What I Learned on My European Tour

bob fells's picture

Last night, Maureen and I arrived home from a 7-day cruise of the western Medditerrean. Most everybody we know has already been to Europe at least once, some several times, so if anything we’re arriving late to this party.  We visited Barcelona, and toured Toulon and Provence, France; Monaco and Monte Carlo; Florence, Rome and Naples, Italy. Flying home, we stopped by Amsterdam. Given the locations, our tour was more of a busman’s holiday because we saw lots of cemeteries and visited the tombs of several popes, Michelangelo, Galileo, Rossini (the opera composer), and even Grace Kelly.  

I gained insights from other times and cultures, and what they say to us today. In Rome, we saw expensive sarcophaguses that wealthy ancient Romans were entombed in. But we also saw lots of small white boxes that were used as urns for the many Romans who were not wealthy and opted for cremation to save money. This has a distinctly 21st century ring to it. Whatever type of outer burial container selected (as the FTC would call it), all Romans observed funeral services and memorialization.  Today many in our profession are backing away from the long-held association between funeral services and religious services. But those ancient Romans were apparently not at all bothered by bringing “religion” into their funerals. This is ironic when we remember that, by our standards at least, they were pagans!

Speaking of religion, I had to keep reminding myself of the decline in traditional religions, church closings, clergy scandals, etc., as I battled the crowds at the Vatican. I’d say at least 40 percent of the tourists were from the mid-east with many women dressed in the traditional head-to-foot black garb. If Christendom is on its way out, these people didn’t get the message. Seriously, I think that what I was seeing was a regard, if not a respect for, ceremonies that mark the major transitions in life. That aspect is truly universal and timeless, transcending different cultures and religions. I understand that India’s Taj Mahal is a mausoleum. I’d say the Vatican is too – St. Peter’s Basilica is filled with tombs that are monuments to memorialization.  

So how did we wind up with “direct disposition?” No services, no memorialization, just cremate me and scatter my ashes to the four winds. As I have observed elsewhere, what we call direct disposition is anti-historical and seems to have reared its ugly head only in the last years of the 20th century in America (of all places). Throughout history, human remains have been accorded respect with ceremony and permanent memorialization, excepting only when conquerors vanquished their foes.   

When we look at who exactly opts for direct disposition, we don’t find many of the new immigrants. We find mostly the old immigrants of the turn of the last century, or actually their descendants. As ethnic populations shift, so do funeral observances and the new waves of immigration to our shores are bringing with them their own customs and traditions, including funeral ceremonies. Direct disposition plays no role. Our challenge for the foreseeable future is not to “educate the public to the value of funeral services” – a highly dubious enterprise IMHO – but to persuade those who already value funeral services that we are their “go to” resource.  As one of our ICCFA leaders recently observed, “What used to be a sub-market for our funeral home is now our main market.” I am very proud that the ICCFA leadership has spearheaded programs that recognize the new funeral consumer.

One of the classic manuals of preneed marketing is The More Objections the Better by the late Eric Marmorek. I knew and worked with Mr. Marmorek and he was a fine gentleman. His books still contain much wisdom but I believe that were Eric with us today, and as perceptive as he was, he might create a revised edition for the 21st century called The More Objections, Forget It. By that I mean that in Eric’s time, prospects did not have to be persuaded of the value in funeral services. That was a given. The challenge that Eric and his generation faced was to persuade people to make their funeral and burial arrangements sooner rather than later. I am not sure what Eric would advise when faced with a prospect today who says, “I’ve decided on my funeral arrangements already, I’m not having one.”

I’d say that the 4,000 souls on our cruise ship formed a nice microcosm of the world, at least based on demographics that I’ve read. A cruise is not an occasion to think of future trends in funerals (unless you’re on the Titanic) but it seemed obvious as we all gathered together at meal times that the couples with three, four or even five kids in their families are our future. A society that doesn’t at least replace its population is headed towards extinction and this describes most industrialized western nations, plus Japan. It’s all a numbers game and we already know the dominant ethnic groups for the next few generations because they are already with us. As far as Prospect and Prosper goes (another classic Marmorek book), today this may be easier than ever. There’s a wonderful saying in the Middle East that goes, “May you be the mother (or the father) of a hundred sons.” I’d suggest that when somebody is told this and thinks it’s a wisecrack, keep on prospecting. But if a person understands this is a blessing, you have probably found somebody who values our profession.