published Wednesday, November 9th, 2011

Mortuary touts local roots

Josh Jennings, co-owner of Hamilton Funeral Home & Cremation Services, explains how he can custom build a casket while in the selection room at his new business off Hixson Pike.
Josh Jennings, co-owner of Hamilton Funeral Home & Cremation Services, explains how he can custom build a casket while in the selection room at his new business off Hixson Pike.
Photo by Dan Henry.

BY THE NUMBERS

$6,560 — Average funeral costs, not counting cemetery, grave marker and miscellaneous costs such as flowers and obituaries

102,877 — People employed nationally by the funeral home industry in 2007, the most recent data available

36.8% — Cremation rate

0.83% - Death rate

Source: National Funeral Directors Association

HAMILTON COUNTY FUNERAL HOMES

Independently owned

* Heritage Funeral Homes and Cremation Services, East Brainerd Road

* Taylor Funeral Home, Wilcox Boulevard and Webb Road

* Turner Funeral Home, Webb Road

* Covenant Funeral & Cremation Service, Bonny Oaks Drive

* John P. Franklin Funeral Home, Dodds Avenue

* Hardwick & Sons Funeral Home, East M. L. King Boulevard, Trammell Chapel

* Hamilton Funeral Home & Cremation Service, Hixson Pike

*Legacy Funeral Home and Cremation Center, Dallas Hollow Road

Owned by Carriage Services

*Lane Funeral Home, Ashland Terrace

*Williamson and Sons Funeral Home, Dayton Pike

*Owned by Dignity Memorial

*Chattanooga Funeral Home & Crematory, Hixson Pike, East Brainerd, East, North and Valley View Chapels

Four-year-old Josh Jennings was crushed he wasn’t allowed to go to his grandmother’s funeral.

The small, blond boy knew grandma was gone, but he missed his best chance to mourn the loss because his parents feared it would be too much for the small child to handle.

That loss stuck with Jennings. He went on to study mortuary science, and this year, after working 10 years in the industry, opened a funeral home in Hixson.

Hamilton Funeral Home & Cremation Services, which opened in the former Golden Corral restaurant on Hixson Pike, is the only locally owned funeral home in the North Chattanooga area. That means all the new business’s direct competitors have the established community trust so important in the industry and the benefit of the financial support and expertise of a national funeral chain.

“Am I worried about that? No. I’m not worried at all,” Jennings said. “The funeral business isn’t like anything else. It’s not like a car dealership where you can cut prices. It’s just a different type of business.”

In the past, tradition has played a huge role in funeral home selection. Families would use the same mortuary for the grandparents, mom and dad and themselves, but that’s changing.

“It’s those baby boomers. They hold the key to all our business,” Jennings said.

Those boomers often value price, convenience and service over tradition, he said. That’s made customers more likely to use the new business. But since its opening, Hamilton Funeral Home has already hosted several funerals and more than three dozen persons have have pre-planned their funerals with the home. Most new homes will consider their first year successful if they hit 40.

Jennings, who has worked both for funeral homes owned by national chains and locally owned mortuaries, said most of his customers prefer the locally owned option. He and co-owner Ralph Mosier have about $2 million invested in the business, and they expect their private ownership will help them succeed over the bigger competitors.

“We just really felt like we needed a locally owned funeral home that provided a more personal level of care, that really wasn’t focused on national averages and trying to do something across the board, but instead was able to cater services to the needs of our local community,” Jennings said.

But Bob Batson, executive director of the Tennessee Funeral Director’s Association, said neither local nor national operators have an advantage over the other.

“It depends on what you call an advantage. The corporates would have more business resources than the locally owned folks,” he said. “But as far as advantages as far as funerals go, I wouldn’t think so.”

According to the National Funeral Directors Association, 44 percent of consumers prefer independently owned homes compared to 2 percent who prefer corporate-owned homes. The remaining 51 percent had no preference.

National chain homes may have a long-term advantage in one area. Nationally, only 10 percent of funeral homes are owned by corporations with multiple locations. But estate tax and other taxes can make passing on a family business expensive, according to Gene Pike, president of Chattanooga Funeral Home, which is owned by Dignity Memorial -- the largest funeral home chain in North America.

The larger purchasing power of funeral home chains also help employees, who Pike said often see better benefits and job stability.

“The corporations are going to be very competitive in the marketplace. They have to be, so they’re going to make sure that they’re stable and consumer friendly,” he said. “I’ve been on both sides, family and corporate, and I think both sides of the spectrum, they’re committed to service.”

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