These days, practically nothing is immune to the economy's woes — not even an industry that caters to what would seem to be the one recession-proof commodity: death.
"Obviously, the death rate continues and death continues," says David Walkinshaw, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association. "But in difficult times, the funeral business is affected just as much as any other business. Recession-proof it really isn't."
Walkinshaw, who is also president of Saville & Grannan Funeral and Cremation Service in Arlington, has seen smaller and less lavish funerals since the stock market took a turn for the worse in October. "People cut back on what some may look at as the extras," he says. "Rather than take a limousine, they will drive themselves. They're buying less expensive caskets, cutting back on flowers and other after-funeral expenses."
In his book 150 Best Recession-Proof Jobs, which hit stands in November, career-information expert Laurence Shatkin ranked funeral directors number 84. "I'm sure that people are cutting down on lavish funerals in response to the recession," Shatkin tells the Phoenix by e-mail. "However, the trend in the industry has been toward chains rather than privately owned mom-and-pop businesses, which suggests more employment stability."
Shatkin compiled his list by looking at the industries he considers the least sensitive to economic downturn, and then analyzing which jobs have the best pay, projected work-force growth, and number of openings. With an average annual salary of $49,620, funeral directors ranked above librarians and just below environmental-engineering technicians.
But as clients cut back and expenses rise, area directors themselves are singing a decidedly less rosy tune.
"When I see colleagues of mine in this town," says Bob Biggins, director of the Magoun-Biggins Funeral Home in Rockland, "when we're all talking about the recession and how it is affecting all of us, my colleagues, their comment is, 'You're at least in a recession-proof industry.' The event of a death occurring is certainly recession-proof, but what folks do in the event of a death certainly is not."
Biggins recites the same list of cost-cutting measures enumerated by Walkinshaw, and adds that many of his clients are simply opting for cremation, which saves them only about $200. "Little things," Biggins explains. "People are doing little things to be more fiscally prudent."
All of these little economies make it more difficult for mom-and-pop funeral directors such as Biggins to make ends meet. Biggins's business was founded in 1956, and he runs it out of an 1876 Victorian mansion, with a full-time staff of five, plus some part-time workers. "Heating, fuel, health insurance — everything's up," he says. "We're running our operations on a much leaner budget."
Richard Stanton, owner and funeral director of the Stanton Funeral Home in Watertown, agrees. "Our costs are going up just like everybody else's," he says, noting that casket prices rose some 12 percent in 2008.
In addition, he notes, advertising rates have increased, and local cemeteries are raising their fees, which means families are spending even less at the funeral homes. "One local cemetery, Belmont Cemetery, went up 26 percent," says Stanton. "People only have X amount of dollars to spend on a funeral and to go up at that increment, it affects us definitely."