You can't cheat death, but you can get a discount.
That's the message from a small but growing number of cut-rate funeral homes whose low-cost offerings include a ride to the cemetery in a van instead of a hearse, burial in a $275 cardboard casket and cremation with a $25 urn.
"We focus on their needs, not material needs," said Stephen R. Lohrmann, 35, who recently opened Cremation and Funeral Alternatives (CAFA) in a gray-shingled house on Green Pastures Drive near Loch Raven Boulevard east of Towson.
The funeral home, which doubles as Mr. Lohrmann's home, has two viewing rooms that can hold about 40 people and a garage in the back for the minivan he uses to transport the deceased.
"It's a myth you have to spend a lot of money," Mr. Lohrmann said. "There should be more emphasis on bereavement."
The move toward discount funerals is accelerating in the United States, industry spokesmen say. "It's something that hasn't taken off before. We're seeing more of it in the '90s," said Laura Glawe, a spokeswoman for the National Funeral Directors Association.
"People are becoming better consumers all the way around," said Melanie Wilhelm Wagoner, proprietor of Advent Memorial Services in Annapolis. The former Suitland funeral home owner opened a new home in an economical business park last year when she realized the industry was heading toward smaller, lower-cost operations.
Veteran funeral director Ed Sagel saw a need, too. He started his business, Ed Sagel Funeral Direction, in a Rockville shopping center a year ago after reading about affordable funeral alternatives in a magazine.
"The typical funeral home dictates what kind of funeral service you can have," he said. "It's either their way or the highway."
"Basically, it comes down to a matter of choice," Ms. Glawe added. "Some families feel comfortable with new options. Other families go to traditional funeral homes, which have been in their community for a number of years."
The owners of discount funeral businesses are quick to argue that their lower prices do not diminish the dignity of death. They say they're simply providing the bereaved with cost-cutting options.
George F. Miller, 61, of Essex found Mr. Lohrmann's funeral ad in the phone book after his wife, Jane, died of emphysema in February at age 72. "It had a warmth," said the self-employed salesman, explaining why he turned to CAFA.
"Some funeral homes are run more like a business. They're too cold, too impersonal. Steve came to the house," said Mr. Miller, "At no point did he try to sell me anything."
Mr. Miller said he chose cremation because he is "open to new ideas." The $763 cost also was a factor. "It was so reasonable you couldn't argue with it," he said.
Nationally, the average cost of a funeral is $4,077, which includes a casket but not cemetery expenses, according to Ms. Glawe of the National Funeral Directors Association.
At CAFA, similar services cost $1,750 without a casket, which adds from $275 to $2,000. Direct burial without a funeral is available for $985 with a corrugated casket. Cemetery charges are extra.
Funeral directors say cremation is gaining in popularity as a low-cost option to burial. Jack Springer, executive director of the Cremation Society of North America, said the proportion of families choosing cremation increased from 10 percent in 1982 to 20 percent in 1993. He predicts that cremation will account for 40 percent of all funerals by 2010.
"People are dying a lot older," he said. "They consider cremation simple and perceive it as less expensive."
In Maryland, a direct cremation at a traditional funeral home will cost from $750 to $1,300, with an average of $1,000, said Michael J. Ruck, president of Ruck Funeral Homes and a spokesman for the Maryland State Funeral Directors Association.
"There is always a group who prefers an alternative facility," he said. "But you do receive what you pay for."
Mr. Lohrmann countered that "we need the Macy's and the Kmarts" of the funeral business. "People are starting to realize the commercialization of funeralization," he said.
At CAFA, a direct cremation costs $675. Options, such as viewing, memorial services and deluxe containers can increase the cost.
"What we're about is flexibility within the law," Mr. Lohrmann said. "It is up to the dying person and those left behind to do it their way."
Mr. Lohrmann often makes house calls to discuss funeral arrangements after a death, and sometimes before. He also helps people plan their funerals ahead of time.
"I'm getting satisfaction in providing information," said Mr. Lohrmann, who grew up in Severna Park and said he knew in high school that he wanted to become a mortician.
He also has compiled a catalog of materials for a Death and Dying Resource Center at CAFA with brochures, videotapes and even activity books for children. "Part of the philosophy of the resource center is to give information about the entire grief process, which begins before death and continues after death," he said.
Mr. Lohrmann even sends a complimentary blue spruce seedling to the family after a funeral. "A lot of people are really afraid of being forgotten," he said.
"He was a big help to me," said Fran Stoner, a social worker at Church Nursing Center at Church Hospital in Baltimore. With Mr. Lohrmann's guidance, she arranged for the cremation of a destitute, 20-year-old woman who died without a family.
"I was a total stranger to this man," she said "He's very gentle. What I liked most -- and I've been around -- he really cared."