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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 12, 2006

Casket manufacturers feeling the heat

Associated Press

Aurora Casket Co. marketing chief Jason Barrott sees branded urns, cremation caskets and tokens for families as keys to future success.

DARRON CUMMINGS | Associated Press

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AURORA, Ind. Beth McGinley has no use for burial plots. She wants her friends to sprinkle her ashes somewhere memorable when she dies.

"My main motivating factor is the cost of funerals," said McGinley, 53, of Indianapolis, who began planning her cremation after being diagnosed with lung cancer last spring. "That whole industry is not any place I want to spend my money."

Millions of people like McGinley are shunning traditional burials in favor of cremation, whose rates have risen to 30 percent of funerals and are poised to climb to more than 45 percent by 2025.

The shift has forced casket makers to offer new products and packages that include viewings and other elements of traditional services designed to capture cremation customers.

The industry's big three Batesville Casket Co., York Casket and Aurora Casket Co. have introduced items ranging from basic cardboard boxes to $3,000 fully combustible caskets to $12,000 one-of-a-kind urns.

"They've all diversified into cremation products, trying to lose the burial business to themselves," said Elliott Schlang, an analyst at Soleil Securities' Great Lakes Review who covers Mat-thews International Corp. and Hillenbrand Industries Inc., parent companies of York and Batesville.

Cremation began gaining mass appeal in the U.S. in the 1960s, thanks in part to a Vatican blessing of the practice.

In 1970, nearly everyone used a casket, but by 2005, that figure had dropped to about 71 percent, said George W. Lemke, executive director of the Lake Bluff, Ill.-based Casket and Funeral Supply Association.

Some of the shift is attributed to cost. A basic cremation, which requires little more than a cardboard box for the body and a container for what the industry calls cremains, can cost thousands less than a traditional burial.

But Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion faculty at Boston University and author of the book "Purified by Fire," says the rising popularity of cremation is tied more to the nation's blossoming counterculture and a new sense of spirituality.

"Burial has been associated, at least for the baby boomers, with being overwrought and overdone and too traditional and cookie-cutter," Prothero said. "... Cremation is hip and new and happening it's the VW bug with the 'small is beautiful' kind of thing," he said.

Cremation rates are highest in western states. Hawai'i has the highest rate 67.5 percent. Nevada and Washington state follow with 67.1 percent and 65.1 percent, respectively. But the practice has affected casket makers nationwide, including Aurora Casket in southeastern Indiana.

Jason Barrott, the company's director of marketing development, is the fifth generation of his family in the business. "We have to keep coming up with innovative ways to allow our customers to better present cremation, and, at the same time, something that allows (funeral homes) to be more profitable with cremation."

In December, Aurora unveiled its Journey line, branding for the first time its urns, cremation caskets and tokens for families.

The industry also has developed packages combining cremation with traditional burial elements such as viewings, memorial services and stone markers.

"The memorialization and services that get attached with cremation can be equally as beautiful and can inspire anyone," said Steve Schaal, a spokesman for the cremation division of Pittsburgh-based Matthews.

Those add-ons can be pricey.

The average cremation without the cost of burial and other fees is about $1,850, said Jack Springer, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America. But add an elaborate urn, a hand-carved wooden casket, full funeral or fees for space in a columbarium and the price can rival or exceed a traditional burial, which runs about $6,000 not including a plot and other fees.