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Mortuaries adjusting to trend of simpler, cheaper final arrangements

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PHOENIX – The caskets lining the showroom walls at Hansen Mortuaries can carry price tags in the thousands. The Andover design, for example, sells for $4,060 and doesn’t include the costs of a burial plot, ceremony or headstone.

But these days, most families Brad Hansen serves as president of this 65-year-old family business opt just for cremation, a far less expensive alternative to a traditional funeral and burial.

“Cremation is simpler, cheaper, better for the environment, and some people just like it,” Hansen said. “But what is disturbing is that they aren’t having memorial services to recognize a life that has been lived.”

According to the Arizona State Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers, 70 percent of those making final arrangements each year opt for cremation over burial.

Rudy R. Thomas, the board’s executive director, said funeral establishments that are slow to adapt to this change are in danger of failing. That’s happened with two of the state’s approximately 170 mortuaries, and several more may follow soon, he said.

“Funeral homes have to change and look at new ways to support families because of these changes in the industry,” Thomas said. “Directors need to be … wiser and more marketable and review their marketing skills to stay alive.”

At Hansen Mortuaries, with several Valley locations, Hansen said he’s changed how he does business to emphasize the options families preferring cremation have. After all, he said, the price of a casket is only part of the revenue he received from a traditional burial.

That includes offering pre-cremation banquets, viewing sessions and elaborate funerals for loved ones in lieu of an informal scattering of ashes. Hansen also offers dove releases, ceremonies at which mourners attend the cremation and jewelry designed to hold some of a loved one’s ashes.

“Cremation is a big part of my business, so I embrace it,” Hansen said. “Many people think cremation is just about the price and about disposing of their loved one, not recognizing that they … can do everything you can in a traditional ceremony but instead going to the crematory instead of the cemetery.”

Steve Rudé, who runs Rudé Family Northwest Mortuary in Phoenix, said he urges families to have memorials in addition to simple cremation or burial.

“Disposition has nothing to do with the actual memorialization of the person,” he said. “We’re trying to lead America away from the misbelief that we’re a disposable society – that Grandma lived, Grandma died, we burned Grandma and Grandma got thrown away.”

Thomas R. Taggart, program director for mortuary science at Mesa Community College, said the trend toward cremations has pushed funeral homes back into a role as memorial planners. In addition, he said, computers and digital media offer new ways to honor someone’s life.

As a result, Taggart said his program is expanding beyond just understanding fundamentals of mortuary science that haven’t changed much since the 1930s.

“Funeral halls are eventually going to have huge banquet halls where they’ll eat and watch films about the lives of the deceased,” he said. “In the old days you would literally disappear when you died. Not anymore.”

Hansen said there will always be a need for full-service mortuaries.

“We’ve been burying mankind since cavemen,” Hansen said. “We all know intrinsically that we want to do something when someone dies.

“Sure, people are spending less money and yes, my revenues are down,” he added, “but we’re finding new ways to make money and provide services and do things to bring value to things we do.”