It’s Time to Think About Going Out of Business

Funeral Industry News Opinion July 12, 2018

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It’s Time to Think About Going Out of Business

Ellery Bowker is the founder of He can be reached at

This is an open letter to funeral directors and the owners of family-owned funeral homes that have worked tirelessly for decades to build their businesses to where they are today, only to feel less secure than ever before.

Before Googling my name or checking out my Linkedin profile (click here, and I’ll save you a step), I am not a funeral director and do not own a funeral home. I am a vendor and have served funeral homes for almost 15 years.

 As a life-long entrepreneur, I read everything I can about starting and staying in business, about markets and marketing and about how to stand out from the competition. Learning and knowing doesn’t mean winning, however, as I’ve had my butt kicked many times because I didn’t execute, which brings me to this letter. 

I am witnessing an alarming number of your funeral homes that are ignoring trends, reacting late to trends or just plain don’t believe in trends, yet are having their businesses negatively impacted by them.  I am literally watching funeral homes that are customers of ours (and have become friends) losing their funeral homes because call volume and revenue is decreasing, and they can’t, won’t, or don’t know how to do anything about it. You are honest, hard-working people who give selflessly while caring for the bereaved and deserve a more secure business future.

This letter is my plea for you to start thinking about going out of business, but not the really bad and familiar way. I am writing this letter to implore you to stop running the funeral home you have now (metaphorically, of course), start asking the only question that matters, and begin building the funeral home that would put you out of business if it existed.

If you bear with me, I’ll make a case why I believe your survival is predicated on continually asking one question: What’s next?

You must continually ask that question because it’s the only one that matters. Past accomplishments are not an indicator of future success and the entire way people buy and consume products and services has been upended. So, you must ask. What’s the next change in our consumers? What’s the next change in the way we arrange a funeral? What’s next in how families want to honor their loved one? What’s next in the way we hire, train and empower our staff? What’s next in how we get our name out? With every component of your funeral home, you should be asking, what’s next?

The time to ask is now, especially if you currently have a successful funeral home. You can spend time thinking and acting on the next iteration of your business without desperation. Wait too long and not only is that luxury gone, it can be fatal. This truth transcends industries and has no mercy. Monster companies, true titans in their industry have failed or missed windows of opportunity because of inaction.

A quick story that I think applies to funeral home owners.

I can remember in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf, our gas prices in North Carolina skyrocketed. They literally doubled overnight. That drastic change shocked all of us into different behavior. Trips were canceled, SUVs were being traded faster than stocks, and fuel surcharges were on everything from UPS to Pizza Hut. It was financial ice water to our faces, and it made us change the way we did things, and quickly.

I tell that story because if the cremation rate had gone up as fast as those gas prices, the funeral business would look very different today. Funeral homes would have made immediate changes to deal with the stark new reality which probably would have included cutting dead weight, redesigning the funeral experience to match the new (and less) revenue per call, etc. Instead, the change was slow and less painful resulting in inaction, which over time is the death knell to any business.

So, today, I am convinced that your funeral home’s Katrina will come in the form of a new competitor that you had no idea was coming. The person working on dominating your market right now hasn’t revealed themselves to you yet, but when they come, it could be deadly. 

Knowing that someone or something is around that corner, wanting to take it all away from you should drive you like nothing else to think ahead, study the market and brainstorm about what might be. It should make you stay up at night asking yourself, what’s next and how do I position my funeral home to take advantage of it? I hate clichés, but it’s hard in this context not to reference Wayne Gretzky who said he became successful by not chasing the puck, but rather skating to where it was going. He was asking “what’s next?”

I’ll ask you the question a little more directly. If you were starting your funeral business over again today, what would it look like? Would you buy the same building? Would you hire the same people? Would you buy the same fleet of cars? Would you put fixed pews in your chapel or something more flexible? Would you even call it a chapel?

Your honest answer to those questions is the roadmap being used right now by your new and yet to be revealed competitor. That is not my theory. That is my observation. 

I won’t call out anyone by name in this letter, but there are three cities within 100 miles of me right now that, up until a few years ago, had a clear winner and has now been disrupted by a minimal service provider who was hungrier, scrappier, and had the luxury of low overhead. This differentiation allowed the startup to innovate, test, pivot, try again and again until they hit on the right combination of price and services and a now has a well full of new families, siphoned off from established firms and bought rather cheaply using Google Adwords. 

I’m not throwing knives here, and this letter is as much an indictment on me and my inaction as any funeral home in the country. I, too, am guilty of not spending enough time thinking about what’s next and have missed windows of opportunity.

I think if all of us vendors and the funeral homes we serve can focus on what’s next and build our products and services around those opportunities, we can stop the march toward commoditization which will, without question, be the result of our inaction.

The work you do is irreplaceable as we all know but only until the consumers are told and start to believe a different story by someone trying to unseat you. It’s your job to stop that, and I think you can by asking what’s next and taking action. 


Ellery Bowker is the founder of He can be reached at