The Evolving Business of Funerals

The Evolving Business of Funerals

By: Alexandra Kozyra


Recently, my sister told me about a wake she attended in Ireland. While there were certainly similarities to the wakes I’ve attended in the United States, there was one major difference: the wake was held in the deceased person’s home. My sister described the tradition of the wake in Ireland as a social gathering where the deceased is laid out in his or her sitting room. Visitors enter the house, pay their respects to the family, and pray near the body. Tea and food is served and sometimes the wake will last for two days.

After hearing this account, I couldn’t fathom attending any portion of a funeral in someone’s home; however, home funerals were actually the norm in the United States until the mid 1800s. Back then, America was more rural, mortality rates were higher, and most people died in their homes.[1] The burial process was truly a family affair in which the women were tasked with washing the body and the men with building a coffin and digging the grave. It was not until the Civil War that the process of embalming became necessary to transport the bodies of soldiers back home.[2] From there, the funeral business gained popularity and acceptance, while families became less involved in the process.[3]

The question posed here is: Are home funerals a viable option to the current funeral traditions in America? In the past decade, a small segment of the funeral industry has emerged to begin catering to those who want a more intimate end-of-life experience. It seems that the success of this small but growing home funeral[4] business will depend on three factors: (1) cost, (2) societal acceptance, and (3) state laws.

It is no secret that funerals are expensive.[5] Americans rarely “shop around” for funeral services and prices are frequently not posted.[6] In 2014, the average cost of an adult funeral was $7,181.[7] While this total accounts for many costs including embalming, the casket, the use of a hearse, varied labor related service fees, and staffing fees during the viewing and funeral, it does not include other associated costs such as the burial cost, the cemetery marker, flowers, or an obituary. Unfortunately, the cost of funerals only seems to be increasing. Since 2004, the cost of a funeral has increased 28.6 percent.[8] Cremations are similarly expensive with the median cost in 2014 totaling $6,078.

In contrast, home funeral services can cost as little as $200.[9] This total generally includes the price of ice, if necessary, copies of the death certificate, gasoline to transport the body, and a rigid container, such as a simple pine casket. It does not include burial, cremation, or cemetery marker costs. Accordingly, a home funeral ($200) plus burial would cost nearly $7,000 less than a funeral in a funeral home ($7,181), and a home funeral ($200) plus cremation ($330)[10] would cost almost $5,500 less than a funeral in a funeral home with cremation ($6,078). In addition, home funeral practitioners tend to list prices upfront, and provide low cost alternatives to many funeral services such as instructions on how to build a coffin.[11] Thus, cost is clearly a motivating factor in shifting funerals back into the home.

Besides the cost of burials, Americans are changing the way they think about death. Practitioners and advocates of home funerals link their movement to the more recently popularized home birth and hospice movements that allow Americans to give birth and die at home, as well as the environmental movement and an increased interest in long-term sustainability.[12] Americans are approaching life occasions such as death and birth with a more intimate, personalized approach that can provide comfort, choice, and a hands-on experience. Likewise, Americans are placing more value on taking a natural approach to life occasions. Home funeral practitioners embrace these more intimate and natural approaches in the services they offer. Besides holding a funeral in the home, families can assist in preparing the body, or attend the cremation, called a witness cremation.

An example of a successful funeral market response to the shifting attitudes toward death is green funerals which home funeral advocates view as closely linked to their own industry.[13] Green funerals are broadly defined as those meant to have a decreased environmental impact and usually include biodegradable caskets and fewer chemicals. There are currently sixty cemeteries that have been certified as “green” by the Green Burial Council, a nonprofit organization. In New Jersey, Steelmantown Cemetery is the only certified green cemetery and requires no embalming, and a biodegradable casket, while offering hand-dug burial sites and natural markers surrounded by hundreds of acres of state forest.[14] Like home funerals, the costs associated with green funerals are often less than those of a traditional funeral; however, the decision to use a green or home funeral often goes beyond cost and towards an unconventional shift in the way Americans are treating death.

The final factor that will influence the success of home funerals is state, and sometimes federal, law. When it comes to holding home funerals, American laws are generally liberal. Home funerals are legal in every state.[15] New Jersey, however, is one of ten states that requires a funeral director to perform certain tasks.[16] Specifically, New Jersey requires that a funeral director execute the death certificate, and be present at the final disposition of the body at either a crematorium or burial ground. Nonetheless, the family can manage most other aspects of the funeral. For example, the family can choose whether or not to have the body embalmed, which is not required in New Jersey. In addition, federal law requires that funeral homes accept caskets purchased from other sources, or built by the family. Families can also choose the method of final disposition of the body. While most burials occur in cemeteries, New Jersey law permits burials on private property if the New Jersey Cemetery Board issues the family a Certificate of Authority to operate as a “cemetery company.”[17] With cremation, families can choose from a variety of options to keep or legally scattering the ashes. Thus, even if there are legal restrictions on the family’s capability of managing the entire funeral, they have the option to use certain services offered by funeral homes while maintaining the majority of control over the process.

State laws may also affect the ease with which individuals can start a home funeral practice; however, home funeral practitioners have found ways to reconcile their business with legal requirements by contracting with local funeral homes and crematoriums for certain aspects of the proceedings while still being able to offer a lower price range to customers. Often, home funeral practitioners serve solely in an advisory role with the family doing most of the preparations; therefore, depending on the state, home funeral practitioners may not be required to become licensed as a funeral director.

Given the inflated cost of funerals and the modernization of American thinking towards death, it should not be surprising that Americans are changing the ways funerals are held. Today, Americans can seek alternative forms of end-of-life rituals such as home funerals, green burials, or even a traditional Viking funeral.[18] While these options may seem strange at first, the business of funerals is poised for advancement and change. With little legal impediment, those wishing to become home funeral practitioners, or alternative end-of-life practitioners can find success in the evolving sector of the funeral business.

[1] Jaweed Kaleem, Home Funerals Grow as Americans Skip the Mortician for Do-it-Yourself After-Death Care, Huffington Post (Feb. 21, 2013), http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/25/home-funerals-death-mortician_n_2534934.html.

[2] Id. The practice of embalming was even more popularized after Abraham Lincoln’s embalmed body was taken on a thirteen-city tour after his assassination in 1865. Mourners gawked at how well preserved Lincoln’s body was due to embalming. Id.

[3] Wendy Plump, Home funerals making a comeback in N.J., NJ.com (April 2, 2011), http://www.nj.com/mercer/index.ssf/2011/04/home_funerals_making_a_comebac.html.

[4] The definition of a “home funeral” is not limited to holding a ceremony in one’s home. It can include preparing the body for burial or cremation, filing death-related paperwork, transporting the deceased, digging the grave, building the casket, or planning out after-death rituals, such as a home visitation of the body. See National Home Funeral Alliance, Code of Ethics, http://homefuneralalliance.org/about/code-of-ethics/ (last visited Feb. 18, 2016).

[5] The 2011 net profit margin of funeral homes was calculated at 11.87% and ranked as the 8th most profitable industry in a Bloomberg Business study. Joel Stonington, Most and Least Profitable Business Types, Bloomberg Business (Jan. 18, 2011), http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/slideshows/20110118/most-and-least-profitable-business-types.html#slide19.

[6] Plump, supra note 3. In 2012, 23 of the 127 funeral homes that the FTC visited undercover violated the federal agency’s Funeral Rule that requires funeral homes to give itemized price lists. Josh Sanburn, Your Funeral Home May be Scamming You, Time (July 26, 2013), http://business.time.com/2013/07/26/your-funeral-home-may-be-scamming-you/.

[7] National Funeral Directors Association, Media Center: Statistics, http://nfda.org/media-center/statistics.html (last visited Feb. 18, 2016).

[8] Id. Between 2000 and 2009, the cost of funerals also increased by 26.6 percent.

[9] National Home Funeral Alliance, Frequently asked questions about home funerals, http://homefuneralalliance.org/about/faq/ (last visited Feb. 18, 2016).

[10] See National Funeral Directors Association, supra note 4.

[11] Claire Martin, Start-Ups Take Rites From the Funeral Home to the Family Home, N.Y. Times (Jan. 30, 2016), http://nyti.ms/23AHMWI.

[12] Kaleem, supra note 1.

[13] Robert Schroeder, Why more Americans are considering ‘green’ funerals, MarketWatch (Dec. 26, 2015), http://www.marketwatch.com/story/why-more-americans-are-considering-green-funerals-2015-10-29.

[14] Alex Sullivan, N.J. funeral home: Eco-friendly ‘green burials’ gaining in popularity, NJ.com (Mar. 21, 2014), http://www.nj.com/indulge/index.ssf/2014/03/eco-friendly_green_burials_in_mullica_hill.html.

[15] Kaleem, supra note 1.

[16] Quick Guide to Legal Requirements for Home Funerals in Your State, National Home Funeral Alliance, 3 (2015), http://homefuneralalliance.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/Quick-Guide-to-Home-Funerals-By-State.pdf. See N.J.S.A. § 26:6-6(a).

[17] New Jersey Department of Law & Public Safety, New Jersey Cemetery Board Frequently Asked Questions, http://njpublicsafety.com/ca/faq/cemfaq.htm#9 (last visited Feb. 18, 2016). Local laws may also be implicated with a private property burial, and the burial will have to be disclosed on future property records which may prevent many from choosing this option.

[18] Martin, supra note 10. See also Alaska’s Eternal Rest, http://alaskaseternalrest.com/ (last visited Feb. 18, 2016), a company that offers a re-creation of the traditional Viking funeral by placing the cremated remains of the deceased in a hand-made, reproduction Viking boat that is then burned on their beach.