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About a year ago, I started looking at the funeral business in a radically different way. I joined an organization that helps women starting businesses, called Ladies Who Launch (http://ladieswholaunch.com/).

The core of the program is a four week long “incubator”. The general theory is that when we try to innovate for ourselves, we tend to be unsuccessful because every new idea is met with four or five reasons why we think it would never work. Other people will tend not to see those limitations, and will dream bigger for us than we do for ourselves. My homework during those four weeks was to think about everyone else’s business but my own.

When it came time to hear what ideas the other women in my group came up with for my funeral home, I was expecting to hear a lot about cremation, green funerals, East-Asian and new-age rituals, and other scenarios that are hard for funeral directors to make a living on.

I was very, very wrong. Their perceptions of what can and can’t be done to memorialize someone were worlds apart from mine. Overall, their ideas harkened back to making things very simple, but meaningful. Most were also fairly expensive: several people suggested ‘destination funerals’ in The Adirondacks or the Jersey Shore. As a whole, they saw nothing wrong with spending money if they could see the value in the cost.

I think many of us in the funeral industry get stuck in a mindset about how we think the industry should progress, and what we think the consumer should want.  My experience in the Ladies Who Launch Incubator showed me that what this group of consumers wants from me as their funeral director is vastly different from what I thought it was.

From this stems my frustration with the majority of those who market their wares to me as the funeral director.

First, of course, are those who try to get me to buy an item for anywhere from $50 to $150, and just “throw it in” with a funeral. This demonstrates a (perceived) lack of understanding by the vendors about how much my actual costs are, and what I can realistically afford to absorb before passing the cost on to my clients. They also seriously underestimate the intelligence of my clients if they think I can tack and extra $100 on to their bill without them noticing or questioning it.

Second, many of the things I see that are intended to be resold to families are just too complicated, especially in an at-need situation. Most often, the families have a million things going on in their heads, and have varying levels of focus on the task at hand. I’ve got a limited window of time and attention during which to sell them items. That, and I personally just don’t like doing a hard sell at any point during the arrangement process.

There’s a woman I met in Ladies Who Launch, Jen Groover, who sells the Butler Bag, a compartmentalized handbag for women. (http://butlerbag.com/). It’s great because you never have to dig to find anything in your purse- it’s always right there. I own FIVE of them. Jen and I have both lost count of how many more I’ve sold for her. The reason is because they sell themselves. In less than 15 seconds I can explain what  it is, and once I open up my own bag and show them what it looks like inside, they’re sold.

My general rule of thumb now is if I can’t sell a product to my families the way I can sell Butler Bags to my friends, I won’t waste time on it during arrangements.

More importantly, most items I come across are marketed to me because, as a funeral director I’ll appreciate them. Very few items are marketed to me because of what they’ll actually do for my clients. I find that very frustrating.

At the last convention I attended, it was the casket-makers that had the largest displays, as usual. If you took away their logos, it would have been hard to tell one from the other. Both were pushing their arrangement-making software in a big, big way.

So I asked myself, is this something my client would really be interested in? Generally the answer was no. Even if the software is free to me up front, we all know it’s going to be factored into the costs of the caskets I buy. How will that benefit the families I work with?

As a funeral director, I was really impressed by caskets with new types of interiors, or a new type of scrollwork carved into the exterior. However, before I became a funeral director, I honestly couldn’t tell you the difference between wood that was actually cherry, or pine that was given a cherry finish. Most of my clients can’t either. A few will come in and ask me for the very best I have on hand, an equal number want the absolute minimum. Most, however, just want something that will do the job within their price range. The less time they can spend in the selection room, the better. The same is true for most urns.

Unfortunately, I’ve found very few vendors who create products specifically for the families, and market them to me for what they’ll do for my families. Most create products to appeal to funeral directors and then sell them as such.

A man I greatly admire, is the funeral director and poet Thomas Lynch. In a conversation I had with him not long ago, he lamented that most funeral directors sell personalization as though it were a commodity, instead of simply making funerals personal.

He’ll be featured in a documentary on PBS October 30. Here’s a clip of him describing what he wants for his own funeral:

You’ll notice he never mentions what kind of casket he wants, or that he better be brought to the cemetery in the newest Cadillac hearse. It’s because those are not the things that matter. Not even for him, a funeral director.

Unless you sell fluid or cot covers, chances are you shouldn’t be marketing to me as a funeral director. 

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A licensed funeral director, Michelle Carter is also a funeral consultant and grief counselor from Westchester County, New York.

Through her company, New York Center for Transition, she provides counseling for those who have recently been diagnosed with diseases, grief counseling for those who have experienced a death and funeral consulting to families in need.

Michelle is working toward opening her own funeral home.

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