In 1910, Frank Stewart Jr.’s grandfather was deeded a piece of property he couldn’t sell. It was a cemetery, and he decided to keep it because there was a marble shop on the corner that made good income.
Now, 103 years later, New Orleans based Stewart Enterprises is the second largest funeral service (or death care) firm in the country, with 359 locations. Stewart has spent more than 50 years in the industry, a career that began digging graves with a shovel back when he was in high school. Pending regulatory approval, sometime later this year Stewart Enterprises will merge with Service Corporation International (SCI), the largest funeral service firm in the country. In this exclusive Digital Dying interview, Stewart talks about the merger, the secret to success in his business and much more..
Why is it so tough to hack it in the cemetery business?
Cemeteries are a long term liability, every cemetery one day will reach its limit and become full. When it does it runs out of revenue and when that happens who pays for maintenance and cost? And yet a cemetery is irrevocably committed to maintaining itself as a cemetery. That means forever, and legally there are consequences if you disturb the sacred ground where someone’s heirs are buried. In the 1930s some innovative entrepreneurs started the concept of perpetual care, in which cemeteries put a percentage of everything they sell into a trust fund to be used for maintaining its structure and its records. If you look at old cemeteries today in every city in every part of the world most of them are abandoned graveyards. The entity itself is full and has no space to sell. Cemeteries are probably the most difficult businesses to survive in because you end up with this liability.
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TIME Magazine recently reported that 42 percent of Americans are now choosing cremation, up from 24 percent in 1998, how does this trend affect your business?
I have to accept that people control their actions, so if they’re actions are to cremate then if I’m in business my job is to find a way to help them fulfill their desire. What most people don’t understand with cremation though is that calcium doesn’t breakdown easily. Proof of that is if you dig up dinosaur bones, clean them off and put them in a museum, people will pay money to see them. So calcium can’t be incinerated and the maximum time you can cremate is two and a half hours, if you cremate for longer you destroy your fire brick. After you cremate you have a skeletal frame that has to be processed. That’s a nice word for crushed, ground, pulverized, reducing the calcium to a fine powder. Most people don’t think of that, they think cremation is ashes and gases and poof it’s all vapor, but that’s not the case.
Interesting, but how does this all affect the bottom line?
Now, instead of taking a four foot by eight foot plot of ground and burying people under eight feet of earth you end up with approximately a cubic foot of calcium, so it’s less consumption of space. Traditionally you would subdivide a cemetery into 1,000 plots per acre but now with cremation you can put 10,000 in an acre. So today we no longer have a space problem. Like I tell people, a burial above ground is no more than a rearrangement of the earth, because everything above ground is made from the earth, from the stone and cement and marble to the wood that came out of a tree. When people say, ‘I want to be buried in the ground, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’, that’s malarkey. Everything thing attached to the ground is part of the ground.
I recently interviewed a cremation historian who said he was concerned our society was losing the idea of a resting place for the dead. He gave the example of a woman who lost her husband and decides to scatter his ashes in a lake then later regrets it because she has no physical marker to remember him by. Do you share the same concern?
This is a story I tell all the time. The lady who loses her partner, her love that she has spent 60 or 70 years with. She is still grieving a year later, she truly misses his physical presence and she’s very distraught. She gets a bouquet of roses and goes to the cemetery and puts the roses in the vase. She is doing a physical act for one reason, to feel good about herself. People relate to a physical action, a hug, a kiss, an embrace, the expression of feeling and emotion. The lady puts the flowers there and waters them and leaves the cemetery and as she’s leaving she passes this Asian gentleman and he has this bowl of rice. As she passes him she says, ‘Pardon sir, when is your friend going to come eat that plate of rice?’ And he bows his head and in his age old eastern wisdom he says, ‘The same time your friend is going to smell those flowers.’
These days more and more people are skipping the large expensive funeral home funeral and opting for something simpler, how does this trend affect large funeral service companies like Stewart?
If you don’t have a funeral you know what happens? People will contact you next week or next year and say, ‘Justin, really sorry you’ve lost your child.’ You have gone back to living happily and know this person has made you sad again. The funeral service lets 90 percent of people get it off their chest in one crescendo event. It’s over, and the next time they see you they don’t have to say, ‘Justin, what happened, I didn’t know she was sick.’ The funeral eliminates the repetition. When my dad died at 54 years of age my mom wanted a small private funeral. He had a lot of friends and about 200 people came anyway, but there were about 800 people who really wanted to say goodbye. Many people didn’t get that chance, and so they came one at a time for the next year. My mother ended up going through hundreds of funerals and was depressed for more than a year.
How has working in this industry changed the way you think about death?
There’s a difference between life and existence, life ends physically but existence doesn’t end. Existence is what we believe is an inner spirit or soul. There have been too many proofs of an existence beyond this life and I’ve taken on many a person in debate on this topic. Spiritual existence is something we humans don’t have the comprehension to fully understand. Most peoples have a belief in the life to come, Hebrews, Christians, Buddhists, Hindus. You can go back to ancient times, the pyramids and the origins of humanity. Even then people had a belief in the life to come, or better said, the existence to come. People have a desire to believe that when we physically die our spirit or soul is released to an environment. You can talk about Plato and Einstein, you can talk about all of the people who made an attempt to understand existence and life and have come to a conclusion and the conclusion is a great percentage of people believe there is existence after this life we live.
Tell me about the merger with SCI, what stage is it in?
They made an offer and we’ve accepted but the merger won’t go through until the end of the year. The law says you can’t have a monopoly. We have 359 locations, they have more than 2,000. The government is now in the process of inspecting each market where we’re operating to see whether or not when you combine our businesses that constitutes control of the market.
Some people would argue that even though SCI doesn’t control the whole market they are buying out mom and pop funeral shops and that’s not good, does this concern you?
I understand that concern but I think there will always be independents because man is independent. There is always going to be someone to come along and say, ‘I have a better idea than you.’ That person may fail, though, because they are fighting big brother and they have more resources, but when you really get right down to it life is complex. There are thousands and thousands of answers to any single question.
You’ve been in the funeral business for 54 years, in a nutshell what’s the secret to success in your industry?
Let me give you the definition of death care, there are three things. The first step is a funeral, the celebration of life. Number two is disposition, or burial, that’s the cemetery or cremation, the third step is memorialization or remembrance. Why is that important? Because you have an ego and you have pride. You have a purpose and you are trying to fulfill your purpose. You’re earning a living, doing something you believe in, and that’s what memorialization is. All these millions of dollars people spend on monuments in cemeteries are nothing more than footprints. Everyone alive wants to leave a footprint that says that they were here. If I built this building I want my name on the corner, if I write that story I want my name at the top, if I paint that painting I want to sign my name on the bottom. That’s the normal psychology of life, and that’s the business we are in, fulfilling our role to celebrate a life, dispose and memorialize. The cemetery business is nothing more than a person’s desire to be remembered as having been significant. Not wealthy, not powerful, but significant.