The ever-changing business of funeral homes

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO |Doug Mathie of Horton Mathie Funeral Home in Greenport.

A growing preference for fewer visiting hours, less ornate caskets — or no casket at all — and charitable donations rather than flowers are just a few of the many modern realities that face area funeral home directors and their suppliers.

With a practice that’s been changing since the dawn of man, these times happen to be a challenge for those who rely on funeral services for their livelihoods.

“I have seen a change,” said Joseph Grattan Sr. of DeFriest-Grattan Funeral Homes in Mattituck and Southold, who has been in the business for 50 years and is considered the elder statesman of North Fork funeral directors.

Mr. Grattan said almost every family who lost a loved one used to hold visiting hours for at least two days, and for many hours, often beginning at 8 a.m. and going well into the night. Now, many families prefer to receive visitors for only a single day, and for a limited number of hours. Some hold no visiting hours at all, something that was unheard of decades back, he said.

“People customize hours to meet their needs,” he said.

“The two-day visitation is less nowadays,” agreed Douglas Mathie of Horton Mathie Funeral Home in Greenport.

“That’s the world we live in,” said Eric Alexander II of downtown Riverhead’s Reginald H. Tuthill Funeral Home. He’s the fourth generation of his family in the business, and he grew up watching the changes. In today’s economy, people can’t afford to take off a lot of bereavement time, he said. “Everybody’s finances are stretched,” he said.

“If you have financial woes, you don’t have to spend,” Mr. Mathie said. But those who can afford it still want many of the traditional trappings, he said.

Some changes result from the mortality rate, which is currently the lowest it’s been in many years, Mr. Mathie said. “At this point, it can only go up,” he said, noting that a turnaround is expected to start by 2015 as aging baby boomers begin to die.

Cremation has also come more into play, Mr. Mathie said.

“Who’s probably really hurting are the casket companies,” he said. What’s more, use of ornate caskets that incorporate a lot of precious metals and are extremely expensive is more rare.

“They’re not a desirable product anymore,” he said.

Cremation has increased over traditional burial nationwide, Mr. Grattan said. But he hasn’t seen a significant rise in requests for cremation on the North Fork.

Cremation is sometimes chosen by family members for environmental reasons, but Mr. Mathie questioned how environmentally sound it is to run a crematorium for 12 to 14 hours instead of selecting traditional burial in which the remains return to the elements naturally.

Some families selecting cremation will also forgo a casket during visiting hours.

Although he recognizes that each family should follow whatever traditions provide them comfort, Mr. Grattan wonders about the occasional request for cremation without having the body at the funeral. He likened it to “having a baptism without the baby.”

Those who opt for cremation often hold visiting hours with a traditional casket beforehand and then place the  ashes in an urn.

Once-simple urns have given way to functional pieces, such as a mantel clock that has a storage section for the ashes, Mr. Alexander said.

None of the local funeral homes engages in casket rentals, but that is a tradition in some places, where a family may rent a lined casket for use during the visiting period. Here, they would have to purchase the casket, Mr. Alexander said.

People also aren’t choosing vaults in which to store remains at the pace they once did, said Matthew Wells, funeral director at Reginald H. Tuthill.

“They’re definitely hurting,” he said about companies that manufacture vaults.

Few people choose vaults unless they’re required by the cemetery, Mr. Grattan agreed.

Another change in funeral traditions results from demographics, Mr. Mathie said. Flower cars are seldom seen on the North Fork, but are still prevalent in Italian areas of Brooklyn, he said.

Mr. Grattan agreed that it seems flower cars are becoming a thing of the past.

And perusing obituaries makes it clear that families frequently request contributions to various charities instead of flowers.
Families of the deceased still are spending on floral arrangements, however, according to Peggy Kneski of the Riverhead Flower Shop, but friends are just as likely to make a memorial donation as they are to send an arrangement, she said.

Although Ms. Kneski has owned her current business for only a year, she’s been a florist for more than a dozen years and has seen some change in people’s decisions about purchasing floral arrangements for funerals. But she does see more orders for floral arrangements when the deceased is a public figure or well-known resident, she said.

Another change concerns the responsibilities funeral directors are sometimes asked to assume.

“Religion is not what it used to be in people’s lives,” Mr. Alexander said, noting that some families have no religious service and ask funeral directors, not clergy, to provide graveside prayers.

“We see a lot more of that,” Mr. Wells agreed.

But it’s not something Mr. Mathie wants to do.

“I’m a funeral director and I don’t want to conduct services,” he said. “That’s what clergy are for.”

But if that’s a new role for funeral directors these days, the younger men know nothing of the time when Mr. Grattan started in the business. Back then, he said, funeral directors even prepared the grave sites.

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