Traditional Funerals Are on Way out; Designer Caskets and Webcasts Are In

July 4, 2011
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For the next generation of funeral-goers, the ceremony of the sombre black-clad priest intoning the “ashes to ashes” burial rite just won’t cut it.

As with other consumer-facing sectors, the satisfaction bar is being raised and operators need to get with the (custom-designed) program.

Michael Tobin, a 40-year industry veteran, says funeral services used to follow church practice depending on the denomination and there was little flexibility.

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“The baby boomers tend to be more demanding and know what they want,” he says.

These days, ceremonies (or, more commonly, “celebrations”) include designer caskets, the release of butterflies, doves or balloons, video presentations and webcasts.

The sepulchral tones of the organist are more likely to be supplanted by a modern tune, or perhaps a 1960s classic to honour an expired boomer.

“The idea of having funerals in parks Ö used to be seen as quite disgusting; now it is quite accepted,” Tobin says.

For the operators, the trend to far-flung locations and complex contents presents both cost pressures and opportunities.

Australian Funeral Directors Association national president Bernardine Brierty says: “A lot of the changes are coming in quite subtly but in five years’ time it will clearly reflect the way we prepare for funerals: a lot more sophisticated and with a lot more technology involved.”

Brierty says baby boomers have set a more individualistic tone.

“The boomers have influenced the retirement industry and the next influence will be the funeral industry.”

She is ill at ease with the encroachment of technology as there is more that can go wrong. Webcasts, she says, are a “disaster waiting to happen”.

“People will make more of an effort in how they want to remember someone’s life, which is a challenge for funeral directors.

“The more you offer these things, the more something can go wrong. More choice is great for families but to meet those needs in a professional manner can be challenging.”

Another ramification is the move from less formal funerals, but with a better quality experience for mourners. This means investing in $5000 cappuccino machines rather than a fleet of shiny hearses.

“When they go to a funeral home they want it to look smart and snappy, but it doesn’t have to be osentatious,” Brierty says.

Another growing trend is pre-paid funerals. InvoCare has $230m held in trust.

Apart from relieving the need for relatives to organise the event, pre-paid funerals lock in the future user at today’s rate.

On the flip side the operator earns investment income from the funds, which are generally held for 12 to 15 years.

Bucking the trends, InvoCare had a 20 per cent rise in new contracts during the global financial crisis.

“Retirees were looking at their kids and wanted to make sure they were not a financial burden on the family,” chief executive Andrew Smith says.

With the rise of savvier consumers, the bigger traditional operators need to keep a keen eye on what they are offering, or risk losing business to niche operators.

Tobin, for once, is not taking the lead from high street retailers.

“There are times when I go into a retailer and get poor service and I roll my eyes,” he says.

“If we conducted our business in the way they do, we wouldn’t be in business.”

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