Funeral Industry Trends in the Wake of COVID

Funeral Industry Trends in the Wake of COVID

4th Jun 2024

The funeral industry is undergoing significant changes due to shifting consumer preferences, technological advancements, and evolving economic conditions. In the last three years, several noteworthy trends have emerged, reshaping the conduct and perception of funeral services. The market addresses the needs of individuals and families during the end-of-life process. Characterized by Forbes as a "Silver Tsunami" the importance of retaining a skilled workforce to meet the growing needs of an aging population. Additionally, younger generations, such as Millennials and Gen Xers, are driving changes in funeral service preferences. These groups are more likely to favor cremation, eco-friendly options, and personalized services.

However, cultural attitudes towards death and mourning practices vary, resulting in diverse offerings such as personalized funeral experiences, eco-friendly burial options, and customized memorial services. The factors affecting today’s attitudes toward end-of-death decisions can be broken out across lasting COVID ramifications, a move toward cremations and new body disposition methods, Death Doulas, personalization, and consumers changing the way they shop for funeral products.

Impact of COVID-19 on the Funeral Industry

The COVID-19 pandemic profoundly impacted the funeral industry, creating a period of unprecedented challenges and transformations from 2021 to 2023. As the world grappled with the health crisis, the funeral sector faced significant disruptions, necessitating rapid adaptations to meet evolving needs and constraints.

Increased Death Rates and Operational Strain

The pandemic resulted in a marked increase in death rates, especially in 2021 and 2022, as COVID-19 took a heavy toll worldwide. This surge led to a higher caseload for funeral homes, stretching their resources thin and causing operational strain. Funeral directors had to manage not only the increased number of deaths but also the complexities of handling infectious cases, which required additional safety protocols and personal protective equipment (PPE).

By 2023, the initial spike in death rates had begun to normalize, returning to levels reminiscent of pre-pandemic years. This phenomenon, termed the "COVID correction," brought both relief and new challenges. While the pressure on funeral homes eased somewhat, the return to typical caseloads meant a shift in financial dynamics. Many funeral homes that had expanded their operations to handle the surge had to readjust to the lower volume of cases, impacting revenue streams and necessitating strategic financial planning.

Another notable COVID adaptation was the accelerated integration of technology. With social distancing measures in place, traditional in-person funerals were often not possible, leading to a surge in virtual memorial services. Funeral homes quickly adopted live-streaming technologies to allow families and friends to participate in services remotely. This shift not only provided a way to honor loved ones safely but also introduced a new dimension to funeral services that is likely to persist post-pandemic.

The emotional toll of the pandemic on families and funeral professionals was significant. Funeral directors had to provide increased emotional support to grieving families who were often unable to hold traditional services or be with their loved ones during their final moments. This aspect of care became a critical component of funeral services, emphasizing the importance of compassion and mental health support in the industry.

Rising Cremation Rates vs. Traditional Burials

Over the past decade, cremation has increasingly become the preferred choice for end-of-life arrangements, outpacing traditional burials significantly. This shift is influenced by various factors, including cost, environmental concerns, and changing cultural attitudes. Cremation rates have been steadily climbing in the United States and other parts of the world. In 2021, the cremation rate in the U.S. was approximately 57.7%, a substantial increase from previous decades. Projections suggest that by 2040, the cremation rate could reach as high as 78%. This growth is reflected globally, with countries like Canada, Japan, and parts of Europe also seeing high cremation rates.

Cremation is just one example of an innovative, ecologically sensitive type of body disposition. Sometimes called natural organic reduction, human composting closely mirrors the natural life cycle. Using components like wood chips, mulch, and straw, the process transforms a loved one's body into fertile, healthy soil.

After being washed and dressed in a biodegradable shroud, a loved one is placed in a special vessel. Local wildflowers are scattered over the body in a gesture of respect, and the vessel is closed. The perfect mixture of elements helps microorganisms convert the body to soil. After about 45 days, this soil can be integrated back into the natural world. Families may choose to take some or all of the soil—it yields about 300 pounds—and use it to plant trees or flowers, begin a garden or scatter it in a special place.

Human composting is still quite new. As of June 2024, it’s legal in only a few U.S. states.

Factors Driving the Preference for Cremation

Several key factors contribute to the rising preference for cremation over traditional burial:

  1. Cost: Cremation is generally less expensive than traditional burial. The average cost of a cremation service is significantly lower than the cost of a burial, which includes expenses such as the casket, burial plot, and headstone. In an economy where many families are financially strained, the cost-effectiveness of cremation is a compelling factor.
  2. Environmental Concerns: There is a growing awareness and concern for environmental sustainability. Traditional burials involve the use of embalming chemicals, caskets, and burial vaults, which have a significant environmental impact. In contrast, cremation, especially options like water cremation or alkaline hydrolysis, is perceived as a more eco-friendly choice.
  3. Flexibility and Memorialization Options: Cremation offers greater flexibility in memorialization. Ashes can be kept in urns, scattered in meaningful locations, incorporated into jewelry, or even transformed into diamonds. This flexibility allows families to create personalized and unique memorials that reflect the deceased's wishes and personality.

Demographic Influences on Cremation and Burial Choices

Demographics play a crucial role in determining preferences for cremation versus traditional burial. Age, cultural background, and geographic location significantly influence these decisions:

Inter-Generational Family Negotiations

Decisions about end-of-life arrangements often involve negotiations among family members of different generations, each bringing their own preferences and values to the table. Older family members may prefer traditional burial due to longstanding cultural or religious practices. In contrast, younger members might advocate for cremation based on cost, environmental impact, or personal beliefs.

These inter-generational negotiations require sensitive communication and compromise. Families must balance respect for tradition with practical considerations and the wishes of the deceased. Pre-need planning and open discussions can help mitigate conflicts, ensuring that everyone’s perspectives are considered and that the final decision honors the deceased's preferences while accommodating the family’s needs and values.

Technological Integration in Funeral Services

The funeral industry, traditionally seen as resistant to change, has experienced a significant technological transformation over the past few years. This shift has been driven by the need to adapt to changing consumer preferences, improve service offerings, and enhance operational efficiency. Here are some key ways technology is reshaping funeral services.

Virtual and Live-Streamed Services

One of the most notable changes has been the widespread adoption of virtual and live-streamed funeral services. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated this trend as social distancing measures made traditional in-person gatherings difficult. Funeral homes quickly adopted live-streaming technology to allow family and friends to participate in services remotely. This not only ensured that loved ones could still honor the deceased but also introduced a new level of flexibility and inclusivity in memorial services.

Digital Memorials and Online Tributes

The creation of digital memorials and online tribute pages has become increasingly popular. These platforms allow families to share photos, videos, and stories about their loved ones, creating a lasting online space for remembrance. Websites and social media pages dedicated to memorials can be easily accessed and updated, providing a communal space for mourning and celebrating life. This digital shift also includes the use of QR codes on headstones, which link to online memorials, offering a blend of physical and digital remembrance.

Funeral Planning Apps and Services

Technology has also streamlined the funeral planning process. Numerous apps and online services now assist with various aspects of funeral planning, from selecting a funeral home to organizing service details and managing guest lists. These tools provide users with the ability to compare prices, read reviews, and even arrange services without needing to leave their homes, making the planning process more accessible and less stressful. Overnight Caskets pre-need program is a great way to ensure your final wishes are honor while you relieve your survivors of the stress of shopping for caskets while grieving. It's also an excellent hedge against inflation by locking in today's low pricing. 

DNA-Based Memorial Products

A particularly innovative area of technological advancement in the funeral industry is the use of DNA to create unique memorial products. These products offer families a way to maintain a physical connection to their loved ones through their genetic material.

One example is the creation of memorial diamonds. Companies like Eterneva and LifeGem specialize in transforming cremated remains or hair into synthetic diamonds. The process involves extracting carbon from the remains, which is then subjected to high pressure and temperature to create a diamond. These diamonds can be customized in terms of color, size, and cut, providing a deeply personal and lasting keepsake.

Another emerging trend is DNA preservation services. Companies such as DNA Memorial offer the extraction and storage of a deceased person's DNA. This preserved DNA can be used for various purposes, including creating physical memorials like jewelry or storing it for potential future scientific advancements or genealogical research. These services provide an additional connection and remembrance layer beyond traditional memorials.

Environmental Impact and Sustainability

Technology is also playing a crucial role in addressing environmental concerns within the funeral industry. Innovations such as water cremation (alkaline hydrolysis) and human composting offer more sustainable alternatives to traditional burial and cremation methods. Water cremation uses a water-based solution to break down the body, resulting in a smaller carbon footprint compared to flame-based cremation.

The Role of Death Doulas and Holistic After-Death Care

The end-of-life process is undergoing a transformative shift with the growing influence of death doulas and holistic after-death care. These practices are redefining how individuals and families approach death, focusing on comprehensive support that addresses emotional, spiritual, and physical needs during this critical life stage.

Understanding the Role of Death Doulas

Death doulas, also known as end-of-life doulas, are non-medical professionals trained to provide support and guidance to individuals and their families as they approach death. Their role is akin to that of a midwife but for the end-of-life process. They offer a compassionate presence, assist with planning and decision-making, and provide emotional and spiritual support.

The concept of death doulas is rooted in the Death Positive movement, which encourages open and honest conversations about death and dying. This movement, largely led by Millennials, seeks to demystify and destigmatize death, making it a more accepted and integrated part of life.

Services Provided by Death Doulas

Death doulas offer a range of services tailored to the needs of the dying individual and their family. These services include:

  1. Emotional and Psychological Support: Death doulas help individuals and their families cope with the emotional and psychological challenges of dying. They provide a comforting presence, listen to concerns, and offer reassurance, helping to alleviate fear and anxiety.
  2. End-of-Life Planning: They assist with planning the practical aspects of death, such as advance directives, funeral arrangements, and legacy projects. This planning helps ensure that the individual's wishes are respected and reduces the burden on family members during a difficult time.
  3. Vigil and Respite Care: Death doulas often stay with the dying person during their final hours, providing a calming presence and ensuring they are not alone. They also offer respite care, giving family members a much-needed break from caregiving responsibilities.
  4. Grief Support: After the death, doulas continue to support the family through the grieving process, offering resources and guidance to help them navigate their loss.

Holistic After-Death Care

Holistic after-death care emphasizes a comprehensive approach to the end-of-life process, integrating physical, emotional, and spiritual care. This approach recognizes that death is not just a medical event but a profound personal and communal experience.

Holistic care providers, including death doulas, prioritize personalized and compassionate care. They take the time to understand the unique needs and wishes of the dying person and their family, ensuring that the end-of-life experience is meaningful and respectful. This personalized approach contrasts with the more clinical and impersonal nature of traditional end-of-life care.

Integration of Traditional and Modern Practices

Holistic after-death care often combines traditional practices with modern approaches. This can include incorporating rituals and customs that are significant to the individual or family, such as religious ceremonies or cultural traditions. At the same time, holistic care embraces modern practices like music therapy, aromatherapy, and the use of digital legacy tools to create a well-rounded support system.

Emphasis on Environmentally Friendly Practices

Many holistic care practitioners advocate for environmentally friendly end-of-life options, such as green burials, natural burials, and water cremation. These options align with the values of individuals who are concerned about their environmental impact even in death. By offering sustainable alternatives, holistic care providers contribute to a broader cultural shift towards eco-consciousness in the funeral industry.

Personalization and Modernization of Funeral Services

In recent years, the funeral industry has seen a significant shift towards personalization and modernization, reflecting broader cultural changes and evolving consumer preferences. This transformation is driven by a desire to create more meaningful and individualized experiences that honor the unique lives of the deceased.

Personalization in Funeral Services

Personalized funeral services have become increasingly popular as families seek to celebrate the individuality of their loved ones. This trend includes customizing various aspects of the service, such as the venue, decor, music, and activities. Modern funeral services often incorporate elements that reflect the deceased's hobbies, interests, and personality.

One example of this personalization is the choice of venue. Traditionally held in funeral homes or religious institutions, services are now frequently conducted in more unconventional settings like parks, beaches, museums, or even family homes. According to a survey by the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), about 53% of respondents in 2023 attended a service at a non-traditional location). This flexibility allows families to create a more intimate and meaningful environment.

Modernization through Technology

Technology has played a pivotal role in modernizing funeral services. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the adoption of digital tools, making virtual and hybrid services more common. Live-streaming technology allows friends and family members who cannot attend in person to participate in the service from anywhere in the world.

Additionally, digital memorials and online tribute pages have become integral to the grieving process. These platforms enable families to share photos, videos, and stories about their loved ones, creating an enduring online space for remembrance. Social media and dedicated websites provide a communal space where people can leave messages, share memories, and offer support.

Innovative Memorial Products

The trend towards personalization also extends to memorial products. Innovations such as memorial diamonds, created from the carbon of the deceased's ashes or hair, offer a unique and lasting way to remember a loved one. Companies like Eterneva and LifeGem specialize in these services, providing families with custom-made jewelry that holds significant emotional value.

Another innovative product is DNA preservation, which allows families to store the genetic material of their loved ones for future generations. This preserved DNA can be used for various purposes, including creating personalized memorial items or conducting genealogical research.

Advance Planning and Pre-Need Services

Advance planning and pre-need services have gained significant traction in recent years as more individuals recognize the benefits of planning their funerals ahead of time. These services allow people to make detailed arrangements for their end-of-life care, ensuring their wishes are honored and relieving their families of the burden of making difficult decisions during a time of grief.

The Importance of Advance Planning

Advance planning offers numerous advantages. Financially, it allows individuals to lock in prices for funeral services at current rates, potentially saving a significant amount of money as funeral costs continue to rise. Emotionally, it provides peace of mind to both the planner and their loved ones, knowing that all arrangements are made according to the deceased's wishes. This proactive approach can reduce stress and confusion, allowing families to focus on mourning and remembrance without the added pressure of making quick decisions.

Overnight Caskets Pre-Need Program

Overnight Caskets has emerged as a significant player in the pre-need market, offering a comprehensive pre-need program designed to streamline the planning process. Their program allows individuals to select and purchase caskets and other funeral products in advance, ensuring that their preferences are met without any last-minute rush. Other benefits include:

  1. Cost Savings: By purchasing caskets and other funeral goods ahead of time, individuals can take advantage of current prices and avoid future price increases. Overnight Caskets provides a range of affordable options, making it easier for individuals to find products that fit their budget without sacrificing quality.
  2. Convenience: The program simplifies the planning process. Customers can browse and purchase items online, avoiding a funeral home showroom's often emotional and high-pressure environment. Overnight Caskets offers detailed product descriptions and customer reviews, helping buyers make informed decisions from the comfort of their homes.
  3. Quality Assurance: Overnight Caskets is known for its high-quality products. The pre-need program ensures that individuals receive top-quality caskets and funeral goods, giving families confidence that their loved ones will be honored with dignity and respect.
  4. Easing Burdens: Dealing with the passing of a loved one can create quite a number of unforeseen challenges. Not only is there emotional pain and grief to deal with, but planning a funeral also necessitates a significant outlay of time, energy and money. By planning ahead, you’ll help to reduce this pain and stress for your loved ones while letting them know your wishes.

The rise of companies like Overnight Caskets in the pre-need market has influenced the broader funeral industry by promoting transparency and competition. Their online platforms provide clear pricing and product information, empowering consumers to make more informed decisions.

Economic and Market Trends in the Funeral Industry

The funeral industry has been subject to various economic and market trends over the past few years, influenced by factors such as changing consumer preferences, demographic shifts, and the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Understanding these trends is crucial for funeral professionals to navigate the evolving landscape effectively.

Market Size and Revenue Trends

The overall market for funeral services in the United States has seen fluctuating growth patterns, influenced by varying death rates and economic conditions. According to Sundale Research, total revenues for funeral homes in the U.S. have experienced both growth and contraction periods, with the market adapting to the "COVID correction" phase post-pandemic. The accelerated deaths during the pandemic years temporarily boosted revenues, but as death rates normalized in 2023, the market saw a return to pre-pandemic levels.

Impact of Economic Conditions

Economic conditions have a significant impact on the funeral industry. During economic downturns, families tend to opt for more affordable funeral options, such as cremation, over traditional burials. Cremation rates have been steadily increasing, driven partly by its cost-effectiveness compared to burial. The National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) reported a projected cremation rate of 57.7% for 2021, with expectations to rise to 78% by 2040.

Rising interest rates have also affected the industry, particularly for funeral homes with variable interest rate loans. Higher borrowing costs can strain financial resources, making it essential for businesses to manage their debt-to-cash flow ratios carefully. Well-prepared funeral homes that focus on budgeting and strategic financial planning are better positioned to navigate these economic challenges. Yet A 2021 survey by the National Funeral Directors Association found that 27% of owners planned to sell their business or retire within five years, meaning we are likely to continue to see plenty of transaction activity despite potential economic obstacles.

The funeral industry has seen a trend towards consolidation, with larger companies acquiring smaller, independent funeral homes. This consolidation can lead to increased efficiency and broader service offerings but also raises concerns about reduced competition and higher prices for consumers. The rise of alternative service providers, such as direct-to-consumer casket retailers like Overnight Caskets, adds competitive pressure and promotes pricing transparency.