Santa Fe funeral homes say business of death has changed dramatically

Rick Berardinelli has returned to manage Berardinelli Family Funeral Service. Clyde Mueller/The New Mexican

After 15 years, Rick Berardinelli has happily returned to managing his once-family-owned business, where “the customers don’t want to be there, they don’t want to be doing what they are doing and they don’t want to pay what they are going to be paying.”

Berardinelli sold the family’s funeral business in the late 1990s and disappeared into semi-retirement with Carriage Services, a Houston-based nationwide consolidator of funeral businesses, which also bought out McGee mortuary, the Berardinellis’ other funeral home across Louisa Street. He was still involved but only as a consultant.

Across town along Rodeo Road, Tim Rivera, manager of Rivera Family Funeral Options and Memorial Gardens Cemetery, also tells of the egg-shell stresses of managing a business where emotions of family members are extremely strained — occasionally, as Rivera recalled, even leading to fistfights in the parking lot and ending with a call to the police.

A funeral, Rivera said, reflecting Berardinelli’s remark, “is a family reunion under the worst of circumstances that nobody wants to go to, and then you throw money on top of the whole thing.”

Besides the often 24/7 stresses of operating a funeral business, Berardinelli and Rivera also agree that the business of death has changed dramatically over the past couple of decades, even in the time during Berardinelli’s absence.

It wasn’t long ago when cremations made up only 6 percent of the business, Berardinelli said. “Now it’s over 60 percent.”

Rivera estimates cremations accounts for about 70 percent of his business, which in the past few years has focused less on the traditional “religious” rituals and accoutrements of death and more on the nondenominational “spiritual and nature” philosophies, including those of Native cultures.

The reasons for the changes are as varied as the families, but both funeral directors cite common causes, including the high costs of a plot, casket and all the traditional funeral trimmings, the relative convenience of cremation, and the cleaner, healthier aspects of properly disposing of ashes as opposed to a body.

“People perceive cremation as a little more sanitary and appropriate … a more palatable way and an easier way to care for their dead,” Berardinelli said. He added that “memorialization has changed in the hearts and minds of most people around America.”

Rivera believes that is especially true in Santa Fe, where numerous cultures and spiritual philosophies flourish side by side.

“Santa Fe is such a unique place with a rich art heritage, and we wanted something that reflects that,” Rivera said. “We don’t do anything traditional. … The theme is all nature, not religious — either nature or Indian spirituality.”

He cited a butterfly maiden statue that stands in the memorial urn garden.

At Rivera’s, instead of buying burial plots in the ground for one person or an entire family, families are increasingly choosing small memorial sites where several urns can be placed in one horizontal slot in a small wall or on top of each other vertically into the ground.

Rivera maintains a list of artists that families can select from to design a small plaque for the deceased.

“We changed the cemetery to a green garden cemetery,” Rivera said.

The memorial garden is also envisioned as a bird sanctuary and designed as such, with a winged motif (“May Your Spirit Soar”) and water-based structures. Many of the stone plaques feature birds or winged-flight themes.

Rivera said that since his family took over the business from Stewart Enterprises, another Houston-based, publicly traded funeral-home “consolidator” similar to Berardinelli’s Carriage Services, the number of families served has grown from about 180 families a year to 400.

“This is all about a smaller footprint,” Rivera said, noting that dozens of urns can be placed in the land space it takes to bury one body. “That plot takes up a lot of land,” Rivera said. “We only have enough plots for about five years, but with the memorial urn garden, “there’s enough [space] for 75 or 100 years.”

Also unique to Santa Fe, Rivera said, is a spot in the garden where you can commingle your ashes with those of other family members, or even strangers, all bonded by the return to nature.

Another growing trend, Berardinelli said, is for individuals and families to arrange for payment and specify the type of service years in advance of a death. He said it’s basically a life insurance policy that the bearers pay on while they are alive. The payment and services are not tied to any one funeral home. Upon death, the planned services will generally be honored by any mortuary in the country.

The prearranged services also tend to reduce family tensions, Berardinelli said.

“I think it’s one of the nicest gifts that people can leave to their family. It’s a very loving thing to do.”

Contact Dennis Carroll at carroll.news1@gmail.com.

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(2) comments

James Wales

Oh, and here's something good for a laugh. There actually are people who really believe that it's a "bad testimony" to be cremated simply because cremation is part of some "pagan" funeral rites.[beam]

James Wales

Cremation will itself be overtaken by alkaline hydrolysis which is cheaper and more environmentally friendly than cremation
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Resomation

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