By Christopher Mekus
For as long as I have been in the cemetery industry, one of the top issues for cemeterians has been inventory.
Whether expressed as a need for land conservation or trepidation at the rising tide of cremation, it all boils down to the same concern. However, I have to add an important qualifier: It’s not just the right amount of inventory, but the right types and quality of inventory and how you manage them that counts. The quality and character of the landscape, niches, and crypts in which we find our final resting place is very important to driving sales.
One of the greatest challenges regarding inventory is the looming death of the baby boom generation. With 76 million people (20% of the population in the United States), baby boomers make up the largest demographic block in the US. The oldest boomers will be turning 64 this year. With an average life expectancy of 78 years, it might seem like there’s a lot of time to prepare, but of course, 78 is an average. Some boomers are already dying, and the trend will only accelerate over these next 14 years. Cemeterians who are not planning to accelerate inventory development will be left behind.
Cemetery inventory cannot be added overnight, and you’ve got to stay ahead of the competition. It is important to start the planning process now. If you don’t have a master plan for your cemetery for the next 39 years, you need one. If your master plan doesn’t take accelerated inventory development into account, it needs to be updated. The baby boomers are shaping up to be the biggest demographic wave that the cemetery industry will experience this century, and it would be a tragedy to have to turn away potential clients and miss this historic level of need.
And yet, the challenge facing cemeterians is much greater than simply accelerating their production of inventory. They also face an increasing demand for diversity and individuality. Baby boomers will only exacerbate this requirement. They have long been associated with the rejection of traditional values, and although they have certainly become more conservative as they have aged, boomers maintain an undeniable predilection for personal expression, which we can expect to carry over to their death-care plans.
I’ll give you an example. At one Chicago cemetery, we designed a couple of different kinds of garden crypts at the request of the client. Some of the garden crypts had simple, classical granite fronts. Another set of garden crypts featured tiled mosaic artwork, depicting meaningful events from the gospels. The mosaic-front crypts sold at a much faster rate than the plain-front crypts, and the client was able to charge a significant markup for placement in the mosaic section because of the uniqueness and individuality of the crypt fronts. Without the mosaic crypt fronts, some of those clients would have paid less and some would have gone elsewhere entirely.
In the niche market, at least part of the meteoric rise of cremation can be associated with the entrance of baby boomers into the death-care market. They are much more likely than their predecessors to place less importance on traditional burial and be more accepting of cremation.
These two factors, personal expression and interest in cremation, play perfectly into the evolving death-care market, if you are prepared.
For example, recently we have seen strong demand for innovative niche solutions. We designed a niche garden in Southern California that incorporated niches as part of the landscape. Since the niche garden was finished, we’ve been told by the client that they are some of the best-selling pieces in the cemetery. The convergence of unique inventory and cremation demand created an opportunity for our client to seize this niche market.
The niche garden example brings me to another important point: setting. Obviously, these garden niches are not going to sell if they appear haphazard. The rock niches work because they fit their surroundings, and their natural surroundings have grown steadily in popularity.
Nature has always played an important role in death care, and natural burials will continue to play an even greater role in years to come. Death and burial have been considered a symbolic return to the earth from which we came at least since “Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return” was written in the book of Genesis, which remains an integral part of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions. Many other faiths share this understanding as well. Regardless of whether or not the body is cremated or buried, traditions across the globe have recognized death as a return to the earth for thousands of years.
With the growing interest in environmentalism and natural lifestyles, we believe that we are also going to see a greater demand for naturalistic settings and practices in death care. The baby boomers invented modern environmentalism, and the environmental issue has swelled in response to current events. As the boomers enter the death-care market in full force, we believe the demand for natural settings will rise as well.
I have found that water, in particular, can play a tremendously calming and reassuring role in cemetery landscape (even in more traditional, less naturalistic settings). Many cemeterians are understandably worried by the additional responsibility of managing water features on their grounds, but with proper design and maintenance, a water feature shouldn’t bring more worry than any other landscape feature. Whether you choose to explore fountains, streams, waterfalls, or even just ponds, water can provide a tranquil setting that can help drive sales.
Demographic trends are converging for a huge movement in the coming years. An influx of demand, combined with new preferences and demanding shoppers, will radically change the death-care industry. Now is the time to prepare.
If you are considering your inventory needs, think hard about these changes facing the industry. Do you need a master plan? If you have one, does it need to be revised? Are you prepared for a significant increase in sales volume? Do you have the right mix of inventory to attract the customers of tomorrow?
When the boomers come to your door, will you have what they are looking for? Or will they go elsewhere?
This article was published in American Cemetery, July 2010 Volume 82 No 7.