LifeArt; A look at the modern funeral industry

     Funerals are quite a modern affair, much like the fast food, tourism or any other highly organised industry.  For example in this other post I (quickly and lightly) discuss how crematoriums can easily be linked to concepts from the tourism industry.  I find the LifeArt coffins to be another interesting example for the modern funeral and only exist because of how the funeral industry is a modern process  So here I intend to examine what the LifeArt coffin is and what role it plays in this modern process.

   The LifeArt coffin is an interesting and quite frankly strange thing.  It is basically and simply a cardboard coffin.  It is made from the same style of cardboard as pizza boxes and as such I have heard a couple of funeral directors call them "pizza box coffins" with destine.  The only wood or real non-cardboard material used is a few blocks of wood on the inside to reinforce the handles.  One would wonder what market a cardboard coffin would have.  Most people want "the best" for their loved one.  And this idea has been the basis for the coffin industry for many decades.  People pay high price with the idea they are getting high quality.  The result of which is that much of the funeral industry has become dependant on high profit coffins as a means to survive.  So along comes a cardboard version, and it is still more expensive than the cheapest wood coffins.  Thus we would doubt LifeArts place in an old and established market.
   So lets look at the advertising and marketing for this strange new coffin.  On the homepage of the LifeArt website we see the main image is of a child.  A strangely common image in the industry with the focus being on life (always depicted as young by the industry) rather than death.  But it also focuses on two ideas, environment and personalised.  These are fascinating ideas to the industry, as personalisation is very old and very important to funeral homes and families.

   Personalisation is an old idea which has been emphasised in the modern industry.  Firstly I will quickly clarify that by personal I mean two distinct things.  One one hand we have personal, which is warm, relevant and relatable to the mourners.  On the other hand I am also referring to personalised which is basically customising the event to meed the desires of the family and/or deceased.  The two are so intertwined and related in many ways that I will refer to them both at once to simply save time.  Looking at older style funeral home ads I found that a few would talk of "personalising the service" to cater to the family and/or the deceased.  The concept does appear and is important to funeral homes but it is not essential or emphasised over other concepts.  However in the modern funeral industry the idea of a personal or personalised service is almost essential.  Looking at the websites for Simplicity, Guardian and White Ladys, which are all owned by Invocare and Olsens and T.J.Andrews, which are independent we can see how important this concept of 'personal' is.  It appears several times on each website and each emphasise how they are prepared to personalise the service to fit the family or deceased.  Looking at just arranging a burial style funeral we can see exactly how important personalisation is.  Simplicity advertises the ability to personalise stuff on the funeral.  Such as having a set of golf clubs in the hearse with the coffin or that it is willing and able to get a horse drawn hearse, something I have never seen or heard of.  It is such an odd extreme and nobody I had asked ever saw a horse drawn hearse.  Guardian focuses more on how it will "personalise the service to your cultural, spiritual, emotional and personal preferences".  They chose to focus on advertising emotional and cultural personalisation without stating anything specific.  White Ladies even has a whole section on personalising the service.  They focus on 'little touches' and helping "achieve a truly memorable funeral service".  Here the whole company emphasis is strongly on personal service.  Even their motto "a woman's understanding" leads one to believe that they will be willing to listen and personalise the service.  These three websites are all for large national companies owned by InvoCare, which itself is a large international company.  Just looking at the sites at once one can see the similarities.  Their templates are almost exactly the same, the placement of information, links and art styles are all identical.  Knowing how to navigate one site means knowing how to navigate any of them.  Even the style of language and what is said is the same.  They all explain things, such as arranging a funeral, in such a similar manner.  Really, the only difference is the colour of the site.  One is left wondering how personal their services could be, if their websites are the same down to the language style and template used then they must all be so similar.  Thus we turn to the two large independent funeral homes websites to see if 'personal' is just an InvoCare thing or an industry wide concept.  Olsens is a mostly Shire and South Sydney company and has been established for many years.  Clicking on "what type of funeral" one is immediately confronted with talk of how they will personalise the service.  They state how they provide a "distinctly" and "carefully" personal service.  T.J Andrews does not explicitly talk of "personal" or "personalising" funerals.  They do however talk heavily of how chan change and customise funerals depending on cultural and individual needs or desires.  So while not explicit T.J.Andrews does place importance on personal services.  All of these websites spend time they could use advertising other things to emphasises the personal concept.  It really is an important concept to the funeral industry.  This is no different with the LifeArt coffin website.  A main advertising point is how the coffin itself can be personalised.  From having pictures or photos printed onto it in the manufacturing process to painting it, the coffin is very "customisable".  They differentiate themselves from other coffins by emphasising how people can interact with the coffin and make it into the image they desire.  I remember one time where a family painted the LifeArt coffin themselves, and although it did not look the best they were extremely happy with the outcome.  The outcome had little impact on them itself, what they really focused on and had meaning was the act of painting the coffin.

   One is left wondering why exactly this is such an important concept to the industry.  That the funeral homes pay so much attention to it and that LifeArt uses 'personal' as a main basis for its very existence.  Well, my thought is that it is based in the modernising of the industry itself.  Looking at the websites they are all so similar, mainly the InvoCare owned ones (which LifeArt is also owned by).  They are mass production companies no different to McDonalds.  In fact InvoCare companies all use the same facilities (of which there are only four main ones across Sydney) and often the same staff.  Staff will work a Simplicity funeral one hour then a Guardian one the next, all from the same location.  They even have magnetic company plates for the hearse so the same hearse can work different funerals in the same day from different companies.  I have heard of people working at the main InvoCare locations stating how cold these places are.  That they are heartless and "efficient production facilities".  This is the process of modernisation and democracy.  Everything is done on mass, efficiently, transparently and equally.  Think of apartments, the modern answer to housing, they are about providing accommodation to the masses (particularly in Eastern Europe) and this is where the whole idea for them comes from.  Apartments house many people at once in the exact same conditions and to the same standards.  This is democracy and modernity in action and is the same with the funeral industry.  Everything is the same amongst the various funeral homes, independent or otherwise, with little difference.  This leads to a need or desire to individualise, by carving out nieces (which I will talk of another time) and by talking about how personal their service is.  But basically because these companies are so similar, even going so far as to share staff and facilities, they need to separate themselves from each other.  When people find out about how the bodies are all treated the same and on mass they (even those within the industry who do this job) are against it.  People do not like the idea of the dead being treated on mass like other products.  We like to think that the dead are treated as individual people, not processed products.  Yet the truth of the matter is that this is how the modern funeral home handels bodies.  However the funeral homes do not want people to see or think of them as cold companies who just process the dead.  And to do this they highlight and perpetuate the idea that they are a 'personal' place and service who care for the dead rather than deal with the dead.  As a completely new product LifeArt is a great example of this.  They are literally mass produced by machines, no talk of "hand made" or individual manufacturing.  Instead they have a lot of focus on how they can be customised to suit the needs of families or the deceased.  There are three main sections devoted to personal coffins, "how to create a DIY (decorate it yourself)", "create a custom design" and "create personalised design" all of which are featured and accessible on the homepage or from anywhere else on the website.  The 'DIY' section talks of how families are able to decorate the coffin in different ways even featuring a testimonial from a funeral director.  He talks of how a family used "mum's gift" (the coffin) to come together as a family.  They took great joy in decorating it and shared stories about the departed mother while doing so.  LifeArt is depicted here as a way to help deal with the loss of a loved one and bring people together by personalising the coffin.  In the 'create a custom design' section they advertise how they turn peoples "ideas into a completely unique design" that are only limited by imagination.  The final part I looked at 'create a personalised design' even emphasises the concept of personal in the very title.  LifeArt held an exhibition a few months ago (which was publicised in the InvoCare magazine) where they got local artists to decorate their coffins.  This was to display the various things that can be done with the coffin and how people can interact with it rather than just look at it.  However in this section they talk more about text that can be printed onto the coffin (such as names, dates, saying, messages and so on), quite strange when the other two sections are wholly focused on images and visual of the coffin.   Either way all three sections talk of how the LifeArt coffin can be very personal, either through images or text.  A concept which was not important a few years ago gets the majority of the products website.  These are coffins which could not have existed even a few years ago.  For one the technology was no around to make them possible let alone viable and the attitudes towards modern funeral homes did not exist.
The visual variety of the coffins
   The main aim of LifeArt is about how it can be made personal, yet this is actually quite debatable.  They are literally mass-printed on machines from a set template.  Every coffin has to be the same shape and even size with no physical deviations between each other.  Even the handels and thumbscrews are the same for every coffin.  Indeed the whole thing is a result of a mass production system with the focus on efficiency.  One must wonder how personal they can be if they are all physically the same and have no options for difference.  The 'standard' wood coffins have options for different handels, different thumbscrews and people have a choice of many different types for each price bracket.  With variations in colour or type of wood, style of the lid and other physical details of the coffin.  Basically the only variation for the LifeArt coffins is what can be printed on the outside while the other coffins have a variety of physical differences.  And yet the LifeArt can be more personal than the other coffins solely through visual variations.  They offer printing oh specific photos, pictures or words and have the option to be decorated by the family.  None of these options are really available for the other coffins, although they have more physical variations and can be custom made from scratch they are not as personal.

   The other main aspect LifeArt advertise is that they are environmentally friendly.  Talk of 'green' burials or funeral processes has existed for some time.  I remember an article (which I cannot find) talking of how a biologist had developed a completely zero carbon footprint burial method.  It was 100% environmentally green.  Basically (and un-poetically) the process was to be buried in a bio degradable potato sack under a tree.  LifeArt is the next, publicly palatable step in this process.  The website states how LifeArt coffins take less fuel to burn in crematoriums, cutting emissions by 60%.  They are made from 97% recycled fibers (from both reused paper and sugarcane) and they require less energy and pollutant to make.  Indeed being green is important to LifeArt, and yet 'green' as a predominant environmental concept is only quite recent and modern.  Many products, such as cars, advertise themselves as 'green' and with a low negative impact on the biological and social environment.  Something no coffin before has done, or even tried to do.  And yet LifeArt has carved out quite a nice market in doing so.
   LifeArt are a product made possible by modern technology and processes as well as the very attitudes to these modern processes.  Through an ever modernising and democratising the industry a need has arisen to counter the impersonal and mass production of this process.  LifeArt is a great example of this with a majority of the website, advertising and even aim of the product devoted to how the coffins can be personalised.  The second focus of LifeArt is on how 'green' it is, another modern concept.  However both of these concepts are somewhat debatable.  Overall the funeral industry is modernising and the result of which is a desire to differentiate and individualise as they all become more and more similar.


    On an unrelated note LifeArt coffins were featured in this article on "Worlds Wackiest Coffins" over at Oddee.  It is interesting how the website talked of them as "going out in style" when really their 'style' is only superficial.

1 comment:

  1. And like many in this industry the question of how much seems elusive.


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