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Virus deaths hit 100,000 and US funeral business is in trouble

Jef Feeley, Bloomberg News on

Published in News & Features

It's one of the strange new realities of this deadly pandemic: The funeral industry, of all things, is getting crushed.

In fact, business is so bad that funeral directors worry it might never fully recover.

The reason: For many, COVID-19 has made large, traditional funeral services a thing of the past, at least for now. Even before the virus struck, funeral homes were struggling to cope with changing tastes. Now, expensive caskets, flowers and cemetery plots look even less appealing than lower-cost options or cremation.

The shift has hit hard at Service Corporation International, the largest U.S. provider of funerals, cemeteries and cremations with more than 1,900 North American locations.

In an April 30 earnings call, Chief Executive Officer Tom Ryan said average funeral sales -- which in pre-pandemic times might have included a viewing, full service, bronze casket, lush floral display and tchotchkes such as urn pendants -- fell 11% last month compared with a year ago. Sales to consumers buying plots in advance of death dropped more than 35%.

"Through February and the first part of March, we had a lot of great momentum in the business," Ryan said on the call. "Then we all know what happened: COVID-19 and the ripple effects."

 

From March 4 to April 3, the company's stock plunged 34% to $34.71 a share; on May 27, it closed at $39.85.

The viciousness of COVID-19, with the U.S. death toll topping 100,000, is upending cherished traditions in the $16.3 billion death industry. Funerals where hundreds once mourned now offer a sad tableau of 10 family members at a grave site or cremation mausoleum. Satin-lined caskets carrying price tags of $10,000 or more are replaced by $300 cremation urns ordered online. Drive-by and video viewings are required in these socially distanced times.

Read more: COVID-19 Deaths Reach 100,000 in the U.S.

All this may become the norm for the nation's more than 19,000 funeral homes as generational changes influence customs: Younger people are opting for cremation or eco-friendly "green burials" that cost far less than traditional obsequies. Cremation rates now may be as high as 80% in some parts of the country where they've historically been less than 50%, according to Barbara Kemmis, executive director of the Cremation Association of North America trade group.

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