The Funeral Industry & the Internet: step forward or be left behind

    Overall the funeral industry has been quite late to the internet.  Even now the industry is still not truly active or taking advantage of the online opportunities.

    In this post I explain how the industry is not very internet active and why this is actually a big issue for the industry.  I also discuss why the industry is so hesitant of the internet, even at their own loss.

    Many think of the funeral industry as old fashioned and traditional.  Which is not the case at all.  The funeral industry is a modern operating, as modern as mass tourism.  Even in the past the industry was very innovative for the time.  Many funeral homes started getting motorised hearses in the 1930s, well before cars were common.  Various funeral companies were not only accepting of change, but encouraged it.

    However this is only innovative in a certain sense.  Funeral companies jump on new technology, new things.  But they avoid the public eye.  Funeral companies have an odd issue here, they promote themselves, but not in a public sense.  Traditionally the funeral home would use word of mouth advertising and presentations to specific groups.  The most 'public' form of advertising has been in the newspaper, but not general newspapers.  Funeral homes advertise in religious or specific newspapers.  None of these methods would enter the public sphere. Thus the funeral company publicised itself in a non-public way.

    This was done because this is the attitude that created the funeral industry.  Basically the funeral industry is not old, thus it is not 'traditional' or 'old fashioned'.  The funeral industry was really created after WWI for a number of reasons.  Firstly the mass-deaths changed the way people grieved and saw death.  Another reason is the chances in medicine.  With advancements in medicine the young stopped dying, children were the most likely to die in the 1800s.  Now it was the old who made up most deaths, hospitals and nursing homes were created.  So death was institutionalised and removed from the domestic life.  There was also a decline in religion which helped change how people saw deaths, the "good Christian death" at home surrounded by family was no longer the norm.  As a result people turned to paid professionals to take care of the dead.  And here was when the undertaker really came into existence.

    Unfortunately this means the funeral home was created out of a desire for silence and separation from this topic.  People previously took care of the dead at home.  But now they no longer wanted this, they wanted to give the job away.  The undertakers took this role, and the job moved away from domestic and public spheres into a closed and private setting.

    It is therefore no surprise that the funeral home would not find comfort under the public eye.  The point of the funeral home is to remove this process from the public.  It's the very reason they were created.  To be gazed upon by the public is not what they want.

    In the 1980s when death started to enter the public forum again.  But the funeral industry remained outside, keeping to itself.  While death was discussed (through things such as organ  donation, AIDS, euthanasia, cancer, etc) funerals remained unspoken, unexplored and unexposed.  In many ways death and funerals departed company because of this.  But that is another topic for another time.  Now the topic of death is quite common in the public, something we often see on the news or discuss amongst friends and family.

    This is not to say the funeral industry was completely out of public attention.  For example the infamous "American Way of Death" written in the 1960s focused on the funeral industry.  However, these discussions were usually by others who threw accusations at the industry.  The industry had little to no actual participation with the public discussions.

    So the funeral industry remained largely out of the public as the taboo of death was dropped.  Yet this is changing in recent years.  Since about the midd 2000s funerals have started to be looked at again, most notably with InvoCare.  This company was created in 2003 from a rather rich history.  But since its creation InvoCare has slowly been bringing funerals to the public discussion.  It has seized the change in attitudes, the shedding of the taboo, and created truly public advertisements   Which then get people thinking about and discussing funerals.

    Then along came the internet, quickly becoming a standard thing.  Yet the funeral industry remained distant, reluctant to engage with the internet.  Many complained about the 'new fangled' internet and its modern issues.  But none of the issues were modern, they were actually the same issues raised hundreds of years ago.

    When printed books first came out it caused a lot of issues.  There were complaints about regulation, nobody regulated it so anyone could do or say anything in a book.  There were issues of piracy, concepts and information owned by people could now be spread without their consent or input.  Pornography was another common complaint.  Some books were purely pornographic, either with text or images.  Although I must point out decent studies show well under 10% of the internet is phonographic, so this is not a real issue, just a perception.  There was also the issue of hyperidentity and anonymity.  People could say what they liked in a book and be completely unknown and untraceable   But the other side was that someone could be talked about in a book and thus have their identity spread about.

    All of these issues are things we currently face with the internet.  Like with printed books these issues will be worked out in time.  Funeral companies should not worry about these things, keep them in mind yes, but not worry or hesitate because of them.  The internet is new technology, but the concepts behind it are older than Australia.

    Funeral companies did make websites, but this was not engaging with the internet or what it offered.  Take the WNBull website for example.  It is a very basic site, which does not describe the company as a site should.  It is essentially a newspaper advertisement put online.  It misses the whole point of the medium completely.

    The WNBull website is obviously only created because the company had to.  To not have a website is not acceptable anymore.  But to have a bad website sends a bad message about the company.  One big issue with the WNBull site is simply the accessibility.  Being flash based is old, it was cool in 2005 but in 2012 is is a big drawback.  It makes the company look backwards as things take time to load and it has a sluggy feel about it.

    It also rules out a huge chunk of internet traffic.  No iPhone or iPad can access the WNBull website.  In 2011 iOS devices accounted for 58% of all non-computer traffic (source).  In 2009 Neilson found 88% of iPhone users use their phones to surfe the net.   Also iPhones are not just for young people, the users are actually rather diverse in age (source).  At least 10% of traffic to this blog is through an iPhone or iPad.

    I raised all these issues about the site with the WNBull management while I was there.  But they was quickly dismissed as most "older" people do not use the internet much.  This is not true, and changing.  A few friends in nursing have all said how lots of people ask about the wifi when deciding on the nursing home.  Furthermore they also see more and more older people with these devices, particularly iPads.  The iPad is good for those with sight issues as it can zoom on text and is simple to use.  None of these people could access the WNBull website.  Those who did so with other devices would be disappointed.  When I told friends where I worked within a day or two most would say something like "wow, you work there, it looks so dodgy!"  It goes to show how one website can have a huge impact on how we perceive a company.  That one site can damage an otherwise good company.

    Another issue with reluctance to enter the internet is presence.  Take WNBull again, they have one website and that's it.  A website which has no real information about the company except that it exists.  As a result anyone can say anything about WNBull online and be unchallenged.  I could edit the google page for WNBull (which I doubt they realise exists) and say anything I liked.  There would be no information out there to disprove me.

    This lack of presence also limits how one can find the company.  Unless you actually search for WNBull specifically it is very difficult to find the company online.  If I was arranging a funeral I would look online to find the company.  As would just about anyone I know.  I haven't seen a phone book at a home in years.  To advertise int eh phone book and one newspaper is quite a limited reach.  Especially at a time when people are changing how they find and research companies.

    The information on the WNBull website is not very useful in deciding which funeral home to use.  This website simply states that the company exists, and is then filled with things I have found rarely help others.  The site has nothing of detail about the company, no photos gallery, no description, no aims or goals.  One cannot get a feel about WNBull through the site.  An unfortunately common issue with many funeral companies.  They obviously have not realised the point of the website is to learn about that company.

    The internet is about engagement and accessibility, about spreading information and interacting with others.  On this blog for example I do not simply state things, I engage with the community who has a role in the content.  What people view, the comments posted, how they find the blog, it is all a part of the blog and moving it forward.  I even experiment with colours and fonts to see how little things are received by the community.

    Funeral companies do not do this with the internet.  So few companies engage with the community online.  I am seeing one form of community participation pop up.  The online tribute websites like HeavensAddress.  These are online spaces to leave messages for/about the deceased.  However, they are online participation with the funeral service, but not with the funeral company.

    It is an unfortunate gap in the online presence for the funeral industry.  They should start letting the public engage with the company, and not in a funeral service setting.  For example a Q&A section where people can ask things like "how do I take ashes overseas" or "why did you join the funeral industry" would be helpful and well received.  Funeral companies should also talk back, speak up and have a voice, have a personality.  Why not have a twitter account and comment on things?

    Many funeral companies would say that their customers are not on the internet.  Or that their customers do not want internet based things.  Yet this is not completely true and will certainly not be true in another few years.  Plus this is not the point.  The reaching out to the customers/public is the method, not the objective.  The objective is to bring a new perspective to the specific funeral company and the industry as a whole.  Funeral companies will be studied either way, take this blog for example.

    The funeral industry really needs to get active on the internet.  Otherwise things like this blog will start to speak for them.  It is not just a form of publicity and advertisement, more importantly a way to bring the company into a public sphere.

    If the funeral companies resist things like the internet they will be brought into the public without say or consent.  Interest in the industry is growing, so have a part in what is said.  They need to realise that one can either step forward or be left behind.

    Here's a suggestion for the cemeteries and crematoriums - contact google and encourage them to drive the google car through the grounds and/or walk around the gardens.  But make it an event, line up a few hearses around the area, maybe even have some amusing or strange stuff going on in random places.  It's old and done, but it might gain international attention for that place and the participating companies.  And it might show the humour and diversity of the people in the industry.  This is something google has done in the past with an art group, so it is possible.



  1. Anonymous7/11/12 20:27

    This is the kind of thing that I have been trying to become involved in - creating a much wider and more interactive identity for the Funeral Company my husband is involved with.

    But it is a little scary for the owners because they fear that sharing will create 'copy-cat' companies. And then they would lose their edge.

    As you say, a business's presence on the internet needs to not only reflect the values and uniqueness of the business, but provide a platform to interact with possible clients and the public.

    Hopefully, Australian Funeral directors will realise this and more towards a more modern and technologically aware framework of conducting business.

    1. Yeah, I think the internet is the inevitable step. But the issues people have about it are actually quite old, nothing new. Many undertakers are concerned with people 'copying' their hearse and go to great lengths to 'protect' it's image. But this is all rather futile in a few ways.

      Others will copy it if they want, and their copying it doesn't do that much harm. The internet and funerals will happen either way, might as well get on and have a say I think!

      Yet I think the biggest and most important thing is realising WHAT the internet really and how to use it. It is a two-way communication, very much so. Look at youtube and other big sites, they are driven by the community. I'd like to see more of that with the funeral industry. Community content and participation, from useful articles like "who to contact" to just attitudes and discussions. It'd be slow, but might do a lot of good... And this participation is something others can't copy. There were other big video sites before youtube. But youtube made participation much easier, and several years later it is only getting bigger.



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