Recently, I had occasion to comment on the untimely death of a police officer, which gave me pause as it relates to the convenience of mourning while sitting in pajama pants and a sweatshirt at my desk enjoying a Bailey’s and coffee. It occurred to me that social media is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the various industries built around the absolutely inevitable exit from this world that we are all going to experience. Simply put, the inconvenience of death, in a society where time is a precious commodity, is a phenomenem that is evolving at warp speed. I suspect my readers would appreciate a little overview of this topic which just 20 short years ago was taboo. Let’s dig in…..so to speak.
The funeral industry in America, a 20 billion dollar a year enterprise, is undergoing an escalating evolution. Not too long ago, the religious implications associated with dying relegated the pomp and circumstance to the home of the decedent and typically the church they belonged to. The Civil War pushed embalming to the forefront, a process that somewhat insured the return of a soldier to his home for a proper burial. The ability to preserve the decedent resulted in a delay in their burial for a few days and an industry then grew around the use of this time in some profitable fashion. A great many traditional services are now conducted at funeral homes, financially advantageous to the funeral business. The funeral industry was developed around the traditional casket and burial model and is still quite popular with folks who are traditionalists when it comes to the final disposition of the departed. The average cost today of a casket and burial funeral is estimated to be just south of 10 thousand dollars, however these costs are very hard to graph with any degree of accuracy. A major turning point in the management of funeral costs occurred when the Catholic Church legitimized cremation as an alternative to a casket and burial concept. It is believed that in 2016, cremations surpassed traditional burials for the first time in our history. Analysts predict that by the year 2030, 71% of the folks who die will be cremated. Already, in the state of Maine, the current rate for cremations is 73% as opposed to the national average of 50%. This is important to note as the average cremation and service can be concluded with costs being held to just .42 for every dollar spent on the traditional casket funeral. Many folks, particularly those with a strong environmental bent, are opting for “green burials”, in cardboard containers or wrapped in banana leaves prior to being returned to the earth. Indeed, cremains, as the ashes are referred to today, are being incorporated into diamonds, presumably to be worn as a reminder of the affection one felt for the departed. Cremains are posing a problem for Daytona Speedway, as folks are having their ashes scattered on the infield at an uncomfortable rate. There even exists today, experienced planners who will for a fee, without the services of a funeral home, help you conduct a funeral yourself. Although not cost effective, folks are also being preserved cryogenically, presumably in hopes for a return to viability on the earth they so dearly loved. In an effort to maintain profitability, some funeral homes and corporations are offering concierge services ranging from catering meals for the families to arranging special rates at motels and hotels for family and friends. Today, death is not the dark topic that it once was, with seminars being conducted to help folks understand their options and presumably have a hand in their own final disposition. Another challenge to traditional funeral practice is the availability of a casket at Costco, Wal-Mart or other national retail outlets at very competitive prices. A large part of the profitability in a traditional funeral service is centered around the costs associated with a casket, costs that can vary dramatically. As Sam Walton so aptly demonstrated, there is enormous profitability in the concept of reduced margins on increased volume!
So, let me conclude where I began. Facebook, Twitter and the computer have greatly increased the convenience attendant to the display of respect associated with the dearly departed. We are a wildly dispersed society, and it is extremely convenient to simply sit down at a keyboard and offer our condolences and remembrances with a carefully scripted message we enter into the record with a simple keystroke. Years from now, a loved one can simply open the record and be reminded of exactly what my thoughts were when their loved one died…..efficient as opposed to trying to recall the muttering that occurred as you worked through the line of folks who were actually there for the funeral. The names of the folks who actually attended the service will soon be lost to those who might have an interest in such matters….the words that are “in the record” are forever. Our insatiable appetite for efficiency and economy will continue to push the evolution relative to the exit of folks from the face of the earth.
Dying is, indeed, a very serious business………and the business is changing.