When her father-in-law died unexpectedly, Toni-Marie Bienia was left planning his funeral as her husband and other immediate family members were in mourning. She soon received a second shock. “Nothing had been planned,” she says. “It was an absolute nightmare.”
Photography by Colin Way
Bienia had quite a different experience three years ago when her grandmother passed away. Grandma had planned ahead, chosen the music she wanted, the readings, the style of coffin, almost everything. In fact, she had been an early adopter, jumping on board in the late ’70s when pre-planning was first offered. “It saved a whole lot of problems,” says Bienia, who was so pleased with the results that she has planned her own service, as has her husband.
Bienia and her husband aren’t the only ones planning well ahead for their own funeral. Custom funeral planning is one of many changes that the death-care industry, as it calls itself, has adopted in recent years. From advance planning to changes in social and religious practices to the rise of custom funerals, those in the industry have tried to stay abreast of what people are seeking. And with the aging of the baby boom generation, they’ll soon have an entirely new challenge on their hands: a funeral boom that will make death care a growth industry.
The Funeral Service Association of Canada was founded in 1921, but the funerals and cremations of years gone by are a long way from what is happening in the death-care industry today.
In the past, funerals were generally sad, tearful affairs, but society has changed and so has the list of options available for ceremonies.
“They’re calling them gatherings or presentations of life,” says Jeff Hagel, operations manager with McInnis & Holloway Funeral Homes in Calgary.
Nowadays, you will find caskets with small hockey skates on the corners, keepsakes being handed out and even an occasional Harley-Davidson driving into the chapel. People know what they want, and with the help of those planning the service, they can pretty much get anything. “This isn’t driven by us, this is driven by [our customers],” says Hagel. Once a funeral is pre-planned, clients can spend their time remembering the departed at a ceremony, rather than stressing out about the details as the funeral plays out.
Another trend involves environmentally-conscious customers, says Suzanne Scott, executive director of the Funeral Service Association. The process varies but generally consists of burials with minimal casings or biodegradable caskets and everything in between. “That has been the talk [of the industry] for the past 10 years,” Scott says.
Part of the reason for the shift of emphasis is changing religious views. In North America, the number of people who consider themselves to be religious is shrinking. A study published by the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion found that religious attendance decreased by about 20 percentage points in Canada between 1986 and 2008. Approximately half of this decline was attributed to the growing number of people who reported having no religion.
“You can’t be a service professional and not adapt socially to what’s going on in the area,” says Sheila Van Alstyne, vice-president of the Alberta Funeral Service Association. She points out that even with religious ceremonies, there is a noticeable trend toward mixing religious elements with personalized ceremonies. “I wouldn’t say religion is taking a back seat,” she says, “but we have meshed [religious and personal elements] better than in the past.”
While the shift in social norms has brought about new options and concepts for ceremonies, technology is also being embraced by the industry in a big way.
It wasn’t possible a decade ago, but the ability to broadcast ceremonies anywhere on the planet is a big leap forward for the industry. With Skype and other web-broadcasting software, ceremonies can be experienced by friends and loved ones almost anywhere. “Technology is able to help when people aren’t able to get away,” says Hagel.
The influence of websites has also grown in recent years. Being relatively inexpensive to develop and maintain, they have added value for clients. While having an obituary run in a local newspaper will cost you, running obituaries on a funeral home’s website is a small detail but one that clients truly appreciate, especially given that the number of words in an obituary isn’t as costly on a website as in print.
Also, since the death-care industry can be intimidating to some, websites are often the first place a person looks for information. Realizing that, many industry websites have become resources for the public. They are not just marketing tools, but the first stop for people searching for a wide range of information. Because of this, an informed public is approaching death-care professionals with more knowledge than ever before.
But these changes pale in comparison to the one that is guaranteed to come: the death-care industry is one of the few that can look forward to a sure rise in business in the near future, as the baby boom generation begins to pass away.
“Mortality in Canada declined significantly in the 20th century at all ages and for both males and females,” reads a 2010 report in the North American Actuarial Journal. “In fact, in the last century, life expectancy at birth increased by an estimated 29 years in Canada.”
Life expectancy is expected to continue to increase, although at a slower rate than in the 20th century. In short, it will likely be another decade before there is a spike in mortality rates. The challenge for the industry is to prepare for something that is years away while still focusing on current clients.
“[When a spike does happen], there will be so much volume, funeral homes will have a hard time keeping up,” Scott says.
But that is a long way off and not an immediate concern to most funeral directors, who are focused on current challenges. “I don’t think there has been a lot of forethought,” says FSAC president Kent Milroy.
Even if those in the death-care industry wanted to start throwing up buildings and infrastructure for what could be, it isn’t realistic from a business standpoint. “You have assumptions and that is all you have,” says Van Alstyne.
She says the growing trend toward pre-arranging funerals, cremations and ceremonies may help both the industry and those it serves cope with the eventual busyness that comes with the death of a family member. For the public, pre-arranging and prepaying takes some of the stress out of a death, knowing that the majority of the planning has already been completed.
Getting people to think ahead isn’t easy. People generally don’t want to think about death, let alone plan and pay for it ahead of time. But Bienia is sold on the process. “Everything is all spelled out,” she says. “It gives you a working plan of what you have to do. We want to help our families through the difficult time to come.”
Prepaying can also bring financial benefits because the prices are locked in. Bienia put down a deposit and is paying $189 a month for five years for her pre-planned service, which she says is for a funeral in the $15,000 range. “You’re not being faced with this great financial burden at the time of a death,” she says.
One challenge facing the death-care industry is the coming labour crunch. Hagel says it is already difficult to find people with extensive experience in the industry. What’s more, he likes to over-staff his operation, which he feels is essential in an industry that focuses on caring for clients during an important and difficult time in people’s lives. He says clients should feel like they are the only ones a funeral director is serving – even if that director is co-ordinating multiple funerals. “We’re a service profession,” he says.
When hiring, Hagel looks for people with customer service backgrounds and, of course, an empathetic temperament.
While there are plenty of job opportunities in the industry, it can involve a great deal of training. Van Alstyne says a person must complete two years of schooling to become a funeral director in Alberta, plus spend 1,800 hours in a practicum and pass a provincial board exam. Once successful, keeping a licence isn’t easy. A funeral director must constantly keep her skills and knowledge up-to-date with continuing education.
Dawn Gialet has been a licensed funeral director and embalmer at the Baker Funeral Chapel in Wetaskiwin for the past year. She worked in nursing homes for several years before deciding to move to the death-care industry a few years ago because she didn’t like seeing people suffer and die, but she was still passionate about helping comfort people in need.
Once she made the decision to change professions, it wasn’t an easy transition. Gialet says she applied at several funeral homes before being hired. Even then, she had to start at the bottom, washing hearses and doing the less-than-glorious behind-the-scenes work the public doesn’t see. After working her way up the ranks and taking two years of schooling at the Canadian College of Funeral Service, she finally became a funeral director.
Salaries for funeral directors vary widely depending on a person’s qualifications and where they work. “You will find averages for salaries very difficult [to pinpoint] because it varies so dramatically according to where the funeral home is located, the overhead each funeral home faces and the call volume experienced in a particular location,” says Van Alstyne.
But the average entry-level salary for newly licensed funeral directors is between $30,000 and $40,000 annually. As Hagel says, meeting car and mortgage payments and managing all the other costs that come with life, while still taking care of a family and having a realistic work-life balance, is feasible in the industry. “There is definitely the ability to make a living,” he says.
And unlike the oil and gas industry, which depends on markets and often has peaks and valleys, the death-care industry is much steadier. “We offer guaranteed hours,” says Hagel.