Many funeral directors are facing more and more direct cremations with no services. They are at a loss as to how to overcome that trend. There are many ideas, theories, notions and educated guesses as to why families choose cremation. Cost. Environmental footprint. Control. Convenience. Lack of information. Religious affiliation, or lack thereof. All of those certainly are factors and can play a part in any one person’s decision. So we are going to look at the three Big C’s in Cremation.
I would like to go back in time to the early ‘60s when cremation first came on the profession’s radar, and find that first funeral director who said, “Well, I guess I shouldn’t charge as much for this since I’m not embalming or casketing” and take him out. I’m not a violent person by nature, but really?? That idea got started somewhere and we all just went along with it. Sure, let’s charge less for something that takes just as much time to accomplish, has much more liability, and requires just as much staff involvement. That makes perfect business sense.
Within that nonsense also was created the message to families that they were somehow lesser-thans or 2nd class funeral customers. I actually worked for an owner who said to families, “We bury our dead, we burn our trash.”
Because we didn’t take these families seriously and did not take their needs for a meaningful funeral service to heart, they left. Why would I pay $8,000 to someone who thinks I’m not as important as the people who buy the box? I can be ignored at the $695 box-and-burn immediate disposer who is more than willing to take my money and do nothing else for me.
Families are hiring us to perform a service. If I hire an orthopedist to perform surgery on my shoulder, his price is for the surgery. He doesn’t talk about which instruments he might have to use or the amount of time it might take or how many nurses will have to be in the room. He says, “This is my price to fix your shoulder.” Why can’t we have a price for body preparation? Yes, we’d have to figure out the correct GPL language but we could certainly have more productive conversations with our client families if we didn’t have an if/then/or approach to pricing.
Yes, for a small group of people the cremation choice is made based upon cost. But the large majority are choosing cremation based upon control. These people have attended bad services in their past and are determined that they are not going to go to another one. If I have a burial, then I’m beholden to the funeral director to get the casket from point A to point B and so I’m stuck with whatever service is offered to me. I can’t throw the casket in the back of my car and drive off and arrange a service that fits me. But I can walk out with an urn in my hand and have control over the type of service that I hold.
We’ve all been to “bad” services. The cookie-cutter, insert name here, hope someone says the name correctly, impersonal ritual that offers nothing about the person and what his death will mean to those mourning his loss. Every time one of these boring, hurtful or meaningless services occurs, another immediate disposition/no service is created. People say “When I die, don’t do that!”
Cremation offers a choice, a sense of control over what happens in a memorial service. Does that mean that most are held at someone’s house or at a bar or a restaurant with toasts and stories? Probably. Does that mean that the value of having a gathering that celebrates the life and explores the grief and provides a guidepost for mourning the loss is lost? Definitely.
Once I served as a Celebrant for an 80 year-old-man who died of suicide. It was a difficult service, but we honored his life and talked about the depression over health issues that caused him to make such a choice. We discussed what the grief journey was going to look like for those who were trying to make sense of the death. We encouraged the standing room only crowd to be an integral part of the family’s next steps as they turned tears into memories. It was a pretty good service.
That afternoon I received an email from a woman who was in attendance begging me for a copy of the service. This lady tracked me down and said she needed a copy of my words. So, I asked the family for permission and I sent her a copy.
Her backstory was this—her son died of a heroin overdose and her daughter, his twin, died of suicide four years before. They did not have funerals either time. They cremated, then met at a restaurant and told stories. They did not trust that someone could handle such delicate and hard situations, so they just avoided. She needed those words to help her on her own grief journey. This happens hundreds of times across the country to our Celebrants.
Because the celebrant is a ceremony expert, focused solely on the ceremony and often devoting much more time to the ceremony than funeral directors and clergy can, the celebrant can be a tremendous resource. What celebrants offer can even be attractive to those who initially think they don’t want a ceremony at all.
—Diane Gansauer, Director of Celebrant Services, SCI Colorado Funeral Services in Metro Denver
Until we change the service experience for those families, they will continue to walk away. Our pricing, our lovely chapels, our offers of assistance—they’ve been there and done that and don’t trust us to be able to do something that is meaningful.
Which brings us to the final C:
My bedrock message is “Celebrants can change your business, Celebrants can change your families, Celebrants can bring your cremation families back to your firm.”
The religious landscape of our country is changing. The percentage of people who identify as a “None”—not religiously affiliated, not engaged with a church—is rapidly growing. Statistics from the Pew Research report show that almost 25% of the overall population now considers themselves “nones” and over 35% of millennials are disenfranchised with religious experiences.
This has incredible implications for funeral service. Some funerals homes have stained glass windows, Bibles in the foyer, hymns on the speakers and scriptures on their websites. There is nothing wrong with having an ability to serve your religious families, but today anywhere from 25% to 80% of your community does not identify or resonate with those representations. If all you have to offer is a minister and a religious experience, they are going elsewhere.
High “nones” equal high cremation rates. It’s just that simple.
The greatest impact a Celebrant can have with a family is the one on one interview time, an opportunity to sit down and become part of the decedent’s family, by hearing and learning first-hand about the life of their loved one, and sharing a personal glimpse into the life of the decedent with friends and family at the funeral service. That is one of the greatest gifts you can ever give to the family. Out of that experience comes the most gracious of compliments that you will ever receive, which is to hear at the conclusion of the service how well you knew the loved one. The Celebrant experience gives you that opportunity to serve the family in ways you may have never dreamed possible.
—Kevin Hull, Vice President and Location Manager, Cook-Walden Davis Funeral Home
Celebrants are the answer for a majority of your cremation families. So many of them are not offered any options by their funeral professional. So, they either opt for the rent-a-minister or do nothing. Another immediate disposition walks out of the door.
When someone attends a service where every word of the service is focused on the life, on the family, and on the grief experience, their decisions can change significantly. “Oh. . .we can have this kind of service? Then I’m willing to talk to the funeral director about paying for THAT” Over 50% of the services I perform through referrals from funeral homes in my city come from someone who attended another service and came back and asked for that Celebrant. People pay for value. People pay for meaning. People pay for gatherings that heal.
My friend, Ernie Heffner from York, PA, ran numbers on his Celebrant services and found that cremation families who used a Celebrant spent 36% more on other goods and services. It’s not about the money. It’s about the value, the experience, the assurance that someone is going to hear their stories, to honor the life and work with them to put together a service that fits them. People pay for meaning.
I did a service for a man in his 40’s who drank himself to death. He left an estranged wife, a 19 year old daughter, 18 year old son, and a brother who was a recovering alcoholic himself. This meant two hours of slogging through a lot of baggage and feelings to get to the stories and to give them permission to say what was needed. But we put together a service that honored his life while being honest about his struggles and his demons.
After the service, the brother handed me a thank you card with $300 in it. The funeral home had already given me a check for my Celebrant fee of $400. I said, “Oh, you’ve already paid me.” He said, “Please just take it.” The card read “Thank you for performing J’s service and I especially thank you for the time you spent with us Sunday evening. I’m hoping it provided as much healing to the others as it did for me. Thank you.” People pay for healing gatherings.
In today’s world, the most crucial element in helping a family lies in the ability of the Celebrant to actively listen and recreate what they have heard into something with meaning and value. Celebrant Training is funeral service’s best option to develop the skills to become an outstanding funeral professional. At our firm, all of our funeral directors must go through the Celebrant Training so they can understand the importance and value of working with our Celebrants to help the families have a truly outstanding experience. This is especially important for cremation families that are looking for something other than traditional services. Celebrant Services play a major role in making Krause Funeral Homes a place of exceptional funerals.
—Mark Krause, President
Krause Funeral Homes & Cremation Service
We’ve been saying this since 1999: Families need a service to begin their grief journey in a healthy and honest way. Unless we are willing to provide the professionals and the services that they are looking for, they are going to walk away. When families have options, funeral homes are going to lose every time unless their option is better, more appealing and soul touching.
Looking at everything we do when it comes to serving the cremation family—pricing, style of service, presentation of choices, availability to Celebrants who can do exactly what the family wants and needs – is the only way that full-service funeral professionals are going to stay in business. How we deal with all of the C words will determine how much farther down the road we get to travel.
CANA is partnering with Glenda Stansbury and the InSight Institute for the second time this July to offer Celebrant Training. Limited to 40 attendees, this course packs a lot of information, emotion, and training into three days but is increasingly considered a must for the most successful businesses in the US.
Learn more about this class coming to Louisville, Kentucky from July 29-31 and register online.
Glenda Stansbury joined InSight in 1996 as Marketing & Development Director. She has worked as an educator, teacher trainer, and seminar developer. She is a practicing Celebrant, adjunct professor at the University of Central Oklahoma Funeral Department and is a licensed funeral director/embalmer. Glenda is available for speaking to funeral professionals at state and national conventions or for private staff training. For more information, contact Glenda at firstname.lastname@example.org.