All around the country, cremation rates are continuing to steadily rise. If you are reading this, you will already know that this change is an almost daily conversation for those of us in the industry, and understandably so; in 2016, the national cremation rate hit 50%, a landmark meaning that for the first time, the majority of families going through the funeral process had their loved one returned as cremated remains, while a minority of the deceased were buried in a casket. Since then, this upward trend of the cremation rate has continued, and everyone has been working out how to address this change while keeping their businesses – often businesses that have been in the family for generations – successful.
There are a host of factors encouraging families to find new, creative options for their funerals, and green values are a key influence. People are generally living more eco-conscious lives, and prefer not to contribute to the large environmental footprint left by grave vaults, hardwood caskets, embalming fluids, etc. And, with life moving at internet-fast pace, people value simplicity. To most, the simplest option for a funeral is to get a cremation and have an intimate service, rather than taking the time and going through all the variables that are involved in a traditional funeral.
Cremation as an Opportunity
While any change in customer demands can be frightening, the way our industry is evolving opens up new avenues for businesses that previously did not exist. 10% of funeral homes may have closed between 2005 and 2015 (the recession in 2008 can be given a good part of the blame for that), but the number of deaths in the USA rose nearly 11%, from 2.45 million in 2005 to 2.71 million in 2015. For lack of a better way to put it, the customer base in the funeral industry is rising, but what they are buying has changed. Even with the rising popularity of non-traditional options, funeral homes and crematories are still the experts that we go to when a loved one passes away, and the drop in traditional burials leaves a massive opportunity to offer people something new and different.
Now, let’s look at the environmental reasoning behind non-traditional options. The world is becoming more eco-conscious, and people are taking steps to reduce their personal carbon footprint wherever they can. Electric cars and green energy sources are more popular than ever, many stores now charge for plastic bags to reduce waste, and even single-use utensils and plastic straws are being removed or replaced with biodegradable options. The entire City of Malibu recently banned all plastic straws and utensils to reduce waste from the thousands of visitors passing through every day.
If people are taking this much care in reducing their carbon footprint, why wouldn’t they also want to leave a minimal impact after life? Cremation is perceived as the greener alternative to burial, because it does not require the cement, toxic fluids, hardwoods, or physical space of a burial, and this opens up another opportunity to generate business from families. Plastic temporary containers can be replaced with biodegradable options at a very low cost, and will leave green-minded families satisfied. More importantly, while these families would not consider a marble or metal urn, there are many Earth-friendly urn options in the same price range as more expensive permanent options, which can be presented to families.
A beautiful urn hand-made from a natural gourd or carved from salt may be the best option for families that don’t want to purchase a permanent urn, but still want to place their loved one’s remains into something special. And, using unique biodegradable urns can open the door to some amazing services. We once had a family perform a ceremony at sea with one of our Turtle Urns, and they were joined by real sea turtles, resulting in an unforgettable experience for all involved. We have found that most members of the public didn’t know that these better options even exist, so by suggesting these options to families that see little or no value in a permanent urn, you can create a new revenue stream and provide unparalleled value to your families.
Through my work at Passages, I’ve come to learn many reasons that people choose to cremate and scatter instead of a traditional burial. More than ever, people are moving to new cities for work or family, and it has become rarer for a family to remain in the same place for generations. This means that visiting grave sites of parents or grandparents is harder. Often, people who are moving would rather not add an urn to their already heavy load, viewing it as “just another thing to carry.” Non-traditional options make more sense for these families, who may choose to get together once to scatter and celebrate a life, before going their separate ways. Offering higher-end biodegradable urns can help families make this a proper, memorable experience, whether they choose to scatter at sea or on land.
Green options don’t have to be low-tech or cheap; at Passages, we recently released a contemporary new urn that allows families to keep a loved one’s remains inside their home while they begin the healing process, but will be buried and grow a memorial tree. The family plants a memorial tree in the top half, with the remains in the bottom, and after some time the outer shell of the urn begins to crack. We like to see as the loved one telling the family it is time to bury the urn that holds their remains. The design of the urn neutralizes the pH of remains to allow healthy root growth, and it includes a unique geotag to mark the final planting location of the remains and memorial tree, with an online platform for families to create a memorial.
The final major reason cited for the shift to cremation and non-traditional funeral options is that people are attracted to the simplest option or whatever is the least amount of work and worry during an already difficult time. This is becoming truer in all aspects of life: ordering a rideshare service has become hugely popular due to the simplicity over a traditional taxi, and people have become used to shopping online with their purchases being delivered to their doors. So, when going through the funeral process, people expect a similar level of ease. If you improve your basic cremation package with natural, sustainable cremation containers and dignified temporary urns, families will feel taken care of. Those families that need something cheaper can ask for cardboard, but by offering something more in your “base” package, the simplest option that families can choose will also be a more profitable, more meaningful package.
If Someone Wants to Buy a Bike, You Won’t be Able to Sell Them a Car.
In our rapidly-changing funeral environment, it’s more important than ever to really understand how families are thinking and what it will take to provide them with a personal funeral experience. Many families today simply are not looking for the traditional funeral services that have been offered for generations, and we have to understand that those customers won’t be convinced to go that route due to a lack of other options.
Does your selection room reflect what over 50% of your cremation families are planning to do? Scattering is what over half of cremation families intend, a recent report from NFDA states. And most urn selection rooms offer a very small selection of urns intended for scattering of remains or burial in the earth or sea. If a family declines a permanent urn, it’s up to you to offer a non-traditional urn that they will see value in. If not, the opportunity for a sale will be lost, along with the opportunity to provide the best in the eyes of the family.
Passages International has partnered with CANA to host the first-ever Green Funeral Conference in Albuquerque, New Mexico, because we want to take a deeper dive into where the industry is heading. Green funeral practices are being driven by consumer demand and, for the most part, progressive funeral homes, cemeteries, and crematories are finding a way to say yes to greening funeral arrangements. Participants in this Conference will learn current green funeral practices and, through interactive sessions, apply innovative ideas to their businesses. This isn’t just lecture, it’s interactive solution-sharing with colleagues from across the profession and around the world.
This event will include presentations and panels with experts in the non-traditional field, and will help funeral professionals understand how to market and offer green and non-traditional options to families successfully. You can find more information and register at the CANA website or the Passages International website. The event will coincide with the world-famous Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, and participants will be invited to take a tour of the Passages International facility in Albuquerque, to learn more about biodegradable urns and eco-friendly caskets.
Kilian takes the stage at the first-ever Green Funeral Conference this October 2-4. See other eco-experts coming for this unique opportunity to discuss green funeral practices on our website. Register soon, because this is an event you won't want to miss!
Kilian Rempen is the Marketing Manager at Passages International, leaders in the green funeral sector for 20 years. Kilian has been published in multiple major funeral industry publications and helps spread the word of greener alternatives in funerals and other areas.