Americans’ Approach to Funerals Is Changing, and Planning Ahead Can Be Key

Tom Giffey

An open-casket viewing, a religious service, and burial in a cemetery, all followed by ham sandwiches in a church basement. For decades, this was the formula for a Wisconsin funeral.

Yet as our ways of life have changed, so have our ways of death. Funeral directors are at the forefront of these adaptations, and the products are services they offer have to adapt, too.

“Those who have experienced a death without prearrangements understand the benefits of it.” – Mike Hulke, Hulke Family Funeral Home & Cremation Services

“You have to be open,” explained Mike Hulke, who owns Hulke Family Funeral Home & Cremation Services with his wife, Kari. “You can’t treat every family the same. And I tell this to every family that walks in here: We try to treat every family as if they’re the only one we’re assisting, and all we care about is what they want.”

Mike, who graduated from the University of Minnesota with a degree in mortuary science, has been a funeral director for 24 years, the last 19 of them in Eau Claire. He married into the trade: Kari Hulke is the daughter and granddaughter of funeral directors. Two of the couple’s children – Garrett and Brandon – are also now part of the business.

The building that now houses Hulke Family Funeral Home, 3209 Rudolph Road, was originally built as Oak Park Dairy in 1918. In 1979, it was converted into Fuller Funeral Home by George Fuller, and in 1987 it was purchased by Harold “Jerry” Speckien. After later ownership by a conglomerate, the funeral home was purchased by the Hulkes in 2006.

Being a family owned business is important to Mike Hulke. “We’re in this community,” he said. “We run into these people every day after serving them, so there is more of a sense of responsibility.”

“When it’s your name on the line,” Mike continued, “you tend to ...”
“... go the extra mile,” Garrett chimed in, finishing his father’s thought.

CREMATION MORE COMMON

For many Americans, what it means to go that extra mile – literally and figuratively – has changed dramatically in recent years. Fewer funerals involve religious or other formal ceremonies, and more and more people choose to be cremated instead of having a traditional casket-and-vault burial. According to the most recent statewide statistics, 59% of deaths in Wisconsin are followed by cremation. That’s higher than the nationwide cremation rate, which was estimated by the National Funeral Directors Association to be 55% in 2019. (The latter rate is virtually identical to what the Hulkes see in their business.)

The Brookfield, Wisconsin-based association projects that the cremation rate will reach 80% by 2035 because of a variety of factors, including “changing consumer preference, weakening religious prohibitions, and environmental concerns.”
Mike Hulke added that cremation has also become more popular because families and friends live farther apart now, and sometimes funeral services are delayed for weeks or even months to accommodate travel considerations and mourners’ schedules. 

In addition to being less costly – Mike estimates that cremation can save a family as much as $4,000 because they don’t need a casket, vault, or related items and services – cremation opens a wide range of options to the bereaved: According to the funeral directors’ group, 39% of the time, cremated remains are returned to families while 37% of remains are buried at cemeteries. About 20% of the time, remains are scattered at non-cemetery locations.

And cremation doesn’t preclude having a traditional viewing of the deceased: The association notes that 27% of families chose a funeral service and viewing before the cremation.

Beyond the cremation-vs.-traditional burial decision, there are countless other ways that final arrangements can be personalized. Over the years, Mike Hulke has seen horse-drawn hearses, motorcycles, and firetrucks involved in funerals. And these days traditional hymns such as “Amazing Grace” might make way for more contemporary tunes by the Beatles, Vince Gill, or Ozzy Osbourne.

MAKING PLANS

But whether you want to be buried in a vault, have your ashes shot into space, or exit the world to Ozzy’s wails, you have to let your wishes be known. Nationally, only about 21% of funerals are pre-planned, a rate similar to what the Hulkes see in the Chippewa Valley. They encourage people to let their families know exactly what they want to happen when they die. Preplanning can range from simply talking about arrangements with your family to actually prefunding your funeral.

In the case of prefunding, the Hulkes said, an individual will outline his or her plans in detail and then receive an all-inclusive quote – tallying the cost of everything from embalming or cremation to flowers, death certificates, and obituaries – all based upon current prices. The necessary amount is then set aside in an account with a holding company, where it grows with interest until it is needed.

“Then what we basically try to do is at the time of need, if the family has kept the exact plan and (made) allowances for all the costs, they won’t have to pay another dime for their funeral expenses,” Mike Hulke said.

Why do only one in five Americans plan their funerals? “Some people feel that as soon as I plan it, it’s going to happen,” Mike said. However, he added, “Those who have experienced a death without prearrangements understand the benefits of it.”
Nationally, there is a trend toward not having a service at all. Mike Hulke often hears people say “don’t make a big fuss” when they die. This might have something to do with Midwestern modesty.

“I don’t know if that person really means don’t celebrate, don’t gather,” he said. “They’re just saying, ‘Don’t make a big deal of it.’ ”

And while considering the deceased person’s wishes is important, Garrett Hulke notes that ultimately, those left behind make the call. “Funerals aren’t for the dead,” he said, “they’re for the living to move forward with the grieving process.”

FUNERALS BY THE NUMBERS

44%

Share of American adults who say they have a will, according to a 2016 Gallup survey.

55%

Share of Americans 55 and older who have a will, according to a 2019 study by Merrill Lynch.

36%

Share of Americans with children under 18 who have a will, according to a January 2018 survey for Caring.com.

37%

Share of Americans who have advance directives, according to 2017 research by a University of Pennsylvania doctor.

21%

Share of Americans who have prearranged their own funerals, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

Death and Taxes is sponsored by:

CliftonLarsonAllen
3402 Oakwood Mall Dr, Suite 100
Eau Claire, WI

Death and Taxes is sponsored by:

CliftonLarsonAllen
3402 Oakwood Mall Dr, Suite 100
Eau Claire, WI