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Big Business of Cemeteries

The Numbers Can Be Deceiving

Death care industry experts estimate that there are about 10,500 cemeteries in the United States (and more than 22,000 funeral homes), and the vast majority of those are run by small, private companies or even non-profit organizations such as cemetery associations, local governments or churches.

But those numbers can be deceiving.

In general, it is only the very tiniest -- and most remote -- of cemeteries that are run by the small, local groups. In most U.S. cities the largest, best known cemeteries are owned by the giant, national (or even multi-national) corporations that dominate the industry. These companies are Service Corp International, Stewart Enterprises, Carriage Services and, one of the newest national players in the industry, Keystone North America.

Many funeral homes and cemeteries are actually run by large corporationsThe size of these companies make them prime targets for activists and regulators, and, one of their first responses when attacked is to point out that, combined, the top four companies bring in only 22 percent of the industry’s annual revenue.

But, again, the numbers can be deceiving.

The bottom line is that most of the cemeteries that you are familiar with in your hometown are, more than likely, run by one of the industry’s biggest corporations.

Below are a few important things that consumers would do well to know about each of the biggest companies and a few tips for dealing with them. 

The most important thing you should know about these companies is that it may not always be easy to know when you are dealing with one of them. Cemetery industry leaders understand that much of the appeal of a local cemetery is its strong local connection. Cemeteries are often very important local landmarks that were started – and run for many decades – by well known local families. Executives of the large companies realize, then, that locals may not like the idea that a large corporation has bought the cemetery and is now running it from an impersonal national headquarters. So, as the corporations have built their empires of cemeteries over the last 20 years or so, they have done so with little fan fare. No large-scale announcements are made when a national company buys a local cemetery, the cemetery’s name does not change, and, often, even the former owners stay on for years as local managers. All too often, customers have no idea that they are doing business with one of the “big four” of the industry. The website for one well known cemetery in Corpus Christi, Texas, for example, makes much reference to the company’s rich local history and to its long-standing commitment to “the community.” It even boasts that, in recent years, it has added a new funeral home to its “family” and that the new addition is called, “Corpus Christi Funeral Home.” But nowhere does the site mention that the cemetery is run by Carriage Services, one of the large national chains. Careful readers will note that each page of the site is copyrighted to “Carriage Funeral Home,” but, aside from that small reference, the reader – and presumably the customer – is left to assume that the cemetery is an entirely local operation

The best way to determine if your cemetery is run by a larger corporation is to askProbably the best way to determine if the cemetery you are working with or considering is indeed locally owned is to simply ask. But be wary of the answer. New employees may not know who really owns the company, and  others, may be willing to lie or mislead you. Keeping the appearance of a local outfit is that important to the large companies.Fortunately for consumers, most of the large companies are public corporations and, therefore, accountable to stockholders who, of course, want to know in what cities the company operates. So, while the local websites do not typically link back to the parent-company’s website, the reverse is typically true. All of the big companies listed above have search functions on their corporate website so that stockholders (and savy customers) can find out what local cemeteries and funeral homes are part of the chain.

Here is a little more about each of the largest four companies in the United States.

Service Corp International: This company based in Houston is, by far, the largest in the country. It owns 1,627 funeral homes and 452 cemeteries. It also owns the brand name “Dignity Memorials,” so, if you see a cemetery with “a Dignity Memorial provider” attached to its name, the company may not be formally owned by SCI, but it is a franchisee of the company. In 2007 SCI bought its financially troubled closest competitor Alderwoods and, because of the size of the sale, was forced by government regulators to sell some of its other properties in certain cities where competition would have been stifled by the sale.

Stewart Enterprises: This company based in the New Orleans area owns 229 Funeral Homes and 143 cemeteries. With SCI’s purchase of Alderwoods, it jumps into the second spot nationally, but, as you can see, it is far behind SCI in terms of the number of properties it owns and its annual sales. Like all of the other companies in this article, Stewart has plans to continue buying cemeteries and funeral homes and, on occasion, building new ones.

Persistence when dealing with cemeteries can result in great serviceCarriage Services: This company, like SCI, is based on Houston and owns 131 Funeral Homes and 28 cemeteries, most of which are in Texas. But, again, Carriage has plans for expansion.

Keystone North America: This Tampa, Florida company owns 200 Funeral Homes and 10 cemeteries throughout North America and is, perhaps, the big industry player most serious about expansion. Much of the company’s operations are in Canada and, so far, Keystone is the only of the big companies to show a significant interest in that country.

In general, all of these companies are well funded and their corporate-office employees are heavily schooled in the art public relations and business law and ethics. In otherwords, the company’s talk a good game in their annual reports, their interviews and press releases to the national business media, and in their corporate websites. But, as with most other large companies in other industries, there is room for miscommunication, and mismanagement, at the local level. So, when dealing with these companies, if a local employee quotes a company policy that sounds unreasonable, or possibly even illegal, a good tactic would be to pursue the question to the national office. The large companies know that regulators and activists are waiting—sometimes eagerly – to be able to document a major misstep and, therefore, the companies are not fond of the thought of a customer filing a complaint – which could potentially turn into a class action complaint involving all of their customers. So, while dealing with large companies can be as frustrating for death care customers as it is in other industries, persistence can often pay off. These companies depend – even occasionally say so in their public reports – on customers not being good shoppers. So, when a good shopper does come their way, they may just be willing to be accommodating in order to avoid trouble.

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