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The Post-COVID future of death care

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In the past week we’ve seen news that a vaccine or vaccines against the virus that causes COVID-19 are rapidly advancing in clinical trials.  It’s lead me to think about a post-COVID world and, specifically, a post-COVID world in the future of death care.  I’ve also had the experience of visiting with a couple of funeral director friends and a dentist friend in passing about the nature of their businesses going forward.

My dentist friend, who is open and practicing at this time, told me of the enormous additional expenses for personal protection equipment (PPE) in his everyday practice.  Much like when gloves were introduced as everyday PPE during the AIDS related health care situation in the 1980’s, he doesn’t see the additional precautions of this PPE going away.  In his opinion, it is here to stay.

And, one funeral director friend told me that he doesn’t see some of the changes that have came to death care during the pandemic going away either.  Some of these changes, like increased technology, are probably good – if we can harness and understand how consumers will use them, while he contended that some of the things he has seen in the last six months — like reduced visitations, family only services, and many times less input by family members — will become challenges for the profession as we move forward.

We’ve always had technology advances in the back room of the funeral home that helped us with the work that we do.  Going back during my career, and some of you will find this archaic, but many things we now consider “old” technology really helped the work that we do.  Even the fax machine improved how we got obituaries to newspapers — I can remember calling them in, the fax machine allowed us to fax them over and resulted in fewer inaccuracies.  So, yes, that was a technological advance — albeit one that the consumer did not see.

Or what about the cell phone?  The cell phone in itself allowed funeral directors to be able to move about their community and still be connected to the funeral home without physically being on the premises.  Or what about online death certificates and medical records that allowed funeral directors to accomplish the task of getting death certificates filled out without “running” them to the doctors’ offices and courthouse?

However, that’s not the technology advances we are talking about here.  I’m talking about the technology that will help families select funeral homes, make funeral arrangements, and share those arrangements, through things such as live -streaming, with others.  That is something that my funeral director friend and I both agreed will be here to stay and may have an incredible impact on how death care moves forward post-COVID.

The impact of technology going forward cannot be underestimated.  As I write this on Saturday morning, I’m listening to a financial report that

Tom Anderson
Funeral Director Daily

stated that America’s retail sales for July were the highest ever recorded. . . .even as we have many stores closed by government order.  What that tells me, is that given the necessity and opportunity, consumers will adapt.  With some physical stores being closed, Americans have learned to shop online. . . even for things as texturized as furniture — think Wayfair.  And, if the American consumer is comfortable buying furniture online, they will also be comfortable selecting funeral homes or direct cremation outlets online.

As indicated earlier, this technology can be good for death care if we understand how consumers will use what is available to them.  The ability to see transparent pricing and make funeral arrangements from a distance online, in my opinion, has tremendous upside for funeral homes that embrace that technology.

Also, my funeral director friend believes that there is a tremendous upside on the live-streaming aspect of funeral services.  He believes that funerals will become smaller and families will no longer pay thousands of dollars for airfare and travel related expenses to get some relatives to in-person services.  He believes that technology – and seeing the services – will be able to replace some of that travel, especially for more distant relatives, but that funeral homes may have to make investments in their technological offerings.  However, he mentioned, that he envisions being able to charge for these services if done right and that revenue will be a welcome addition to the funeral home’s financial performance.

On the downside of the probable post-COVID side of death care, especially with increased technology arrangements,  may be client families that choose less services simply because they don’t have the experience of services for a loved one.  We’ve already seen families who postponed service from deaths in March and April to a later date eventually cancel those services because they believe that they need closure and waiting only prolongs that.  Many of these families now seem “fine” with putting their stamp on closure without having some type of service and their experience during the pandemic may influence their future decisions at the time of death.  This could have an impact causing more dispositions without services going forward. . . .and that would have a negative influence on a funeral home’s financial performance.

Finally, the other funeral director I spoke with said his real fear about the death care future post-COVID is with employment.  He told me that he has noted during the pandemic “an increased optimism, desire, and satisfaction” from those that can work at home.  Unfortunately, being in the “service business” like funeral directors does not lend itself to working from home.  There are removals to be made, prep room work to be done, and services to operate in places of worship that do not allow one to work from home in the profession.  He expects, that moving forward, funeral director wages will have to move up and be more competitive with other service occupations like nurses and medical therapists. . .which in turn will cause the cost of funerals to move up. . . and could have the undesired result of more people choosing direct cremation without services simply because of the cost factor.

So, there you have it.  Nothing set in stone, but some thoughts from some funeral directors who have looked into the post-COVID world of death care services.



 

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