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Are we too "bound to the body"? It's time for funeral professionals to deal with families in a new way, or we won't be the ones planning the meaningful funerals and memorial services of tomorrow.
The custom of burial has a long history in North America. Ancient Native American burial grounds provide evidence of that. Yet in the past 50 years, our society has undergone major changes in its death care rituals, and people are moving from traditional burial to the alternative of cremation. People are rejecting the standard burial formula in such great numbers that if there were another alternative besides cremation; that might be the direction in which they would be going.
As cemetery and funeral service professionals, we need to look back at history to discover what it is that people want and figure out how we can best meet their needs.
Anti-cremation tactics backfired
A few years ago, Batesville came out with a program called "Options," based on the premise that cremation families have more choices and flexibility than families choosing traditional burial. Many of us used the "options" idea to try to dissuade people from choosing cremation, but we greatly misjudged our customers.
Instead of scaring people off, the idea of greater choice selection was embraced. Suddenly, the unthinkable happened. God-fearing burial families began to be seduced over to the "dark side" of cremation.
Instead of facing this new challenge and catering to families' needs, we tried to teach them a way to not want it. Many of us accomplished this temporarily by hiding the urns where no one would see them, in that familiar dark, smoked-glass container in the corner of the arrangement space.
That attempt not only was a colossal failure, but also prevented us from keeping up with the consumers who are now demanding more than many of us can now offer.
The reason for this switch in consumer mindset from traditional burials to alternative services is not hard to understand. People view cremation and memorial services as the Burger King, "have it your way" offer, providing them the flexibility to have the service exactly the way they want it.
People choose cremation because it just happens to be the option that allows them to put together a meaningful service their own way. A memorial service is more adaptable than a funeral service because it does not necessarily have to be sad or religious, nor does it have to follow the well-worn path.
The challenge for us as a burial community is that we are so bound to the body, and so anxious to get it into the ground within 48 hours, that we do not allow enough time for putting together the service. It takes time to organize a memorable funeral service, yet we are too bound to time and to the body to make it happen.
When Coretta Scott King died, her funeral was not two days later, it was nine days later; After President Reagan's death, his body was flown across the country and laid in state before he was buried.
Take the example of a friend of mine named Calvin, whose brother, Steve, died at 48. Steve's memorial service was held in a bar and restaurant in Franklin, Virginia, on a Monday night. There were 250 townspeople there.
Above the buffet was a PowerPoint display with a rolling pictorial of Steve's life. At the other end of the bar a screen and PowerPoint projector were set up for Calvin to tell his brother's story. No one who attended that memorial service left without knowing who Steve was.
One of the people there was a local funeral director, "Barky." After the service, Barky said to Calvin, "I've had no less than 20 people from this town come up to me and say, 'This is what I want when it’s my time to go."
"What's wrong with that?" Calvin asked him. Barky looked him square in the eye and said, "But I can't do this." And he was right.
Many of you who attend conventions are already offering these types of services, but the challenge is getting the message to the people in our profession who are not, because they reflect on our businesses and pull us down with them.
Funeral and cemetery professionals aren't "typical" in today's society
One of the major hurdles for today's cemetery and funeral service professionals involves relating to people who are completely different from us demographically. There are several factors causing people to reject traditional burial. Our society is a very mobile one and, in general, is becoming less and less affiliated with religion and the societal boundaries and rituals that go along with it. Marriages between people of different faiths and blended households created by remarriage bring up other issues. These trends are not slowing down, so it is important to face the challenges they bring rather than to ignore them.
Society is moving and changing all around us, but we are not going anywhere. We keep things exactly as they have been for generations because that is what we know. Many funeral service professionals who have been at the same location for generations have trouble relating to cremation families, to people who have changed jobs several times and moved across the country.
Because we are living in direct contrast to the way our customer base is, it is very difficult for us to give up our traditions and adapt to change. But we need to keep in mind that we are the exception rather than the norm in society, and trying to resist inevitable changes will only hurt our businesses in the long run.
Thus far, many of us have managed to compensate through our excellent communication skills. We can easily talk people into choosing the service we want them to choose. But not everyone on your staff has equal communication skills, nor do they have the same vested interest you have in your business succeeding. We need to face the issue head on and move forward as a profession.
Suppliers need to change, too
Suppliers are also contributing to the problem. Instead of adjusting their sales methodology to modern times, they continue to sell the same way they have throughout history. The same merchandise available to a burial family does not necessarily apply to a cremation family, yet suppliers have not made enough effort to adapt to changes in the marketplace.
The practice of selling merchandise by what it is made of rather than what it looks like is a case in point. The major challenge for suppliers is to learn to merchandise their products differently. Via Spiga, which historically bought its shoes from Mexico, recently began buying shoes from China as well. The shoe from China costs $3 to manufacture, the shoe from Mexico costs $10. But instead of pricing the shoes to reflect the cost of manufacturing and materials, Via Spiga bases prices completely on looks. The $3 shoe sells for dramatically more than the $10 one, and the resulting profits suggest this is the right decision.
We need to take a major step in changing our sales methodology so that our pricing reflects more than the raw product. It also needs to reflect the value perceived by the consumer.
We also should be more aware of the people we are serving. Just because families choose cremation does not mean they want to know about the details involved in the process. Some of you who offer windows where people can peek through and watch the cremation may be surprised to learn that not everyone wants to see it. This is not to suggest that having such a window is a bad idea, but that you need to be attentive to your customers' individual needs.
When we think of cremation, we think of decreasing profits, yet many of us put very little effort into selling to cremation families. It is important to make families aware of all options regarding final placement and to encourage them to purchase urns.
Unlike caskets, which are 100 percent lift (every burial family buys one), urns are completely optional. By providing cremation families with temporary urns, we are even encouraging them to walk out without buying anything.
We cannot afford to sit back and do nothing while the cremation trend continues to increase. Learning more about our customers and what they want is the first step to increasing our sales and profits.
Before we can begin to increase sales, we need to stop our tendency to equate cremation with burial, with disposition. Our profession has distorted this notion so badly that it seems almost impossible to undo. When faced with cremation, we think of final placement as an afterthought. When cremation becomes the alternative to burial, final placement falls right off the page.
Our challenge is to change our perception of cremation and look at it not as an alternative to burial, but as an alternative to embalming. Cremation is simply the preparation and it is the final placement on which we should be placing more focus. When we start seeing and believing in the value of final placement following cremation that is when we start selling more urns and achieve a higher lift on related products.
We are still not focused enough on final placement, and some of us may not even be involved in the memorial service. You should have seen Barky in Franklin, Virginia, when we changed his world overnight. Things will never be the same for him.
What cremation families want
The short answer to the question of what cremation families really want is "just what everybody else wants." They want less contact with salespeople. When a salesperson walks up to someone at the mall and asks, "Can I help you?" the customer inevitably says, "No thanks; I'm just looking." What he or she means is, "Leave me alone. Some smart guy set this store up in such a way that I can find it on my own. If I need your help, I'm glad to know that you're available, but I don't need you following me around the store."
Yet as soon as people cross the threshold of our funeral homes, we try to sit them down and make them use our age-old selling process, one that people in focus groups consistently reject, comparing it to a timeshare sales pitch.
Today, "personal service" no longer means "one-on-one service." People now consider it to mean being free to browse on their own, able to control the pace and momentum of the entire transaction.
Just like everyone else, cremation families want more meaning, more flexibility, more individuality and value for their money.
But the more in-depth answer to the question of what cremation families want is still to be determined. We need to discover the answer before we get further behind than we already are.
As a profession, as individuals and as leaders in our profession, we need to stop trying to convince people to accept what we want and focus on learning what they're looking for. We need to do this ourselves and more important, we need to spread the message to our colleagues who don't attend conventions.
This article compiled from an address presented by the author at the 2006 ICFA Annual Convention