Funerals in the news

Funerals go natural with 'green burials'

By Mark Pothier
The Boston Globe

Death-care trends usually sweep from west to east, funeral industry officials say. Cremation rates in Oregon and Washington have surpassed 60 percent and in Marin County, Calif., it is about 80 percent. The Cremation Society of Los Angeles even allows arrangements to be made by fax or phone.

"That's the cutting edge," said Ron Hast, publisher of Mortuary Management magazine.

Not for Ray Karno. Upon his death, the Oakland, Calif., man wants his body brought to a remote spot in sun-splashed woods, wrapped in unbleached cloth and lowered into a grave marked by a tree or an indigenous stone. No embalming, coffin or headstone. All natural.

"To me, the idea that I could become worm food is an honor," Karno said.

He is one of hundreds of people who have contacted Mill Valley, Calif.'s Forever Fernwood Cemetery since it began offering "green burials" last August, according to Joe Sehee, one of its founders.

Plots are pinpointed with global-positioning devices. The concept may sound left-coast, but in a recent online poll conducted by the AARP, 25 percent of respondents said they would prefer a green burial.

Sehee envisions working with planners and conservation groups to purchase parcels that will be both nature preserves and cemeteries. The business model will "significantly disrupt" the funeral industry, he said.

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Funerals have come a long way, baby

By Jack Markowitz

Who hasn't thought about -- and also winced to think about -- his or her own funeral?

Yet the end of all earning, spending, investment, tax, and what-to-wear decisions has got to be faced. By family members, even if the central economic participant shies from the subject personally.

The International Cemetery and Funeral Association represents 6,500 cemeteries, funeral homes and crematories. It recently held a meeting and trade show in Las Vegas. It turned out that funerals aren't that predictable anymore.

High technology and demographics are changing the market. A big factor: cremations are catching up on burials. They account for 30 percent now, will likely top 50 percent by mid-century.

Why? For both economic and environmental reasons. Ashes are viewed as taking up less "precious land" than bodies in caskets. And the national average cost for a traditional funeral is $7,000, the Los Angeles Times reported, while cremations come closer to $1,500.

More people also don't want just good words at the last rites, but an entertaining video of their life. Typical choice is an eight-minute digital presentation, what the film industry used to call a "short." Family photos and home movie footage are combined for showing at the service and also over the Web to guests who can't make it. "Archiving" also becomes feasible indefinitely on the Internet.

"We can pull from a lot of unemployed (Hollywood) talent," boasted convention speaker Tyler Cassity. He's president of both Forever Cemeteries (seven of them) and the Forever Network. The latter produces video biographies that cost anywhere from several hundred to $100,000. At the high end, they feature animation, interviews, voice-over narration, and peaceful landscapes. "Our profession," said Cassity, "is memories."

However, a Michigan-based company called funeralOne showcased software to allow a funeral home to make a video for less than $20, it said. Miami-based Vidstone introduced a thin, solar-powered video screen -- for imbedding in a headstone.

Other new products were embalming fluids and backhoes (for preparing gravesites) and better ways to transport bodies by air. The gravedigger with the long-handled spade is fading into the low-tech past.

Consumer expectations of baby boomers are starting to enrich their parents' funerals and someday, presumably, their own.

"The G.I. generation, the silent generation, they'd say 'Just do what you do,' " said Joe Weigel, publicist of a Midwest casket manufacturer. "But the boomers are saying, 'It's all about me, and I want to make it special.' "

Doug Gober is a Louisiana retailing expert. He bluntly told the funeral professionals that people as a rule distrust, even hate, them for suspected price-gouging at a vulnerable time of grief. But he argued that just as weddings keep growing more elaborate, beyond what many couples can afford, "maybe they'll spend $20,000 on a funeral if we let them." A solemn prospect indeed.

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