Aftershocks: The Funeral Industry Overcomes Challenges of the Past Year

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COVID-19 has changed nearly every industry—even the floral one—and the funeral business is no exception. I spoke with a number of experts over the past few months, and Dr. Camelia Clarke, president of Paradise Memorial Funeral and Cremation Services in Milwaukee, Wis., shared that the biggest challenge for the industry was the question of how do we adapt? Like any essential business, funeral directors couldn’t just go home. Instead, they had to figure out, “how do we change our business model to operate successfully, within federal guidelines and while best serving the lives of families and the public?”

Funeral homes and funeral service providers saw an increase in demand by as much as 20 to 30 percent per month from the previous year at the start of the pandemic last year, notes Jamie Pierce, chief marketing officer of Service Corporation International, a provider of funeral goods and services as well as cemetery property and services. Pierce shared one of the hardest challenges for funeral directors was to limit attendance to services. Funeral directors are caregivers at heart who understand the powerful role of family, friends and community in grieving. This represented an unprecedented change to the funeral industry, which had to rapidly adjust to the situation and also to a massive increase in need.

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The compounded change of pandemic restrictions and rising death toll required funeral directors to think outside the box about funeral planning and about the myriad of options families now have. Anthony Kaniuk, director of industry relations for the National Funeral Directors Association, observed, “what’s changed most are the choices families have regarding the size and scope of a service.” Depending on the state or local restrictions on gatherings, families may have had to limit the number of people who can gather. Pierce noted the growing prevalence of outdoor services since the pandemic and expects that to continue moving forward. Additionally, virtual options for service have enabled even more people to participate in the service when they can’t be physically present. So, families are having to really think about more emotional questions like how intimate they want a service to be, what venues they want to hold the service in and what role they would like for people to play in observing their losses.

“Many funeral homes used technology—like Zoom or FaceTime—to conduct arrangement conferences, especially when state regulations precluded them from meeting in person or a member of the family had been exposed to COVID or was ill. Funeral homes could also take advantage of services like DocuSign to enable families to sign off on important paperwork and authorization forms,” shared Kaniuk. And, funeral directors, he shared, used virtual funerals to bring families together to pay tribute to their loved ones. “For a long time, the funeral industry said that technology isn’t what our customer wants. But that’s no longer true,” shared Clarke. Technology is and will continue to be an essential aspect of funeral services going forward.

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I wondered if these changes would be here to stay or merely something we would look back on as a passing fad? Kaniuk believes that virtual funerals will stay, even as traditional funerals return, and he is hopeful for the future of the funeral service. “We are optimistic and think that consumers are rediscovering just how important a funeral or memorial service is in healing following the death of a loved one.”

“People will 100 percent be back to gathering in person when this is over,” shared Clarke. “COVID just accelerated changes that the industry was heading towards already.” She believes that the funeral industry will continue to grow and be profitable following the pandemic.

While the traditional funeral symbols and rituals that accompanied our pre-pandemic life may have changed, Kaniuk said, “In many respects, the primary mission and duty of a funeral director—to help families honor the life of a loved one in a meaningful way—has not changed one bit. Funeral directors have carried on with this important work since the beginning of the pandemic. What has changed is how they work.”

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