The changing face, and business, of death: Meet the people working and building companies in the funeral industry

Everyone will have to deal with it. No one wants to talk about it.

Some people make their careers, build businesses and spend their professional lives dealing with death.

When a person dies it’s a tragedy for that person’s loved ones. It’s also big money. In 2012 in the U.S, cemeteries, crematories and funeral homes made more than $16 billion in revenue, according to the National Funeral Directors Association. It also estimates that in 2014, the median price of an adult’s funeral was $7,181 for a burial and $6,078 for a cremation.

Rinne Cain got his first taste of the industry in 1985.

“My grandmother had passed away,” he said. “She was 101.”

They went to the local funeral home, which charged him $900 for a headstone over a series of monthly payments.

He later found out that headstone cost the funeral home $90.

“I just figured there’s a niche and I need to fill it,” he said.

He spent two years gathering information about the funeral homes’ suppliers, then started Cascade Monuments & Urns.

He sells headstones, caskets and urns – the same ones you can get from the funeral home, but he sells them for a fraction of the cost.

“Over the last 11 years, I’ve probably saved the community 50 grand,” he said.

He calls himself the Costco of the funeral industry.

“The concept of Costco is you [sell] the same quality products as you would at the mall for a fraction of the cost,” he said. “But you sell so many at that fraction cost, that the profits add up.”

As a single entrepreneur operating out of his Bellingham property, he has almost no overhead.

“I basically make a little, and I save the families a lot off every stone,” he said.

After two years of selling headstones over his dining room table, he started gaining popularity.

Now he has a separate office, next to his house.

He tries to make his office as bright and uplifting as possible.

“I just wanted something that was safe, casual, warm, comfortable,” he said.

That’s his approach to customer service in his business — in which most of the customers are experiencing profound grief.

“People want to relieve that stress, so they share memories. It’s like I get to know them,” he said. “I get to know a lot about the loved one who passed. That also helps me deal with the emotional aspect of it.”

He allows customers to take as much time as they need – one family, he said, spent more than a year designing and redesigning a headstone for their teen who died in a car accident.

“Meeting with families, and the grief, you’re never over it,” Cain said. “But I manage to hold it together.”

He also offers flexible hours.

“I want to cater to the families that I serve. They’ve lost a loved one,” he said. “How can I think about my hours?” That means almost always on-call. Even when he’s working his primary job, as owner of a landscaping company.

Cain has owned his landscaping company for 30 years, but the older he gets, he said, the less he wants to do that, and the more he wants to sell monuments.

“This is what I want to do,” he said. “This is what I want to retire doing.”

Cascade Monuments, he sees not just as business, but also as a way to help people in their time of need.

“Me being of Christian faith, I believe in tithing and giving back to the community,” he said. “Having this business is a way for me to tithe.”

About seven years ago, Cain started working with a funeral director who came up with the same business model, but on the service side.

Michael Galaviz has been a funeral director for more than 25 years. He had worked his way up through both family-run and corporate funeral homes. Then he decided to go into business for himself.

He noticed that funeral homes weren’t delivering the kind of service he saw more and more customers asking for.

“Funeral customers were beginning to ask for simpler arrangements,” he said. “The whole funeral home dynamic was based on serving people and providing traditional services.”

Those services can include holding a viewing, a funeral in a chapel, an elaborate casket and burial.

Galaviz noticed that more people weren’t interested in all that.

“They wanted to handle some of these things on their own without paying a funeral home for them,” he said.

He started his own business focusing on offering the lowest possible prices for four basic services: Pickup the body, fill out the paperwork and get the death certificate, cremate the body, and deliver the remains back to the family in a simple container. In Whatcom County, he charges less than $500 for that service.

He started his business 11 years ago, and now has 10 locations across Washington and in Portland, Oregon, operating under the names Funeral & Cremation Care, Simple Cremation of Washington, and Simple Cremation of Oregon. His headquarters are in Blaine.

Traditional funeral homes, like the ones he used to work for, weren’t meeting the changing needs of the customer, Galaviz said.

“They’re slow to realize that there is a shift in the consumer dynamic,” he said. For a long time, Galaviz said, some funeral homes would only meet customers face-to-face, at their location, during business hours. That simply doesn’t work for a lot of people’s schedules, especially if they’re trying to organize a burial or cremation for a loved one who died in a different state.

So he started offering to make arrangements over the phone, then over email. Now there’s a mobile app, and customers can sign documents right on their phones.

Galaviz admits that means those customers aren’t getting the same personal touch that they get when they walk into the atmosphere in a funeral home, but not everybody wants that.

The other thing customers sometimes get in a funeral home is the feeling that they’re being sold something.

“For a growing number of customers it’s a turn-off,” he said.

He said that at some of the funeral homes where he worked during his career, staff got a commission based on what they sold customers, and one funeral home where he worked in Seattle offered higher ups bonuses and vacations for meeting sales quotas.

That doesn’t mean staff were selling people things the didn’t want or need, he said, but they were making sure to offer the information about all the packages the funeral home offered.

“There’s no arm-bending, there’s no up-selling,” he said. “It’s just providing all options, one through 10.”

To some customers, that can feel like a sales pitch if they already know what they want, which can be a turn-off.

But some funeral homes have based their business off of revenue from more expensive packages and merchandise — in this cases, things like urns or caskets.

“All those items come in a good, better, best value system,” Galaviz said. “Funeral homes realize that the rate of return in cash comes with products that sell for higher amounts.”

Funeral homes have tremendous overhead, he said, and if it’s corporate-owned, the revenue is stretched farther and farther up the chain to upper management.

Galaviz keeps his prices low by keeping his overhead low. When he worked at traditional funeral homes, he remembers watching how much money went to things like memberships in professional associations.

The biggest source of overhead for most funeral homes, however, is the debt from buying the property or the business in the first place, or if that’s paid off, it’s staffing.

Lisa Devereau has to work within those challenges to offer customers the lowest prices possible. She is the funeral director at Island Funeral Service on Vashon.

“We keep our prices as low as we can because we’re family owned,” Devereau said. However, there are some services she thinks it’s important that the funeral home offer.

At Island Funeral Service, customers work with the same staff member through every step of the process. The funeral home also has an onsite crematorium, so the remains of the deceased person never leave the facility.

“The person is never outside of our care, which for me would be important if it was my loved one, knowing that,” she said.

Some customers are concerned about the cost of the services, and ask for prices right away, she said, while others don’t.

Either way, the funeral home provides a price list right upfront with the costs of all the merchandise and service options, so there’s no surprises when the bill is due.

She also said no one at Island Funeral Service is paid any kind of commission.

She said she doesn’t consider retailers like Cain as competition — more of a complement to the services the funeral home provides.

“It’s just another option for the consumer,” she said.

The merchandise side of the funeral industry is just a small part of what funeral homes offer, Devereau said.

“The biggest part of our job is to get people through the death itself,” she said. That includes the paperwork, the service, the burial, and the emotional burden.

“You’re not just taking care of business, you’re also taking care of grief,” she said “It’s not just customer service. You have to be a little bit of everything.”

If customers are having a particularly hard time, staff can refer them to grief support groups and other resources.

Like Galaviz, Devereau has also noticed that fewer people are opting for a traditional burial and formal funeral services, but she doesn’t think that’s a good thing.

She thinks there’s something to be lost with the new trends in the fast, simple cremation service that’s getting more popular.

“It gets things done quicker in some ways, there’s not body to deal with,” she said. “You don’t have a viewing that you need to think about. I think it’s made grief easier in some ways.”

But no-fuss death care isn’t necessarily the best thing for the grieving process, Devereau said.

She thinks taking some time to come together and mourn the loss is healthy.

“Everything now is fast,” she said. “We want fast grief, and that’s one thing we can’t speed up.”

Death used to be more present in our lives, she said. People held wakes in their homes.

The culture has moved away from that, she said, to the point where now no one is even comfortable talking about death.

It used to be the entire community would come together to grieve openly when someone died.

“I think that’s an important part of our culture that we’ve let go,” Devereau said.

More people are opting for a casual celebrations of instead of the formal funeral service, which Devereau said is skipping a part of the mourning process.

“We’re skipping the part where you’re grieving and going right to the part you celebrate,” she said.


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