Death Is Big Business

Death becomes creative for funeral entrepreneurs.
Magazine Contributor
3 min read

This story appears in the July 2006 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Despite our many efforts to stave off the Grim Reaper, one day he'll pay us a visit. While this is a rather somber reminder of our mortality, it also represents a great business opportunity. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the funeral industry generates over $11 billion a year in revenue, with each funeral averaging $6,500. This figure doesn't include additional cemetery costs such as burial plots, vaults and monuments, which can tack on a few more grand to each service. With these to-die-for numbers, some savvy entrepreneurs have started thinking outside the pine box to come up with some unconventional and creative options for our final send-offs.

Houston-based Space Services Inc., for example, offers space "burials" in which up to 7 grams of a person's cremated remains are placed inside lipstick-size capsules and launched into orbit.

Charles Chafer, 53, Space Services' co-founder and CEO, was part of the team that launched the first privately funded rocket into outer space in 1982. However, the commercial space field never quite materialized. "I was getting tired of the 'If you build it, they will come' approach to commercial space [flights]," says Chafer. Theorizing the key to space commerce could be found in mass markets, he pursued the idea of memorial space flights. Says Chafer, "I had a belief that people would find a space memorial just as meaningful as having their ashes scattered at sea."

Space Services had its inaugural launch in 1997, during which "symbolic portions" of the cremated remains of 24 people--including Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and counterculture guru Timothy Leary--were launched into orbit. The company's next launch is tentatively scheduled for December 2006 and will rocket the ashes of more than 210 people into space. Space Services' projected sales for 2006 are $5 million.

For those who prefer the sea to outer space, Decatur, Georgia-based Eternal Reefs mixes the ashen remains of loved ones with environmentally friendly concrete and makes cone-shaped "reef balls" to be placed along the coast. Founders Don Brawley, 42, and George Frankel, 56, expect 2006 sales to exceed $500,000. Over the past five years, the company has placed more than 350 reef balls off coastal waters from New Jersey to Texas. "This is more than a trend," says Frankel. "We believe we'll become a mainstream memorial choice."

Customers who would rather keep part of a lost loved one with them turn to LifeGem, which uses carbon from the dearly departed's ashes to render a diamond, worn in a ring or necklace. Greg Herro, 38, and Rusty VandenBiesen, 37, started Life-Gem in 2001 and have created unique memorial diamonds for over 1,000 families. They estimate 2006 sales will reach $7.5 million. "A lot of people have called us a disruptive technology," says Herro. "We make people in the industry question what their customers really want when they lose a loved one."

As a growing number of people opt for more personal, ecologically sound, and cheaper services, the creative-departures trend will likely continue. And with the death rate expected to increase by 2020 as a result of the growing population and the demise of the aging baby boom generation, it's a market where you could truly make a killing.

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