Cremations in the Digital Era
How Technology and Digitally Native Consumers are Driving Changes in the Cremation Sector
Cremations are increasingly becoming the preferred option when it comes to funeral planning in the UK, with over 78% of people now choosing this method over a traditional burial. The changing dynamic of modern culture, a step away from more religious practices, greater awareness of the impact humans have on the planet, and rising funeral costs have all contributed to this shift in customer preference. But perhaps the most interesting aspect, particularly when we look to the future of the cremation sector, is the impact of technology and the rising influence of the digitally native customer.
The variety of choices that are now available when it comes to end-of-life planning is like nothing that has been seen in the sector previously. From cost-conscious direct cremations through to eco-friendly water cremations and live-streamed funeral services, there is no denying that technology has enabled funeral planning to become an extremely personal and bespoke affair and has been critical in helping the sector to continue through the challenges of the global Coronavirus pandemic.
It is fair to say that the adoption of technology across the death care sector is somewhat slower than in other sectors, but the pandemic has brought home not only the relevance it has for death care professionals but has demonstrated just how comfortable customers are with using it to aid in their buying decisions. In fact, substantial pre-pandemic shifts were already taking place in the sector, and for many customers, the effects of recent months have simply expedited their journey towards a more digitally-orientated death care experience.
Cremations in the digital era - What is changing?
'Click and Buy' Cremations
Research by SunLife in 2020 revealed that funeral costs had risen in some regions by as much as 9% in a year, bringing the average funeral cost to £4,400. The same report suggested that with additions such as professional services and flowers, the cost of dying was now just short of £10,000. For those without savings or pre-paid funeral plans, this is clearly a significant sum for the family to find and has led to an increase in demand for cheaper, simpler, 'direct cremations'.
SunLife reports that the average cost for a direct cremation in 2020 was £1,626, and whilst many still struggle with the idea of not holding a 'traditional' service, views are rapidly changing. In fact, 14% of cremations conducted in 2020 were direct cremations, which represented a rise of 3% on the previous year.
Direct cremations require minimal input from third parties and can even be booked directly by the customer. Many providers are starting to offer the ability to book and pay for a direct cremation online. Digitally native customers, in particular, have responded well to this offering, as it mirrors their existing purchasing patterns.
Funeral attendance, anytime, anywhere
Live streaming of services is not a new concept but hit the spotlight during the pandemic as an effective means of ensuring that family and friends could still pay their respects at a funeral service despite the restrictions on numbers. Both church and cremation ceremonies can be live-streamed, and whilst this was already an option for those living overseas, the pandemic has led to a surge in interest. It appears not to be a fleeting fad either, with research conducted by 9Dot Research revealing that at least 40% of UK funeral services involved live streaming or video, with 86% of guests who were not able to attend believing that this was a good idea.
Interestingly, reports suggest that around 50-60% of the UK's private crematoria currently offer live-streaming facilities compared with just 30-40% by local authorities. This indicates that much more can be done to appeal to those who wish to organise services which can be attended virtually, from anywhere, at any time. For crematoria, this also presents opportunities to fill some of the less popular slots, such as early mornings, which are often avoided in order to allow visitors time to travel to the venue.
Millennials and Generation Zers (those born after 1995) are much more aware of their impact on the world around them, including after death. Rising concerns over the toxic properties involved in a typical burial have led many to explore more environmentally-friendly options. Reports have revealed that a single cremation is reported to emit as much carbon dioxide as a 500-mile car trip. More efficient electric cremation equipment is on the horizon, but at present, there is only 1 in operation in the UK at North Oxfordshire Crematorium and Memorial Park. However, despite being 'greener', electrical cremators are still harmful to the environment.
Although still at the conceptual stage in the UK, worldwide interest in Resomation (water cremations) is rising and is thought to be of the most environmentally friendly methods for body disposal. The practice is legal in 20 US states as well as Canada and Mexico, and although it is not illegal in the UK, progress has been slow. That said, in December 2020, Resomation Limited announced that Following a successful study, the UK's first 'wastewater consent to discharge' was granted for the water cremation process. Samples from five UK water cremations conducted in April 2019 were analysed against a range of organic, inorganic and microbial parameters by Yorkshire Water, with the results assessed by experts at Middlesex University. The results show that water cremation poses no concern for sewer systems, wastewater treatment works, related operations, or receiving water quality. As no DNA was found to be present in any of the samples, Yorkshire Water proceeded with granting a consent to discharge for water cremation to Leeds-based LBBC Ltd, the parent company of Resomation Ltd.
Despite the promising results of the study, anecdotal reports from inside parish boards indicate that discussions over new innovations such as water cremations rarely make it to the agenda, but there is no denying that demand for such offerings will increase in the years to come. Crematoria who do not proactively take steps to remain ahead of the game when it comes to environmental impact could find themselves at a disadvantage as a new generation choose to use more environmentally conscious providers for their death care needs.
The challenge for modern-day Crematoria
The reality for modern-day Crematoria is that digitally native customers are becoming increasingly responsible for purchasing decisions made in the death care sector. The more forward-thinking crematoria are already responding to these demands and are starting to embrace technology in order to better connect with the digital needs of their customers. These include the provision of live-streaming services, virtual tributes and online books of remembrance, to name just a few. It is clear that more needs to be done to not only satisfy the demands and expectations of the modern customer but to help ensure that crematoria are maximising the revenue streams available to them. Reports suggest that basic cremation fees make up over 90% of revenues for UK crematoria, indicating that many are failing to embrace the potential to tap into additional revenue streams.
Technology can enable crematoria to move into the digital era by connecting them seamlessly with both their customers, their suppliers and their employees. As more digitally native workers enter the employment pool, new recruits to the death care sector will be much more willing to embrace technology-led solutions that drive clear improvements in the customer experience, increase profitability, and ultimately, result in better crematoria management.