the body to the earth with minimal environmental impact.  Cremation is frowned upon by this group, however, for the toxins the process releases into the air.

The surge in cremation and green burials, along with new sources of competition and consumer information, have set the traditional economic model for funeral services on its ear.  "Funeral services are no different from the bankjng or music sectors," says Ms. Scott.  "It's a much more open, competitive market."

Norman Cooke, a veteran funeral director turned retailer, is at the vanguard of that competition.

"Pricey caskets have always been a huge profit centre for the funeral homes, and cremation and competition have eroded that," says Mr. Cooke, owner of  The Casket Store in Burnaby, B.C.  "When I worked at corporate-owned homes, we'd sit around and have brainstorming sessions to think of ways to offset those losses to the bottom line."

His business, which basically unbundles the funeral packages offered by traditional funeral homes, has made steady gains.  Under provincial laws, funeral homes must accept caskets or other supplies bought elsewhere, although homes often add surcharges of as much as $200 to do so.

At The Casket Store, customers can choose a casket ranging from $506 for a particleboard model to $4,700 for a copper version, saving $500 to $3,000 on what a full-service home would charge.

Consumers can save even more money by purchasing a casket directly from a manufacturer, such as Northwest Caskets of Saanichton, B.C.  (

Those sticking to a traditional funeral will find the costs mount quickly.   At Montreal's Kane and Fetterly, the tab for a two-day visitation, cleaning, embalming, dressing, casketing, cosmetology, hairdressing, use of a chapel, pallbearers, limo and hearse and all paperwork comes to $3,145.  That doesn't include a $740 "burial fee," casket, flowers or music.

Cremation, by contrast, costs $850 plus a $350  cremation fee.  Containers for the remains run from $60 for an unlined cardboard receptacle to $925 for a solid bronze urn.

Opting for conventional burial next requires buying a cemetery plot and a monument.  The value of plots, which range in price from $700 to $1,500 for a fully serviced plot, has risen far faster than the rate of inflation.  To avoid having plots sold to the highest bidder on eBay, cemeteries often dictate that internment rights to a plot must be bought and sold through them.

Then comes the final touch: the monument.  With marble banned by most cemeteries because it's too soft, granite is the preferred material for a headstone.  According to William Tunstead of William Tunstead Memorials in Toronto, most people spend about $5,000 on a monument, although he has sold some for as much as $100,000.  "It's a very personal process choosing a stone," he says.  "It's the last thing you'll ever do for someone you love."

So get out your cheque book.

Deirdre McMurdy is co-host of Global TV's Moneywise.;




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