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Alan Creedy Contributors News Ryan Thogmartin

What Happens When the Funeral Profession Dies?

I am scared for the funeral profession. Not just one part of the profession, for example I am not scared for just the suppliers like Batesville, Wilbert, Trigard, and so on, I am scared for the profession as a whole. I am scared for the profession as a brand. I truly believe the funeral profession is a national brand just like Nike or Gatorade. It is weird to think of it this way and many people in the profession probably never have.

We think of brands as products or companies. But a profession can be a brand too. Every brand has what marketing gurus call a “brand image”, which is the image that audiences form as a result of their various points of contact or experiences with the brand. This is why I am scared for the funeral profession as a brand.

The public has a very negative brand image of the funeral profession. This was revealed more in-depth by Alan Creedy at NFDA.

Consumers aren’t seeing the value in the funeral service because it isn’t the funeral service that they want.

Years ago (many older funeral directors say “good ol’days”) the perception of the funeral profession was high. Consumers didn’t know any better. There was no talking about death, that was taboo. No one outside the profession was trying to alter their thinking about death and what a traditional funeral service was. That has all changed.

The perception or brand image of the funeral profession has faded into this image of dark, creepy, negative death.

Here are a few highlights Alan Creedy shared at NFDA when presenting some of the results of the study done by the Funeral Service Foundation:

A traditional funeral is seen to Baby Boomers as a lonely, lifeless tomb. They feel along, cold, confined and forced to face reality on their own.

Funeral home advertising, as well as all pictures and visuals that funeral homes publish into this world reinforce consumers fear of being “trapped” in their grief. Think about it… how many funeral home advertisements have a grieving widow or a hearse in them? We need to reinvent and rethink our advertising efforts.

While many interviewees shared negative thoughts of traditional funerals, many people were excited to explain what they want in their non-traditional funeral. In fact, many interviewees hugged their interviewer because they finally had a chance to talk about how they want their end-of-life to be.

Boomers see non-traditional funerals as their “crowning performance”. They want to be the writer, the director and the star. Funerals, to them, should be a celebration event that truly reflects them.

If WE (the entire profession) sit back and do nothing then we should start seeking the answer to the question “What happens when the funeral profession dies?”

At the end of his presentation Alan offered the following advice:

  1. Start the conversation – Get involved in the pre-planning stage. Research what’s meaningful to them and find out what places, events, accomplishments and interests are significant to them. Then, customize the service accordingly.
  2. Focus on the details – Be a muse who gives consumers ideas and inspire creative thinking. The funeral director should help them make a unique celebration of life complete with music, props and surroundings.
  3. Be a stage manager – Be flexible, efficient and effective.
  4. Think about the design of your funeral home – minimize feelings of confinement. Give people a more sense of control. Make them feel like your funeral home is where transformations occur. Create open, naturally lit areas in your funeral home that encourage conversations. Think about outdoor mourning spaces, open floor plans, and writable walls that can be personalized.

Then he drove it home with this powerful poetic quote:

“We are not in the business of helping people escape reality, we are in the business to help people heal. To make them feel like they mattered to someone, and they will live on in a memory and will be missed. Is that really asking so much? Our goal is to create a safe place to remember, and be remembered, to comfort and be comforted. What we do is worth it, without society would be lesser. We don’t make things, sell things… we help people restart their lives. And best of all, we make sure no one is forgotten. Understand WHY it is what you do… why humans gather in times of distress, or share memories at a time of loss? Society needs us in these roles. Be proud in your profession. We are in the sacred business of hope, life and transformation. “

How do we prevent the funeral profession from dying?

Simple: Give the consumer what they want, not what we (Mr. Funeral Director) want. Which means: CHANGE, so you better embrace it because if we do nothing we will be on our death bed.

Ryan Thogmartin

Ryan Thogmartin is founder and CEO of two innovative companies. Connecting Directors LLC (www.connectingdirectors.com) and Disrupt Media Group, LLC (www.disruptmg.com). ConnectingDirectors.com is the premier progressive online publication for funeral professionals. ConnectingDirectors.com is a thriving global publication with a reader base of over 15,000 of the most elite and forward-thinking professionals in the industry.

Disrupt Media Group, LLC is a social media marketing solutions firm. Disrupt MG focuses on proficiently assisting small businesses in creating engaging social media marketing strategies. Without a social media marketing strategy companies and brands are just aimlessly posting without any coherent direction. Social media marketing is more than just having a Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube page; businesses have to have a strategy to telling their story, one that opens the door and starts the conversation.

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  • BT Hathaway

    Ryan, the real question is change to WHAT? Just because a consumer says they “want” something does not mean they will spend enough money on that thing to make a good business.

    For example, I spoke with a LifeStoryNet funeral director a while back. They charge families $375 for a package of services that cost the funeral home $500 in hard cash, never mind the extra time involved in collecting the data for labeling every photograph or the time lost to correcting mistakes. People like it, but there’s *negative* margin in the service, and it hasn’t improved their volume, so what’s the point?

    Or how about the funeral home in Providence that built a multipurpose room to expand the array of services they could offer? It’s been closed and turned into a pub because no one used it.

    Or how about the friend in CT who’s family spent $2+ million on a “modern” multipurpose facility that has become a white elephant. The community still went 75% cremation and the multipurpose aspect generated all of $8000 gross revenue last year.

    Or how about the hyper-customized prayer cards that one of my vendors would like me to sell. They cost ME $1.00 each, for a 2.5×3.5″ piece of paper. That’s nuts. Prayer cards should be a relatively low cost, high margin item on a funeral bill (like ice cream at the ball park), but instead I’m supposed to throw away my profit in order to make people feel good. That’s not good business.

    My question is “where’s the money?”, because so far I don’t see this pursuit of the baby boomer last hoorah turning into sustainable, profitable activity.

    Funerals are a function of tight-knit local relationships. If someone is going to be missed, then people will want to gather. That’s still the essence of what we do. Relationships come first. And maybe I should qualify that a little, GIVING relationships come first. No one wants to sit around and reminisce about a blowhard, a-hole who did nothing but take from others. There have to be plenty of positives and redeeming qualities to remember.

    Should people have the option of gathering in a comfortable and flexible environment? Sure. Should we make room for people to personalize the experience with special music and memorabilia and such? Of course. But without deep, sustained relationships to draw the people together, the environment of the funeral home is irrelevant. There have to be lots of reasons outside of the funeral home and funeral service to draw the people together.

    As society and social connections go, so goes funeral service. It has always been this way and probably always will.

    • fluidpusher

      Well said, Mr. Hathaway

  • Dale Clock

    BT,

    You fail to understand that it isn’t always about a product and a margin. The Life Story Network is not about selling funeral homes a product to sell to their families. It’s a philosophy on how to serve families. The true value of a funeral is the Gathering Together of people and the Sharing of Stories. That’s exactly what Alan’s research pointed to.The work that I do to gather the Life Story information from families scan photos, Print materials, burn videos and corrections later is not EXTRA Work. It is the most IMPORTANT and VALUABLE Work I do. Life Story is not a product that I sell to people, it is a service that I provide to families How I price my services is a business decision. Sometimes you have figure out what the market will bear for a service or product. (Funeral homes have notoriously undercharged for their services and overcharged for their products). What’s important is am I profitable at the end of the year. And so far I am. So if all you are doing is providing a place for people to gather (that’s old and boring) and not focusing on helping families share their stories then you’re only doing half your job. Eventually people will find a nicer place to gather and you’ll be out of a job.

    • BT Hathaway

      Dale, As business owners we are all welcome to distribute our margin any way we like. Some make donations, some run charity drives, some post billboards, etc. etc. You have found meaning in putting money into LifeStory.

      I’m glad you find it fulfilling. I’m glad you still find yourself profitable. There’s nothing wrong with making those choices.

      But in the broader context of this article and discussion, your efforts thus far have not generated enough excess demand such that you can charge a premium for your extra work. I know that’s a somewhat crass, economic way to look at it, but when seeking answers for the industry as a whole, economics matter.

      Funeral service needs ideas that tap consumer demand in ways that a premium can be generated. And so far I see a lot of hopeful/wishful projects that don’t really change the tide with consumers.

      • Dale Clock

        BT, Valid points. But let me reiterate; Providing a Life Story is not extra work. It is the work I now do. At 65% cremation I don’t embalm as much, so now the restorative art and the memory picture I provide for my family is through Photoshop and ProShow Gold. Those are the skills they need to be teaching in mortuary school.

        • BT Hathaway

          Fascinating way to look at it Dale. Unfortunately photoshopping is nowhere near as unique and scarce a skill as embalming. We will never be able to garner as much income from those services as what we once did. It’s much too easy for a reasonably competent family member to accomplish the same thing at home (and some of them certainly do).

          Which isn’t to say it’s not worth doing. It’s a different business with a necessarily different profit model. And to me this means that the overall “footprint” of funeral service (land, buildings, vehicles, personnel, dollars, etc.) will shrink significantly in the years ahead.

          We will still do a lot of nice things for a lot of nice people, but the industry as a whole will operate at a smaller scale. That is unless something significant changes in our overall social structure–but I don’t see any evidence of that right now.

          • Dale Clock

            BT, let’s give everybody something to think about. Yes the footprint may change, but I say not smaller, just different. Your prep room needs to become a print and video production room. The selection room should be a reception area. You need to have mobile DJ and Video unit just like the wedding guys, so you can host a Life Celebration anywhere. It’ll fit right in your Hearse or Minivan and you can roll it around on your casket truck. (check out DJ equipment online – they already make “coffin cases”) A talented graphic and video production artist is every bit as valuable as a good embalmer. And their work will be around for more than 3 days. You’ll also need somebody who knows how to properly video the celebration (with smooth pan and zooms and audio) and then somebody to edit it down to something that people will want to watch again. Yes, cousin Scooter can do all of that for the family too, but they may end up with punk band music and the video in some format that won’t play on the equipment where the event takes place. The funeral home will need to market themselves as the folks who can make all that stuff happen in a few days or a few months, which ever they want. And yes we still need to do the spooky body stuff that makes us unique. But that’s going to be a just small part in the future.

          • BT Hathaway

            Fascinating vision Dale, and don’t think I haven’t considered it because I have done a lot of work with graphics and technology over the years.

            But if there was really a demand from consumers for this stuff, I would expect to see families hiring the local wedding video guy to come in and film funerals at least once in a while. But to the best of my knowledge, that has never happened at my firm (that’s about 7000 funerals over the last 10 years).

            If I see a shift, I’ll be right on it. But at present, in SE Massachusetts, I have no idea who will pay me back for the kind of investment you have outlined.

          • Dale Clock

            BT, Last week I did videos of 3 services. I’m burning 10 dvd copies a a service from last month as I write this. Sometimes you have to offer before they ask for it. The financial outlay for what I am talking about is less than $5000.00. A good computer and video Camera, a smaller PA system, cordless microphones, a couple 42 inch Screens and DVD players, have a cabinet built to hold all the stuff and then lease a good color printer/copy machine (which you probably already have). Get rid of one funeral director and hire a young kid with the skills to do all of the stuff I mentioned. It ain’t such a big deal.

  • Rstnnpeace

    I think that people have taken the importance of a successful embalming out of the equation. They have become complacent and that is one reason for being lazy. As long as there is a challenge before you, the laziness tends to disappear. And when you think about it, the Prep Room is the most important part of what we do. Anyone can type papers, write an obit, schedule calling hours etc. When you stop to think about it, a wedding planner could do our jobs, EXCEPT in the Prep Room. I capitalize it because it is that important. We all wring our hands and worry about direct cremation and our bottom line going up in smoke too. In every case we should challenge ourselves to make sure that we have done E V E R Y T H I N G we can possibly do to create the best memory picture of the deceased that an
    yone could possibly do. There is no reason for not being able to do this…and…it makes us WORTH SOMETHING. We are doing something no one else outside our profession can do, and we are adding value to what we do. We are also gaining the respect of the layperson and making them realize why they pay what they do for a funeral with a viewing. A body should not leave the Prep Room unless you would be willing to sign your name right across the forehead and tell the world “That’s my work. I did that” And if we approach every single case with that attitude, we will have motivated ourselves to out do ourselves every time. We also need to educate the public to know the importance of a viewing. The generation planning end of life matters think of death as a very dirty nasty inconvenience and want to make it go away as fast as possible. They are also very consumer oriented. There is nothing wrong with being savvy as a consumer BUT these are the same people who are now sitting in therapist’ waiting rooms, having really bad emotional issues not only dealing with grief but also with guilt. A funeral with a viewing starts the grief process. It acknowledges the life of the person as well as acknowledging that a death has occurred. The problem is, at the time it seemed like the right thing to do, and as you all know, there are no “re-do’s” here. So having printed information as to why a viewing is important as well as book titles, internet locations, etc., that your families can have quick access to, and well as thoughtful words from you or whoever works the front end of your business will give YOU the opportunity to use your skills, your profession, to the utmost capabilities. Its ok to share with colleagues too. Things that motivate are catchy!! But to sum it up, keep yourself challenged and bring value to what your firm does. It will separate you from all the others standing in line wanting the business. You, however, will give them the clear answer to what they are looking for. OK sorry for the rant!!!!

  • Rstnnpeace

    The post I just put up was an excerpt from something entirely different but….it has relevance

  • BT Hathaway

    Just in case the historians ever come back to look at these archives I thought I would jot a last reply here.

    It’s not that no one wants these services Dale. There are certainly a few families who find hyper-customization compelling, especially when it is being provided at or below cost.

    But as an answer to funeral service as a whole, I don’t see the evidence (not yet anyway) that there are enough families willing to spend enough money on these things to keep funeral homes as we understand them up and running.

    DJ’s live out of beat up vans and for the most part need a day job in order to pursue their “dream”. Party planners (except for those that specialize in corporate planning in big cities) operate out of home offices or the back of their car on a part time basis. Graphic artists, well most of the consumer work is done online these days and is completely automated.

    The profits on the services you describe are minimal (or even negative) even though the time and effort is substantial. Not to mention that these services do not scale. You can always hire an extra limo or hearse to meet excess funeral demand. Finding an extra film crew at the last minute because you have two services at the same time on a Thursday morning is a recipe for customer disappointment, not customer delight. You have to be compensated VERY well to keep the excess capacity available to serve these kinds of specialty funerals, and that will not happen in my area. The egos and the pocketbooks are not big enough.

    There are a few things I can do to add special touches (FuneralOne videos have been a relatively low cost way to add to the funeral experience), and I do those things, but they have to fit within the boundaries of existing overhead.

    Or maybe you are telling me that the future looks like the business my great grandfather started in 1893–part-time undertaking done from his garage. That might be all we have in another generation or two, and there’s nothing about economics and business cycles that preclude this from happening. I think that is a fairly plausible outcome in fact for many parts of the country. Outsource the cremation to the big city and keep some specialty equipment on hand to help organize the final service. That might be a workable part time income for some.

    So all I’m saying to you and to anyone else in this business, is follow the money and the margin. If margins and total dollars keep shrinking they way they are now, the industry has to get smaller (for instance, the cost of owning and operating a building does not get cheaper over time). Fewer dollars means fewer square feet dedicated to serving funerals until eventually you end up back where we started from, with zero square foot funeral businesses conducting services from people’s back yards.

    Is that a bad thing? I don’t know. If you have your heart set on running funerals, then it doesn’t matter. A funeral is a funeral and salary comes later. If on the other hand you’re trying to figure out how to pay for your children’s education and fund a retirement. Well then, the equations need to be evaluated differently.