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the boomer shift

‘The days of the one-size-fits-all funeral service are on the way out,’ says Brian Snowdon, CEO of Arbor Memorial, Canada's largest funeral home operator.Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

This is part of the Globe and Mail's week-long series on baby boomers and how their spending, investing, health and lifestyle decisions could affect Canada's economy in the next 15 years. Is Canada ready for the boom?

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As baby boomers enter their final years, the huge population cohort is going to have a profound effect on the death care industry.

The numbers of people dying will take a sharp uptick in the coming decades, but the impact will go beyond the volume of funerals. Boomers also take a different approach to funeral rites than earlier generations, and the industry is being forced to adapt.

By 2030, all baby boomers will be over 65, and the oldest ones will be in their mid 80s. Consequently, the number of deaths in Canada will climb steadily for the next several decades as boomers begin to die off in larger numbers, Statistics Canada says. The peak will be hit in the 2050s, at which point the baby boom cohort will "begin to extinguish in large numbers," the agency said in a recent population report.

For the funeral industry, that means the market outlook is nothing but positive, provided it can take advantage of the desires of the boomer generation, which has a less formal approach to memorials than those who have gone before.

Over all, the funeral industry is just starting to see a "modest increase" in the number of deaths as a result of baby boomers aging, said Michael Hedden, president of the Funeral Service Association of Canada. What the boomer generation is already demanding, however, is a greater sense of creativity when it comes to funerals. That age group wants the support and celebration that has always been the reason for a funeral, he said, but they "want to make those emotional connections in a different way."

Brian Snowdon, president of Arbor Memorial Inc., one of Canada's largest funeral home chains, said the demand for customization means "the days of the one-size-fits-all funeral service are on the way out."

His company recently helped organize a funeral for an Ontario man who owned a racetrack and several race cars. "When he died his family requested that the funeral coach take a ceremonial lap on the racetrack with his family driving the race cars," Mr. Snowdon said. "Then at the last turn, the cars slowed down and the [funeral] coach pulled ahead and took the checkered flag."

It's not uncommon now, he said, to organize what are essentially backyard barbecues at cemetery sites, where families and friends gather outdoors for an informal meal to celebrate the life of the deceased.

One concern that has worried the North American funeral industry in recent years is the shift to cremation, away from traditional burials that involve caskets. The revenue from an average cremation service is about half that of a burial service, according to the 2014 annual report from Service Corp. International, North America's largest death-care operator with 1,540 funeral homes and 470 cemeteries in the United States and Canada. The proportion of cremations rose from 44.3 per cent in 2011 to 51.6 per cent in 2014, SCI said in the report.

SCI is compensating by expanding through acquisitions and building new funeral homes to service the growing population, said senior vice-president of operations Jay Waring, and by adding new products and services. Some of these would be unrecognizable to earlier generations of funeral directors: administrative help to settle estates, a 24-hour grief-counselling hotline, and in-house catering services, for example.

"We have to be very, very flexible" to deal with the demands of the more open-minded baby boom generation, Mr. Waring said.

Mr. Snowdon, of Arbor Memorial, said the shift to cremation has not made as much of a dent in revenue as some thought it would, because it is now often accompanied by the same kind of full funeral service as a casket funeral. There are memorial services and receptions after cremation, and people are willing to pay for benches, trees or pedestals that commemorate the deceased. "Spending on the ancillary products is offsetting some of the lower income from the cremation itself," he said.

Funeral homes have also benefited from a shift to preplanning and prepaying for funerals and burials, something that boomers are becoming increasingly comfortable with. While prepayments are held in trust and don't become part of the funeral firm's revenue until the client dies, the process locks up future market share.

One thing that hasn't taken off yet among the boomer generation is green funerals, Mr. Snowdon said. While his company offers more environmentally-friendly embalming fluids as an alternative, and caskets with no metal hardware, the costs are higher and "by and large the public hasn't been prepared to pay for green."

Still, he said, if boomers latch on to that trend, "we will be there. It is all part of the customization."

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