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Life expectancy, funeral choice, and the effects on revenue

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Yesterday Funeral Director Daily published an article about cemeteries and in that article we made the assertion that the COVID experience of 2020 will probably have some type of long-term effect on funerals going forward.  That statement was made mostly in reference to what has happened with funeral attendance due to the social distancing practices that have been imposed from place to place.

It’s been my experience that when an individual is forced to change a habit, sometimes that forced change leads to doing something different that results in the individual liking the new habit better than the old and they continue with the new habit even when the old habit is again available to them.

Think about a coffee shop or restaurant that you might frequent that closes for remodeling.  It forces you to go to a new place and for whatever reason you find the new place to be a better fit.  The old place, even though their intent was to spur new customers with remodeling, may lose some customers and can only hope that the “net” is a growth for them.

Tom Anderson
Funeral Director Daily

For me, this effect was never more apt that when my Lutheran church instituted Saturday night services about 15 years ago.  Sunday morning services had been quite literally my “sacred cow” for all the years of my life and I actually remembered thinking, “who would want to go to church on Saturday night?”  Well, you guessed it. . .I was forced to go a couple of Saturday nights because my boys had Sunday youth hockey, basketball, or baseball games and guess what?  I liked it and now I am a Saturday night church-goer!!

I work out six mornings a week, but now on Sunday (pre-COVID) I grab the Sunday newspaper and plunk down in a nice, cushy leather chair at my local Caribou Coffee (Minnesota’s North Woods like Starbucks chain) and read it from cover to cover. . . so my habits have changed when I was forced to because of my boys’ sports events.  It’s a treat I’ve learned to love.

But what about un-forced changes?  And, do we see that happening in death care?

I think that we do see changes in the choices that are made and, at least in one factor, I believe those changes come in length of life.

If you have been around the death care industry and funeral homes as long as I have. . .over 40 years counting the years I just drove the hearse or shoveled the snow at the funeral home, I believe that one thing that has changed selection of services chosen is the increased age of the deceased.

If you look at a chart of the expected life span of those born in the United States you will see it gradually goes up in years.  That should not be a secret as we get better health care and treatments for maladies each and every year.  (I will note that lately the life expectancy, at birth,  is leveling off at about 78.5 years and it is not because of less medical treatments, but it is a result of increased drug addiction deaths and inner city youth homicides more so than lack of medical advances).  As a matter of fact, once a person reaches age 40 – and generally past some of those issues — the life span moves up to over 80 years.  Here is a life expectancy chart for the Social Security Administration.

So, where does this fit in funeral service?  In my time in the business it feels, anecdotally, that the age of so many we have cared for is quite advanced.  A friend of mine’s mother recently died at 110 years of age.  Like so many that are aged 85 and over services chosen by the family were less than full service.  Many times families say, “Dad/Mom has outlived all of her friends.  We just need a small service to bury her at the cemetery.”  Or, something with even less services like this, “Dad/Mom will have no one at the service.  Just cremate and we will pick up the remains in the next couple of weeks.”

Those thought processes are reality with deaths in that age group.  It is in my opinion, however, that many times survivors don’t know what they are missing out on by not having a visitation, some type of service/celebration, and post-service gathering.  The secret ingredient for funeral service professionals in these cases is being able to relate the relevant mental health and grief release processes without sounding like it is a sales pitch.  That is sometimes very hard to do.

The value of Preneed.  Sometimes it won’t help, but the value of a preneed policy set up by the deceased expressing wishes, and in many cases more importantly, providing the funding to see those wishes through, can really help in moving a family from limited services to something more substantial.  And, while we truly believe that helps the family’s mental health, it also provides a better bottom line for the funeral home.

In conclusion, I believe that there are forces, such as increased aging, that are un-forced and occurring naturally in our business environment and work towards potential lower revenues per service.  I also believe that a funeral home that understands and has knowledge of the mental health and grief processes that survivors go through with the death of a spouse or parent can combat that potential loss by being upfront and honest about the situation.  They can also be very intentional about setting up pre-arrangements of wishes and finances that overcome the thought processes survivors may have for less services.

Over the years I’ve been a huge believer in the value of preneed.  Mostly because I believe it prompts a healthy discussion about death and arrangements for the consumer.  But, in helping consumers make these choices, we are also looking after the long-range financial health of the funeral home. . . . .and if you are the manager or owner that is certainly one of your responsibilities.

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