They're choosing cremations over burials to cut costs
After a decade of hospitalizations from diabetes and heart disease, Debra Franzel had a frank talk with her niece, Deanna Franzel. A Medicaid patient, she wanted cremation and no fanfare over her passing.
When Debra Franzel, 53, died in April, the Cremation Society of Michigan picked up her body and took it to a crematorium.
The cost, Deanna Franzel said, was around $250.
If her aunt hadn't been ill for so long or had more money, her choice about her funeral arrangements might have been different, Deanna Franzel said.
"She did it because she didn't want to be a burden to anybody," Franzel said. "People don't want to burden a family with headstones and funeral costs. There are also spiritual and cultural diversities. People have to do what's comfortable for them."
Driven in part by tight finances, more families are choosing cremation over traditional funerals, forcing operators to rethink how they do business. Falling burial rates and rising cremations are putting the pinch on cemeteries.
Blame the high cost of dying.
A full funeral and burial can top $10,000. A no-frills cremation can be less than $1,000. It's a vicious cycle for cemeteries as the economy remains sluggish and stigmas against cremation ease.
Some cemeteries have raised prices more than 15 percent this summer alone, said Phil Douma, executive director of the Michigan Funeral Directors Association.
"There's no question in the minds of funeral directors that these escalating burial fees certainly play a factor in the rising cremation rates," Douma said. "It's a major, major issue with the cemetery industry, both private and municipal. Opening and closing the graves are an integral part of the business plan, and it's really affecting the industry."
Canton Township, for example, had to hike rates at its three cemeteries last year from $300 a burial to $1,200.
"We tried to keep costs down but we did the analysis," said township engineer Tom Casari. The township only handles about seven services a year but has to do the same cemetery maintenance it did when burial rates were higher.
In 1990, nearly 80 percent of people who died in Michigan were buried. In 2010, about 50 percent received a burial. The cremation rate during that period more than doubled, from 17 percent to more than 40 percent.
"The cemeteries that are municipal owned don't have the extra funds any more to do the maintenance, and they depend on the burial fees," said Tony Benhart, manager of the Crystal Springs Cemetery in Benton Harbor. The fee for a cremation ceremony can be a quarter of that for a burial, he said.
Michigan has about 4,200 cemeteries, including about 125 privately owned burial grounds, according to the state cemetery commission.
Almost 600 are owned by religious organizations. Another 350 are abandoned or obliterated, and there are five Native American and five national cemeteries in the state. The rest are owned by municipalities.
Michigan is in the upper middle of the pack of states when it comes to cremation rates; 19 have higher rates than Michigan. Nevada is the highest at 65 percent and Alabama is the lowest at fewer than 10 percent.
Patrick Lynch of Lynch and Sons Funeral Directors in Clawson said cost is a factor in the growing popularity of cremation. But a bigger factor is the way we perceive the concept of "home," Lynch said.
"People are not as grounded to a place as they were a generation ago," said Lynch, who is president of the National Funeral Directors Association. "Today, people move around like it's nothing. Someone doesn't necessarily call Detroit home just because they're born there. Because of that, people are disinclined to buy cemetery property."
Cremation, he said, allows people to be as mobile in death as they were in life.
Another option that's gaining market share is a "green" funeral. Green funerals eschew embalming fluid and non-biodegradable caskets and can be cheaper than a traditional funeral, said Adam Martin, owner of Martin Funeral Cremation & Tribute Services, which has locations in Genesee and Tuscola counties.
A green funeral costs about $1,000 to $1,500 less than a traditional one, Martin said.
"It's just something that we want to let people know is available and out there," he said. "We like to focus on what the family wants to do. It's just sort of looking outside the box to help people."
At Glen Eden Memorial Park, a religious cemetery in Livonia, officials have shifted services over the years to better serve those who choose cremation.
"I would say in the last 20 years, we have certainly kept our ear to our customers' needs and what they wanted," said Tom Habitz, general manager of Glen Eden. "We can do a couple of different things. We can bury the ashes in an existing grave. We can take up to four cremations in one grave or three cremations and one traditional bury." The Livonia cemetery handles about 550 burials and about 200 cremations a year. Like other cemeteries in Michigan, Glen Eden faces rising costs for gas, insurance and equipment.
"One thing that a lot of people have difficulty with in the general public is they don't understand the final aspect of the cemetery," Habitz said. "We have a one-time fee but we have to maintain that grave or that mausoleum forever."