Funeral industry prepares for boomer generation

Monday, June 3, 2002

NEW YORK -- Death is hopefully decades away for Karen Bradford, but the 48-year-old is already preparing. She has purchased burial plots for herself and her husband, and is comfortable talking about what she views as the inevitable.

"Death is a basic part of life," said the Riverside, Calif., woman, who also takes a relaxed view of funeral service planning. "When my mother died a few years ago, we had a great big party. We got up and told stories and there were some extremely funny moments. I expect my funeral will be informal too."

It will be many years before the majority of the 76 million baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 need a funeral home. But the generation used to doing things its own way is already influencing the industry as many boomers begin burying their parents and thinking about their own funerals.

"Many of the boomers wrote their own wedding vows, demanded rights to homeschool their kids, natural birth and made us recycle. They're taking charge of funeral rituals as well," said Lisa Carlson, executive director at Funeral Consumers Alliance, a public advocacy group.

Experts say boomers want to make sure that they and their loved ones are remembered in ways that reflect individual lifestyles. Although they are not the first to express this desire, the sheer size of the boomer demographic is prompting change in a business that already has U.S. revenues of $9.5 billion.

"If you went into a funeral home 30 years ago and said, 'My dad was a farmer and I want to use his tractor in the processional and put the casket on bales of hay and show pictures of him farming,' the funeral director would have said, 'I'm sorry, we don't do that,"' said Bill Bates, chief executive of Life Appreciation Training, which teaches funeral directors to customize funeral services. "Today, the funeral director would say, 'Come right on in."'

The desire to be unique has also translated into less formal services with music and discussion replacing more formal and somber ceremonies.

"They want the service to be upbeat and affirmational, a celebration," said Dr. William Ritter, senior minister at the First United Methodist Church in Birmingham, Mich.

As a result, a number of funeral homes are scaling back chapel space in favor of more open, relaxed settings. They're also making catering services available.

Cremations are on the rise, primarily because of price and simplicity. As boomers age, that trend is expected to accelerate.

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