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Funeral director plans simple, Web-accessible crematory

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Industry-wide, funeral directors are seeing one notable paradigm shift.

Jeremy R. DeBord sees three.

No wonder, then, that he's deliberately positioning his new crematory as "not your father's funeral."

To be clear, DeBord has nothing against fathers or funerals. His family has been in the funeral business for generations, and he's general manager of Kearney A. Snyder Funeral Home, a role he intends to keep.

But he thinks there's a market for a simpler and, consequently, less-expensive service, so he's preparing to offer it.

The pillars of his plan are cremations, without public services except at graveside, and with the ability to make arrangements online or over the phone. The most basic option will start at about $1,300, which he says is about 60 percent of the going rate for cremations in the county.

"This is going to be a totally new business model for the area," DeBord says. He has been planning for about three years, and Cremation Services of Lancaster will open as soon as the arrangements and facilities are finished, in three to four months.

That cremation is increasingly popular is unarguable. According to a 2008 study by the Cremation Association of North America, cremations were nearly 15 percent of the national funeral market in 1985, rising to just over 34 percent in 2007 and projected to hit 55 percent by 2025. In total numbers of cremations, those are, respectively, 298,091; 832,340; and 706,061.

Locally, Lancaster County had about 4,300 deaths in 2012, and cremation was the chosen funeral option in about 34 percent of them. DeBord says Kearney A. Snyder's existing traditional cremation service was the only one in the county for 25 years, with a competitor entering the scene recently and a third crematory offering services only to funeral homes, not individuals. Cremation Services of Lancaster will be the fourth.

"There are about 125 crematories in the state now," says John W. Eirkson, executive director of the Pennsylvania Funeral Directors Association. "That's gone up maybe 30 or 40 in the last five to seven years."

Eirkson sees a number of reasons for the growth of cremation, including that it's less expensive than burial, that it allows a wider range of options for the remains and that some people see it as more ecologically sound, which he says "may or may not be true."

"I've been doing this for 40 years in different states," Eirkson says of the funeral business. "Are there changes? Yes. But they're subtle in many cases, and they take what seems to be a long period of time."

One area in which Eirkson doesn't see his industry tracking culture at large closely, if at all, is the switch from personal to digital contact.

"I think death is a very personal thing, in terms of wanting to sit down and talk with someone who knows what needs to be done," Eirkson says. "I think that's what funeral service as a profession has been built on."

Funeral homes have websites, and they're informative, Eirkson says, but he doesn't expect that a lot of people would want to use the sites to actually arrange funerals.

Ernie Heffner, president of York-based Heffner Funeral Chapels & Crematory, also thinks that funeral services are different from the other areas of business in which online communication has become so important. He expects marketing the digital option heavily would create some business, but he is "not at all confident that this strategy will prove to be a financially viable business model."

Particularly with cremation, Heffner says, the legal and media furor that arises in the case of a mishandling would seem an extra incentive for in-person contact throughout.

Lancaster County experienced that furor recently, as the owner of the former Gundel Funeral Home was jailed on dozens of charges, accused among other things of accepting money for cremations and instead allowing bodies to decompose.

Asked how that case might affect his business, DeBord says the timing of his announcement has nothing to do with that case. But, he says, "The unfortunate circumstances with that funeral home, I think, is going to encourage people to choose a funeral home they can trust."

Launching any new funeral home is a challenge in earning trust, DeBord says, but he expects that already being known to the community and having a good reputation will help him.

And on the issues of comfort and mishandling, DeBord notes that he's not dropping in-person consultations for those who want them, and he's going to emphasize the checks-and-balances system he will use to ensure that people get the correct remains back. Furthermore, he says, his operation will offer people the option of witnessing the cremation of their loved ones if they wish.

"I'm called numerous times per week by families that live all over the country and world and they don't have the means to come in and make the arrangements," DeBord says. Having the option of making arrangements by calling or going online should, he says, be extremely convenient for those people and not any less dignified.

As for memorial services, DeBord says he will offer only graveside services at local cemeteries, with some options involving no services at all, just return of the remains or scattering options. However, he will offer urns, keepsake jewelry and, in partnership with a local artisan, one-of-a-kind glass sculptures with remains inside.

"There's no need for a big fancy building, an elaborate vehicle" in this model, DeBord says; those are available elsewhere. "This is going to be for those who just want simplicity."

Heather Stauffer

Heather Stauffer

Heather Stauffer covers Lancaster County, nonprofits, education and health care. Have a tip or question for her? Email her at heathers@cpbj.com. Follow her on Twitter, @StaufferCPBJ.

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