By Danny King, Houston Chronicle Contributor June 22, 2020
COVID-19 has forced Houston’s prominent funeral services industry to look to the future to better honor those who’ve passed.
With coronavirus-related state mandates limiting gatherings to 10 people until late last month, funeral home operators continue to be obligated to reduce the number of an event’s attendees to 50 percent of capacity for indoor spaces. As a result, such businesses have rapidly turned to online tools such as Facebook Live and Zoom to allow more people to attend funerals virtually while more are regularly adopting the practice of selling their products online instead of in person.
“Broadly, the industry has been 10 to 15 years behind the times from a technological perspective,” said Chris Cruger, chief operating officer of Phoenix-based funeral management consultant Foresight Cos. “The last 90 days have been an accelerant.”
Nowhere is this more evident than with Houston-based Service Corporation International, North America’s largest funeral services provider. With daily appointments plummeting by two-thirds shortly after coronavirus spurred stay-at-home orders across the country in March, the company was conducting almost 40 percent of its sales calls virtually by late April and had added Facebook Live streaming capabilities at more than 1,000 of its locations, CEO Thomas Ryan said on an April 30 conference call with analysts.
“It’s kind of reinventing the way we serve families during a difficult time,” said Rodney Molitor, Houston market director for SCI’s Dignity Memorial brand, who estimated that about a third of families offer live-streaming at their loved one’s funeral services.
“The number of families who’ve opted for the virtual (funeral) arrangement opportunity has increased dramatically,” he said.
Funeral home operators that have traditionally pitched their personal touch have been forced to evolve and accept online product sales as both a valuable way to keep both staff and customers safer at a time when COVID-19 cases continue to grow and as a natural progression paralleling other industries.
Still, some industry workers and family members said the growing dependence on live-streaming services was bittersweet.
With her 95-year-old grandmother passing away on the East Coast in early May, Los Angeles resident Michelle Montany was one of 14 grandchildren forced to attend the service via Zoom.
She and her sisters paid tribute by playing a pre-recorded poetry reading and a song vocal that was amplified through a speaker at the cemetery. Montany said that about a dozen people, including her grandmother’s five children, attended in person, while a family member at the service filmed the video that was fed into Zoom.
“It was better than nothing, but it’s not what anyone had in mind,” said Montany, who estimated that about 100 people would’ve likely attended the longtime Manchester, Conn., resident’s service under normal circumstances. “It still doesn’t feel real.”
“We had a service in April, and the gentleman was 25 years old. We had to keep it to 10 people, and (the family was) disappointed,” said Eddie Martinez, area general manager for NorthStar Memorial Group’s South Park and San Jacinto Funeral Homes, which together host about 725 funerals a year. “But we had 1,900 people view the service, so the family was appreciative.”
Such changes have had an outsized impact in Houston because of the area’s status in the U.S. funeral services industry.
The National Funeral Directors Association says there are more than 19,000 funeral homes in the nation and, citing U.S. Census Bureau figures, pegs the industry at about $16.3 billion annually. SCI, founded in Houston in 1962, generated $3.23 billion from its nearly 2,000 North American funeral homes and cemeteries last year.
Additionally, Toronto-based Park Lawn Corp., Canada’s largest publicly traded funeral, cremation and cemetery operator, based its U.S. headquarters in Houston, while closely held NorthStar Memorial Group, which overseas more than 75 funeral, cremation and cemetery locations, is also based in Houston.
Houston is also home to the National Museum of Funeral History, founded in 1992 by SCI founder Robert L. Waltrip and boasts the cheeky motto, “Any day above ground is a good one.”
Such homespun philosophies are now colliding with the realities of social distancing in ways that workers and consultants said will likely permanently change the way much of the business is conducted in what’s long been considered an industry that’s relied on the personal touch.
Martinez, who’s worked in the industry for 27 years, said that as social distancing measures have become the norm the idea of showing items such as vaults and caskets via video is becoming more accepted. Additionally, with tools such as DocuSign, about 90 percent of families are signing funeral arrangement contracts online, compared with about 15 percent at the beginning of the year.
He added that funeral directors have been forced to become more adept at coordinating services to accommodate both in-person eulogies and virtual tributes from a predetermined group of friends and family.
“It won’t be open to everyone, because that can go crazy, but we coordinate and identify certain people to be part of the speaking panel,” said Martinez, who as of early June was still limiting attendee capacity at both South Park and San Jacinto to about 50 people each.
On the attendees’ side, attitudes are changing as well. Foresight Cos.’ Cruger, citing an early May online survey of more than 2,500 people, said about 26 percent indicated they felt strongly about needing to attend a funeral in person, down from 42 percent before the pandemic, suggesting a broader acceptance of virtual viewings.
“People have been forced to adopt these changes at a rate that probably wouldn’t have ever taken place without (the virus),” said Cruger. “The funeral director will have to be almost a production coordinator.”
Still, others note the continuing need for personal touch in times of grief, and say a multiphased approach is being taken by families who recognize the need to both social distance now and grieve together later.
As of late April, SCI’s Ryan estimated that more than 1,200 families had booked future services with his company’s facilities on a day that was yet to be determined.
“COVID-19 has created an environment where many families are realizing the importance of grieving when surrounded by a service, so there are families looking to have services in the future, which wasn’t the norm in the past,” Molitor said.
“We’re planning on having a proper memorial this summer,” added Montany, who said she expected for it to be at her grandmother’s home. “It’s about the little things we do now (to pay tribute) until we get together and hug it all out, which is what she would’ve wanted”