If you know someone who's had to plan a funeral during the Covid-19 shutdown, you realize how much tougher it is to go through this already difficult task.
Most states have limited gatherings to no more than 10 people. Planning and pricing a funeral online is a service the industry has not usually provided.
"The funeral industry is very much steeped in tradition," said Chris Cruger, chief operating officer at The Foresight Companies, a consulting firm for the industry.
But the $20 billion industry is being forced to meet the changing desires of the customer.
New research by Cruger's firm reveals that online price transparency and live-streaming of funeral services may be the norm going forward, even as the country begins to open up.
Cruger said not only do most customers now expect to see prices listed online, "actually 53% of the people are telling us that they won't do business with businesses that don't give them that level of transparency."
The survey, which polled 2,548 respondents drawn from a nationally representative panel sample of U.S. residents on May 1-2, also found:
Meanwhile, the publicly traded companies in the space have seen their shares take a hit year-to-date. Shares of Service Corp. International have fallen 14%, while StoneMor's stock has dropped 50%. Service Corp's stock is valued at $7 billion, while StoneMor's market value is $68 million.
Jay Dodds has been in the industry a long time. He's president of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, and he's also chief operating officer of Park Lawn, the second largest funeral services company in North America. Dodds said the Federal Trade Commission mandates funeral homes provide itemized price lists, but companies have been loath to put those prices online.
"Our price lists are pretty complicated," he said, "but I think what you're going to find coming out of this will be many funeral homes putting their prices online and just figuring out a way to communicate it."
Park Lawn funeral directors have had to get creative during the shutdown, and that's gone beyond live-streaming services.
"We've been doing drive-by funerals," Dodds said. "We had a young man that passed away and the family really wanted to have a service, so we did a set up in our parking lot, and more than 200 cars drove by and paid their respects."
Some of his cemeteries have been broadcasting graveside services on AM/FM transmitters so people don't have to get out of their cars. "It's things that two months ago we would've thought, 'Well, we would never do that!'"
One surprise in the Foresight survey is that the pandemic has not increased demand for cremations. Notably, Dodds said the shutdown may also be reversing the trend toward smaller funerals.
"It's kind of like when you tell a child they can't have something, then all of a sudden that's what they want ... all of a sudden, everybody wants a funeral," he said.
Preplanning arrangements also is on the rise. Cruger said the percentage of the population that feels it's important to preplan funeral and cemetery purchases has jumped from 50% to 73%. "Our preneed appointments have really picked up," Dodds said.
Dodds said he and other senior management at Park Lawn have continued to come into the office — even as many employees work from home — to show solidarity with the workers who have to go into houses, nursing homes and hospitals to retrieve the remains of those who've died.
"Our people view themselves as 'final responders,' which is a play on the words 'first responder,'" he said. "When the pandemic hit, it was really an opportunity for the industry to shine, because we were going to be there, no matter what we had to go through to be able to serve our communities."