With 80 percent of families choosing cremation of their loved ones over burial, land prices skyrocketing, and a trend toward full-service mortuaries at cemeteries, funeral directors said they are shrinking their facilities while trying to offer personalized services to survive the times.
Family-owned Roller & Hapgood & Tinney was the city's first funeral home. It had been located at 980 Middlefield Road since 1951. Retired cabinet maker Josiah Roller started the firm in 1899 after years of crafting coffins. He agreed to make the funeral arrangements for a friend whose relative had died in exchange for help establishing the Palo Alto funeral home. Frank Hapgood joined as partner in 1912, and Roller & Hapgood acquired local funeral home Tinney & Sons in 1976.
Yahoo Chief Executive Officer Marissa Mayer bought the property on Oct. 7 for an undisclosed sum, said Jim Spangler, president of Mountain View-based Spangler Mortuaries, which purchased some of Roller's business assets.
In a press release, mortuary owner Paul Roller commented on the sale: "The property value in Palo Alto is so great it can no longer justify use as a funeral home."
John O'Connor, funeral director of Menlo Park Funerals, has known the Roller family for many years.
Roller & Hapgood faced pressure to stay relevant in today's funeral market, and ultimately, it made more sense to sell the property for millions, he said — "which they did."
But the high cost of Palo Alto and Menlo Park land is only part of the reason for Roller & Hapgood's demise, he said. People are changing how they are being buried and where they have services, he said.
O'Connor has been a licensed funeral director for 50 years and a funeral director in Menlo Park for nearly 25 years. He once had a 7,000-square-foot facility near downtown Menlo Park. In the early 1980s, cremations constituted 20 percent of his business, but they jumped to 50 percent within 10 years, he said.
"We were no longer doing two to three funerals a night with services in two to three chapels, so we downsized to 3,000 square feet," he said.
When cremation rates again rose he retired and sold the business, he said. O'Connor took an extended trip around the world for eight years. He returned to the business in 2010 after people complained of the void in Menlo Park.
Now, cremations constitute 80 percent, he said.
"Funeral directors ask me, 'John, what the hell is going on in California?' I don't have an answer," he said, noting that in other parts of the country, the cremation rate is 20 percent, he said.
Most people in Palo Alto and Menlo Park can afford a traditional funeral, so O'Connor doesn't think the change is due to money. But the difference in costs might be enticing. A cemetery plot costs $10,000; the price tag for scattering ashes by air or sea is $500. O'Connor charges $2,000 for a cremation. A traditional funeral, according to AARP, is $7,000, he noted.
"The difference is $17,000 against $2,500. It's a vast difference," he said.
The Roman Catholic Church is also affecting traditional funeral homes by getting into the funeral business, he said.
"Catholic churches in some states have funeral homes in their cemeteries," he said.
Catholic churches are also building wall niches in new churches to accommodate parishioners' cremated remains, he said.
Jim Spangler, president of Mountain View-based Spangler Mortuaries, moved into O'Connor's 7,000-square-foot Menlo Park space after O'Connor downsized. In 2009, when Spangler's rent tripled, he closed the funeral home. Now his staff meets with families at their homes to make arrangements, and the firm works collaboratively with some local churches.
O'Connor's business model has also dramatically changed since returning to funeral directing. He works from a 500-square-foot office on Chestnut Street, and he answers his cell phone at any time of the day or night.
Marilyn Talbot, general manager at Palo Alto's Alta Mesa Memorial Park, which includes the city's sole remaining mortuary, said the full-service funeral home was added in 2010, including a chapel and reception area where people can order or bring catered food.
"The trend is that people want to go to one place instead of a lot of different places," she said.
People also expect and want technology to play a role in funerals, Talbot said. Alta Mesa offers tribute videos, memorial websites and live funeral webcasting. Since many family members live out of the country and can't attend a funeral, Alta Mesa's chapel has a huge drop-down screen so all parties can see each other.
"People have live-streamed services all over the world," she said.
As for Roller & Hapgood & Tinney, Spangler said, families can continue to use the firm's phone number or visit its website. Persons wanting to view family funeral records and consult on pre-arrangements made with Roller & Hapgood can contact Spangler at 650-967-5546. Spangler has offices in Los Altos, Mountain View and Sunnyvale.