Farewells needn’t be fu­ne­real

Un­der­tak­ers’ mar­ket power is be­ing chal­lenged in the face of chang­ing cus­tomer de­mand

The Australian - - LIFE - THE ECON­O­MIST

Few choose how they die, but they can choose what hap­pens next. Most leave this to loved ones who, in their dis­tress, usu­ally out­source the de­ci­sion to an un­der­taker.

The trans­ac­tion is of­ten a let­down, with hardly any choices be­yond “burn or bury?” and “cheque or card?”

The av­er­age Amer­i­can fu­neral with a burial costs nearly $US9000 ($11,555). In some coun­tries the ex­or­bi­tant cost of a “proper” fu­neral can lead fam­i­lies to fi­nan­cial ruin. At last, tech­nol­ogy and com­pe­ti­tion are start­ing to dis­rupt this most con­ser­va­tive of in­dus­tries. This is good news for any­one who plans to die one day.

The fu­neral trade has the most ba­sic of busi­ness ad­van­tages: in­ex­haustible de­mand. Ev­ery minute more than 100 peo­ple die some­where.

Not all pay for a fu­neral. Ti­betans still prac­tise sky burial, leav­ing bodies on moun­tain­tops; the Cavi- teno in The Philip­pines bury their dead in hol­lowed-out tree trunks.

But in the rich world, dy­ing is big busi­ness — an in­dus­try, for ex­am­ple, worth $US16 bil­lion in the US last year.

Un­der­tak­ers have long been able to get away with poor ser­vice. Their cus­tomers are typ­i­cally dis­tressed, un­der time-pres­sure and com­pletely in­ex­pe­ri­enced (peo­ple in rich coun­tries buy more cars than they do fu­ner­als). As a re­sult, few shop around, let alone hag­gle. With con­sumers docile, providers can keep qual­ity low and prices high — much like tourist-trap restau­rants, an­other one-off pur­chase made in haste with lit­tle in­for­ma­tion. Some sell­ers have made mat­ters worse with tech­niques rang­ing from opaque pric­ing to emo­tional black­mail.

The asym­me­try in knowl­edge be­tween un­der­taker and grief­stricken client al­lows lu­di­crous mark-ups on things such as coffins. It also makes it eas­ier to sell ser­vices that peo­ple do not re­alise are mostly un­nec­es­sary, such as em­balm­ing.

But now un­der­tak­ers’ mar­ket power is be­ing chal­lenged on at least three fronts. One is chang­ing cus­tomer de­mand. Driven in part by the de­cline of re­li­gion, and broader shifts in at­ti­tudes to death and dy­ing, fewer be­reaved are ready to cede their dead un­think­ingly to an off-the-shelf burial. They pre­fer ashes and the sprin­kling of ashes in mean­ing­ful places to coffins and grave­yards; ev­ery­where peo­ple are opt­ing for cel­e­bra­tions of life to som­bre rit­u­als in fu­neral homes; and video trib­utes to a life just lost to dis­plays of the em­balmed dead.

Sec­ond, more and more they choose cre­ma­tion, which al­lows a “di­rect” form in which the dis­posal of the body is han­dled with­out fuss and kept sep­a­rate from the com­mem­o­ra­tion of the life lost. And third, the in­ter­net is dis­rupt­ing death as it has life.

Com­par­i­son sites shed light on fu­neral providers’ ser­vices. And though not many be­reaved re­la­tions yet “bring their own cof­fin”, a quick browse on­line gives peo­ple a far bet­ter idea of what it should cost. In the US, start-ups are of­fer­ing more rad­i­cal dis­rup­tion: rocket-launches for ashes; QR codes on graves linked to on­line trib­utes; new ways of dis­pos­ing of bodies be­sides bury­ing or burn­ing. The nail in the cof­fin? No­body is yet writ­ing un­der­tak­ing’s epi­taph.

But the in­dus­try will have to adapt. The first signs of a shift are al­ready on dis­play in the US, where fu­neral-home rev­enue is pro­jected to stag­nate de­spite an an­nual death rate — the in­dus­try’s lifeblood, af­ter all — that is ex­pected to rise. In Britain a price war be­tween the largest providers may at last cause prices to drop.

The most im­por­tant ef­fect of all this dis­rup­tion is not just cheaper fu­ner­als and fewer debt-bur­dened fam­i­lies. It is a more pro­found shift in re­turn­ing to con­sumers per­haps the most per­sonal of all de­ci­sions: con­trol over their farewell.

The fu­neral trade has the most ba­sic of busi­ness ad­van­tages: in­ex­haustible de­mand. Ev­ery minute more than 100 peo­ple die some­where

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.