How to Make Death & Dying An Inspiring Conversation [Not a Dreadful One]

Do you sense it?

A subtle shift. A change of pace.

It’s happening – the conversations people are having about death, dying and planning ahead are changing.

Even the category “Death & Dying” on the TedX website is growing each year.

It’s pretty clear now that the world is ready to change the way we talk about our own mortality, and start planning for it a little better.

But how do we, funeral professionals, position ourselves as thought leaders in these conversations? How do we SPARK them? Thankfully, so many individuals and businesses are starting to take the lead in this realm, and it’s beautiful to see.

Joe Pray, the “Creationeer” and heart behind Pray Funeral Home, is one of those people. We had a chance to sit down with Joe a few months back and pick his brain on how we as a collective can start making death an INSPIRING conversation, not one you dread.

Joe inspired us with so many ideas on how the funeral profession can make death and end-of-life planning an INSPIRING conversation that families want to have, rather than one they dread.

Here’s what he had to say:


Why the funeral profession is waking up and deciding to change the way we talk about the funeral service:

I think the biggest reason that people have finally come to that realization is because… they see that so many families have become disillusioned with what we’re doing. How they perceive a funeral is based from the old days, when it was all scripture based. And so many families don’t relate to that anymore unfortunately.

Families are asking for more personalized elements and more pricing options. When you combine all of this with the technology that we as industry now have to use to stay relevant, it’s a little more difficult for the funeral director.


On overcoming the challenge of staying relevant:

Well, the first thing we’re doing to overcome that is we’re looking at every possible option to give the funeral customer a better experience. A lot of it has been the technology we can use, such as our website, to make it easier for people to find the information they need.

We’ve been working hard and developing options for the family to be able to be a part of the planning and staging process more, allowing us to truly help them tell the story of mom or dad. That’s the biggest thing we’ve been doing.


Joe’s secret sauce to changing the conversations we’re having about death:

The secret sauce is that we don’t like to be bored. I figure if I can keep myself interested in the service, then I can make it interesting for everybody else. We have a great team of creative people at our funeral home. When we talk about what we can do for families everyone gets excited and gets moving.


How Joe made the transition from old, tired conversations about the funeral service, to new and engaging ones:

[It all] started years ago with funeral personalization, when we started inviting families to bring in pictures of their loved one. It was funny because the families were like “why should we bring in a bunch of pictures?” And we’d say, “because you’re going to talk about your dad,” so we started with that.

It’s been quite an evolution, but probably one of the big events that helped us was the service we had for my wife’s grandmother. That was when we did our first tribute video. She was stricken with liver cancer out of the blue. All of us gathered around the house with hospice there, and she instructed us to get out some photo albums so she could tell us about the pictures because wanted the grandkids to know about these stories. So we did.

And then I decided we’re going to do something cool with these pictures, and that’s when we made our first video. We wanted to be cool for our family, so we figured everyone else wants to be cool for their family too.


Where funeral service is missing the mark:

Unfortunately a lot of my colleagues need to get better at explaining the value of what we do. If I could, I’d like to have an opportunity to work with the family long before they’re at-need, but we haven’t done a good job positioning ourselves for that.

People are still stand-offish. They don’t want to think about the funeral director or the funeral yet. But we can just sit down and talk about the story, and not just the funeral itself.

If I’m going to sit down with you I’d like to ask about your background and what you like to do, and if they want them, I’ll have some great ideas on what we can do for a creative memorial. Because once we take that approach with so many families, a lot of them will say “that’s a cool idea” or “I haven’t thought of that”. So I wish we could have done a better job at educating people a LONG time ago, and paying attention a long time ago.


Advice for funeral directors who want to spark these NEW conversations:

[One] thing we have to do is keep making it meaningful for everyone involved, and not overwhelming families with too many choices. This requires a fine balance because you can give families a package and say “let me do this for you”, but some families want more input.

I know one of the big things that the Baby Boomers and Millennials are changing is they want to do it themselves. I understand. Basically, we did it ourselves for my wife’s grandmother but that’s different because we know what we’re doing. That’s one of our biggest challenges –  families who say “I can do it myself,” and then they come back and they say “well, that didn’t work.”

As my wife says, years ago you did your wedding all by yourself and hired a funeral director for your funeral. Now people are hiring a wedding planner and they’re doing it themselves for the funeral.

Some believe it’s a price issue, which in some cases it can be. But in our particular example it’s probably only a difference of four or five hundred dollars if they do it themselves or if we do it for them.


Finally, we asked: How do you see funerals changing in the next 5-10 years?

A funeral is going to have to be a more meaningful memorialization. We have gone over the top in a few cases at my funeral home and in those cases the family loved it. But every family is not like that.

We have to find a way to make every funeral have some WOW factor. Whether it’s pictures, video or bringing the destination funeral to the funeral home. I’m hoping that we can use technology a little better to make the process easier.

I think we’re going to have to create a lot more “gee whiz” or “wow” moments  in the future because nobody wants to go to a funeral anymore (except for maybe a funeral director like me because I want to see everybody else’s services).

We’re so grateful for the conversation we had with Joe. If you’d like to learn more about Joe and how he does things at his funeral home, check out Pray Funeral Home’s website here.


How is your funeral home changing the conversations you have with your families to be more inspiring, and less dreadful? Tell us in the comments below!

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