The funeral service industry in America began to take shape following the Civil War with the emergence of embalming, a technique that allowed for the preservation, transportation, and viewing of soldiers killed on faraway battlefields. By the early 1900s, funeral directors, known then as “undertakers” or “morticians,” were combining this process of preserving a body with the ability to greatly enhance the appearance of the deceased through “restorative arts,” creating a more satisfying viewing experience for friends and relatives.Products such as caskets, called “coffins” in those days, were also being offered by a growing number of undertakers and were usually built by local furniture manufacturers. As America became more urbanized, undertakers moved away from preparing and showing bodies in the family’s home and instead began removing the deceased from the home or hospital and transporting them to specially-designed funeral homes for preparation and showing.Today, there are approximately 22,000 funeral homes in the U.S. with approximately 20% of those owned by national and regional consolidators. Recent trends in funeral service include:• A steady rise in cremation rates causing more funeral homes to build crematories.• The shortening of a standard service from three days (two days of visitation and a third for the funeral service and interment) to two days with one day of visitation. In fact, many families are now opting to have the funeral service and interment directly following the visitation, which allows the entire funeral and interment process to be completed in one day.• A steady increase in people planning and funding their funerals in advance, relieving their loved ones of dealing with those issues at the time of death.• Funeral homes transitioning from performing standard funeral services to operating as more of an events center, which accommodates families’ requests for increased flexibility and personalization in the ceremonies themselves.Caskets/CoffinsThe American casket industry originated in the 1800s, when local undertakers, often employed in the lumber or furniture business, built coffins as part of their businesses. Toward the end of that century, the manufacturing and sales of caskets became a separate industry with companies and their markets remaining relatively small and local.During the middle part of the 20th century, the industry was shifting to a higher proportion of metal caskets as steel was no longer a restricted commodity due to war efforts. By 1980, over two-thirds of the U.S. casket market was metal. The popularity of metal caskets was driven by:• The heightened protective qualities of metal caskets, which was heavily marketed to consumers by manufacturers and funeral directors• A much broader array of styles and colors to choose from• Consumer perceptions of a modern alternative to “wood coffins” with beautiful brushed and painted finishes rivaling the finest automobile finishes.This trend to metal also contributed to the consolidation of casket manufacturers as the capital requirements necessary to produce metal caskets was much higher and out of reach for most of the small wood casket producers. This consolidation saw an industry of over 700 manufacturers in the 1950s reduced to less than 10 major players by the mid-1990s.Today, most funeral homes offer a broad array of caskets including “sealing” or “protective” caskets (featuring a gasket between the top and bottom sections of the unit that protect the interior from outside elements) and non-sealing models. Product choices typically include:• Cloth-covered wood or particle board caskets at the bottom of the price range (non-sealing)• 20-gauge steel (thinnest of the standard gauge steel used in casket manufacturing), non-sealing• 16- and 18-gauge steel, sealing• Stainless steel• “Semi-precious” copper and bronze (both 32- and 48-oz./sq. ft. weight)• Wood ranging from poplar and pine at the low end to cherry, black walnut and mahogany at the high end. Wood caskets may or may not be sealing and while most are still made with solid wood, veneer caskets have also been introduced into the market in recent years. Standard finishes include satin or gloss and sometimes feature a hand-rubbed finish.Today’s caskets come in a variety of solid and shaded colors with several corner designs including square, round, and urn-shaped. Product pricing is also affected by interior materials used, including twill and crepe at the low end with linen and velvet costing more. The finishing of these materials is done with heat- and sewn-shirring, hand- or machine-tailoring, tufting, and special embroidered designs on the cap panel (interior lid). Exterior hardware used by funeral home employees and pallbearers to transport the casket include stationary and articulating handles that are stamped or cast. Recent innovations in casket design include “Memory Drawers” to hold special personal items to be buried with the deceased and removable corner pieces which serve as keepsakes for the family following the service.Cremation UrnsCremation urns are relatively small vessels designed to contain a portion, but usually not all, of the 3-6 pounds of cremated remains (“cremains”) resulting from the cremation of an adult human body. The steady rise in cremation rates in the U.S. over the past several decades has spawned a dramatic increase in the number of cremation product choices available for the transportation and storage of cremains, more commonly referred to as “ashes.” Construction materials available include composites, metal, wood, stone such as marble and granite, fabric, ceramic, plastic, glass, and biodegradable materials for use on water.Design options for cremation urns are now almost limitless with themes that represent consumer preferences including traditional vases, various wildlife, flowers and plants, patriotism, religion, and public service for past and present members of the military and police and fire departments. Another interesting product line that has developed over the last 20 years is cremation jewelry. Locket-style products are designed to contain a very small sample of the deceased’s cremains, while other products feature an actual man-made stone fashioned from a process of intense compression of the deceased’s cremains.Industry TrendsWhile funeral service in America has been slow to change, several impactful trends have emerged in recent years. First and not surprisingly, technology advances have prompted on-line obituaries, supplementing or supplanting those traditionally found in local newspapers. These on-line obituaries are full-blown life tributes to the deceased offering nearly limitless content including text, photos, videos, music, and testimonials from site visitors, and remain available for many years. While not yet commonplace, even webcasts of the actual funeral service are beginning to occur.Religion is taking less of a role in modern funerals as services become more informal and speaking roles historically reserved for ministers, priests, and rabbis are being handled by family members or friends and, in some cases, professional “celebrants” who serve as the MC for the entire ceremony. After-service meals traditionally prepared and served at the family’s house of worship, are moving from church basement to restaurants, social clubs, hotels, or commercial event facilities. Religious hymns are being replaced by music that more reflects the taste of the deceased and his or her circle of friends.The most impactful trend in funeral service today is undoubtedly personalization. This movement towards customized memorial services has evolved over the past 15 years from families asking funeral directors to accommodate the display of artifacts of the deceased’s life such as golf clubs, memorabilia, or home videos of the family at play. Cork boards of photographs of the deceased throughout his or her life have become commonplace as families look for ways to create an environment that promotes a celebration honoring the life of their love one.Now the infamous Baby Boomer Generation will push this personalization to new levels. Born between 1945 and 1964, boomers have always played by their own rules and have changed everything they’ve touched, from music to politics, to reflect their fierce independence. With the oldest boomers now in their late 60s, the members of this generation of 78 million are now dealing with their own mortality and are well under way in changing how they prefer to be memorialized when they die. Rock and roll music replaces religious hymns. Streaming videos document and memorialize a life well-lived. The procession “hearse” might just be a side car attached to a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Recent surveys suggest 70% of boomers do not want to be buried in the ground, so cremation rates will continue to rise steadily from single digits just a generation ago to over 50% of all deaths nationwide by 2018. This will enable evermore creative ways to memorialize loved ones by scattering remains in unique ways including “destination memorials” such as memorial cruises, mountain-top ceremonies, etc. Options are even currently available to shoot cremains into space or use them to rebuild coral reefs under the ocean.Finally, this growth of personalization in memorial services will result in a significant expansion of memorial products and their distribution. Caskets and urns are now readily available online through merchandising giants like Wal-Mart and Costco, the latter of which even has casket displays in selected U.S. stores. Biodegradable wreaths are available to facilitate scatterings on water. Other environmental options include biodegradable coffins and shrouds used for “green burials” in special eco-cemeteries where they will decay naturally without the use of metal caskets, concrete burial vaults, and preservative chemicals like formaldehyde.Bottom line: After many decades of status quo, the American “way of death” is changing dramatically. Consumers, particularly baby boomers, are taking control of how they want to go out and all options are on the table!