CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Thousands of funeral directors are gathering in uptown Charlotte starting Sunday for their annual convention, discussing everything from making cremations profitable to handling services for pets.

It s the first time the National Funeral Directors Association has held its convention in Charlotte, and the four-day program of seminars, workshops and an equipment exposition comes as change is sweeping the industry.

Baby boomers are starting to demand less traditional funerals. More people than ever are choosing cremation. Funeral homes are working to integrate technology such as live webcasting into services.

And like most businesses, funeral homes are still grappling with the effects of the recession, working to cut costs and stay in business as consumers trim their budgets.

Everyone thinks that our profession is not affected by our economy or any of those things, and that s absolutely not true, said Randy Earl, a funeral director in Decatur, Ill., and president of the NFDA. People are frightened. They ve lost their life savings, they ve lost their retirement funds, and anywhere they can cut expenses, they re going to do it.

Cutting corners, all costs

He said his funeral homes, like others, have cut costs.

When we ve had someone retire, we haven t filled that position, Earl said. We have done that so we can stay in business.

One major trend across the industry is the rapid rise in cremations. In 2001, just over a quarter of Americans who died were cremated; by 2011, that rose to 42 percent, and the number is expected to keep rising.

Cremations are cheaper than a full burial, and more people who are cremated choose not to have a full service. Both trends have hurt funeral homes bottom lines.

When I entered the business, the cremation rate was probably in the teens, said Ken Poe of Hankins & Whittington funeral home on East Boulevard. It s a critical issue. Your whole business model has to change, in terms of how you staff the funeral home, how you operate. You have to look at everything more closely than you ever had to do. Your margins are not the same as they used to be.

Market oversaturated

There are 19,680 funeral homes in the U.S. this year, according to the NFDA. That s down almost 7 percent from 2000, despite the population growing during the same time. Josh Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, said he expects those changes to continue as rising cremation rates eat into profit margins.

We have an overcapacity of funeral homes in this country, Slocum said. Some of these guys are going to have to merge with each other, consolidate, or go out of business.

Charlotte is the sixth-most expensive city to hold a funeral in the nation, according a survey this August by research and funeral planning firm Everest Funeral. Local funeral parlors have said a high degree of consolidation in the local marketplace has kept prices high.

The average cost in Charlotte for a tradition funeral service is $5,368, and the average cost of a direct cremation is $2,403. That compares with a national average in metro areas of $4,877 for traditional funerals and $1,816 for cremation, according to Everest.

But funeral consumer advocates say there s a wide range of prices for the same services, which makes planning ahead and shopping around crucial. You re going to find a range of probably $3,000 in one town for the same thing, Slocum said.

A time to regroup

The convention offers the expected 5,700 funeral directors a chance to see the industry s latest technologies and equipment on display at the Charlotte Convention Center.

Everything that we use in our profession will be there, Earl said. All the way from cemetery equipment to cremation retorts, to embalming instruments and chemicals, cremation urns, of course, caskets, automobiles there will be funeral coaches there and embalming tables.

Funeral directors can look over makeup systems for bodies, DNA-saving companies that will store a loved one s genetic material, violent crime scene cleanup companies, a company that compresses ashes into LifeGem Memorial Diamonds and a company that recycles metal body implants after cremations.

Also on display: a machine that uses an alkaline solution and heat to liquefy human remains, in a process called alkaline hydrolysis. The process, which results in a white mineral powder similar to ashes, is supposed to result in lower emissions and less pollution than a cremation.

The workshops and seminars, which run Sunday through Wednesday, will cover a wide range of topics for funeral directors. Titles include Don t Settle for Satisfied! Build Customer Loyalty, and The 3 Ps of Cremation: Policies, Procedures, Performance. And funeral directors will discuss how to conduct services for pets: Families that entrust their pets to your firm will also entrust their loved ones, the workshop description advises.

Apart from the industry-specific topics, most of the speakers are similar to what one would expect at any business conference. Motivational speaker Alison Levine will open the convention on Monday with PEAKonomics: Success strategies from the seven summits.

And Mack Dryden, a comedian and corporate speaker, will close on Wednesday with Laugh to the top: A hilarious guide to achieving your goals.

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