barbara-shuler_web.jpgSpecial to South Florida Times

Funeral homes, like most businesses, have been feeling the squeeze of the economic recession, according to directors of black-owned mortuaries. For many of them, business is, well, dying.

“The downturn in the economy has impacted the funeral business, too,” said Dr. Barbara Carey-Shuler, owner of Shuler’s Memorial Chapel in Delray Beach and in Mangonia Park.

The concern is not that fewer people seem to be dying, said Tony Austin, director of operations at Shuler’s Memorial Chapel. It’s the level of service that families are opting for that has some funeral homes struggling to stay in the black.  From caskets to limos, families are cutting back on their spending.

“In the past, people wanted really nice services for their loved ones but now, today, they’re not doing that anymore,” said Carey-Shuler. “They want the least expensive service they can get – or they’re cremating, which is much cheaper. In the past, blacks didn’t cremate but now, they’re cremating at an alarming rate.

They’re not buying the flowers or any of the accessories that they used to in order to make a beautiful service,” said Carey-Shuler.

Families spent between $6,500 and $7,500 on funeral services before the recession. That has dropped to between $5,000 and $6,000, she said. Cremations are up 30 percent at her business. Shuler’s has had to lay off two or three employees because of the downturn.

Funeral homes and their struggles took the spotlight when The National Funeral Directors and Morticians Association, a coalition of black funeral directors, convened earlier this month for its 73rd Annual Convention in Fort Lauderdale.

The group’s president-elect, Gregory Burrell, said the impact of the economic recession on their business was at the top of the agenda.

“This is happening from California to Connecticut,” said Burrell. “People are shopping around and they’re not looking for quality service; they’re looking for the cheapest price.  The reality is people are spending a lot less.”

“This is the worst I’ve seen it,” said Burrell, who owns and operates a funeral home in Philadelphia. “I’ve been in this business since I was 8 years old and I’m now 49.”

N. Patrick Range Sr., owner/operator of Range Funeral Homes of Greater Miami, received the organization’s highest honor, the Robert H. Miller Professional of the Year award, at the convention on Aug. 3. He echoed the concerns of his colleagues.

“We have experienced it,” Range said. “People who do have money are not spending it and the others don’t have the money to spend. It used to be that families would select the average price to the upper range of services, but not anymore,” he said. “It’s primarily because of the economy.”

Carey-Shuler said families are even opting to skip the limousine ride to the church.

“They say, ‘We’ll meet you at the church’,” she said.

And caskets?

“In the past, blacks have bought beautiful caskets for their loved ones but now they’re buying caskets at Costco’s, Sam’s. We’ve heard devastating stories of people falling through caskets because they’re not well-built. They’re cheap products. While these companies are buying caskets in bulk, we’re buying them one at a time, so of course we’re going to pay more,” said Carey-Shuler.

One possible solution the conference attendees came up with is for local funeral homes to go co-operative, Burrell said. But this was not adopted as a formal plan.

“Funeral directors can get together and buy caskets and other inventory together to keep costs down.  If we can buy in bulk, we can get better rates,” Burrell said.

Companies also have to change with the times to stay competitive, according to Austin. Shuler’s Memorial Chapel has positioned itself to serve not only the black community but also people of all races and ethnic groups.

Carey-Shuler believes white-owned family-operated funeral homes are also feeling the squeeze. She recalls reading a newspaper article that said a large white-owned funeral home had been hit hard by the recession.

But Julian Almeida, one of the owners of Palms West Funeral Home in Royal Palm Beach in western Palm Beach County, said he has been able to keep business on the upside.

“We never had a bad year, except in 2008,” he said. “That year, people began to downsize on the funeral.”

His answer was to begin advertising on television, which brought in business from outside his immediate area. The following year, business increased and has continued to improve ever since, he said. 

Almeida said he has indeed adapted to racial and ethnic changes in the community he serves. He previously catered primarily to white families but the racial composition of the community is changing and so is his business outreach.

“As the white, Anglo, families are moving out, Hispanics, Jamaicans and Haitians have moved in. We have adapted to the market and to those changes,” Almeida said.

Also, he has kept prices down — and he has also opened a café in his funeral home. He also provides a webcast of funeral services so those who are out of state or out of the country can share in the experience in real time.

“We did a lot of things that other funeral homes have not done, and [consequently] they were caught in the bad economy,” Almeida said.

Roderick Stevens, licensed funeral director at Shuler’s West Palm Beach office, said he could recall a time when black-owned funeral homes needed to advertise only on hand fans and in calendars to become known in the community. Churches were the link to the community and their clientele, he said.

He believes that while the times have changed and the bad economy has taken a toll on some black-owned funeral homes and the public’s ability to pay for services, Shuler’s Memorial Chapel will overcome the current difficulties.

“We value the traditional funeral because that’s part of our heritage…it’s where we came from,” Stevens said.

Daphne Taylor may be reached at

Photo: Barbara Carey-Shuler