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Funeral home business adapts to rise in opioids, cremations


March 19. 2018 1:30PM
Arthur "Buddy" Phaneuf looks through a recent issue of Time magazine, which featured coverage of the opioid crisis in Manchester via a service at Phaneuf Funeral Home. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)
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Like most businesses, Phaneuf Funeral Homes and Crematorium has adjusted to changes in demographics, trends and technology to remain successful. Now the Manchester company has to protect transfer drivers from exposure to opioids and comfort the growing number of families who have lost loved ones to addiction.

Arthur "Buddy" Phaneuf is getting used to talking about it. This month, Time magazine featured a two-page photo spread of a service for an addict at the company's Hanover Street chapel.

"We were just the intermediary," Phaneuf said, explaining that a Time editor asked him if he could find a grieving family willing to participate in a story about opioid addiction.

Over the past couple of years, Phaneuf figures his company has worked with 50 to 60 families who have lost loved ones to opiods.

"It goes across every socioeconomic group and every ethnic background," he said. "It's young people, it's older people. We've had people in their 60s. We've had people that come from affluent backgrounds, people that are very poor."

Phaneuf's transfer staff now travel with Narcan in their vehicles and have been trained to handle bodies that may be contaminated with dangerous drugs. Exposure to even a granular-sized piece of carfentanil can cause someone to overdose.

"We've seen situations where maybe the cause of death wasn't the opioids, but it was a drug deal gone bad. We've had overdoses in our parking lot. We've had overdoses in the bathroom," Phaneuf said.

The cycle of addiction doesn't always end with the death of the addict.

"One of the issues we have is with services," he said. "People who are addicted are coming because they in many cases have been disenfranchised with the rest of their family unit. These other folks are now their family."

And their presence isn't always welcomed by the family members of the deceased. Sometimes fights break out, and the police need to be called.

"It's a whole different level of mourning, but it's also a whole different experience where you have the family, they're mourning, but they're also bitter. They're angry," Phaneuf said.

While the opioid crisis may be the most dramatic change the fourth-generation owner has experienced since he bought the business from his father in 1989, it's not the one likely to have the most lasting impact on the industry. The preference for cremation over burial, which has risen to about 70 percent, has prompted funeral companies to adapt.

Phaneuf created the Cremation Society of New Hampshire to focus on that aspect of the business and has been acquiring other funeral homes to increase market share. In October, the company purchased Cate and Johnson Funeral Home in Manchester, and this month it bought Ker Westerlund Funeral Home in Brattleboro, Vt.

In Cate's case, Phaneuf purchased the business only, not the real estate. The owners decided to sell in part because they had a good offer on their Pine Street building.

"In most communities, funeral homes are the nicest buildings in the city, town or neighborhood. And the real estate is worth more than the funeral business," said Phaneuf, whose company now operates funeral homes in Manchester, Boscawen, Littleton and now Vermont.

Over the past decade, the number of funeral homes in New Hampshire has dropped from about 100 to about 75, Phaneuf noted. In an era when three-quarters of the customers are choosing cremation, using an old Victorian home worth $600,000 or more is not the most cost-effective way to serve them, he said.

"Not only can you do that in a scaled-down building, you do that off of a website, which is what we do," said Phaneuf, 57. "We're moving away from the traditional brick-and-mortar for some of our families through our discount through the Cremation Society of New Hampshire and not necessarily requiring them to come in."

A Manchester native who grew up on the West Side, Phaneuf didn't originally plan to join the family business. His father cut a deal with him - he would pay for his son's graduate school only if he first spent a year first at a mortuary school in Boston. Phaneuf accepted, but after graduate school he became a business consultant for Deloitte in Washington, D.C.

Shortly after he and his wife, Pamela, got married, he convinced the Brooklyn native to return with him to New Hampshire to raise their family, and Phaneuf bought the funeral home business from his father, who wanted to retire.

Now the father of two grown sons and a daughter, he said he enjoys the mix of working with people and flexing his entrepreneurial skills. The company is increasingly turning to the internet, including using virtual meetings to include customer family members from other parts of the country. Phaneuf envisions having an attorney on staff to handle estate questions and other legal issues.

The business also is adding services to the brick-and-mortar side. Last year, Phaneuf introduced a cafe and function room to three of its homes, including the Hanover Street location. But the 46-person room Phaneuf opened has already proven too small; he wants to expand it to accommodate 100 guests.The menu features chicken tenders catered from the Puritan Back Room: "It's their menu and their prices with just our brand on it."

The aim is to accommodate families holding services at the funeral home rather than at a church.

If their plan is to gather for a meal afterward, why not offer that service, too?

"We want to create what the funeral experience is going to be in the future. And we're hoping that 10 years from now people say, 'Well, of course you have the luncheon at the funeral home after.'"

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Contact Business Editor Mike Cote at 206-7724 or mcote@unionleader.com.

Arthur "Buddy" Phaneuf poses with paintings of his grandfather, Arthur, left, and his father, John, at the Phaneuf Funeral Home in Manchester. Phaneuf is the fourth-generation owner of the business. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)


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