Why Funeral Service Isn’t Ready to Embrace the Future

future of funeral service

“It’s not what I wanted to hear, but what I needed to know.”  

– Terri Clark, country singer

I imagine you’ve looked at your own financial reports and forecasts and made a grim discovery. You aren’t depending on me for the news, are you? Traditional burials are down. Direct cremations are up. Average revenue per service is declining.

But you might want to know, through some broad-brush generalizations, why this is all happening. Let’s agree not to quibble about exceptions – I know there are exceptions. Instead, let’s focus on major “2 x 4-upside-the-head” trends.

So, the following reasons lay it out there for you — what the hell happened to get us where we are? And, more importantly: what’s next and what can I do about it?

The market has changed, but we haven’t.

Although the market has changed, there’s still been no significant change in funeral service in the last 150 years. The only exception to this is moving death out of the residence and into commercial buildings (ie. nursing homes, long term care, and funeral homes).

And screaming “Hey, you, Mr. Market, stop changing now!” isn’t going to make anything better. You need to close your mouth, open your ears, and LET THE MARKET EDUCATE YOU. Take a lesson from the technology industry – build what the market wants, not what you want to build for them.

There are too many people fighting for a slice of a fixed pie.

The funeral services market is oversaturated with suppliers. There used to be two, maybe three funeral homes in an average-sized community. Now there are two dozen, seemingly on every corner. Communities can only support so much brick and mortar, and as requirements simplify and the market consolidates, even less so.

My prediction is that the market will probably go back to two or three funeral homes per community and a couple of regional “super crematories”. These super crematories will be perfectly EPA compliant, with ten retorts each running 24/7. These facilities will serve both the industry and consumers directly — at a much lower cost than you [$495, complete, in South Florida]. The opportunity for any “blocking strategy” to prevent this from happening is long past, as is the option of welcoming cremation’s arrival with a hero’s celebration. It was viewed as the enemy — and it won.

We have no appropriate research to learn from.

Unless being kept on “double secret probation” (as Dean Wormer did to the Deltas in Animal House) – or locked in the recesses of an off-limits filing cabinet – there’s no marketing research, science or intelligence using the proper methodology to deliver accurate, actionable results to the funeral service industry.

Instead, the industry uses finance and accounting to manage operations, and that only goes so far. In fact, this could explain the fix we’re in. From my observations, there has only been little repetitive cookie cutter research done – primarily benefiting the cookie cutter industry, not funeral service. So if that appropriate research exists, let’s apply it, complete a half dozen case studies, and stack them up against other consumer product categories, just to benchmark our performance.

The cavalry is coming, and riding right past your front door.

Yes, the Baby Boomers are here, and they don’t want embalming, caskets, your chapel or even you. I remember a poster with a black and white photo of an older business executive scowling with the following caption: “You don’t know me, I’ve never seen you before and I don’t understand what you’re saying…now what is it you’re wanting to sell me?” That poster should hang in every manager’s office in America. But the harsh reality is this: we may have run out of time.

The industry wants to sell buggy whips — it likes buggy whips, is good at them and they’ve been profitable. But the market wants cars, and if you don’t provide them,  others (including consumers themselves) will build them.

We’re working against each other, not together.

How can funeral professionals collaborate, discover and share? They’re too busy hating each other.  It may be due to fierce competition, burn-out, over-saturation, stress, amount of downtime or a combination of everything.

There is no united front — not even the professional organizations, whose primary job (like any professional association) is government lobbying. Even discussions on LinkedIn are spotty, lack involvement, spread thin and often dissolve into sniping rather than healthy conversation or debate. Until we start putting our minds together, we’ll only lose them trying to find the answers alone.

Churches have changed.

Churches are gone, but spiritualism is up. According to Pew Research, the only growing denomination is “unaffiliated.” In synagogues, membership is often accompanied by initiation fees and monthly dues, like a country club, driving prospective new members away.

And the most significant remnant of the Church is a very qualified, integrated and hungry direct competitor to the funeral industry. This includes laity planning, columbariums, cemeteries, visitations, and services paid for with tax deductible dollars, from patrons who usually feel good about supporting them. Churches have now become a coined word popular these days: “Frenemies.”

Our families are more mobile than ever.

We used to stay in the same community and inherit family businesses. But nowadays, people move to follow opportunities, not stay put where the “clan is buried”. This is making it much harder for cemetery owners to count on “loyal” families.

As time puts us farther away from traditions and space puts distance between us and our ancestral “homes,” cemeteries become less relevant. And, with rising spiritualism, people are discovering the ability to “connect” with loved ones without “devices,” such as a tombstone or statuary.

Cremation is in, again.

Cremation is an old technology, popularized by the Vikings. Like returning home, the pendulum has swung back to this low-cost method of disposition. We blew the opportunity to embrace cremation or properly price and locate the service. Successful operators are in industrial parks which contribute to low, low costs — and consumers seem OK with it.

Cremated remains are a utility (come on, admit it, how much different are the contents of one box over another?) and your gentle, caring approach and plush surroundings aren’t much of a differentiator. The REAL differentiator comes after the cremation is complete — with the service.

 

What I think funeral service will look like in 20 years…

Now that we know the times are changing, here are my predictions for funeral service over the next 20 years.

A true service.

Driven by remembrance, education (about grief and death), entertainment and healing.

Consumers will soon be able to avoid feeling bad and leave the service feeling good, or at least, better.

A new look and feel.

Instead of a drab, old funeral home, how about  a community center, built from the ground-up, unaffiliated with death? This community center will be a quiet, private place with lots of glass, atriums, trees and beautiful landscaping. And when not used for a service, other functions flock there without trying to “force fit” them.

An industry that welcomes women.

Sadly, industry data indicates that women only last three years in the profession. I predict (and hope) that this will change. Women and men work well together as complementary energies, and their empathy and intuition is a perfect fit with the new model. Perhaps this will lead us towards a “kinder and gentler” profession, away from the testosterone-fueled competition of the past.

An industry that’s growing younger.

Younger folks are open, progressive and technologically savvy. And as long as they understand that you need to appreciate the organic market and use technology to serve it efficiently, these youngsters will be successful in funeral service. But proceed with caution: don’t throw technology at the market just to see if it “sticks”.

A different mortuary school curriculum.

When a market changes, education needs retooling. If mortuary school curriculum survives, we need to teach our mortuary students about marketing, technology, creativity, thanatology and grief counseling (grief isn’t just for counselors or clergymen).

More emphasis on aftercare.

The industry of the future should recognize the importance of “aftercare” efforts. They’ll embrace aftercare as a combination of sincere efforts and opportunity for repeat customer touch-points (a form of Customer Relationship Management or CRM). This will be hard, because while you’re working to develop a CRM relationship, your consumers are simultaneously developing alternates to you, requiring more resources (in a deck stacked against you) for you to win.

 

My last thoughts

Darwinism is at work here. For many, it’s probably too late to change, or you’re not equipped to change, or you don’t want to change (which all three legitimate reasons to go out of business, by the way).

For those who aren’t ready for change (or those who can’t financially handle a consolidating industry): save your license renewal fees, demolish your buildings, sell your land and find something new to do with your capital.

If you continue hooking your wagon to the need for traditional services, your phone will ring less, and less and then stop one day. You’ll call the phone company and see if your line is working and they’ll report it’s fine.

For survivors and new entrants: keep focused on families and the market – they’re the reason you survived.

Don’t get me wrong: there are opportunities and the need for committed professionals. It’s just going to be different. If some of this report resonates with you, feel free to contact me to explore the possibilities further.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

F. Todd Winninger has been in Funeral Service for twelve years, and is currently a Licensed Funeral Director with Aden Funeral Home, in Tampa, Florida. Prior to funeral service he was in marketing and sales for 25 years. He is the founder of “Funeral Shows,” an alternative to traditional services. Details: www.linkedin.com/in/funeralshows/

 

 

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  1. Judy Cherish-Ceremonies

    This is a very interesting article, and seems to be reflected this side of the Atlantic too. Certainly attitudes to funerals are changing. A recent survey I did, asking people how they wanted their funeral to be was very revealing. No-one, but no-one, said they wanted to be buried in the corner of a churchyard with a marble headstone and a vase for flowers. Lots wanted a quick no-frills, no fuss cremation, with a happy gathering afterwards. Lots of hilltops mentioned, and meadows – sing-songs, storytelling, laughter, bright colours… champagne was mentioned quite a bit too. An eye opener, isn’t it?

  2. Shane A. Ritchie

    I do agree that the funeral home business is oversaturated; too many funeral homes for the population in many areas. I don’t agree that no one wants embalming and traditional services. There has definitely been a rise in direct disposition but at least here in my area, traditional funerals still far outweigh direct dispositions. Cremation has increased here but most still have a visitation with viewing before the cermation. Eery funeral director should listen to Dr. Wolfelt speek about the need to view the body. I know this first hand after my 24 year old daughter died. The funeral profession has made some mistakes in addressing cremation but overall I don’t see the funeral profession becoming a thing of the past. Changed yes, but for the majority of providers I just don’t see the extreme changes that many of the so called “experts” are seeing. My predictions would be that caskets will continue to become more of a commodity with prices continuing to drop but they will still be used regularly. Funeral homes will have to forgo the idea of being merchandisers and concetrate on profits from the services they provide, whatever form they might take.

  3. Joe Pray

    Yes, most funeral home’s don’t get it and want to make the same old model shinier and louder.

    Yes we have to change our model and some of us are

    Yes our profession refuses to work together on meaningful issues and change aka educating the consumer on the value of what we have to offer – the new celebratory model, not the old church based model

    Yes they do want a celebration and we have to make it meaningful and entertaining.

    AND that isn’t easy. I takes a lot of imagination and energy.

    Some of us are moving in that direction.

    Some are still trying to change the color of the buggy whip to make it more appealing.

    Get with it for crying out loud.

  4. Amy Pritchard

    OMG! Thank you for putting this out there. I have been saying the same things for a long while. As you can imagine, everything falls on deaf ears. Funeral directors need to embrace the change and cater to the market. Adapt or die (Hello)

  5. Final Fling

    Couldn’t agree more. Especially on the women bit. We used to do funerals of course. Women are the natural carers in our world after all. You’d go a long way to find a better one that fab Poppy Mardall: http://www.poppysfunerals.co.uk/

  6. SereniCare

    I couldn’t agree more that this industry needs to take a marketing face-lift. Our strategies and ideals are outdated. The market is saturated with everyone wanting a slice of the same pie, however I think the pie is growing due to the age of the baby boomer generation. At some point though the pie will shrink and the market will become less saturated. Serenicare is one of the first franchised funeral homes with longevity and family in mind.

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  8. Lindsay Lynch

    I have a plan….I am a artist who deals in grief. I lost my Mom to suicide at the age of 20. Recently I lost my inlaws 48 hours apart. I have been working on art that helps heal in time of greif and depression. Recently I discovered a new system to contain cremations! I now hold a patent pending Inner Core System that artfully holds the remains. I have designed an urn that helps in time of greif and helps heal the soul spiritually as it gives security to the loved ones as they greive. I am new to the industry. However I am not new to death. I understand it and I have a craving passion to change the industry. I need to talk with someone about my vision. This is going to be a ride that unites art with creamations. We need to relize, cremations are the heirlooms of the future. It’s not money, land, or items. It is how we see the one we greive for. People crave to connect to the their loved ones and need a containment system that provides security from flooding,fire, or just plain accidents. I have the system! Please contact me!!! 321-377-5444

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  11. Christopher Harvan

    Holy Moses this is spot on – FOUR YEARS AGO! Winninger is gentelmaly but firm in his assessment and his predictions. This article needs reposting and rebroadcasting. The people who could benefit most from it need to revisit it.