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The death throes of an industry?

The April 14-20 issue of The Economist has a feature article on the funeral industry. Funeral directors are freaking out because of the long-term trend toward cremation and non-traditional services. This means lost revenue unless the industry finds a way to adjust.

We conducted ZMET research for the funeral industry several years ago. Our key finding was that many Baby Boomers see traditional funerals as overly focused on death. In Deep Metaphor terms these services are Containers where I feel physically and emotionally stifled. Conversely, the service these consumers want for themselves involves more freedom of expression. They want their own service to be a true celebration of the life they lived.  

One man described a service he attended at the home of his deceased friend. On a large table, the man’s family arranged a number of different objects that were of importance to this man’s life – his fly fishing reel, his tool box, a set of car keys, a jacket, etc – and everyone sat around the table telling stories about this man’s life, centered around these various objects. Our participant held that up as a kind of model ceremony.

I spoke at a number of national and statewide funeral director conventions a few years ago, and I developed a great respect for the people in the industry. They are deeply compassionate and well-meaning and I enjoyed spending time with them. But too many of them are stuck in the past. The audience at my presentations always fell into three camps.

  • The forward-thinking (and usually younger) funeral directors, who loved the insights
  • Those who nodded politely and said “We’re already doing this,” even though they really weren’t (probably the largest camp)
  • The outright hostile

I was yelled at during one talk. Another time a guy cornered me in the lobby of a hotel and lectured me – with a finger in my face, while his family looked on – about how the consumers we talked to were all idiots. One piece of written feedback suggested helpfully, “Shove a pole up this guy’s ass and run him out of town on a rail.”  

Some of this “People don’t know what’s best for them. Only we do” sentiment comes through in the article. One funeral director fairly screams, “Where’s the guest of honor? No visitation and empty casket, no embalming, What’s the point?”

It’s an industry that is deeply rooted in tradition. Many funeral homes are third or fourth generation family businesses. But this lack of flexibility is how companies and industries die – no pun intended. The voice of the consumer is loud and clear.