Lisa Baue is President, CEO and third-generation owner of Baue Funeral Homes, Crematory and Cemetery in St. Charles, MO. Pam Gehrs is COO of the company and its St. Charles Memorial Gardens. Colby Hitchcock is Director of Operations for the funeral homes and memorial gardens. They shared their thoughts with The Bulletin.
Can you describe the features of your memorial gardens?
Lisa: “Our cemetery is 80 acres, with more than 15,000 lot owners and 500 interments a year and contains religious themed gardens, a large lakeside garden area with a fountain, swans and various other water wildlife. We have mausoleums, private family estates mausoleums, lawn crypts, cremation garden areas, a veterans themed garden and a garden dedicated to infants and premature births.
“In the last five years, we have added an upright marker area for families who desire a more traditional memorialization option, new outdoor mausoleums and a cremation garden section containing unique and contemporary cremation memorialization features.”
Pam: “Keeping our cemetery relevant and appealing to the community is part of our overall mission to providing the very best in life-honoring permanent memorialization. We believe that we must constantly be developing new and different options to meet the changing needs of our market and to truly tell a story of a life well lived.
“One of our most popular areas within our gardens has been our uniquely designed cremation walkway that offers a variety of options including coping stones, beautiful cremation benches, glass and granite memorials all set in a beautiful area landscaped with breathtaking flowers and trees.
“We have a master plan to create a community mausoleum village that has walking paths and water features and cremation options. The first community mausoleum sold out quickly, and the second community mausoleum will be completed by summer of 2017. We also are in the process of creating our Seeds of Hope Garden which is a natural garden that will have walking paths and areas for reflection.”
Colby: “One feature that sets our cemetery apart from others is the vast array of cremation memorialization options that we offer. This can range from cenotaph memorial pavers to uprights with inurnment chambers.”
What are the biggest challenges you face?
Lisa: “From an owners standpoint, cash flow has its challenges as we work to maintain a 50-year-old cemetery with the various maintenance needs we run into. Maintaining our cemetery with the ‘garden like’ look during times of inclement weather from droughts to flooding has many challenges.
“The general upkeep costs of having the grass mowed neatly, trimming, tree replacement, road maintenance, lake upkeep, the cost of equipment repair and replacement and employee costs have many challenges, as well the need to maintain a profit and have dollars left to invest in future development. The interest we are allowed to retain from the endowed care fees set aside with previous sales is not enough to maintain a traditional cemetery. Thus, we are exploring adding our own additional and private endowed care to add to our future ability to maintain the cemetery as it grows in the years to come.”
Pam: “The biggest challenges we face from an operational and maintenance standpoint include:
- Hiring and keeping good cemetery employees.
- Maintaining the grounds, upkeep of the property and keeping our costs under control.
- How to increase service levels of the cemetery to match the funeral home.
- We need to do a better job of preemptive maintenance—fixing things before they need to be.
- Training for cemetery grounds staff.
Colby: “As Pam stated, manpower is a big concern. We are in a highly competitive job market; construction trades are incredibly busy, and they demand a large amount of manpower. This field is a great source for us, and we are challenged by the limited number of laborers available in the workforce pool. It is a huge challenge to find qualified candidates to work in this environment day in and out.”
Can you share some of your successes?
Lisa: “Having qualified and experienced cemetery managers is critical. Finding Pam Gehrs almost seven years ago was one of the best things we did. Her background in cemetery development and ability to be creative, listen to the market and design unique offerings to sell more than just graves has helped us with our growth and profitability.
“Having Colby Hitchcock as our Operations Director has been a blessing as well. He is a great leader of people and has been able to solve many of our staffing issues over these years. Finding the good ones at a maintenance salary level has it’s challenges, but Colby’s ability to find the right team members and create a great work environment has been a great thing to see.
“Under Colby’s leadership we have for the last year, outsourced our mowing and trimming both at our funeral homes and now at our cemetery to an outside company that has helped us with our staffing issues especially during the mowing season.”
Pam: “Implementing a physical grave flagging system for the families to verify graves before burial and for the grounds team to double check has been very successful. I highly recommend using a flag system.”
Colby: “For years, we focused development to one garden or one area of one garden. The best thing we have done is spread our development around to different areas of the cemetery, so there are multiple developments and inventory available. This has helped with maintenance and beautification, as we are not burying in the same garden day after day.”
What do you think your cemetery team does best?
Lisa: “It’s the level of care I see our staff give to every family we serve. Every grave we mow and trim looks amazing. They truly serve from the heart as if it were a member of their own family. Every time a funeral procession goes by, our grounds team takes off their hats and pays tribute to the deceased and their family. I have watched them approach a family who is visiting a grave and offer their assistance and ask how else we can serve them better.”
Pam: “I believe that overall, both the cemetery directors and the grounds team both focus on customer service and handling complaints and focusing on the family’s needs. I believe the grounds look amazing and that the grounds crews show a great deal of respect for the families we serve. Work orders are handled in a timely manner. I also believe that the family service directors are compassionate and believe in showing all the options and having a true passion to serve the families.”
Colby: “Education is, by far, what we do best. Our sales team does a great job in educating our client families on the various options they have regardless of the form of disposition.”
How do you market your cemetery services?
Pam: “We market our cemetery aggressively through a combo approach with our family service directors and community outreach. We are involved in more than 200 events and presentations in the community. We offer veterans seminars, cremation seminars and education programs which market both the cemetery and our funeral services.
“We use direct mail where we offer buck slips that feature our new cemetery offerings. We do niche marketing to specific groups such as veteran organizations, church organizations and networking events. We also do lunch and learns. Our marketing company has created a website and provided beautiful videos and photography highlighting the different options that we have. We have seen a substantial growth trend in the last five years in the mausoleum options and cremation options.”
Lisa: “In addition, our special programs, events and ceremonies attract thousands to our cemetery each year. We offer free grave space to veterans and have one of the regions largest veterans memorial services every year on Memorial Day weekend, second only to the one in the national cemetery. We offer free burials and a special garden for SHARE, the national pregnancy and infant loss support organization, with quarterly ceremonies for families.
“We have an annual memorial program for peace officers where all the police and FBI departments join together to honor fallen officers from our community. Reaching out as a cemetery to provide these community services has made a real impact and has helped us increase our sales and market share each year.”
Is there a tip you can share with fellow members?
Lisa: “It would have to be to market, market, market! With cremation growing, our challenge is how to communicate effectively to our community that we are the choice for cremation memorialization. Having a combo facility with our largest funeral home on the front of the cemetery has definitely made a difference in our growth. We have a unique opportunity to help communicate with signs along our entrances and roads that markets all we have to offer.
“Additionally, providing advantages to families (such as packages with funerals and burials or funerals and cremation memorialization) to use both your funeral home and cemetery together can help with new growth opportunities for the future.”
Pam: “The best tip I can share is to look at the big picture and how to maximize revenue by creating cremation areas wherever you can. Work to make your cemetery more relevant and less traditional. Concentrate on follow-up and focus on customer needs, presenting all options and thinking outside the box.”
Colby: “I think a best practice that we do is the way we handle set-ups for veterans in our cemetery. We line the route through our gardens with American flags. We also line the casket or urn carry route through the garden with flags. The tent has an American flag on one side and the branch of service that the veteran served on the other side. We also have special chair covers that are veteran themed. It is a great presentation!”
What is your response to Selected’s Funeral Home and Cemetery Management interest group?
Lisa: “Attending last year’s Annual Meeting and learning from each other had a great deal of benefit as an independent operator. This was a unique opportunity for us to study best practices with people we trust as members of Selected. It also offered our members who might want to learn more about cemeteries a chance to hears the pro’s and con’s of how they operate.”
“I hope Selected will take this to the next step, and create a stronger group and more programs annually for our combo owners to work together to improve their businesses as independents—from onsite visits and best practices seminars to perhaps a Selected Study Group in the future.
“As firms of all sizes face increasing cremation rates, finding new ways to help families find value in ceremony and memorialization is a critical need for both funeral homes and cemeteries. It is my hope that Selected can become the leader in this area of our business with our programming in the future.”
Pam: “I am extremely supportive of the efforts to focus on improving efficiencies in the cemetery and sharing best practices with other true cemetery operators who have a passion for creating unique options for families and maximizing revenue. I feel that having a network of professionals to learn and grow from is a huge benefit. I would love to see the association do roundtable discussions specifically geared to cemetery operations and sales on a regular basis.”