Cremation Options - Quality and Planning

By: Derek Mahar
Sunday, July 30, 2023

We are all well aware that cremation rates are continuing to rise across North America. It began in the larger centers and has continued to creep into every area of the continent. With that continuing increase, we see many communities behind the curve, trying to catch up with inventory and options. In some respects, this can be an advantage as they can learn from the mistakes
and successes of others over the past several years.

What we see is that families want something unique and built with quality. Simply having an area for the placement of cremated remains is no longer enough. The families you serve want something interesting, and personal.

Many niche and columbarium companies may only be concerned about what they sell and not how that sale will work. As suppliers we need to look beyond that initial sale and ensure we are providing products that continue the success of the cemetery. When I began running a large municipal cemetery operation, our cemetery had not given any thought to how to cater to the cremation families. We merely had cremation plots placed where we had space and columbaria plunked in locations that were not fit for earth burials. We thought as most did in the early days of cremation - “cremation means cheap”.

If you have preconceived thoughts about the choices families will make, you tend to steer them in that direction. It’s because of this thinking that families began to pull away from cemeteries and looked for options that they felt were more suited for them. It is not a surprise that over 60% of cremation families opt to avoid cemeteries with the cremated remains of loved ones. We can make this a good thing by being aware of this and through that awareness making a change. We need to listen to the families and be open to offerings that are more in tune with what they want. This process can begin small, with a single columbarium.

This first structure should become the centerpiece of the garden area that you can then add to as demand dictates. The key is to have a plan but be open to adding some small family units or benches.

You can see this cemetery had the plan to add several units throughout an area, which also includes small family units, an ossuary, benches, and a place for memorialization. The scale of the project is up to you but thought must be given to the direction. Adding planted beds also helps to beautify an area and creates more visual interest. Having a place for families to plant or place flowers is also a great option. All of this creates an area that can become a draw for the cemetery. It can
become an area for quiet reflection that if promoted properly can help increase interest for the whole cemetery.

We can find and offer better options. The internet allows for direct contact with families. We need to know who our clients actually are. They may not be who we originally thought, but a younger generation that wants to see what they can have and what speaks to them.

My experience in every facet of the profession is that our opinion sometimes does not really matter when it comes to what we think people will like. The clients are dictating what they want and will find those who are offering it. We need to plan for the future but also be open to the change that is confronting us every day. We need to connect with our clients and society as
a whole to allow us to learn and educate at the same time. We know that a portion of society has a negative view of our profession until they actually need and work with us.

So many times, they are surprised by how well they are treated. This is based on what they expected because of the negatives they hear. Many of those compliments are because of us listening and engaging in what they want. There will always be price shoppers that just want things to be over and done with, but these are not the majority, the majority expect value, which is
different for everyone. We have the tools for outreach like never before and we need to listen to what people think and want from
us as a profession. We cannot take this input too personally and must learn every day. Let us work on how to make this happen and come

As mentioned before, planning is key. No matter what scale you are looking at, having a plan will help keep things moving in the direction that is needed and expected by the families you serve. This is not to say that changes can’t be made as things move forward but having a plan will allow for future management to have an idea of where the thought process was when things were designed.

Depending on the size and scope of the work required will dictate what company to work with. Some offer full cemetery planning and landscape design while others may specialize in cremation offerings. Our company can offer a great deal of design work whether inhouse or through our vast network of industry professionals. Work with your providers as they should have the expertise and contacts to help as needed.

We can’t forget about the quality of the construction. If you look back maybe to your first car or the furniture you bought for your first home. For most of us, we purchased what we could afford and maybe not what was the best quality option. You need to realize that when a family entrusts their loved one to you, the offerings need to use quality materials and be built to last.

This profession is in the “Forever” business, and we cannot base our purchases on how we did with that first house or car. This does not mean the most expensive alternative is the best as we know price does not always mean quality. You need to research and see how and where the companies make their products. Do they use quality materials that they can stand behind or do they
purchase based on price and their own bottom line?

I get calls or emails at least once every 2 weeks from columbarium owners that are having issues with their niches. They have varying issues but almost all come down to one thing. These units were purchased based on price and had now started to break down and fall apart. Some were barely 10 years old. That should never happen, which is why you need to look for a supplier
that can provide quality and care about what they build. As you can imagine these choices created problems moving forward. We had to replace 4 angled-style columbaria walls where water had begun to enter and thus degrade. Replacement was the only option and though it was costly it had to be done. The big issue was having the families whose loved ones had been entrusted
to us, contacted to move the cremated remains.

They should not have had to go through this ordeal and as you can imagine many were very upset. The reason I bring up this example is that the columbarium supplier that did these, built them to look good but not to last. Some designs, though they are attractive on paper, do not stand up in the real world over time. When it comes to Mother Nature, she always wins and with water, water will find a way. You need to work with suppliers who care and think about these things, as you certainly should not have to deal with these issues.

As a professional in the industry for over 40 years I understand the difficulty of the changing consumer and the options we must provide. This is throughout society, and we will not be able to please everyone, but we need to be open to listening and hearing what the families may want. By doing this and offering quality options we can better serve our communities and the families we have the honor of serving.

Derek Maher is a fourth-generation funeral director, having worked as a funeral director and embalmer at several locations
throughout Canada as well as Japan. He managed the business operations of a large municipal cemetery operation before becoming general manager and then part owner of a columbarium company, Kyber. He has been designing, selling, and installing columbaria for over 16 years throughout North America.

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