Monday, February 1, 2010

Death rituals changing as more people, especially boomers, opt for cremations

After their father died unexpectedly, Bill McQueen and his sister Maggi and brother John found themselves in their 20s the new owners of a 43-year-old funeral home.

Fourteen years later, his law and accounting careers abandoned, Bill McQueen is president of Anderson McQueen, a St. Petersburg business that grew to five funeral homes, a cemetery, a crematorium and Pet Passage, which operates a separate crematorium that last year eased 2,500 Tampa Bay pet owners into life without Fluffy.

President of the reception lounge for catered meals.

How about the ceremony?

Boomers have always wanted things on their own terms, so we help them custom-design services. Many boomers are more concerned with preserving a loved one's contributions to life than three prayers and a hymn. Instead of focusing on the loss, we focus on how this person touched people's hearts and lives in a story-telling experience.

Some of the less formal, "no muss no fuss" attitude about funerals stems from the popularity of cremation. The number of cremations, which doubled since 1995, is forecast to double again to about half of all deaths nationally in 10 years. Florida is already there with 54 percent of deaths handled by cremation in 2008, almost twice the rate of the Midwest and rest of the Southeast. With 89,000 cremations last year, why is Florida second only to California?

As a retirement state, we have a large population that spent its working years somewhere else. They don't have as many family, work and social connections here.

So price is the driving force of cremation's popularity?

It has been. But with cremation now much more acceptable, there are other reasons. Our value division called ALifeTribute Funeral Care offers the most basic cremation for $995. But, we've found a market looking for a more meaningful experience. The basic service cost is $2,800 but average is $5,000 to $7,000. Our biggest ever was $60,000, but that included a private mausoleum. We offer a Harley-Davidson hearse or a horse-drawn one. At a service for a tractor collector, we parked his John Deeres out front.

Is technology altering traditional services?

We can create a video remembrance from photos and interviews with family and friends. I know when my father died, it was truly uplifting to hear this outpouring of what he accomplished and meant to people I never knew. We show the video on flat-panel TV screens throughout the center. We Webcast live streaming video of the service and post it for 90 days for those who cannot be there. We set up a Facebook page, so people anywhere can post photos and remembrances.

Since the 1990s Florida law permitted cremation centers to scatter remains not picked up within 120 days. How many unclaimed remains are locked in your vault still waiting?

More than 500 dating back to 1952. Every time I considered disposing some, though, the phone rings from someone finally claiming one we've had since the 1970s.

Are there new ways to deal with cremated remains?

The movies led people to expect only a spoonful to scatter. The average adult becomes 200 cubic inches, almost the size of a football, which is a lot to scatter on a windy day. We have urns that dissolve in water in minutes. For $2,000 and up you can have ashes compressed under heat into a cultured diamond for a ring, bracelet or necklace. There is industry talk about a flameless bio-cremation process coming to the market that's used now at Shands Hospital in Gainesville and the Mayo Clinic after organ donation.

Where is the casket display room?

We got rid of it because it was traumatic for some. We show more choices on a video. Cremation requires little more than a reinforced cardboard box. But families are confronted with how much to spend on a container that will be destroyed. There is particle board with veneer. Or we rent $6,000 metal caskets for $800 for a viewing.

Pet Passages is a $195 to $395 alternative to burying a pet in the yard. Do people stage pet funerals?

About 10 percent do come to see the pet one last time before cremation to say goodbye. The grief we see of the death of a pet often is more pronounced than a human family member. A local attorney had a service for a Scottish terrier that was attended by 20 people and a bagpiper. We had one $4,000 service where the dog was in a casket surrounded by flowers. We've had services for hamsters, ferrets, snakes, birds and a 300-pound Vietnamese pot-bellied pig.

How will death rituals change in 10 years?

Today's 20,000 funeral homes probably will taper down to 15,000, even though the number of annual deaths will increase 25 percent by 2025. That's because cremation will be more common, only a fraction of funeral homes have a crematorium (there are 19 in the bay area) and people will expect more than a gloomy room filled with folding chairs that's right out of the 1950s.

We must be creative instead of just telling people they must have a wake with a body in the casket and burial in a cemetery. Otherwise we won't be relevant. Already, we have competition from funeral event planners — they are like wedding planners — who are not licensed funeral directors but organize memorable life celebrations. Eventually, recorded digital memorial of someone's legacy with pictures and testimonials stored online will replace the bronze marker with dates of birth and death.

Mark Albright can be reached at or (727) 893-8252.

1 comment:

The Undertaker said...

This is a modern funeral home, I'm happy to see the changes and personality. Great interview! thanks for sharing!!