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Baby boomers moving toward cheap and cheerful funerals

Forget the dimly lit, sombre mood of an old-fashioned funeral home. Consider instead a cocktail party-style celebration of life, complete with hors d’oeuvres and a video tribute.

Ashes in an urn? Try a teapot, or a toolbox instead.

Canadians’ ideas about what should happen after they die are becoming more creative and custom-designed to the individual. And that means businesses both big and small are racing to meet new demands.

“We’re a generation that’s not traditional,” says Krystal Riddell, a former funeral director from Niagara Falls, Ont. Late last year, Riddell launched Essentials Cremation and Burial Services in a bright, modern space located in a strip mall.

Customers hire Riddell to organize not just the cremation or burial of their loved one, but also the celebration that comes after. “I’m not a party planner,” Riddell says with a smile. “But we can do that too.”

Funeral director Krystal Riddell shows Kathy and John Anstruther a wicker coffin that is completely biodegradable. They’ve prearranged a ‘green’ burial.(CBC)

Baby boomers Kathy and John Anstruther, both 60, have already used Riddell’s services to plan their funerals.

“It hopefully will make things easier on our kids when the time comes,” says Kathy. Neither one of them has any interest in a traditional, expensive send-off — they’re opting for an eco-friendly burial in a wicker casket.

“You can spend all this money for a big fancy casket, and it’s a grand show,” says John. “I mean, some families want to give that. For us, it doesn’t fit. We don’t need the big rah-rah.”

Kathy adds that she would rather save money in order to leave more of it to their children. “Everything is so expensive, and they’re the ones that will need it. I’ll be gone.”

They also would prefer an upbeat affair. “I know there will be grief,” says John, “But I also hope there are a few laughs.”

Unwilling to spend

Carey Smith, the registrar at the Bereavement Authority of Ontario, which licenses and regulates funeral businesses in the province, notes that a number of strong trends are emerging, among them:

  • The rate of cremation is on the rise — from five per cent in 1967 to 65 per cent now, and still climbing steadily.
  • A growing interest in eco-friendly burial, with biodegradable caskets or urns.
  • Fewer elaborate ceremonies that feature two days of visitation, followed by a service and then interment at a gravesite. “Now the trend is direct cremation and a celebration of life afterwards,” says Smith.
  • Embalmings are “way down.”
  • Niches in mausoleums often have glass walls, so that visitors can see mementos and photographs along with with the urn containing ashes. “It reflects what the person was all about, their interests,” says Smith.

But the biggest change he’s observed is how unwilling people have become to spend a lot of money. “A full-blown funeral can cost $20,000,” he says. “A lot of people believe that might be better spent elsewhere.”

Krystal Riddell charges $2,600 to arrange for a basic cremation. “It’s in line with the death benefit you get from the Canada Pension Plan,” she explains. “Most people get about $2,500 from that.”

Her help with a celebration of life costs another $450. “I wanted to make my services affordable,” she says. “A lot of people live paycheque to paycheque these days.”

Bright spaces

Corrie Galloway, 80, of Toronto has an aversion to funeral homes.

“I can’t think of anything I like about them, ” she says. “They do so many unnatural things like makeup and embalming. It creates lots of sales for them, but it’s a sanitized and expensive experience.”

She’s already told her daughter she wants a celebration of life in the party room of the building where she lives, and has arranged an eco-friendly burial.

Still, many traditional industry players are eager to deliver whatever style of farewell a family wants. “A lot of funeral homes are transforming themselves,” Smith says.

He points to Morse & Son in Niagara Falls as an example of a funeral home that’s staying up to date with consumer preferences.

“You’ve got to be fresh,” agrees Morse & Son owner Ernie Morgan. “Just like in any business, you have to continue to be fresh.”

Motorcycle on display

Morgan says he spent “seven figures” to renovate the event centre next door to his funeral home. No flocked wallpaper, lilies or over-upholstered sofas to be seen here. Instead, light colours, modern decor and a subway-tiled kitchen that wouldn’t look out of place in a new model home.

Clients almost always ask to personalize the celebration space in some way, says Morgan. For example, a motorcycle was placed front and centre at a recent celebration of life, for a gentleman who was known to enjoy his bike. In another case, a fishing tackle box was next to the urn.

Customers have been known to unload an SUV at the event centre, bringing a variety of personal belongings to the celebration, so that those attending have a strong sense of the recently departed.

“When I started in this profession 40 years ago, everything was similar — families were just picking days and times, and maybe different churches,” Morgan explains. “Now every family that walks through the door wants something different. There are literally no two families alike anymore.”

Going like the family pet?

He admits business is challenging, as budget-conscious consumers have come to believe the lowest price represents the best value. But a quick, efficient cremation isn’t always the best option for clients, in Morgan’s opinion.

“They have to be careful they don’t shortchange themselves,” he warns. “I have concerns that those people will have issues later with their grief, because they didn’t have a chance to say a real goodbye. Sometimes they’re letting a loved one go in almost the same way they did for the family pet.”

The baby boom generation has been credited — or blamed — with driving a lot of seismic shifts in society. So perhaps it’s not surprising that they’re making their mark on the final chapter as well.


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