Alive and Well

By Hannah Wallace October 31, 2008

If one is to believe the hype over the coming baby boom migration to our Gulf shores, then it’s a natural assumption that there will be an equivalent and accompanying boom for our local funeral industry—at least in a decade or so. As the first baby boomers approach their 70s, the Centers for Disease Control estimates that the American death rate is expected to rise from a little over eight people per thousand to nearly 10 per thousand by 2020.

In reality, though, not everything is coming up roses for local family-owned funeral homes that have been in business for multiple decades. A slew of factors have conspired to change the culture of attitudes towards death, dying and funeral arrangements in the Sarasota-Manatee area—and many of these changes cost far less, cutting into profit margins. As a result, funeral home owners are facing find themselves in a bind, now made worse by the state of our local economy.

Americans spend an estimated $15 billion on funerals each year. Despite a significant Wall Street-led push to get in on the game in the 1990s, 90 percent of America’s 23,000 funeral homes are still locally based, mom-and-pop operations, typically with multigenerational families running the helm. You don’t have to go far in this region to find two examples that fit this profile. Griffith-Cline Funeral Homes, based in downtown Bradenton, has been in continuous operation as a funeral home since 1920 and in Griffith family control since 1938. Toale Brothers Funeral Home, based in downtown Sarasota, has been in business at its

Orange Avenue
location since 1912, under continuous Toale family control since 1948.

Both Ken Griffith, 57, and Jason Toale, 29, represent the third generation of presidents of their respective family-owned businesses. Griffith literally grew up in the funeral home on Manatee Avenue, living on the second floor until the seventh grade when his mother, Eileen, demanded that Ken’s father, Buster Griffith, buy the family their own house, separate from the business. While Jason didn’t sleep in their funeral home, his father did as a child, and both Griffith and Toale grew up helping out in the 365-day, 24/7 business.

It is fair to say that the two firms have also been watching each other for the past 70 years, benchmarking their pricing, service, public image and quality of staff. Working for a funeral home requires a number of skill sets for what Buster Griffith calls, “The One Act, No Rehearsal Play,” and everyone in the local industry seems to know one another. With the rare opening for employment, there is hardly ever any need to advertise, as word of mouth helps to quickly fill positions. Griffith-Cline currently employs a member of the Toale family, as well as a past Toale Brothers funeral director. Over such a lengthy period of friendly competition, both funeral homes have settled into a comfortable position of solid brand recognition for their businesses, anchored in their two historic downtown locations.

The past two decades have been turbulent, though, due not so much to increased competition from new funeral homes, but to our area’s changing demographics and societal norms. Toale and Griffith estimate that as recently as the late 1970s, cremation rates for their clients ranged from 10 percent to 20 percent. Today, the cremation rate for Sarasota and Manatee counties is above 60 percent, three times the national average.

 “This is simply driven by the make-up of our community,” says Toale. “Our aging population is more affluent, better educated; and transient, with little roots to a more established family tradition of burial in a cemetery. All of these factors contribute to our much higher cremation rate.”

While both Griffith and Toale families had the foresight to incorporate crematories as part of their businesses in the ’60s and ’70s, profit margins have eroded tremendously, and funeral homes have been forced to also compete with a number of low-cost crematories. The average cost of a traditional funeral service runs around $5,000, while the average cost for cremation is half that.

“The profit made from a casket no longer works in a cremation market,” notes Griffith. “The whole industry, locally, has been forced to change and we’re now forced to cover our fixed costs through ‘nondeclinable’ service charges.” 

Another change seen by both homes has been an increase in price shoppers. Dr. Robert Parrish, Griffith-Cline’s director of pre-need planning, is a New Jersey native who contrasts that with the past: “When my parents died, you just went to the family funeral home. No questions or second thoughts about it,” he says. The area’s transient population, the Internet, a sagging economy and increasingly expensive cemetery costs are a fertile mix for inducing price-shopping behavior.

“A number of corporate cemeteries in our area are pricing themselves out of the market, charging as much as $1,200 to dig the grave,” explains Ken Griffith. “This is one of the larger influences driving families to cremation because the disposition costs are so high.” Griffith has a good understanding on the corporate side of the funeral industry, as he worked for 20 years for Houston-based Service Corporation International, which has funeral and cemetery operations in the United States, Canada and Germany. SCI associated with Griffith-Cline from 1978 until 2003, keeping both the same name and Buster Griffith, who continued to be charged with all day-to-day operations. In 1998 Ken Griffith returned home from Texas to take over the day-to-day management for his father. Growing tired of “living by the corporate quarter” and losing touch with their original mission to provide dignified service to the community, the Griffith family made the bold move in 2003 to buy back all shares of the family business from SCI.

Like many other small businesses in recent years faced with exploding real estate values, property taxes and property insurance, both Toale Brothers and Griffith-Cline divested themselves of two of their underperforming locations, including a funeral parlor on Holmes Beach in 2004. Jason Toale laughs when people ask him why the family hasn’t opened a new funeral home in growing Lakewood Ranch. “We couldn’t stay open for more than six months out there, maintaining our overhead and still try to offer reasonable rates,” he says. “When we’ve run the numbers, we would have to charge double or triple what we’re charging now from our downtown location. It doesn’t make sense for us, and it doesn’t make sense for the consumer.”

Neither Toale nor Griffith has any inclination to leave their downtown locations. The Toale family was a target for real estate speculators for several years, but the family agreed that its location and distinctive, colonial-style building were as important to the business as the family name.

Not all is doom and gloom in the local business of death, however. As uncomfortable as it might make some to consider, baby boomers are going to supply funeral homes with lots of business in the coming years. “Once we get a hold on our costs, we’ll be very viable,” says Griffith. “This is a very difficult business to enter due to the highly regulated industry and the large capital costs to get started.” The name of the game for any funeral business is volume, and both Toale and Griffith are trying to grow their “pre-arranged” or “pre-need” customer base. Akin to the pre-paid college programs that lock in the cost of college tuition at today’s dollars for a toddler who won’t go to the University of Florida for 18 years, “pre-need” funerals allow families to pre-arrange and pre-pay the cost for the entire funeral many years before death.

Rather than being depressing, funeral directors promote this as being responsible, much like writing a living will. You’re protecting your family not only from the future expense of a funeral but also potential conflict when there might be differing opinions about final arrangements. Toale Brothers says 40 percent of its annual funeral services are now “pre-need” customers, while Griffith-Cline is only at 15 percent. Parrish would like to see Griffith-Cline’s number reach 50 percent in five years, but he notes, “The challenge is how to educate people when it’s a subject you never want to talk about ahead of time.”

To achieve this very delicate soft sell, Griffith-Cline advertises in church bulletins in addition to charity work, including the funerals for most of Manatee County’s indigent deaths. Toale Brothers recently launched a new TV advertising campaign, driving customers to its revamped Web site to learn about the funeral home and its pre-arrangement process.

Griffith-Cline lists all of its pricing online, while Toale Brothers does not. “We are not afraid of price shoppers,” explains Jason Toale, “but we want the opportunity to actually sit down with a client and explain the difference between a funeral home and a cremation society. If you were just to compare on price alone, we will always lose.”  

And then there’s the latest trend, also driven by baby boomers’ insistence to do things their way. Fewer families are having traditional religious funerals, so Griffith and Toale have gotten into new business areas such as event and reception planning.

Toale Brothers had no problem wheeling a Harley Davidson motorcycle into its parlor for a recent funeral or allowing balloons to festoon another funeral as children were handed colored markers to make cards. “I liked the personal touch,” says Toale about the family’s wish to have the motorocycle with their loved one. “And the funeral with balloons was more a celebration, more like a birthday party. Baby boomers have changed the way we live, and they want their life to be celebrated when they die. People are trying to get away from the traditional sad funeral.”

 Funeral homes are also finding new ways of disposition, such as spreading ashes via fireworks displays, creating diamonds out of a loved one’s remains and chartering boats for scattering remains at sea.

They’re also adding memorial DVD creation.

“One item that we get constant requests for from families are the tribute DVDs—a visual journey of a loved one´s life in pictures, videos and music.  By the end of this year, we will now offer all clients this creative service,” says Toale.

It’s important to be adaptable in this business, he adds. “Every 15 years or so, tastes change.”

A Place
of Honor

The Sarasota National Cemetery opens in 2011.

Area funeral homes are excited about the December opening of the Sarasota National Cemetery off
Clark Road
, only the 127th veterans’ cemetery in the United States. The first 60-acre phase of development of the 295-acre site is a $28.3 million project being led locally by Halfacre Construction and is scheduled to be completed by 2011. Sandra Beckley, the cemetery director, says the Department of Veterans Affairs will employ 11 full-time staff as well as subcontract with a local landscape maintenance corporation, for a total annual budget of $1.3 million. With its groundbreaking last May, Beckley already has 350 requests for burial, 100 of those being applications for disinterment from the Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell. 

Approximately 97,000 veterans live in Sarasota and Manatee counties (not including spouses and dependents who also have the right to be buried in a veterans’ cemetery), making this area one of the most densely veteran-populated areas in the nation.

Beckley expects to have up to 20 services a day at the new cemetery, with as many as 50 per day during peak holiday periods. The savings for a family are significant, potentially greater than $5,000, including no land cost, no charge for opening and closing of the grave, and no charge for the memorial marker. With a potential for 50 years of burial space and a 75-mile radius that includes over 400,000 veterans, the Toale and Griffith families expect to maintain the family business for generations yet to come.

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