The world post-COVID

Shortly after the New Year’s bell rang my wife, Angie, and I headed out for one of the joys of retirement. . . extended time in a warm weather location that serves the purpose of shortening what can be fierce Minnesota winters for us.  One of our favorite locations is Hawaii and we left for there probably not having heard as yet of the coronavirus or what is now known as COVID-19.

We enjoyed our time in Hawaii and while there the news was dominated by two things. . . the impeachment hearing of our President and the news of a novel virus in China that was, eventually, described as “highly contagious and deadly”.  We came home on February 1, which I believe was the day after President Trump imposed the travel ban from China.  Angie and I were relieved we were sitting in a two seat row that was just us and we actually, for the first time in my life, used wipes to clean off our seats, trays, and chair backs.

My point is. . . that we left Minnesota in a pre-COVID world and returned in the COVID world.  We continue to live in the COVID world, and while we will never think the same about potential virulence germs again, we look forward to someday living in the post-COVID world.  And, the psyche of living in a new normalcy of the post-COVID world might be somewhat compared to how a widow or widower lives in that “new normalcy” after the death of a spouse.

That day will someday come and today’s article is my attempt to just “think out loud” about when that will be and what be some of the ramifications as it pertains to the death care world.

As we now know the COVID-19 world came to China at least two months before we in the United States really had it in our vernacular and

Tom Anderson
Funeral Director Daily

among us.  We now know from American companies likes Starbucks that China is starting to open back up for business.  And, this article points out that movie theaters are planning to open soon in China and yesterday Shanghai Disneyland opened to a sell-out crowd. . .albeit with crowd limits now at 30% capacity.

And just this weekend, Ford Motor Company COO Jim Farley had this comment, “We have reopened our facilities in China, successfully begun our phased restart in Europe and have been producing medical equipment in Michigan for more than six weeks and are using the lessons from all of that to ensure we are taking the right precautions to help keep our workforce here safe.” 

It was also noted that Ford, General Motors, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles can begin the first steps of reopening plants this week by sending some workers in to do pre-production work.  Automakers, in the United States, are expecting to start producing cars again around May 18.

I’ve always been an optimist, so those are good signs for me.  I presume that we still have 2-3 months of areas in the United States that will deal with this first peak of COVID-19 deaths, but it it refreshing to, at least be thinking of getting to that post-COVID normal.  And, what do I envision that to mean for funeral homes?  Here’s my thinking out loud answer:

  • Families having services, memorials, and/or celebrations – The definition of a “funeral service” when I was in mortuary school was that it was a ceremony for the deceased that no one was invited to, but all were welcomed to attend.

That definition is probably not totally accurate today, but it is close to the norm.  Families do want people to attend their loved one’s services.   In the post-COVID world, however, will families be concerned about their own health and will potential mourners fear going into a crowd?  If that is the case, funeral homes can probably brace for some type of lost revenue in charging for these types of services for some period of time.  If this ends up being a long-term trend you can probably look for the square footage of traditional funeral homes to become smaller.

  • Technology —  We’ve all seen the stories how arrangements are now being conducted by Zoom or Facetime electronic means.  We’ve also seen funerals and memorials being broadcast via live (and archived) streaming.  Some people have said that the funeral industry has moved up 5 years in the past 60 days with technology.

I look for this trend to continue and, as Service Corporation International CEO Tom Ryan said in a recent Forbes article, this may be an opportunity for funeral homes to raise additional revenues.  On the other hand, do we know yet if the consumer will embrace this “no touch” concept of mourning?

  • Preneed – I think that the appointment – either at the client’s home or at the funeral home will soon be back.  .I believe that many people will overcome the fear of transmission in many one on one settings.  I also, believe, however, that customer generation or acquisition may change as the seminar for many people in a restaurant or a funeral home setting may not be as comfortable for many people in the “senior” age group.  Lead generation may be what changes the most in the “new” preneed environment.
  • Mergers and Acquisitions — Some in the profession have said that they believe that some single unit family operators may not want to continue in the COVID and post-COVID death care world because of what the added responsibility and potential liability of operating within it may bring.  I agree with that statement and also make note that single unit operators could be firms of 50 calls or firms that do  thousands of calls.

If that hypothesis is true, there will be ample opportunity for smaller firms, larger firms, and the largest firms to add to their rooftops if they are in the acquisition mode.  I also think that there may be an adjustment on pricing off the EBITDA multiples simply because at this time we do not know how COVID-19 will change operational financial models as to revenue, employee costs, PPE costs, and liability costs, just to name a few.

Those who are in the buying mode may have to buy not being aware of what the future financial models will look like. . . . will buyers be willing to do that?

  • Trade Services — Over the last several years many of us in the profession have wondered “where are the biggest growth points in the profession”?  We’ve wondered if it has been in cremation, cemeteries, preneed or other services provided by traditional funeral homes.  I’ve actually wondered, and I don’t know where I could find data on this, if trade call services may be the largest percentage revenue growth link in the death care profession.

So many metropolitan funeral homes are now using trade call services for their removals, embalmings, cremations, and other facets of their business, my guess is that this portion of the death care industry has grown greatly.  As we move into the post-COVID world, where we are much more aware of contagion to our employees, I can see this service continuing to grow.

So, there you have it. . . .at least what I think today of a possible post-COVID world in the death care profession.  We are not there yet. . .and it still might be a tough struggle to get thru where we are today before the sun comes up on tomorrow’s world.  But. . . at least I’ve given you my thoughts.

Be safe!!

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