Farewells needn’t be funereal
Undertakers’ market power is being challenged in the face of changing customer demand
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