By: David A. Smith
[Continued from the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, and Part 7.]
As we’ve seen earlier in this post, twenty-first century American death often comes upon us with plenty of warning, changing the nature of when and where we grieve, and in so doing nullifying several of the principal reasons funeral homes arose a century and a quarter ago – that of preserving the body and preparing it for viewing at a wake or funeral.
Sometimes it helps
Principal sources used in this post
Hilary Potkewitz,in Crain’s New York, July 24, 2016; black font
Los Angeles Times, January 1, 1995; charcoal-gray font)
The Funeral Source (midnight-blue font)
Kelly Funeral Home of Worcester (buff blue font)
Hitzeman Funeral Home of Brookfield, IL (forest-green font)
But if death now comes by sending forward its invitation, where do those who could not attend upon gather to remember the one who died?
12. Coming full circle to early America, churches have regained the role played by funeral homes
Consolidation by large conglomerates—Service Corp. International operates 36 funeral homes in the five boroughs—has further pressured independent operators.
Compared with funeral homes, churches are a better competitor for memorial services. They have a lower cost basis, pay no real estate taxes, have low-utilization facilities, and are every bit as well located.
No need for a funeral home
They also offer the added value of a consecrated place [abbey] where remembrance can be harnessed to the revival (even if temporary) of faith, a spiritual value proposition the funeral home simply cannot match.
“People will tell you it’s the increase in secularization, and I hate to differ, but that’s not what I see,” said Heyer of Scotto. “A family will come in and say, ‘We’re not religious, we don’t want to go to church, so that will save us money on a service and pallbearers, etc. But can a priest just come to the house and say a few words?’”
Perhaps because Mr. Heyer is invested in his business, his description involves self-selection: relatives come to him for this only if they have previously rejected holding the memorial in a church.
AHI blog posts on churches and graveyards as land uses
February 27, 2013: Houses sacred and profane, 3 parts, churches into residential
March 7, 2013: Cannot we consecrate?, 2 parts, vigilers occupying a Scituate Catholic Church
November 12, 2013: Til death do us part, and not even then, 2 parts, James Davis’ burial of his wife in their front yard, Stevenson, Alabama
December 17, 2014: It is for us the living, rather, 3 parts, the impromptu cemetery in Hartland, Vermont.
The advice proffered by funeral director James Kelly of Worcester is well said and undoubtedly genuine, but also invites a question:
We mark most important events in life with ceremony. It is also true that meaningful ceremonies help us begin to absorb losses into the fabric of our lives and accept change as part of the journey.
For many people, the ceremony to which they are likely to connect, especially when remembering an older family member, is that of church or synagogue.
And that leaves the funeral home, as an industry, confronting the same reality confronted by its customers: of the inevitability of demise.
13. The funeral home’s time has come and gone
To me as an outsider, the funeral home is an physical and operational anachronism – a window into the urban America of a century or a century and a half ago, a time now sunset by technology, verticality, and connectivity. But there are some – and naturally enough, most of them are within the industry – who believe this is an industry’s repositioning rather than an industry’s demise:
“There is a bright future for businesses who can adapt to a 21st-century way of doing business,” said Dan Isard, president of funeral industry consultancy the Foresight Companies.
“Comprehensive and creations solutions for funeral home owners and cemeterians.”
Perhaps befitting the author of The Complete Pre-need Perspective, a guide to people anticipating their or a loved one’s death, Mr. Isard is an optimist – of a sort:
“We may be able to cure cancer, but we can’t cure death.”
Perhaps not, and in New York State a funeral director or undertaker is required:
[To] be present and personally supervise the interment or cremation, or the pick-up from or delivery to a common-carrier of a dead human body. (NYS Sanitary Code Part 77.7(a)(4)) Further, a licensed funeral director must sign and file the certificate of death with the registrar in the district in which the death occurred.
Even so, a funeral director does not need a funeral home, so the regulatory requirement will do little to save the funeral-home industry:
When Robert Ruggiero, executive director of the Metropolitan Funeral Directors Association, took office in 1990, the organization’s directory listed 841 funeral homes. Last year, his mailing list was down to 473, a 44% drop. Ruggiero’s numbers reflect the city’s: Just 475 licensed funeral parlors were operating here in 2015, according to the state’s Department of Health.
Unlike people, whose physical remains have minimal monetary value, the corpus of a funeral home gives the business’s expiration a financial upside:
“Funeral homes are good for redevelopment and mixed use,” said Aaron Warkov, a real estate broker with Cushman & Wakefield who took an interest in funeral homes about three years ago.
The man to see when you’ve had enough and you’re ready to end it … the business, that is
Just like the funeral homes offering pre-planning services to their customers, Mr. Warkov is offering pre-planning services to those whom he believes will be his customers.
He calls about a dozen funeral directors periodically to test the waters. “They’re waiting to see if their nephews want to take over the business, or their grandson,” he said.
As we saw earlier in Part 4, for many funeral home operators the business was family not simply out of convenience but out of calling, and when the current patriarch was himself being called, he usually wanted to hand over his legacy to his heirs.
Unlike entrepreneurs who thrive on selling their companies and starting new ones, funeral-home owners are often reluctant sellers.
“It’s a really painful decision for them,” said Melissa Drake, president and COO of American Funeral Consultants [New Paltz, NY– Ed.] which does business appraisals and sales of funeral homes. “But if you’re sitting on a property worth $5 million and you’re only doing 100 funerals a year, and your kids aren’t interested in the business and you need to think about retirement … it’s hard.”
Kathy Williams and Melissa Drake
.. but the heirs increasingly don’t want it.
[Aaron Warkov of Cushman & Wakefield] has sold two funeral homes in Brooklyn so far.
Observers cite the familiar and oft-blamed culprit of gentrification, which drives up real estate prices until a funeral home’s property is more valuable than its business.
Though the context invites the reader to infer that rising property prices are a bad thing (‘oft-blamed culprit’), in fact they are a significant benefit of real-estate-related businesses – even if the business model collapses (hello, Boston Globe!), there’s a big residual value:
Some recent examples: the 2014 sales of Michael Cosgrove & Son funeral home (established 1912) in Sunset Park for $2.125 million and Dominic J. Cusimano Court Street Funeral Home (established 1946) in Cobble Hill for $4.55 million.
Last year, Ray Smith Funeral Home in Prospect Heights sold for $2.35 million and Marion Daniels & Sons in Harlem for $3 million. Most were sold to developers and will become new residential and retail buildings.
The former Marion Daniels Funeral Home, three townhouses joined together
The Marion Daniels sale is particularly poignant: the property is three contiguous townhouses, and their story is one of classic American urbanization – flats above, retail below:
Marion Daniels and her husband, Orlander Daniels, went into the mortuary business in 1905, renting space on West 61st Street and later on West 134th.
In 1912, after Orlander Daniels died of a heart attack, Mrs. Daniels bought the first of the three townhouses she would own on 136th Street.
A century ago, the neighborhood was changing.
Lexington Avenue and East 118th Street, Harlem, 1912
Its top two floors became the family residence; the two lower floors were Marion Daniels & Sons Funeral Home.
Some of the change was racial and ethnic:
The Danielses were among the first black residents of Harlem.
In other words, the Danielses were the spiritual forerunners of those who are now buying funeral homes to turn them back into residential properties:
More often than not, the vacated property is snatched up by young professionals or a young family, creating pockets of the city where senior-citizen sightings are rare. It has affected not just funeral homes but ancillary businesses too.
That’s Schumpeter’s creative destruction at work: while the young people have no need for funeral parlors, they have plenty of need for other retail businesses:
Like an Apple store, for instance
And for housing, which raises the question, what comes after the funeral homes?
Green-Wood Cemetery, the largest in Brooklyn, is 478 acres.
At Brooklyn’s current population density of 37,100 people per square mile, Green-Wood’s development would yield a neighborhood accommodating 27,700 people and all the businesses and services to support them, and at (say) 2.75 people per household, that’s a minimum of 10,000 new apartments, which New York City needs, and if the development rights were worth $50,000 an apartment, the cemetery’s land is worth half a billion dollars today. Even though there are roughly 600,000 graves in Green-Wood, that’s a lot of economic pressure to resist.
Death is part of life.
Purchasing all the trinkets in the world will not compensate for a ceremony that does not touch the heart. Overspending will not address issues of guilt or regret nor will it ensure your loved one will rest in peace. Attaching too much significance to a piece of merchandise can be a misplaced response to the emotional pain of separation.
Look up here, I’m in heaven
I’ve got scars that can’t be seen
I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen
Everybody knows me now