As the rate of cremation in North America continues to grow, the amount of traditional burials is dropping. This trend affects many sectors of the death care industry, and cemeteries are no exception. Cemetery operators, designers, service providers, and suppliers are working to meet the inevitable challenges.
Elisa Krcilek, Vice President and General Manager of Mountain View Funeral Homes & Cemetery, was inaugurated as President of CANA in July at our 101st Convention. Elisa has many plans for her term as president, primarily focusing on cremation memorialization and the ways our industry can work together, learn, and share what we know.
The following is an excerpt from a past issue of The Cremationist about the ways that instilling a culture of memorialization to staff training in funeral homes and cemeteries to educate the public on the options and benefits of memorializing cremated remains.
Mountain View Funeral Home and Cemetery in Mesa, Arizona is, in my opinion, the most beautiful cemetery in the East Valley of Arizona. We have 52 acres, but only 24 are developed. So we have space for 150-200 years to come.
Like most cemeteries, originally all the spaces were for traditional burial. The sections for cremation were added in later. The cremation rate in Arizona, both by percentage and total number of cremations, is near the highest in the United States and predicted to surpass 70% by 2023. Cremation has changed the way people look at permanent memorialization on both sides of the arrangement table.
Changing the Mindset
I am not at all embarrassed or ashamed to say that we are a for-profit cemetery. We’re always looking for new ways to generate income and to give our families what they’re looking for and what they want. You know that if they don’t see what they want, they—in many cases—do nothing.
Because of the growth in the demand for cremation, a lot of what we’re doing at Mountain View is first working to change the mindset of our funeral directors and our cemetery staff to do a better job feeding into our cemetery. The first thing we did to work more efficiently is set up a two-up system, very similar to what you see in a lot of other combo businesses. This means that we have a cemetery professional go into the arrangement conference with the funeral director. When the funeral director steps out to make the final contract for the cremation, we make sure that that family is not left alone during the arrangement. Instead, the family service counselors take the family out to the cemetery to see what we have available.
It starts very simply, because right inside our funeral home we have a glass-front niche. It’s a matter of coming out of the building, taking four steps to the left, and introducing the families to the idea of memorialization.
From there, we direct them to our golf cart up front and we immediately take them to the cemetery. We don’t do a lot of talking. The beauty of the majestic cemetery speaks for itself. What we will do is point out areas in the cemetery that specialize in housing cremated remains.
Showcasing Cremation Options
At that first niche, just to the left, most of our cremation families will say, “Oh, no, no. We don’t need any of this. We’re taking Mom back to Iowa where she’s from.” We tell them, “We understand that that’s what you’re planning to do. However, it’s not fair to you if we don’t take you through the options we have available.”
Many times people tell us they’re taking the remains with them, but in the end that’s not what actually happens. Sometimes they realize that because they’re here, this is Mom’s new home. This is where Mom retired, this is where she wanted to be for the duration of her life.
What are people looking for? A lot of the families we serve have chosen cremation because they don’t want to spend thousands and thousands of dollars. So we want to give them something that’s affordable. We’re finding ways to expand our cremation garden. We have added in a green cremation area because a lot of people say, “Oh, we just want to scatter Dad,” so we offer them the option to do this in the cemetery.
We’re doing a memory vase memorialization package. The memory vase is just for vased flowers right above a bio-degradable urn that goes directly in the ground. They don’t need an urn vault, just a 12-by-12, 3-inch-thick granite base. These memory vases are affordable, and they do not take space out of our inventory because they’re spacers that weren’t in our inventory to begin with. We identified little nooks and crannies of space where there’s nothing, and now we can beautify our cemetery with flower vases.
Engaging Cemetery Visitors
The memory vases provide a way for us to generate more income, but, more importantly, they’re a way to get the families to come back. When they come back, when they visit, it gives them a reason to come in. It keeps us in touch with them. That way, when we have a Memorial Day service or a Veteran’s Day service, we have a way to be able to get in contact with these people to invite them to these events we have and then talk to them about, “Well, what about yourself? Have you preplanned your funeral? Have you preplanned your cremation?”
We do a lot of things to find out what people want. We do a lot of “park-rangering” – we just go up to people in the cemetery, give them a bottled water, and start a conversation. You would be amazed how many people will say, “I’ve been visiting my husband for twelve years and you’re the first person that’s ever come up and talked to me.” So it’s just a matter of being friendly and saying hello. I’ve never had somebody say, “Leave me alone.” Of course, you have to use some discretion, too.
You also start to see patterns of people who come in on a regular basis. Sometimes you’ll see a family come in on the weekend and it might be a special occasion, such as a birthday, so we don’t approach them right when they first arrive. We wait maybe a half an hour or an hour. When you see them wandering around, looking at other graves, that might be a good time to walk up.
I do a monthly training with my team and include “Best Practices” for park-rangering: these are the things you want to do, these are the things you don’t want to do. For example, if you’re doing a graveside service you are not to be out there handing out your business cards to everybody. You can keep your business cards with you, and if somebody approaches you and says, ‘Hey, I’d like to get some information’— and that, believe it or not, happens a lot—then you’re allowed to give out your card.
Most of that conversation comes at the end of an interment, where people are standing around. They like to see the vault lowered into the ground, they like to see the urn placed. We talk to them and make sure to say hello because they’ve already met us at the arrangement.
I start all of my weekly staff meetings with a victory story. We go around and every person has to tell a success story about something that’s worked for them. The people around think, “Oh, maybe that does work!” because when you hear a real-life story, with a real name attached to it, suddenly it becomes contagious. I want each one of them to have buy-in with their victory stories because they’ll have a passion for the things they were able to sell.
Nobody wants to be sold and nobody wants to be pushed into something they’re not interested in. But they will buy when they see value and they see something they like. But they’re never going to know that if you don’t take them on a tour and show it to them.
When you do a tour, it’s not always about the person who died. It’s about showing the family the possibilities. If you’re not taking them on a tour, you’re doing that family an injustice. More people will make a decision when they see how beautiful your cremation waterfall is in person. They can’t visualize it on their own.
If you say to a family, “Were you thinking of being buried in the cemetery?” they’ll say, “No, that’s why we chose cremation.” Instead, you can say, “Take a quick ride with me, let me show you something you might be interested in. We’ve developed things specifically for families like you,” They won’t refuse, they’ll follow you because they don’t do this every day. They don’t know what they don’t know.
We’re developing a very specific cremation tour, not showing our gardens that are all burials, but taking them to key cremation places. “Have you ever heard of a cremation boulder? This is what it looks like. We have areas where we can place it,” and then taking them to show them where the areas are.
The family they’re meeting with on the funeral home side may or may not buy in the cemetery, but they may have a relative who will. We keep saying, “In our business, it’s not about the family you’re serving today. It’s about all their friends and relatives that you should be thinking about serving tomorrow.”
On meeting the opportunities and challenges of an expanding demand for cremation:
- Plan for the future. Be prepared for what is coming, do not wait for it to get here. If you run out of space because you have not planned ahead you are not serving your cemetery or the people that want to be there.
- Continue to make cremation interments an EVENT for families. Do not minimize the interment process simply because it is easier to inter cremated remains compared to a casket.
- Be open to suggestions from families, have a policy IN WRITING —and STICK TO IT—regarding the disposition of cremated remains.
- Diversify as much as possible and promote the value of the experience at least as much as the goods and services.
- Offer everything. When a family says they want to take dad home, ask “Why?” and why they do not want a permanent placement?
- Always ask the family to take a tour of the cemetery before they make a final decision about what they are going to do with Mom or Dad.
- Provide as many options as possible
- Listen to the changing needs of your customers and adapt by providing solutions that are important to them. Provide more choice and options for people.
- Price it to make money. We in the industry have made cremation inexpensive, not consumers. And they do not mind paying for service and quality.
Elisa discussed cremation growth at CANA’s 101st Annual Cremation Innovation Convention. Missed it? Soon, you can catch up with the on-demand event recording providing the latest CANA Statistics Report and how to use it to benefit your business: gocana.org/CANA19
CANA Members have access to the complete CANA's Annual Cremation Statistics Report, but you can see the highlights for yourself on our website. Members — don't know your password? Contact CANA for your login credentials and make full use of the benefits of CANA Membership!
Elisa Krcilek is VP of Sales and Marketing at Mountain View Funeral Home, Cemetery and Crematory in Mesa, Arizona. Elisa has been a licensed funeral director and embalmer for 25 years, is a certified cremationist, and is licensed to sell pre-need life insurance and cemetery real estate. Prior to joining the Mountain View team she was the Market Manager over Pre-Planning Advisors for Dignity Memorial in Phoenix. She was Director of Cremation Development for Stewart Enterprises until they sold to SCI. Elisa spent seven years as the District Manager of the West for Matthews Intl. bronze division. Her career started in Illinois in 1990 working for the Cremation Society of Illinois, where she was the VP of Sales & Marketing until relocating to Arizona.
Elisa was elected as President of CANA in 2019, the fifth woman to lead the association.