Increasing cremation rates burning holes in cemetery revenues
Bill Balbinotti doesn't know what type of flowers they are, but he waters them every day because they were important to his late wife — so important, her ashes were spread over them after she died at age 66 in July 2013.
Balbinotti, 69, of Galesburg said portions of Nancy's ashes were also scattered by the couple's children over the farmland on which she grew up, as well as in a nearby river. Balbinotti said his wife knew she wanted to be cremated and scattered in "areas that meant so much to her."
Cremation rates on rise
Nancy was among a growing number of people choosing cremation. About 43 percent of people who died in 2012 were cremated, reported the Cremation Association of North America. That percentage is more than double the 19 percent rate of 15 years ago.
The unofficial rate for 2012 in Illinois is nearly as high, also reported by CANA. Of the 100,000 deaths in the state, 39.9 percent of those people were cremated, which is a 10.5 percentage point jump from 2007.
As increasing numbers of people prefer cremation, some death care industry facets have started to feel the shift — especially cemeteries.
Vickie Hand, second vice president of the Illinois Cemetery and Funeral Home Association, said expenses for cemeteries have increased as revenue continues to dwindle because of the nation's economy. Costs for labor, utilities and gasoline are rising, while money made available to cemeteries is decreasing.
Cremation, Hand said, is wedged somewhere in the middle, both a cause and effect of the industry's struggle. More people are choosing cremation because it's the cheaper option compared to a full-body burial, so cemeteries aren't getting as much revenue from grave sales and grave openings. Even when cremains are buried, it's typical for at least two sets to be buried in one grave to save space.
"The industry has changed over the years because of several things," Hand said. "But cremation is definitely the biggest one."
Cemeteries feel the pinch
Galesburg cemetery manager Martin Reichel said the change has had dire effects on his business.
According to Reichel's records, there were 1,745 known deaths within a 30- to 40-mile radius of Galesburg in 2012. Of that number, 422 were cremated and none of those remains were destined for a cemetery as far as he could tell. An additional 155 were cremated and expected to require cemetery services, according to the obituaries.
At Memorial Park Cemetery in Galesburg, he said, grave lot sales have been cut almost in half within nine years, from 43 sales in 2003 to 25 sales in 2012. At St. Joseph's Catholic Cemetery, the loss looks similar, dropping from 62 in 2003 to 30 in 2012. The price for burying cremated remains is $300, half of what it costs for a regular burial, which is $600.
"If you do 100 full burials at $600 each, that produces revenue of $60,000," Reichel said. "If, on the other hand, 25 percent of those burials are cremations, then your revenue is only $52,500, a 12.5 percent decrease (and that's if all 25 percent actually end up in the cemetery). To make up the loss you would need almost a 15 percent increase in your prices."
For the sake of staying in business, prices have gone up by $50 increments throughout the past five years, he said. At Memorial Park, prices for grave sales and openings increased from $650 to $700 as of Sept. 1 this year.
"Our responsibility is perpetuity," Reichel said. "In other words, it's supposed to be maintained forever and ever. But nothing lasts forever. Things do happen and cemeteries do disappear."
Or they're turned over to a city or township in which they reside when private owners can no longer afford to run them. This is what happened a few years ago in Fairbury, located on U.S. 24 southeast of Pontiac.
Indian Grove Township Supervisor Keith Coleman said Graceland Cemetery Association, the original owner of the cemetery, was slowly going broke because of fewer sales of plots and graves.
"Income from burials just weren't keeping up with increased costs of maintenance," Coleman said.
The price to keep up roughly 20 acres of land costs about $24,000 a year.
"It's just the times," Coleman said. "The last year that Graceland owned the cemetery, they paid about $19,000 for maintenance. Everything has just gone up."
Adapting to change
Some cemeteries have not faced the same struggle, at least not to that extent. For Galesburg city-owned cemeteries Linwood and East Linwood, there has not been a distinct upward or downward pattern in sales during the
last four years despite an increase
"We know there is an impact (from) all the recent cremations on grave sales and burials," Galesburg Public Works Director Larry Cox said. "To the exact extent, we do not know."
A possible contributing factor to the cemeteries' steady numbers could be the first scattering gardens in Illinois, which were opened by the city a few years ago. The price to scatter loved ones' ashes in the gardens ranges from $85 to $395 depending on holidays and age of the cremated person. This brings in extra revenue for maintenance costs.
Making the decision
Executive director of the Cremation Association Barbara Kemmis cites five reasons for cremation's growing popularity: Cost/value, environmentalism, religion, the range of options once a body is cremated and the fact that families tend to live more spread out.
For Nancy Balbinotti, it was her religion that reaffirmed her decision.
Her husband, Bill, recalled the day his wife explained her wishes — it was the same day she was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer that then caused years of pain. Balbinotti said Nancy lived her life as a devout Christian with a set of beliefs from which her adamance about cremation stemmed.
"She believed to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord," Bill said. "Once you die and your body is turned to ash, your soul is released to the heavens."
Balbinotti said his will calls for cremation as well.
This project looks at the condition and future of cemeteries in the 11 counties that make up GateHouse Media's Western Illinois Division. This project includes work from seven daily newspapers and 12 weekly newspapers. See a searchable map of the region with information on more than 50 cemeteries here.