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) -- In a time in which they're struggling to cover their living expenses, many Americans are shelving their death expenses for the time being, a choice that has affected the so-called "pre-need" market of the funeral industry -- i.e., paying for your cemetery plot and related expenses while you're still around to pay them. At the same time, cremation is an increasingly popular choice over burial in a casket.

"In a weak economy, it's very challenging to sell someone funeral and cemetery pre-need products," says Debbie Young, director of investor relations at

Services Corporation International

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, which operates more than 1,500 funeral homes and 400 cemeteries as the largest company of its kind in North America. "It's discretionary -- not something you need to do today. If it's

a matter of, 'Should I pay my mortgage or buy a cemetery plot?' then they're thinking, 'I think I'll pay my mortgage.' " (An extreme example: To help pay off the mortgage on her home, a woman last week placed an ad on


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for a crypt currently occupied by her late husband at the Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles, directly above the tomb of Marilyn Monroe and diagonally above the space reserved for Hugh Hefner. The winning bid was $4.6 million.)

Art From Ashes uses cremation ashes in its pieces.

SCI reported pre-need funeral revenue of $101.5 million in the second quarter, down from $109.1 million from a year earlier. Pre-need cemetery revenue was $88.8 million in the second quarter, less than the $96 million for the same quarter in 2008.

Stewart Enterprises


, the second-largest company in the U.S. funeral business, also reported declines, and so did

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Hillenbrand Inc.

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, the holding company for

Batesville Casket Co.

, the biggest casket company in the U.S.

On average, a traditional funeral service, including embalming, a public viewing and a cemetery burial of the body, ranges between $9,796 and $13,254, according to the "Quick Plan" tool at

-- although a luxury casket such as Batesville's "Promethean Bronze" model, which retails for $25,000, will bump up the price considerably. A typical cremation, on the other hand, which includes a traditional memorial service, costs between $3,324 and $4,497 if the remains are returned to the family, and between $4,174 and $5,647 if they are scattered at sea. Without a memorial service or urn, the cost for cremation services is around $1,400. To that end, more and more Americans are choosing cremation every year, even when the economy is booming.

The Cremation Association of North America

reports that cremation rates have risen steadily for decades: 14.9% in 1985, 29.5% in 2003, 34.8% in 2007 and an estimated 36% in 2008. CANA predicts that 59% of the U.S. residents who die in 2025 will be cremated.

"Saves money" was the top reason cited among people who say they plan to be cremated, according to a 2004 poll by

Wirthlin Worldwide

, a subsidiary of

Harris Interactive


. Other reasons included "saves land," "simpler" and "don't want bugs eating my body."

But cost-effectiveness aside, those who choose cremation can still go out in style. "More and more people are looking at interesting things to do with the cremated ashes rather than just an urn on the mantle," says Jenny Bourgeois, co-owner of

Art From Ashes

, an Amherst, Mass., business that incorporates cremation ashes into art pieces, including a glass perfume bottle ($275), a glass-topped hand-carved walking stick ($325) or an 18-bead companion necklace ($750).

The Great Burial Reef

, a small business in Sarasota, Fla., will embed cremated remains into a 400-pound concrete "reef memorial" and lower the structure to its final resting place -- one of 10 locations off the Florida coast. (Prices start at $1,000.)

And those who want to go way out on a limb can employ the services of

Columbine Phoenix

, a Somerville, Mass., artist who makes jewelry out of human bones. Historically, she has crafted her pieces out of anonymous post-cranial bones from

The Bone Room

, a natural history store based in Berkeley, Calif. Phoenix sells five distal phalanges on a silver chain for $165. A human bone cross, also on a silver chain, costs $80.

"I'd be willing to make memorial pieces, but nobody's made that request yet," says Phoenix. "The only time I've worked with anything from a known person was when a friend wanted earrings made of her ex's wisdom teeth. They were in excellent shape, and made lovely earrings, but we both agreed that the first step should be sticking them in a cauldron of salt for a while, and then suspending them in a cloud of sage smoke."

-- Reported by Carmen Nobel in Boston