Can The Funeral Industry Change With The Times?

Last November I published “Public Opinion Concludes Funeral Service Has Dropped the Ball!” where I outlined the findings of the 2012 public opinion study by Olson Zaltman Associates (OZA), completed at the request of the Funeral Services Foundation. To view the findings of the study see Funeral  Study. The post was meant to be the start of something much larger: a series of posts exploring the study’s findings and recommendations, but then I ‘hit a wall’. While I had about a billion thoughts about the ramifications of the study, I wanted to come up with some genuine solutions. I soon realized I would need to get the input of others if I was to come up with solutions that came from my singular experiences in my twenty plus years working as a funeral director. The study intrigued me and I was anxious to hear responses. There was some chatter about the importance of the findings and industry analysis of the findings, but very little in the way of solutions for those working day to day. Most suggestions from industry experts were met with the seeming paralysis of funeral directors and owner/operators.  I wanted to acknowledge the study as a whole and form true and tried solutions that even a little country funeral home could implement. I understand how working in this business can lead to reinforced comfort zones that can be scary to break out of. Fear like this limits the ability to make significant changes in the way they do business, and the very future of funeral service.; I couldn’t get any words on the page. I guess I too was a victim of a paralysis of sorts.


I decided to get help and called my friend Kim Stacey to collaborate with me on this project, there’s nothing like a second set of eyes (and ears) to reinvigorate a project. She spent weeks connecting with funeral directors, owner/operators, consultants and association administrators; all of who helped us to shine a brighter spotlight on the issues raised by the study. “So many people gave graciously and generously; not just of their time, but of their very best thinking,” Kim noted in one of our follow-up conversations.


She was also quick to share something else: a chat with Todd Van Beck had opened her eyes wide enough, so she could really see how those working in funeral service are more than willing–almost eager–to criticize ourselves and others in the business, all the while decrying the very future of the profession. We are, it seems, crippling ourselves with negative talk. “I believe,” he began “that the average, day-to-day, typical American funeral director has undergone…undeserved beating by the national media and the self-appointed funeral critics.” The cumulative damage of these beatings, he argues, “results in funeral directors being filled with fear for the future, fear of change, and fear of making a mistake.” Fear is indeed a powerful motivator, but it is a poor motivator.”


Because we know Todd to be right–that fear is a lousy motivator–Kim and I are both adamant this series will be different. We’re not here to make you feel worse about what you do and how you do it, or bemoan the future of funeral service; we’re here to discuss, motivate and uplift–and ultimately get you to make changes in the ways you see fit. We want you to weigh the evidence, trust your own thinking, and make only those changes which are authentically in line with your firm’s values; but bottom line–change is here and it’s always best to accept the fact and respond rationally, using all the resources at your disposal.


Basically, we want more funeral directors and owner/operators to see the significant potential found in the gap between how consumers see us and our services, and how we see ourselves. While we want to be positive and uplifting, we’re not going to sugar coat anything; so best be prepared.


What’s AheadCrossroads of Funeral Service


In the next edition of the Cremation Solutions blog, we’ll look at the initial finding noted in November’s post: that the general public sees funeral homes as dark, confining and sometimes even scary places. (In the OZA study, respondents said things like funeral homes “are real formal and not really inviting” and “sterile, cold and out-of-date”).  This is a really big issue, because these same people will do anything they can to avoid returning to a facility they think is unappealing.  “If the consumer has less-than-positive feelings about a business,” began Alan Creedy, “but they go and experience the urge to leave, they will naturally do all they can to avoid coming back–and they’ll do what they can to keep their family from experiencing those same feelings. What does that mean? It means they’ll seek more comfortable alternatives to what you offer.”


oWe’ve all seen examples of funeral home design which is in line with the study’s findings: facilities like any one of the Anderson-McQueen locations: light, bright, open, and inviting.  Legacy Funeral Home in Edinburg, Texas has over 19,000 square feet of space, with a coffee lounge and reception area.

Scarry Funeral HomeYet, for every one of these fresh, modern facilities there are 100 small-to-medium funeral firms, often housed in aging buildings with too many small, uncomfortable rooms and too few windows. “Ninety percent of funeral homes are built ‘inside-out’,” said Alan. The public areas are interior rooms with no windows, and heavy drapery (often used to frame the casket). Add to those the low 8-foot ceiling, and you’ve got a funeral home that literally drives people out-the-door. But,” he notes, “if you’re running this kind of business you want them to linger, so you need to make the kind of changes which will cause them to stay awhile, share stories among themselves, and find communal comfort.”


We’re going to leave you now with a question. If your funeral home is, as Creedy believes; the primary touch point with those living in your service area–the very cornerstone of your brand– you will certainly benefit from looking around your facility and then asking yourself this question: “What signal is it sending?”


Don’t stop at just asking yourself the question: ask everyone you can. Take notes, and keep ’em handy. We’ll be back soon, and want you to add your “two cents” (more would be even better!) to the conversation.  Shouldn’t “scary funeral homes” be a consumer perception from our past, not one from our future?

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4 Responses to Can The Funeral Industry Change With The Times?

  1. Great article Jeff! Right on point…however, this will fall largely on deaf ears. #thefuneralcommander

    • Kim Stacey says:

      Jeff Harbeson’s pessimism is rather heart-breaking and discouraging. But I’m hoping if we talk loud enough, and often enough, someone will be compelled to listen. Dear heavens, let that be true! As we said in the post, our goal is to have funeral directors and owner/operators realize (and tap into) the “significant potential found in the gap between how consumers see us and our services, and how we see ourselves”.

      While many I spoke to said the FSF study merely confirmed what they already knew, it is still rich in “food for thought”. (Unfortunately, some (who really saw the value in the study) had no power in the funeral home to exert pressure or motivate change; they were forced to carry on “as is”. Ah, such is life.

  2. david odom says:

    Isn’t the funeral home makeover simply fresh paint on the same building? As an architect I appreciate that people can recognize the power behind an architectural experience. But are the problems of a modern funeral home solved by a new building and new furniture? If the business model remains the same then the novelty of new experience will merely displace customary dissatisfaction to a later date…kicking the can down the road. New buildings, televisions, and color schemes did not change the food at McDonald’s, new showrooms and new cars doesn’t change the car buying experience either.
    S, while the architecture can surely reflect, direct, and support the means and methods of the funeral experience – the industry still has to define the experience itself.

  3. Pingback: Funeral Home Makeover | Updates For Progressive Funeral Homes | Cremation Solutions

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