Part 2 of 3
Written by Chris Cruger with Alice Adams
Will you succeed in your profession’s new era? If so, the massive knowledge gap between consumers and funeral service needs immediate attention.
At the end of a recent celebration of life for a popular teacher, high school tennis coach and longtime community volunteer, many commented to her husband on the unique experience. “I didn’t know you could have a catered meal at a funeral home.” “I loved the jazz trio during lunch.” “I wish I could have had a celebration like this for my mother.” “I’m really glad I came.” “I hope my kids do something like this for me when my time comes.”
“Everything that happened today– from her favorite food to the music to the stories from former players, family members and friends, and the displays of her photos and trophies – told her life story,” Claire’s sister said. “I could just see Sis beaming with approval.”
Claire’s husband, Jim, was surprised at the mourners’ comments, so much so that he mentioned it to the funeral director when he visited the funeral home several weeks later to pick up death certificate copies.
“Of course it meant a lot to hear all the positive comments after Claire’s celebration,” Jim began. “But so many of our friends and family seemed unaware of being able to have a funeral service that truly reflected the life that had been lived and the things that meant something in that life.”
“So, Jim, do you remember when I made the presentation to your couples’ class?” the director asked. He nodded. “You gave us a lot of food for thought, and over the next days and weeks, we had several conversations about all the options available and how different it was when we planned funerals for our parents. We also completed the paperwork for our end-of-life directives with the attorney you introduced while we were at the meeting.”
“And we had yours and Claire’s final wishes you two wrote down at that meeting on file.”
“Yes, and it was a great help, remembering what she wanted. Made the whole process of arranging the celebration a lot easier.”
“We have continued meeting with more groups around the community, just to educate people about new funeral traditions, the options available to families and how funeral directors can help families make services more meaningful – to those attending as well as the families themselves,” the director explained.
“But we are finding few people who really know much about the available service options to create a meaningful memorial –for the family, friends, co-workers– whomever attends. That’s why we’re focused on educating our community with in-person workshops and other educational opportunities.”
The need for today’s funeral directors to educate their communities was also evident in the annual Foresight Companies’ Funeral Home and Cemeteries Consumer Behavior Study 2023. “What funeral directors and cemeterians thought consumers knew and what consumers said they actually know were often miles apart,” said CEO Chris Cruger. As examples:
- Cremation memorialization: 43% of consumers said they knew about cremation memorialization; funeral professionals thought 93% of consumers knew – a 50% knowledge gap.
- Funeral/cemetery merchandise: 57% of consumers had some idea of what is available; the professionals thought 89% of consumers knew –a knowledge gap of 32%.
- Ability to make online cremation arrangements: Just 14% of consumers knew this was possible, and funeral directors thought 84% of consumers were aware – a gap in perception of 70%.
And this was only the tip of the iceberg; the lack of public information about funeral and disposition options was frequently cited.
Cruger considers this massive knowledge gap between what directors and cemeterians believe consumers know and what they do know an area in immediate need of attention. “Bottom line, consumers don’t know what we offer, and 42% don’t know enough about funeral home and cemetery services to make educated decisions, particularly if they prefer making online arrangements,” he said.
“Our survey included many respondents from both the industry and consumer categories. What we had not anticipated were the differences between the two groups.
“While 25% of consumers said they would like a traditional remembrance to take place at a funeral home and 31% said they preferred a remembrance somewhere other than the funeral home or church, 44% said they had no idea where they wanted their remembrance to take place,” continued Cruger.
The survey required responses beyond “yes” or “no” to the questions about cremation. For example, while some consumers said they would like their cremated remains – or those of a loved one – to be kept at home, a combined 74% preferred some type of memorialization as well.
Remember, too, that most consumers think the only kind of cremation is “direct” cremation because they’ve all seen the billboards advertising “direct cremation for $595.” To the average consumer, a direct cremation simply means taking the decedent from the place of death to the crematory and shoving the body into a giant oven for a few hours. Then the ashes are placed in an urn or some other type of container and returned to the family. They have no idea about the myriad options for memorialization.
Thirty-six percent of consumers said they wanted help figuring out what to do with their loved one’s cremated remains.
Consumers’ preferences showed:
- 51% were more likely to select cremation than they were a few years ago.
- 36% prefer to have the cremated remains scattered.
- 36% prefer to keep the cremated remains at home.
- 24% were willing to pay more for green cremation.
After reviewing the 2023 annual survey, Cruger emphasized the need for funeral director-led programs to educate people in the community. “We’re finding more consumers preferring to make arrangements online, and when the firm does not provide prices on their website, consumers see this as a lack of transparency,” he explained. “But more than putting your GPL on your website, as funeral directors, it’s time to leave your office and reach out to your community with information and education about what you offer besides caskets and cremation.”
Depending on your resources, educational outreach can take many forms – a blog, monthly newsletter or speaking at civic club meetings. Some firms are now adding community outreach coordinators to their staff.
One funeral home in a small, Mid-Atlantic community held a monthly “Dinner for Ten” – two directors and four couples, usually the next of kin of those the firm had served over the year. Following the dinner at a local restaurant, the funeral directors asked the diners to discuss their final wishes and then complete a form listing what they wanted for their celebration of life. It asked about venue; music; displays; photographs; beverages; need for and type of food service; prayers (yes/no/who?); speakers and testimonials; favorite scripture, poems, jokes; pallbearers (if needed); guest mementos; and special requests (e.g., entertainment, live music, décor, balloon releases).
It would be optimal if these educational classes were held in your funeral home or cemetery office, providing there is space available without interfering with the regular conduct of business. This venue also allows those attending to visit without being there because a death has occurred.
Secondly, as the saying goes, “there is safety in numbers,” so after you welcome the group and offer any informative comments, invite questions. Have three or four questions ready to begin the Q&A and then don’t be surprised if the floodgates of questions open.
Finally, providing educational sessions for your community at your facility will breed a certain familiarity with you, your employees and your firm – the precursor for a bond of trust. You may want to consider distributing copies of your GPL prior to your presentation. In addition, your willingness to publish your GPL on your website will establish the desired transparency and information consumers are asking for.
Several years ago, leadership at a large university’s elite engineering school made a startling discovery. While they were training some of the best prepared professionals across the engineering disciplines, very few of them could present their ideas for new projects or their solutions to problems to their clients.
To add this missing tool – presentation skills – the engineering program installed a one-semester course in professional presentation skills in its curriculum.
Because community education will continue in importance, funeral service schools may want to consider creating a CE in these skills. Optimally, adding a presentation skills course to their curricula and providing practice for new directors will equip them for success.
In addition to funeral service schools adding to the curriculum, staff training is equally important. Train employees on presentation skills, listening, communication, etc. All of these skills will allow them to better serve client families.