Die-namics: Cremation, personalization and technology are changing the local funeral industry

TCBN-Cover-7-15The traditional funeral hasn’t disappeared from northwest lower Michigan – yet. But funeral practices here, like most of the country, have changed dramatically over the past few decades.

Some still choose the traditional route with a chemically-preserved body, a public viewing of the deceased, a service led by clergy, and the expense of caskets, vaults and burial.

But more and more are opting for cremation – sometimes with a funeral ceremony that bears little resemblance to funerals of the past.

And it’s not only the relative newcomers such as Life Story Funeral Home in Traverse City or Kalkaska Funeral Home that are embracing the trend.

Long-established, family-owned enterprises such as Reynolds Jonkhoff in Traverse City are responding, too.

We’ve definitely adapted to the times,” said Peg Jonkhoff of Reynolds Jonkhoff. “There’s been a cultural change.”

The Jonkhoff family has been in the funeral business for six generations – beginning with coffin-making and then the founding of the first Jonkhoff Funeral Home in Grand Rapids in 1884. Dan Jonkhoff, current co-owner and fifth generation funeral director, joined the Traverse City funeral home in 1977. He now operates it with wife and co-owner Peg and their two daughters, Chris and Lindsey, who represent the sixth generation of family funeral directors.

With cremations outpacing funerals, the growing interest in green burials, technological advances and more personalized remembrances, is the “traditional” death industry dying? What might the $20 billion U.S. death care industry look like in the future?

Adjusted for inflation, the average traditional funeral is about approximately 70 percent higher than in was 1960. That cost is one factor in more people’s decisions to choose cremation over traditional burial.

Cremations have outnumbered traditional funerals in Michigan since 2011, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). The rate in this region appears to be about 3 to 1 and even higher for some funeral homes here. Life Story has a 99 percent cremation rate, Kalkaska Funeral Home 75 percent and Reynolds Jonkhoff 70 percent.

The NFDA expects 2015 to be the first year when cremations outpace traditional funerals nationally. The association estimates that by 2020 cremations will account for 71 percent – more than three out of four funerals – nationally. By comparison, the cremation rate in 1960 was only 3.6 percent. Only a few states – most of them in the South – are holding on to traditional rituals.

“It’s a mystery to me why cremation was frowned on by some for so long,” said Bruce A. Zenner II, co-owner of Kalkaska Funeral Home. “Doesn’t the Bible refer to ‘ashes to ashes, dust to dust’?”

Costs, Options To Consider

The move to cremation is just one illustration of today’s death care industry being all about consumer choices – and deciding on the actual disposition of the body is just the first in a long list of options.

According to Jonkhoff, funeral planning typically involves 75 separate steps.

The simplest and usually cheapest option is to purchase a low-priced urn, have the body cremated and have friends or family disperse or keep the cremains. But even that scenario quickly changes if clients choose add-on services.

“People used to assume that if you’re cremated, you’re not having a funeral,” Zenner said. “But the trend is starting to shift back, and more people want a service, even if they are cremated.”

Arranging for a viewing of the corpse necessitates embalming, another cost. Some customers even specify that cremation is to occur with the body inside a regular coffin, something that can be a major expense. But more frequently the body is displayed in a rent-a-casket with a removable, combustible liner.

Then there is the question of final disposition. Burial or internment of the ashes in a mausoleum niche – an area in a cemetery built to accommodate an urn or other container holding cremains – is a more expensive option.

The bottom line: add enough of the typical features of a traditional funeral, and, Zenner pointed out, the cost of cremation can become nearly as expensive as a traditional funeral.

The dramatic shift toward cremation since 1960 seems to have started as a rebellion against what some consumers saw as overpriced funerals – in particular the cost of coffins and vaults.

“The cost of caskets used to be obscene,” said Zenner. “You don’t see the $5,000 and $10,000 caskets much anymore. They’re still out there, but they’re rare.”

Another change in the industry has been the entry of mass market retailers into the mid- and lower-priced casket market. WalMart added caskets to its online inventory in 2009, priced at just under $1,000 to nearly $4,000. Amazon and Costco also sell caskets.

Whether it is was because of a failure to adjust to the “revolt” against the high price of caskets, or due to other factors, more than 2,000 U.S. funeral homes disappeared from view between 2004 and 2015, according to the National Directory of Morticians Redbook.

Zenner said one thing is clear: the changing market pushed many funeral directors to change their business model.

Not only are fewer caskets being sold these days, he said, but the markup on those that are sold “is nothing compared to what it used to be.”

Those funeral homes that survived the downturn adapted.

“Nowadays we charge instead for services,” Zenner said.

And many of those profitable services are optional and technological in nature. They include funeral webcasting, Facebook, video tributes, video monitors and online guestbooks.

Still other choices are based on ethics.

For example, some now choose green funerals because they promise minimal environmental effect.

“To me, when families say green burial, that means no embalming chemicals, no metal caskets, no concrete vaults,” said Vaughn Seavolt, owner of Life Story Funeral Home in Traverse City. “Many don’t even allow any sort of marker system. Truly green usually means the body is wrapped in a shroud then placed in the earth where the body will go back to its natural state.”

Green funerals are starting to become more frequent in northern Michigan now that Peninsula Township Cemetery has a newly-added green burial section, the first licensed cemetery of its kind in the area.

Along these same “green” lines, Pam Barnett, owner of Parkland Peace, assists families in returning their loved ones’ cremated remains to nature. After securing permits from national and state parks and permission from private estate owners, she established several sites within the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in which people can scatter ashes.

Getting Personal

Responding to demand for more individualized experiences, many funeral homes have moved away from the cookie cutter approach. The big buzz word in the industry is personalization – shaping a funeral to reflect the individuality of the deceased. The somber funerals of the past are disappearing. Consumers now expect – to use an industry euphemism – a “final celebration.”

Personalization can also lead to some very unique funerals.

“We were in charge of the funeral of a logger,” Jonkhoff recalled. “We put the coffin onto a logging truck for the procession of a biker funeral. We had motorcycles lined up and down the street. And we can even get a Harley hearse if someone wants it.”

Zenner said one of his favorite examples of a highly-personalized celebration was the funeral of a zookeeper in Detroit.

“Everyone went to the zoo,” he said. “There were eulogies at the zookeeper’s favorite exhibits.”


But despite all the personalization and consumer choices in the funeral industry, some things change very little, if at all.

Families still depend heavily upon funeral directors’ tact and knowledge. Today, many people may coolly consider funeral options much like they would any other purchase in life. But, in the final analysis, they need the understanding and support of friends, family and funeral directors.

Jonkhoff pointed out that good funeral directors still “pull it all together, serve the needs of the family, and make the experience for the survivors fresh and relevant.”


National median cost of a funeral in 2012. Source: National Funeral Directors Association

Item Median Cost
Nondeclinable basic services fee $1,975
Removal/transfer of remains to funeral home $285
Embalming $695
Other preparation of the body $225
Use of facilities/staff for viewing $400
Use of facilities/staff for funeral ceremony $495
Hearse $295
Service car/van $130
Basic memorial printed package
(e.g., memorial cards, register book, etc.)
Metal casket $2,395
Median Cost of a Funeral with Casket $7,045
Vault $1,298
Median Cost of a Funeral with Vault $8,343