E-Commerce and the End-of-Life Industry
With nearly everything available for online purchase today, from mattresses to groceries, more and more industries are adapting their businesses to e-commerce, including the cremation industry. In a recent New York Times article titled “Cremation Borrows a Page From the Direct-to-Consumer Playbook,” writer Michael Waters talks to direct-to-consumer cremation start-ups as they address the cremation boom in North America. The article states that by 2025 nearly 63% of deaths in the United States will involve cremation services.
The Generation Gap
As Generation X and millennials’ parents get older, these groups are faced with making end-of-life decisions. But what’s interesting about these generational groups is that they have become more acclimated to the digital space than their predecessors—after all, millennials hold a distinction of growing up with the internet, while the former can recall what life was like before the internet.
As the article indicates, today, many funeral homes don’t have an online presence or website, so when Generation Xers and millennials are Googling for services, these mom-and-pop funeral homes are missing out on a growing number of potential customers. While Generation X is the current target market for cremation startups, Mallory Greene, founder of the startup Eirene, says that their strategies will eventually evolve with the next generation.
“As millennials start making arrangements, I think they will be heavier on the digital side,” Greene says.
Finding Ease During a Difficult Time
Greene started Eirene based on the concept of streamlining the process of cremation to minimize the stress and logistics, but she’s not the only one who set out to make the process more convenient so that families can grieve. Major funeral homes operator, Foundation Partners Group, purchased the cremation start-up,Tulip in 2019. Subsequently, its parent company, Access Holdings, invested more than $150 million in streamlining the technology behind the funeral business. In addition to making the industry more convenient, cremation start-ups also want to address the global society, the idea that not everyone lives within a close vicinity of their family.
According to Tulip general manager, Mike Doyle, “It wouldn’t be that uncommon to see an older parent pass in Florida, for example, while their children live somewhere up in the Northeast.”
Another facet of the industry that these start-ups are tackling is the sticker price. Funeral and burial services are typically the most expensive, while cremation services typically cost a few thousand dollars. Cremation start-ups generally advertise prices that range between $800 and $1000.
Plus, because these start-ups are able to streamline the process with the right technology in partnership with wholesale crematoriums, they are also able to make the cremation process more efficient than most funeral homes. Suelin Chen, chief executive and co-founder of Cake, a website that assists families with end-of-life-care, says, “From actual dollars and cents and how many people they’re serving, it’s still fairly small, [but] I think they have an outsized influence.”
The Fine Print: Antiquated Rules and Cremation Services
The other problem is that while these firms back the technology, in most states they still need to work with a licensed brick-and-mortar funeral home. Even Mallory Greene’s Eirene startup has a physical location for regulatory purposes, even if no cremation customer has ever set foot in it. Also, some state requirements are pretty stringent when it comes to what’s required of the business, like in Alabama, where a funeral home needs to have a conference room and a viewing area that accommodates up to 100 people, among other requirements.
“If you look at every other industry, online models are just becoming the norm.”
Timely processing of death certificates has also been a sticking point in the funeral industry. Up until recently, death certificates took days or weeks to process. However, in states like California, VitalChek has developed relationships with several counties to significantly expedite this process. As Troy Centazzo, CEO of Opal Cremation in Southern California, an online cremation service provider, says, “VitalChek is a game changer. What used to take days or more now takes only minutes. Our relationship with VitalChek has given us the ability to move the process along at a much quicker pace than ever before.”
With contactless pickup becoming more normal because of the pandemic, funeral homes have also seen a rise in the direct shipping of cremated remains to families.
In the article, Eirene’s founder Greene says: “If you look at every other industry, online models are just becoming the norm.”
Are People Ready For a Shift in End-of-Life Options?
But is the cremation industry ready to be fully online? Greene believes the answer is not quite, but admits that industry shifts are happening.
“I think we’re still far away from having an app where someone can make a funeral arrangement,” she says. “I don’t think we’re there yet. But I do think that consumer needs are definitely changing.”
After all, there are still more than 18,000 funeral homes in the United States, though not all of them have an online presence. Many families still feel most comfortable going to places they grew up with, as opposed to a faceless service.
Time will tell how this direct-to-consumer strategy will play out and whether this is a Covid-related trend or if traditional funeral services are becoming a thing of the past. With coverage in the New York Times, a growing population of prospective clients, and the ease of coordinating, especially for those who are millennials and Generation X, it seems likely that people will will lean into this option more and more in the future.