What Gets Talked About When The Media Talks About Traditional Funerals?

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Our September wasn't as packed as it has been in the past, but we have hit a few trade shows this month. Jordan and I attended the New York State Association of Cemeteries annual convention in Cooperstown, NY a couple of weeks ago while Bill and Dave were in Las Vegas for the Catholic Cemetery Conference convention. And this week Jordan and Bill were in Atlantic City for the New Jersey Funeral Director Association annual meeting. It was nice to reconnect with everyone and nice to meet some new faces. Jordan will be at the ICCFA Fall Management Conference next week in Palm Springs, so say hello to him if you are out there.

This month, I wanted to focus on one story in particular from Vox Media. Vox is prominent news platform that focuses on explainer-style journalism, breaking down current events in a straightforward manner and catering to a Millennial audience. It's always striking to see what general interest media stories focus on with the death care industry. Whether it is a result of being on the lookout for death care industry news or that the industry's visibility is on the rise overall, I am coming across more stories in larger publications with more frequency.

Last month Vox published a video and and short accompanying article called "We Need To Change How We Bury The Dead". The gist of the piece is that the environmental impact of traditional burials and cremations can be extensive, and though alternative methods have emerged they are not widely used. Alkaline hydrolysis is covered, which I've shared previously, as well as promession, a method invented by Swedish scientists that involves freezing a corpse with liquid nitrogen and then breaking it into small particles. It's worth noting that the average cost of a funeral that the author cites of $10,000-$12,000 is much higher than the NFDA's most recent average of $7,181 from 2014.

The statistics from the video regarding the environmental impact of burials and cremations are interesting. I am sure the article will provoke some strong reactions. It isn't necessarily an article that has much to say to death care professionals - it has a narrow focus and speaks to a broader audience. But it did make me think about the presentations I have seen over the past couple of years focusing on how to develop and sell cremation memorialization. One common theme was making cremation areas stand out on their own, the best examples being discreet cremation garden areas replete with natural features in lieu of, for example, one large columbarium. Those successful features aren't necessarily eco-friendly in the same way that green burials are, but they do thoughtfully develop a traditional burial option into something slightly more modern, or at least, different than what has worked in the past.

It's easy for someone outside the industry to point out inherent problems with the way things have been done for centuries, not to mention taking the very real concerns about land use and the environment in general and applying them to the funeral business. Every industry faces challenges regarding consumption, the environment, and modernization, and there will always be new companies with "better" ways of doing things. What is challenging for funeral professionals is to not only have a nuanced and first-hand understanding of our changing circumstances, but to address them proactively to foster productive discourse within the industry and with our customers. A video like Vox's is a way to see how the funeral industry is being discussed by the media to a non-specialized audience, and a good opportunity to consider and prepare for the different perspectives that may walk into your business.

Elsewhere, a Japanese plastics manufacturer has developed a robot to perform funeral rites at wakes, able to read scripture and prayers. These robots, called Peppers, are employed in other fields, and were designed as the first robot to be capable of perceiving and responding to human emotions. Hiring a Buddhist monk in Japan can be expensive, nearly $5,000, so this is being offered as a potential low-cost alternative. You can watch a short video of it here.