Why is this interesting? - The Casket Edition

On death, grieving, and the funeral industry

Perry Hewitt (PH) brings modern marketing and digital product practices to mission-led organizations. Previously CDO at Harvard University, she now consults to organizations including Bloomberg Philanthropies and The Rockefeller Foundation. She previously contributed WITI 12/6/19 - The Photo Edition.

Perry here. I’ve been interested in end-of-life practices and choices since reading Jessica Mitford’s The American Way of Death back in my 20s. The book, initially published in 1963, has aged remarkably well with its evergreen hot take that the American funeral industry has perfected the art of turning grief into high-margin profits. And like many of you at some point, I have been faced with hard decisions delivered via hard sell in a funeral home, where dollars spent are communicated as a proxy for one last opportunity to signal affection, and to elevate the performative component of one’s grieving. 

Why is that interesting?

The funeral industry is thus far curiously immune to the kind of personal care disruption that has brought us direct-to-consumer, lower-cost eyewear, hearing aids, and fitness equipment in recent years. That’s not caused by a lack of creative ideas, but by a monopolistic chokehold on purchase decisions made at the last mile, reports Michael Waters at The Hustle:

Every year, 2.8m people die in the US. Around 40% of them opt to be buried — most commonly, in a casket. A $550m-per-year business, caskets make up a healthy portion of the much larger $20B death industry.

The market for burials has never been more flooded with options. You can now spend your post-life years buried in a bodysuit fashioned out of mushrooms, in a pod that turns you into a tree, or in an IKEA-style casket you assemble yourself. Whatever your post-mortem niche, there’s probably a startup for it.

But despite this abundance of businesses, efforts to re-envision the casket industry have largely fallen flat.

That’s because today, the vast majority of people who opt to bury a loved one buy a wooden casket from a traditional funeral home — a market that is almost entirely monopolized by two industry behemoths: Batesville (a subsidiary of the even bigger Hillenbrand Inc.) and Matthews International Corporation.

The tactics mentioned in the article to win over funeral directors are similar to those of pharmaceutical companies, providing tickets to ballgames, meals, and vacations. With 82% of all caskets sold in funeral homes, it pays to have a highly-incentivized salesforce. The casket industry has effectively shored up the middlemen for an industry that most of us choose to avoid researching, understanding, or discussing—until we need it. Also like big pharma, the National Funeral Directors Association has a PAC lobbying members of Congress on issues like the appropriate disposition and transport of human remains. While the FTC provides a refreshingly plain-English overview of consumer rights at a funeral home, additional laws vary by state. Given this complexity, buyers may be more likely to forego questions about options and pricing, and go with the funeral director’s recommendations. 

So what can disrupt Big Casket? Ultimately, anyone writing a will. Obviously, religion plays a big part here.  However, active involvement in organized religion is shifting with generations; according to Pew, 34% of boomers report attending religious services at least once a week compared to only 11% of younger millennials. As the millennials age, will this decreased interest translate into exploring alternative death rituals? Or will traditional funeral home recommendations remain the default drive, because these are still profoundly uncomfortable discussions to have? According to Anita Hannig, professor of anthropology at Brandeis University, American attitudes toward death won’t change until young people engage in meaningful end-of-life conversations.

Another thought: As climate change dominates the headlines and becomes more tangible in 2020, perhaps people will be eager for choices more sustainable than planting mahogany six feet under. After all, it’s far easier to voice environmental concerns than it is to sound like a cheapskate when you’re burying family members. In addition to all the hardwood we’re using, caskets and vaults are leaching iron, copper, and lead into the ground. Increased awareness of the annual use of 4.3 million gallons of embalming fluid, twenty percent of which is formaldehyde, methanol, and benzene, may be a driver for questioning standard practices. 

If willingness to shed tradition or environmental concerns lead consumers to explore alternatives, they’re increasingly available. Alternative funeral homes are cropping up, and Washington recently became the first state to allow the composting of human bodies. (As a marketer, I am pretty sure human composting will need a significant re-brand, akin to dolphin fish re-imagined as mahi mahi on our menus.) Ultimately to be successful, these new providers will need not only to expand their offerings beyond the pricey corporate coffins, but also to remember that what they’re selling—the true “job to be done”—is not disposing of a body, but coordinating a farewell. (PH)

Sunset of the Day:

From Etosha National Park in Namibia (CJN

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Perry (PH)

PS - Noah here. I’ve started a new company and we are looking for a sr. backend engineer to join the team. If you are one of those or know anyone great, please share. Dinner’s on me at a restaurant of your choice if you help us find someone.


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