Cremation is Traditional!

According to the Cremation Association of North America the rate of cremation will pass 50% of deaths this year with no signs of a slowdown for decades. Big deal! Fifty is just a number, right? Like Y2K it will come and go and mean nothing when it happens. Actually, when we cross this threshold as a profession it will mean everything and your cremation rate will  be transported into irrelevancy. Cremation will become the preferred method of disposition by a majority of the public. Cremation will be the new tradition. If we do this right, future generations will be talking about traditional cremation funerals or (gasp!) burials. If we screw this up future generations will suffer the consequences of direct disposal with unresolved grief and undesirable coping methods to deal with the death of loved ones. A funeral will still occur with every death and there will be a time and place where loved ones come to terms with a death, express their grief and interact with peers in a new role as someone who has lost a loved one, but this may not be in a funeral home directed by a funeral professional. The funeral occurring in a dedicated constructive environment like a funeral home is far more auspicious than these things coming to pass in a grocery store while shopping, or at ball game or even alone at home.

 

The public has spoken and we, as service providers to the public need to listen. But does this mean that cremation families all want cheap and easy? Sometimes, but not always. Most families still see the importance of a ceremony of some kind and will continue to look to funeral professionals to help them decide the best way to move forward. History and most studies of human behavior have shown that obsequies are the healthiest and most dependable way to move through grief effectively. The death of a loved one will remain one of the hardest things we as humans have to deal with in life and it’s the funeral professional’s obligation to provide the best possible service to this end.

 

If we are removing the cremation rate from our relevant business metrics what, if anything, will take its place? For a full service funeral home that provides nothing but the best service to families, this should be an easy transition. Your direct cremation rate becomes the key performance indicator. Cremations are going nowhere but up and because we know this and accept this we do not need to monitor and measure the rate because it is now a normal part of a funeral businesses. What about the low-cost rock bottom priced guy down the street that “takes all of our business away”? I hate to be the bearer of bad (but obvious) news but those guys exist in EVERY business on every street and in every walk of life. They are ubiquitous and dealing with them is to simply ignore them. If you are effective in marketing your mission and values, knowing what your families truly want and need, the direct disposal companies will continue to serve those that truly want a direct disposal and you will continue to serve the families that see your value and understand that cremation is not a funeral. How do these people find the truth when there is nothing but negative news stories, comical sit-com shows mocking funeral service, YouTube videos highlighting crooked funeral operators, (the list goes on and on)? It’s up to us to show and teach them. We are off to a great start in changing this mind-set but it will take time.

 

We all know the value of viewing the deceased, of a structured celebration of a life lived, of a gathering of people who can support and create a common experience with those present. We need to propagate this to our families. Embalming is on the verge of extinction. Some feel that cremation is to blame for this, but I respectfully disagree. An embalmed body can be cremated just as effectively as a non-embalmed body. What killed embalming? Bad embalmers. With all due respect to embalmers everywhere, one “bad” embalming can result in 100 attendees leaving a funeral thinking, “I don’t want to be embalmed!”. Taking additional in the preparation room to assure that everything is perfect can make all the difference and be just as effective in the minds of the attendees but in a positive way. This will not only benefit you as a mortician but also benefit the families of these people that will have the opportunity to view them when they eventually pass away providing confirmation and easing their grief. The actual cremation can, in this case, be nothing more than the last act of the complete funeral rite.

 

Customer service and the satisfaction of our patrons is as important an indicator as anything you evaluate in your business. Think back to the last 12 months. Who was most likely to complain? Was it the clients that had larger services or those that had the least? I would wager that it was the families that pinched pennies and nickel and dimed their way through the process harbored the most dissatisfaction. This only makes sense. Those that didn’t see your service as valuable will naturally be the most disappointed with it. The more satisfaction the more likely the family is to spread the word and that translates into more families seeking your services. Do yourself a favor and, unless you want to be the low-cost cremation provider, do not offer a no-frills no service package. Your least expensive package should include, at the very least, basic preparation of the body (washing, setting features, dressing) for a short private final goodbye (which can double as an ID viewing) using the casket or container in which the cremation will take place, and a small ceremonial location for the return of the cremated remains to the family. These small but powerful things can make a big difference to a grieving widow or father or friend and will do nothing but increase your client satisfaction. Requiring an ID viewing, or whatever you choose to call it, will also reduce your risk of a wrongful cremation, which is very difficult to defend against.

People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
— Maya Angelou

Changing public perceptions regarding the funeral profession is not easy and certainly not quick. But it is also not impossible. Be that example, hold true to the principles you know to be right and true, and it will thrive. Funeral service will become again what it once was, a noble profession helping people navigate one of the most difficult times in their lives. Cremation is a part of that and it doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive of the rest of the funeral rite. Even the subversive Jessica Mitford who’s book The American Way of Death devastated the reputation of funeral directors everywhere was memorialized by her family after her direct cremation in a lavish expensive celebration.

Originally published in American Funeral Director, versions republished with permission in the Australian Funeral Director and The Funeral Chronicle. Revised for this post and copyright 2017. All rights reserved.

Larry Stuart