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Families opting for less expensive ways to honor deceased

MANATEE — Death does not respect economic downturns; it happens anyway.

With average costs for a funeral and burial topping $5,000, local funeral homes and crematories report families are opting for less expensive ways to honor the deceased.

Cremation is now more popular than ever given tight budgets and dwindling resources, says Gene Brown, of Brown & Sons Funeral Homes & Crematory. He estimates 65 percent of families choose cremation over burial.

“We live in a transient area,” Brown said. “When people move down here, they don’t want to go north. They have no local ties, so many choose cremation.”

Like other businesses, funeral centers have been hit by the economic downturn.

“Our cost to do business has increased,” Brown said, “but the biggest shift I have seen is the death rate in Manatee County — it’s down.”

Brown attributes the shift to fewer snowbirds wintering and dying in Manatee County along with people moving out of the area in search of work.

Jason Toale, of Toale Brothers Funeral Homes, Crematory & Pre-Arrangement Center, also sees the market shifting, particularly in respect to prepay plans.

“People’s buying habits have changed,” said Toale. “When it comes to prepaid options, people are delaying making arrangements because they are afraid of tying up money, and some prepay clients are canceling plans.”

After three years, Toale’s prepay clients can get a full refund. If they have held the plan for less than three years, 10 percent is held back for administrative costs, Toale said.

More people are doing comparison shopping.

“Instead of calling one funeral home, they are checking out prices at several centers,” says Chuck Johnston, office manager for Covell Cremation & Funeral Center in Bradenton.

Consumers’ right to do so is protected by federal law, which requires all funeral homes and crematory centers to give prices over the phone.

And cremation costs do vary. Covell’s basic cremation plan is $850.

At the Good Earth Crematory, owned by Billy and Karin Tompkins, of Bradenton, simple cremation packages start at $945.

The Tompkinses own their own crematory, which they opened 11 years ago.

“Business has been steady,” said Tompkins. “I have been looking every day for any signs of an economic downturn, but people are driving around, carrying on business as usual.”

At Toale Brothers, cremation plans start at $1,395.

At Brown & Sons, a basic cremation is less than $2,000.

“The difference is what you are getting for the amount of money you paying,” said Toale. “The way I look at it, what I provide to my families is trust. I don’t outsource different aspects, like the cremation. I have my own staff go to the loved one’s home to remove the deceased. We do our own cremation and we cremate only the families we serve.”

Lower-cost crematories often serve several funeral centers, creating the opportunity for cremains to be misidentified, Toale contends.

“When someone looks me in the eye and asks, ‘Is this my loved one?’ I can say ‘yes’ because the process is under my control for the entire time,” he said.

Covell’s uses a crematory in Sarasota, but Johnston says all safeguards are taken to make sure the family receives the right cremains.

“Those who have their own crematory use the mix-up remains as a scare tactic, but if the family wants, they can witness the cremation,” he said. “There is never any worry about getting the wrong body back.”

Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to buy a casket for a cremation. But the body must be placed in an alternative, combustible container before it passes into the fire, Brown said.

On Oct. 1, Manatee County enacted a fee of $35, payable to the medical examiner, to authorize a cremation.

Because cremation is considered a final disposition, meaning the body has been reduced to a sterile state, the cremains can be scattered anywhere, from the beach to a park or on private property if the owner consents.

And if families want to bury the cremains with a marker, cremation can be even more economical because many cemeteries allow the ashes of two or more people to be buried in a single plot.

In reality, the economy probably has little effect on people’s choice of cremation.

“People know want they want,” said Johnston.

If the choice is burial, there are ways to trim those costs, too.

Costco, the discount superstore, sells caskets on its Web site for delivery anywhere in the United States. Prices start at $949.24. Other Internet companies like BestPriceCaskets.com offer discount funeral merchandise; its distribution center is in Orlando. The Web site offers an 18-gauge steel casket with a light pink crepe interior for $949 as compared to $4,495, which BestPriceCaskets claims is the regular price. The company is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year and can ship in 24 hours.

Funeral homes must accept a casket their clients buy elsewhere, said Toale, but he warns buyers to beware of deals that sound too good to be true. Opting for a lower price can mean forgoing local, personal service.

“Clients are welcome to order online, and I cannot deny the delivery, but what they order may not be what they get, and there can be delivery problems,” said Toale. “We had one family who bought a casket through the Internet and it was supposed to be shipped from Virginia, but there was a storm and it didn’t arrive on time. There was nothing we could do.”

Scaling back funeral services and making them more personal is another trend local funeral home operators have noticed. The traditional funeral with visitation in a chapel followed by a formal service is giving way to celebration of life services, sometimes held in people’s homes. Video documentaries of treasured photos are more common than big flower displays. Some families are opting for simple graveside services or small family gatherings to scatter ashes in lieu of services at funeral homes that can increase the bill.

Then, there is the green burial movement.

The Glendale Memorial Nature Preserve near DeFuniak Springs in the Florida Panhandle is a 350-acre nature park and burial site. Glendale bans vaults and toxic embalming chemicals, and caskets must be made of wood or other biodegradable materials. If families choose, the deceased can be wrapped in a sheet or favorite blanket or even a shroud made of woven willow branches.

The park is run by the Glendale Nature Preserve Inc., a nonprofit organization chartered in 2002 whose goal is to conserve a stretch of Panhandle woods while offering affordable and environmentally sound burial sites. Glendale cannot direct funerals, but staff can help families plan a traditional burial in a plot that can include all family members and even pets.

A separate company called Glendale Enterprises sells inexpensive wood coffins with rope handles starting at $500. Some models even come with shelves so the practical-minded can buy their caskets ahead of time and use them as book shelves or entertainment centers until the day comes for their intended use.

The burial plots are free, but the preserve charges $1,800 to open and close a grave space, and $2,800 if the person weighs more than 300 pounds.

Burial of human cremains with a marker and map costs $200.

Pet burials range from $150 to $350 for Great Danes or Rottweilers. Burial of pet cremains costs $75.

The Glendale Preserve Web site at www.glendalenaturepreserve.org even offers “At Time of Death Tip Sheet” for folks who want to do their own funerals.

Bottom line: The American way of death has less to do nowadays with tradition and more about personal beliefs, value and cost.

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