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Death Proof


Funeral industry mostly immune to economic problems.

Death's sting is still a matter of debate, but the profit appears to be in high-priced aboveground tombs, specialized caskets and urns with the logo of Major League baseball teams or top universities.

America's $11 billion funeral industry continues to remain strong in the economic downturn. While people are cutting back on luxuries and scrimping on daily expenses, many appear reluctant to skimp on a funeral. That doesn't make a lot of sense as more families struggle to hold on to their houses and send the kids to college, but it's, well, a fact of life.

The actuarial tables suggest boom times lie ahead for the funeral industry as the Baby Boomers approach geezerhood. The National Funeral Directors Association in Orlando, Florida projects the US death rate will grow from 8 people per 1,000 in 2007 to 9.3 people per 1,000 in 2020 and 10.9 per 1,000 in 2040. That's the sound of money, if you're in the stiff biz. It's not the heady growth IPO investors, seek, but at least it's predictable.

Independent, family-owned funeral homes have been rolled into publicly traded companies in an effort to create economies of scale and advertising clout. Like the rotary engine, it's one of those good ideas that didn't work as well as expected. Loewen, renamed Alderwood Group, filed for bankruptcy protection in 1999 after debt mounted to $2.3 billion.

As stocks, Carriage Services (CSV), Hillenbrand Industries (HB) and Stewart Enterprises (STEI) aren't showing much life.

Cremation can cost at little as $300 but many people prefer a big send off, even if they're not around to enjoy it. If you're famous, you might be able to get someone else to foot the bill.

Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson had his ashes fired from a 150-foot-tall tower topped by a red fist with two thumbs, said to be the symbol of his first-person gonzo reporting. Actor Johnny Depp, who played Thompson in a film based on his life, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, paid for the cannon.

"He loved explosions," Thompson's widow, Anita, said.

Oddball funerals aren't uncommon, including dropping a piano from a helicopter hovering at 500 feet (fortissimo!) or being buried in a Cadillac (Right about now, General Motors will take any sale it can get.)
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