By Anne Maertens
Across time, death has always been a sustainable business. The cycle of life is never ending and there has always been a need for end-of-life services. And as our country’s largest generation, the baby boomers, inch toward their twilight years, they are being marketed to from every angle including death.
Boomers are spending more time saying goodbye to their loved ones and each other as they age, and their goodbyes have become more personalized. This fact has not slipped past businesses that provide end-of-life care, services and celebrations.
The death rate is expected to jump from 8.1 percent to a little more than 10 percent, said Brad Bytner, owner of Jerns Funeral Chapel. He said this would mean his business, which currently serves an average of 200 families per year, would be serving 280.
“I think it’s an opportunity for our industry to grow and to change.” Bytner said. “Change is very difficult for the funeral industry, and I for one am open to change.”
In addition to an expected increase in business, the way baby boomers are planning funerals for their loved ones has changed significantly. He said every detail, from the pamphlets to the music, has become specialized to remember an individual’s life.
“As long as I’m not going to get arrested for it, I’ll do it. Let’s be realistic, it’s the last thing they’re doing for their loved one; and for you to sit there and say ‘no,’ — it’s pretty tough.” —Brad Bytnar, owner of Jerns Funeral Chapel
With 75 to 80 percent of people being cremated in Washington state, Bytner said the options for celebration of life services have increased dramatically. Rather than have the ceremony in a church, people hold the services in parks or at home — wherever feels meaningful for them.
This shift has caused many funeral homes, like Jerns, to become “full-service,” meaning they can provide everything including the flowers and pamphlets. He said funerals are no longer predictable, and today, the directors are more like wedding planners, except they have to put everything together in three to five days.
Bytner said his job is a ministry that allows him to help people and he’s willing to organize almost anything a grieving family wants for their loved one’s funeral.
“As long as I’m not going to get arrested for it, I’ll do it,” Bytner said. “Let’s be realistic, it’s the last thing they’re doing for their loved one and for you to sit there and say ‘no,’ it’s pretty tough.”
One unique funeral procession involved family and friends leading the procession on their bicycles rather than a police escort because the man who had died was an avid bicyclist.
At other times, Bytner has had motorcycles and cars inside the funeral home, next to the casket or urn. Even the floral arrangements have intertwined favorite objects into the wreaths, such as golf clubs and fly rods.
“How do we customize the service to be meaningful for the person who passed on?” Bytner said. “That’s where I see the industry going, and I want to be on the leading edge of that the whole time, and that’s what we promote here.”
A monument to one’s life
Another area in the industry that has seen major change are the headstones placed to help remember loved ones.
Traditionally, the stones had names, dates and occasionally a simple message. Today, the stones tell the story of someone’s life, said Rinne Cain, owner of Cascade Monuments. Majestic mountain scenes, sail boats, faces and quilt patterns are etched and carved into the stones.
Some monuments even contain built-in solar-powered video screens, and at the push of a button, a video montage will relive the loved one’s life.
Cain’s business is run out of a small building behind his home. He said he keeps his business, which he calls the Costco of monuments, very basic because his goal is to help save people money. By keeping his overhead low, he said he can charge much less for headstones than funeral homes.
Cain said he is aware of the increase in business he will most likely experience as baby boomers age. Everyone is marketing to the boomers, from the classic Coke commercials to the PT Cruisers and other old-school cars, he said.
“If you do anything that has to do with baby boomers, it’s going to be extremely profitable,” Cain said. “But I got involved in this as a ministry to help everybody, and unfortunately it’s just going to be a bonus for me.”
Comfort care for terminally ill patients
While businesses help us to remember loved ones after they have passed, some organizations help to care for individuals in their last days of life.
Whatcom Hospice provides end of life services for people who have been told by a physician that they have six months or fewer to live.
Mike Kirkland, executive director of the Whatcom Hospice Foundation, said the number of patients hospice assists has grown significantly in the past seven years. One reason for the growth is because hospice is more widely accepted, and another is that more physicians are recommending hospice to their patients, as well as a growth in number of people in need of care.
“There are more of us who are in the 55 age range,” Kirkland said. “There are more of us than any other generation and there will be more need for this type of service because there will be more of us passing on. It’s just a fact of life.”
Whatcom Hospice provides palliative care for terminally ill patients. Palliative care, as opposed to curative care, is comfort care, which is optional and seeks to keep a patient comfortable through medication that can control illness symptoms and relieve pain.
Whatcom Hospice services include medical, social, mental, emotional and spiritual assistance, all of which are optional. The services are available to anyone who is terminally ill, regardless of financial or living situations.
In order to remain a financially viable organization, the Whatcom Hospice Foundation exists to help raise funds and awareness for Whatcom Hospice, Kirkland said.
“Any good business will grow itself, will reinvest in its business,” Kirkland said. “But a nonprofit doesn’t have the additional expectation that it’s going to provide a profit to somebody or some collective group.”
In addition to the foundation’s support, Kirkland said hospice is reimbursed $153 for every day it cares for someone who has Medicare or Medicaid, or an amount near that if the patient has insurance.
On a given day, Whatcom Hospice provides service for 100 patients and usually 10 percent of those people are in unsuitable living situations, making it difficult to provide end-of-life care.
One man was living in his car in a campground, and the nurse and social worker visited him everyday in the campground.
Another single mom had lost her home because she had spent all her money fighting her illness. She was eventually placed in a nursing home, but her young children were unable to visit her on a regular basis.
Situations like these inspired the construction of a 12-unit, live-in home, which will allow family members to visit at any time and have staff on hand 24 hours a day. The building is expected to be complete near June 2010.
Although the job can be challenging for the people who work and volunteer for Whatcom Hospice, Kirkland said for many, it is a way to serve humanity.
“It does take a special kind of person because you make a friend, you lose a friend,” Kirkland said. “It’s hard on you, and as you get a little bit older, you’re constantly looking people in the eye that are the same age as you.”
Kirkland said that while the job is challenging, it has taught him important lessons about life.
“At the end of life, it’s not the guy with the most toys that wins, it’s really the guy with the relationships,” Kirkland said.