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Delving into the business of death

October 28, 2013

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McMullen Funeral Home in Columbus, Georgia, tried a little humor on the highways. Photo: Flickr user Peter

It’s that eerie time of year again when mortality is in the air, thanks to this week’s holidays, Halloween, Dia de los Muertos (the Mexican Day of the Dead celebration) and the religious All Souls Day.

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It’s an annual excuse for a look at the business of death, which is a consumer story none of us can escape being the centerpiece of, sooner or later.  Yet coverage of the funeral services industry and related businesses is fairly sparse — leaving plenty of scope for you to unveil for your audience some of this industry’s mystique.

Like any line of business, it has plenty of angles outside daily operations, from technology (here’s an ad for “live funeral webcasting”) and social media to marketing, career and workplace concerns, “green” issues, personal finance, DIY an the ever-popular pet angle.  |  BloombergBusinessweek tackled the topic this week with Is Funeral Home Chain SCI’s Growth at the Expense of Mourners?   

In fact I was trying to think of a business beat that couldn’t turn up a funerary angle – casinos maybe?  Nope – a number of florists offer the ultimate floral tribute to the gambler, a custom slot-machine funeral arrangement complete with the lucky 7-7-7 as what you might call the “final spin.”   The daisy and chrysanthemum concoction is a mere $575, though cheaper editions are available.

And don’t overlook the wedding industry!  Merging two major life transitions, some couples are opting to be married at cemeteries — either for sentimental reasons, as in this pair who wed at parents’ gravesite, or just because the grand cemetery grounds make a good backdrop for photos.  Here’s Spring Grove Cemetery in Ohio that has a wedding website complete with fee schedule, rules, “preferred vendors” from musicians to dove releasers, and so on.   Augmenting traditional lines of business with new services like this is an interesting tack for a death-related operation, and might make a good marketing story.

As in other consumer goods industries from cars to cosmetics, personalization seems to be en vogue in the funeral marketplace, and that could be one premise for your story; check out this other florist website with designs ranging from trout to Coca-Cola cans to treble clefs to dune buggies.   Custom coffins are a growing industry, from small artisans like these profiled in this Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel article to the big-biz Batesville and other mainstream manufacturer of caskets; here are some wacky ones shaped like ballet slippers, iPhones, fish and cars – check out the egg-shaped pod in which the departed are curled in a fetal position and “buried in the ground like a bulb.”

Other aspects of final rites from music (the last parlor I visited offered Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Freebird”) to monuments are part of today’s funeral shopping; you may have seen the recent news stories about the SpongeBob SquarePants monuments that has one family embroiled in a dispute with a Cincinnati cemetery; what are local monument makers being asked for, and what’s the latest in long-lasting materials?

The Rosetta Stone microchip monument company says traditional stones consume 1.6 million tons of concrete a year; it suggests using unobtrusive stones flush with the grass and embellished with its “peel and stick microchip” that apparently will transmit vital statistics, photos and more to the cell phones of interested cemetery visitors — even video of the deceased communicating “from beyond the grave.”  The Living Headstone Internet Memorials offer similar services via QR codes that are affixed to crematory urns, gravestones and mausoleums.

And of course, for the ultimate in personalization, the DIY, home or family funeral is always a riveting story — think lots of dry ice; here is perhaps more than you wish to know from the Funeral Consumers Alliance.  A recent front-page NYT story was illuminating; the subject buried his wife in the family’s front yard and is in a dispute with officials about it, but surprisingly few laws prohibit such matters.  (And some attribute the laws that are on the books to heavy lobbying from the funeral industry.)

If you want to focus more on the operating side of mortuaries and related companies, here’s a look at the corporate death industry — and check out CNBC’s package, “Death: It’s a Living,” complete with videos of the embalming process (no thanks) and stories about party trends replacing somber wakes, the Eternal Reef company that will embed your ashes into a custom-cast object (loved ones can add handprints and such if they like) and seat it in the ocean where it will create a marine habitat; prices range from $2,000 to $7,000.

IBISWorld’s market research says cremations are expected to rise, offsetting gains that funeral home operators might expect from an aging population dying at a faster pace.  (Speaking of which, you might check into regulation of location, emissions and other factors at crematory sites; I’ve often wondered where they are and what is emerging from their vents.)  Here’s the site of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association for further industry insight.

Another great resource is the National Funeral Directors Association — they just held their annual meeting so the online handouts from seminars and workshops are illuminating sources of story nuggets, too.   Topics range from shipping cremains to collecting on delinquent accounts to — yes, co-branding with “pet-loss” services.  (The latter is quite the eye-opener, espousing business-to-business and business-to-consumer models including the marketing of “twice a week pickup” at veterinary offices and “nice bags back to family” as “another way to market YOU!” and increase contact with future human clients.)  Obviously funeral parlors are adopting technology, from Skype to WiFi to wireless mics for officiants.

Consumer advice is a big part of writing about the industry. You might start with the FTC’s Funeral Rule, which was first written in 1984 and was designed to require the consumers receive adequate information about the goods and services provided by a funeral home. This anonymous comment from an August 2013 Reddit comment may be a good starting place for consumer questions: Anonymous funeral director explains the big con behind the industry, coffins and embalming. 

Here’s a recent article from the Santa Fe New Mexican about other challenges facing morticians, from family fights to fewer cemetery plot sales.  (As people scatter across the nation, the notion of a family plot or frequently visited cemetery area is less appealing to consumers.)

Pre-paid funeral scams and other frauds are yet another angle; check with your state’s attorney general about current examples.

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