Boojum: Yes, that’ll really help

October 18, 2016 | Boston, Boston Redevelopment Authority, Cities, Government, Housing, Redevelopment, Urban renewal | No comments 70 views


By: David A. Smith


When Marty Walsh was elected mayor of Boston over 1,000 days ago, he called the BRA a mess; said he would conduct a search for a new executive director; commissioned audits and reports; received a scathing, irrefutably documented McKinsey operational review of a deeply dysfunctional agency; said he intended to improve transparency; and appointed new board members.


Two weeks ago, as reported in Boston Magazine (September 27, 2016), he announced it:



What if we renamed the boat?


BRA Changes Name to BPDA, Hopes You’ll Trust Them Now

The first name-change in the agency’s history.

 Kyle Scott Clauss

The Boston Redevelopment Authority, the quasi-public agency whose sixty-year history has been marred by accusations of cronyismand the clear-cutting of the entire West End, has a new identity.


The beleaguered building authority will henceforth be known as the Boston Planning and Development Agency.


“Let’s face it. ‘Authority’ is so authoritarian,” BPDA director Brian Golden told reporters Monday.


In a triumph for a national search, Mayor Walsh appointed as new director the long-time BRA deputy to Mayor Menino’s last director, Peter Meade.



I assure you, Brian will be completely independent – I’ve trained him that way!


“It’s not just a word. It does create a meaning.”



Unpacking our organizational identity and brand strategy: maybe you’d better pack it up again?


The BPDA hopes to improve its “legitimacy and credibility” amongst Boston residents, after its previous incarnation developed a stubborn reputation as a rubber stamp for high-profile developers


The board voted Yes to the staff’s proposals 99.75% of the time, mainly because the properties proposed were always, by a remarkable coincidence, FOT’s (Friends of Tom).




– while community concerns fell on unsympathetic ears.


“We do planning and development, and we’re doing it for the benefit of the people of Boston,” Golden said. “It’s more than a name change. It’s about a cultural change within the organization and how we interface with the people of Boston in their neighborhoods.”



New friendly logo!

New friendly colors!

Same friendly staff!


The city paid Boston-based innovation design firm Continuum – the same folks responsible for the Swiffer mop – no more than $670,000 for the 14-week rebranding effort, the rest of which Mayor Marty Walsh will unveil Tuesday afternoon.



Gets your neighborhoods scrubbed shining clean!


Two weeks later, the BRA, oops, sorry BPDA hasn’t yet changed the URL or Web site to reflect the new name.


AHI posts on the Boston Redevelopment Authority


How to lose friends and influence people: June 1, 2010

Now that it is safe to do so: February 10, 2014; Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8

After release from Coventry: July 9, 2014; 2 parts

Oh, THAT money we were supposed to collect: September 8, 2014; 4 parts

No rules, no process, no strategy: July 29, 2015; 3 parts

121A-B-Cs: September 28, 2015; 6 parts

Still blighted after all these years?: October 6, 2015, 3 parts



Wake me for the next board meeting … on second thought, don’t wake me

Ask after me tomorrow: Part 8, Vacated property is snatched up

October 13, 2016 | Adaptive reuse, cemeteries, Cities, Density, funeral homes, Housing, Land use, Markets, Redevelopment, Speculation, Urbanization, US News | No comments 79 views


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

Ask after me tomorrow: Part 7, Out of burial space in five years

October 12, 2016 | Adaptive reuse, cemeteries, Cities, Density, funeral homes, Housing, Land use, Markets, Redevelopment, Speculation, Urbanization, US News | No comments 80 views

By: David A. Smith


[Continued from the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.]




By now this multi-part post has made evident that the American Way of Death, which Jessica Mitford so savaged [Possibly unfairly, though not having read the book I have no opinion – Ed.] in 1963 [And revised in 2000 – Ed.], has been undergoing steady quiet disruption through the combination of technology that extends life and technology that remakes our family and social relationships by allowing us to form and maintain close personal contact remotely.



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 these forces, significant though they are, would not necessarily foretell the demise of funeral homes were it not for a further force, America’s re-urbanization, and its impact on urban verticality and urban land values.



The most valuable cemetery in the world?

Trinity Church, Wall Street, Lower Manhattan



9. With rising land values, cemetery plots are hard to come by


Cremation, which costs half what traditional services do, is becoming more popular.


Not to put it crassly, burial is costly.


In the US, the median price of a funeral (including the service, casket, embalming, wake, transportation and burial) is about $8,500, according to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA). 


Cremation, on the other hand, typically costs about $4,000. It’s easy to see why it is becoming more popular.


And burial is more expensive for the most commonsensical reason imaginable: you spend money on valuable things that are not reused:




Casket, $2,000, buried in the ground never to be seen again.

Vault, $1,100, not to be entered.

Hearse, $310, to transport casket and remains from funeral to vault.


Beyond those costs, if there is no vault then one needs a gravestone, and those run several hundred dollars.  And all that’s assuming the land is available:


But New York City funerals can easily surpass that, especially because burial plots and mausoleum prices have soared – much as other real estate has.


Without researching it, I believe that virtually no urban areas are creating new cemeteries or expanding the existing ones – the land has all been spoken for, and as always, when demand rises and supply does not, price rises too. 


Cemeteries are offering more niches for urns in benches, columns and columbaria for those who want a funeral ritual even when opting for cremation.


For those interested in comparison shopping, St. Michaels’ Cemetery in East Elmhurst offers a handy list, and a view of the location illustrates a further challenge of urban cemeteries:



Right in line with LaGuardia runway 4/22


While I’m sure the staff at St. Michaels are dedicated and caring, the cemetery itself is inside a triangle of the Grand Central Parkway and the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (BQE), and is under the air traffic takeoff and landing path for LaGuardia’s runway 4/22, one of the nation’s busiest, with over 1,000 takeoffs or landings a day.  Not exactly resting in peace.



Landing on LaGuardia runway 4


At Green-Wood Cemetery, a single grave plot, which has room for three caskets, costs $17,000, up from $8,000 to $10,000 a decade ago.  Space is at a premium: Green-Wood management estimates it will run out of in-ground burial space in about five years.



Green-Wood from space: to a developer, that’s a lot of low-density use of high-value property


Eventually, cemeteries go to space-rationing:


Trinity Graveyard and Mausoleum in Washington Heights is the only Manhattan cemetery accepting new business, but it has space only in above-ground mausoleums. Prices start at $18,900 for a crypt. Crypts in the $9,000 to $12,000 range, available a decade ago, have sold out.



Another small rectangle of green, this one in Upper West Side Manhattan/ Harlem


At Woodlawn Cemetery, a sprawling 400-acre site in the Bronx –


It’s next to a golf course, another nineteenth-century urban romance of pre-urbanized society now under pressure to disappear from the urban environment.


– a plot for one costs $8,000 and a plot for two costs $10,000, double the prices of a decade ago. Executive Director David Ison says the cemetery has at least 25 to 50 years before space becomes an issue.



Half a century’s more space


At the city’s largest Catholic cemetery, Calvary Cemetery in Queens, an in-ground plot with room for three burials is $4,635. With space limited, Calvary sells plots for immediate use only.  Staten Island’s largest burial site, Moravian Cemetery, likewise does not sell plots in advance.



Opened in 1740, expanded by Cornelius Vanderbilt


Cemetery as trendy restaurant that takes no reservations?



Must be a great place to get into



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.



All these pressures mean that cremation will continue to gain market share, reducing the need for cemeteries and on sequence for funeral homes.


Last year the nationwide cremation rate was about 50%, according to the NFDA, up from 25% in 1999. New York’s was 39% in 2013, up from about 20% in 1999.


There’s a further reason funeral homes are losing their value proposition; not only how we grieve is changing, but when we grieve, and by consequence of when, where we grieve.



11. With the rise of medical technology, we grieve differently than our parents did


As anyone who has a parent knows, with the advances in medical technology – both the machinery and the drugs/ pills – we extend the end of life for weeks and months.



A different kind of dying


The steepest drops have been in deaths from heart disease and cancer. “They’re the two biggest killers in the city, and we’ve seen nice declines,” said Gretchen Van Wye, assistant commissioner of the city’s Bureau of Vital [sic] Statistics.


Increasingly rare are the cases of sudden death; now most of our elderly die slowly, declining through Alzheimer’s or dementia, or wasting away via untreatable cancer.



A different kind of goodbye


Beta blockers, stents and statins have helped reduce premature deaths from heart attacks by 30% over a decade. Better cancer treatment and the city’s aggressive antismoking measures have cut cancer deaths; HIV/AIDS dropped out of the top 10 leading causes of death in 2012.


Now we do our much of grieving before the person dies.  Emotionally that is a different kind of grief, painful and present, and in real estate terms, instead of the funeral home it is in the hospital where grief occurs.



A different kind of grief counselor


For those of with elderly relatives, and increasingly for those of us with elderly friends, the hospital is no longer a place where joyful events occur, like births or successful surgeries; more often it is where we go to say goodbye to those whom age and decline are taking from us. 


And when they’re gone, and it’s time to remember them, that now happens in a different place.


[Continued tomorrow in Part 8.]

Ask after me tomorrow: Part 6, The remnants of families

October 11, 2016 | Adaptive reuse, cemeteries, Cities, Density, funeral homes, Housing, Land use, Markets, Redevelopment, Speculation, Urbanization, US News | No comments 86 views


By: David A. Smith


[Continued from the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.]


As the previous parts of this unusually protracted post have demonstrated, the funeral homes captures a bygone era in its ethos – the ethos of death and its aftermath (dying far from home, to be buried at home), of family, of how we lived and how we lived, and thus how we grieved.  Nowhere is the change more evident than in the modern American geographically dispersed family, and our changing definitions of what a family is.


7. With electronic connectedness, people form geographically dispersed families


Families are more dispersed, so calling everyone home for a funeral is complicated, and people are reluctant to take days off.


My parents grew up in two older towns (Schenectady, New York, and Maplewood, New Jersey) a hundred and fifty miles apart, then met in Providence where they were both in college (RISD, Pembroke which is now Brown), and thereafter never moved very far: Littleton, NH, then Marblehead, MA. 

Though I stayed close to home (college twenty miles from Marblehead, and never left Cambridge thereafter), my three siblings live 110, 2,030, and 3,075 miles from me – yet we stay in touch as siblings do, gathering in person for the big holidays but in the meantime maintaining our family via phone, email, and Skype.  All of us have very different professions and lives, and very different circles of friends.


“You used to have a three-day wake with hundreds of people coming through. Now you don’t even get a one-day wake,” Dominic Cusimano, grandson of the original proprietor of Dominic J. Cusimano Court Street Funeral Home (established 1946) in Cobble Hill, said.



Part of a multi-family structure, ready for redevelopment


Aside from Mr. Cusimano being yet another multi-generational funeral home owner, his property meets the by-now-familiar archetype: densely low-rise residential area; converted residential structure (apartments on second and third floor); retrofitted to add funeral space (the ground-floor awning entrance and bay window); and vertically obsolescent.  It was a natural for a buyout:


He sold his building [For 4.55 million – Ed.] but still does funeral arrangements, sharing mortuary space with other funeral directors. “We’re here to serve the remnants of families who still want to do things traditionally,” he said.


The remnants of families – what’s an unintentionally revealing phrase.


Kuhn says people increasingly prefer to celebrate the lives of the deceased rather than just mourn their deaths, leading to new business opportunities, including customizable sculptures that double as urns and provide a focal point for a service.



A tasteful urn that doubles as a sculpture or memorial:

Placed in a case with handles for pall bearers at Frank E. Campbell funeral chapel.


Sets of small urns let family members in different cities each take some of a loved one’s cremains, eliminating the tense conversation of who gets to keep Mom on their mantle.


While everyone’s grief is different, as is everyone’s family, in the four cremations in which I’ve now participated, now demanded exclusive possession of the cremains; every single time, after a ceremony where we scattered them in a place we thought had meaning, each child got a small additional portion to scatter where he or she chose.


[Not necessarily morbid practical fact: Cremains are heavy, both dusty and crunchy, and there is much more of them than you would expect.  – Ed.]



All that remains of Mom or Dad


In fact, now that cremation is increasingly preferred to burial, the nature of grieving events has changed dramatically as well.


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)



8. With new technology, cremation changes grieving events


In rural India, where burial was a challenge, under antyesti a body will be burned on a funeral pyre, and the remains left to dry and be feasted on by birds, the ceremony a mixture of psychology and hygiene:


The last rites are usually completed within a day of death. While practices vary among sects, generally, his or her body is washed, wrapped in cloth, and a Tilak (red, yellow or white mark) is placed on the forehead. The dead adult’s body is carried to the cremation ground near a river or water and placed on a pyre with feet facing south.


The lead mourner circumambulates the dry wood pyre with the body, says a eulogy or recites a hymn, places sesame seeds or rice in the dead person’s mouth, sprinkles the body and the pyre with ghee (clarified butter), then draws three lines signifying Yama (deity of the dead), Kala (time, deity of cremation) and the dead. 



Circling the body in antyesti


Once the pyre is ablaze, the ceremony is concluded by the lead cremator, during the ritual, is kapala kriya, or the ritual of piercing the burning skull with a stave (bamboo fire poker) to make a hole or break it, in order to release the spirit. 


All those who attend the cremation, and are exposed to the dead body or cremation smoke take a shower as soon as possible after the cremation, as the cremation ritual is considered unclean and polluting.  The cold collected ash from the cremation is later consecrated to the nearest river or sea.


Whether by psychological convergence or practicalities of death and land use, American deaths are heading away from burial and back to cremation by fire and remembrance afterwards.


Families are more spread out, so multiday wakes are less common. 


Wakes (often with open caskets) were held so relatives coping with a sudden death could come to terms and say goodbye.  As James Kelly wrote on his funeral home’s Web site:


Viewing can be a very important part of confronting and confirming the reality that a death has occurred.  It is often a valuable vehicle for assisting survivors with transforming the basis of a relationship from one of presence to one that can now only exist in memories.


Remember the old saying, “Seeing is believing”?  We may be able to readily accept the reality of a death at an intellectual level, but acceptance at a heart level is a much more complicated and life-long adjustment process.  Viewing often provides the initial pathway for that process to begin.



Grief-stricken father mourning his son: wake of Army Sgt. Mark R. Ecker II, East Longmeadow, MA


With medical technology changing our path to death (next section), cremation has become a preferred option for many people; as I noted, both my parents and Nancy’s have been cremated, and all of them wanted cremation rather than burial. 


For all of them, the decision was personal and emotional, but there’s another consideration in the back of everyone’s mind.



What’s it cost?


[Continued tomorrow in Part 7.]

Ask after me tomorrow: Part 5, Not dying where they used to

October 5, 2016 | Adaptive reuse, Cities, funeral homes, Housing, Land use, Markets, Redevelopment, Speculation, Urbanization, US News | No comments 82 views


By: David A. Smith


[Continued from the preceding Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.]


Recognizing that my blog posts always risk being recursive – and like Oscar Wilde I can resist anything but the temptation to be recursive – by the end of Part 4 of this excursion into funeral homes as an urban land use, I’ve at least managed to return us to the present, where most everything about the funeral home seems anachronistic:


1.     They’re located in inner-ring suburbs (or ethnic neighborhoods within a larger metropolis like New York City)

2.     They’re dwindling in number, and those surviving are diversifying as fast as they can.

3.     They are not only family-run business, but family-legacy businesses, handed down among the generations, with most current funeral home owners related to their predecessors by blood or marriage.  Often they carry the family home on the sign, and they frequently tell the family’s history on the web site:



Celebrating 110 years


The Hitzeman family is very proud of our history serving the community for over one hundred years.  We invite you to read about our business and family history as written by Laura (Hitzeman) Tomecko when she was in eighth grade, in February 1997. 


“According to the National Family Business Council, less than one-third of family businesses survive to the second generation and 70% are liquidated or sold when the founder retires or dies. Fourth-generation firms are a rarity.  I, Laura Hitzeman, being the daughter of the fourth generation of a family-run business, take deep pride in researching and writing about the Hitzeman Funeral Home, four generations of dignified service.”



Frederick Hitzeman, 1873-1966


Yet the deep roots of community connection can be that for a funeral home, like all other forms of real estate, its strength – permanence – can also be its weakness – immobility, particularly when the future customers who grew up in the funeral home’s neighborhood choose somewhere else to die.



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)



6. With American urban mobility, people no longer die where they lived


While of course change-of-use redevelopment occurs earliest in the rapidly appreciating neighborhoods, that’s not the reason funeral homes are declining in New York’s ethnic neighborhoods.


Funeral homes have been closing in less trendy neighborhoods too. “It’s not one thing; everything’s changing,” Ruggiero said.


The reason is simple.  Elderly New Yorkers are becoming a rarity:


“I don’t want to sound like a miserable tombstone guy, but I look around Park Slope, and the average age is, like, 36 years old,” said Michael Cassara of Supreme Memorials, a local stone-carver specializing in headstones, monuments and mausoleums.


The hipsters may be moving in, but only because the oldsters have been moving out.


Referrals from funeral homes used to provide a significant amount of his business. “You can feel the death rate is way down,” he said.



Two generations of Cassara’s who may be forgiven for wishing for more funerals


New York City’s death rate has plummeted over the past 25 years, even as the population has grown by 1.2 million. The 53,000 deaths recorded in the city in 2014 were down from 76,000 in 1989. That’s a 30% drop in potential customers.


New Yorkers just aren’t dying like they used to.


Actually, they’re dying like they used to, just not where they used to; born and raised as New Yorkers, now they die as Floridians. 


“Thank God for medical technology,” said Joe Aievoli, owner of four funeral homes in Brooklyn. “I am the biggest supporter, believe me. A 72-year-old gets a double bypass and he’s like a new man. He picks up and sells his row house in Brooklyn or the Bronx and moves to South Carolina and lives another 25 years!”


(Mr. Aievoli’s funeral home was established in 1900, and has been in the same location since 1958.)



An outlier: Mr. Aievoli’s funeral home is purpose-built, not converted, but the building is still 58 years old.


So it comes back not just to housing but also to interstate demographics, and a series of big trends that have been going on for decades, and about which I’ve posted before.


1.     Americans are moving warm, wet, and west, and leaving behind property they or their forebears built. 

2.     Blue states are losing Congressional seats to red ones. 

3.     Housing prices in development-friendly states are much lower than in Taste-Police-zoned jurisdictions. 

4.     States that have high income taxes (like New York) also tend to have high estate taxes (like New York does), and low-tax states (like Florida) tend to have to estate tax (and Florida does not).  With New York’s estate tax running from 5% to 16%, the state is incentivizing its elderly to move while they still can.


Add it all up and people are much more likely to die in a newer, warmer, cheaper place than New York, or many other Northern older cities where a century ago funeral homes were sprouting.


“It’s phenomenal. But let’s just say it’s not exactly funeral-industry-friendly.”



Adapting to the times: Joe Aievoli is diversifying the range of funeral ceremonies his handles


In New York, many funeral homes have simply outlived their established customer bases. “We handled mostly Irish and Norwegian funerals, but now the neighborhood is mostly Chinese,” said Michael Cosgrove, a third-generation mortician who sold his eponymous Brooklyn parlor after years of dwindling business. “It’s good for Chinese funeral homes, I guess.” Cosgrove said he still arranges funerals upon request.


Medical science is also contributing to a society in which we can choose in which state we die:


Life expectancy in the city recently hit an all-time high of nearly 81 years of age. The gains for older city residents are especially striking, as those reaching 70 can expect to live 17 more years.

For more than a decade, industry analysts have been predicting a surge in the death rate as baby boomers start to pass away. It hasn’t happened. 


“I had customers in here the other day making arrangements for a 96-year-old woman. They were her three daughters, and the youngest one was 70,” said John Heyer II, co-owner of Scotto Funeral Home in Carroll Gardens. “We’re seeing more of that.”



John Heye, waiting patiently and sympathetically


At 33 years old, he’s part of a small cohort of young funeral directors staying in the family business, having purchased the funeral home from his father-in-law, Buddy Scotto, now 87.



Handing over the business to the next generation


Nor is where the memorial event may be held the only challenge for funeral home owners, they must also cope with a very different conception of ‘family’ that prevailed in the pre-networked era.


[Continued tomorrow in Part 6.]