How to Really See into the Future of Funeral Service

Posted by Kim Stacey

In the Beginning

Sitting down to write is a lot like taking a road trip without a map. You know your intended destination, but little else—and part of the fun lies in not knowing exactly what you’ll encounter along the way—or how your intended destination can change unexpectedly. Here’s an example. I originally titled this post, It’s Time to Tighten Your Skate Straps, and meant to address the insights of Rick Baldwin’s (past President of CANA and the Florida Funeral Directors Association) guest post on Alan Creedy’s website, How to be Exceptional in the New Normal. Yet, the more I thought about Rick’s salient points, the more I realized that the essence of the issue is more about being able to accurately predict the future of your funeral home’s marketing, in your demographic…rather than relying on the wide-scope predictions of others.

Humanity’s Ever-Present “Need to Know”

Fortune Teller and Crystal Ball“Trying to predict the future,” wrote Peter Drucker, “is like trying to drive down a country road at night with no lights while looking out the back window.” What a perfect image! But still, let’s face it; attempting to see into the future is  something humanity has been trying to do since “time out of mind”—using any variety of tools and methods (chicken entrails, tea leaves…and, of course, astronomy) to gain insights which will allow us to better control our own lives. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’m definitely not interested in using any one of those traditional predictive tools to accurately predict the future of funeral service.

How can I, or you, or any funeral service professional without the gift of clairvoyance, confidently predict what lies ahead for our profession?

The Springboard…Examined

When I found Rick’s post, I got really excited because I’m always on the lookout for new ways for our funeral firm clients to be “exceptional” in their unique marketplace—and here was a post I could ‘sink my teeth into’ so to speak. And I did.

If you’ve not read the post, Rick opens with a commentary on Wayne Gretzsky’s often repeated statement, “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.” Now, I’m no hockey buff, but even I know who he is, but just in case you don’t: Wayne Gretzsky was a center for the Edmonton Oilers, whose style was, according to his official website, “unique and almost impenetrable.” And it seems he had what folks used to call “second sight”—the ability of foreseeing the future. “I see my job a little different from most other hockey players,” he quotes Gretzsky as saying. “My job is to skate to where the puck is going to be.”

Rick then continues on to share his “funeral service puck” predictions, and since I don’t want to steal his thunder, I’ll ask that you take the time to read his contribution, published earlier this year, on January 23rd, 2013. (And be sure to leave a comment!)

Back to It

OK, let’s focus on the science of prediction. As you and I sit watching our society and our profession, what rational steps can we take to fully understand what we’re seeing, and form a reasonable hypothesis of where a funeral firm, operating within a unique demography, will be in ten or twenty years. And, the good news is, you’ve been familiar with the how of making predictions for years.

Elementary School Student and TeacherMaybe you remember your elementary school introduction to the science of making predictions. Those endless worksheets with multiple-choice questions designed to develop our ability to recognize pivotal information, upon which we’d base our (hopefully accurate) predictions. Here’s an example of such a question with four possible predictions to choose from, taken from a third grade worksheet:

Maria looked out the tiny window next to her seat. She could hear the plane’s engines warming up. She held on tight as the plane started rolling down the runway. What will happen next?

a)      The will plane land.

b)      Maria will get off the plane.

c)       Maria will have a snack.

d)      The plane will take off.

It makes it easier when you’re not forced to come up with a prediction ad hoc, doesn’t it (and when you’re young enough to not be aware of the millions of random factors truly affecting the outcome of the scenario)? The answer the teacher is looking for is, of course, d.) The plane will take off.

You’ve got to admit, there’s really no way of knowing the right answer, without direct observation, which is at the heart of all predictive sciences.

The first step in the science of prediction is to ask a question. The second critical step is to gather information through observation. This accumulated evidence leads to a hypothesis, which must then, of course, be tested. Results are analyzed, interpreted, and finally conclusions are drawn.

Now, I can’t say for sure any of those formal steps were followed in any of the earlier examinations of future trends in funeral service or funeral service marketing. Yet, it is possible to use the formal investigative process to assess the future of your funeral firm. Here’s how I it works. Start with a demographically-specific question:

Are more families in my community actually choosing direct cremation without a service today, as compared to five (5) years ago?

Through the accumulation of statistical service area-wide evidence, you should be able to answer that question with confidence. This will lead you to form a hypothesis about the best cremation services to offer your community, which can then be tested over time, the results interpreted and conclusions drawn about the effectiveness of your updated approach (based solidly on quantifiable evidence) to cremation marketing.

In the End

All of us, I’ll wager, agree with Rick’s final point. “Today, professional competence is often measured in ways that has nothing to do with embalming, casket construction, burial vault materials, or religious ritual.” And, I’ll also lay some money down on the table that we’re all in agreement with his remark, “What we do know for sure is that (we) must continue to anticipate, keep reinvesting and taking risks, and listening attentively to those we are honored to serve. Like Wayne Gretzky, we must keep skating “to where the puck is going to be.”

Yes, it’s easy to listen to experts. We do it all the time. It’s sometimes a matter of too much or too little information is available to us; or we don’t have the energy and time to investigate our own marketplace reality. So we actively decide that general industry-wide predictions apply to our specific marketplace. And it’s my contention that decision may the first of many “bad” choices we could make in 2013.

What direct observations have you made about your community that have led to changes in your firm’s service offerings? Leave your comments below—and thank you.

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About Kim Stacey

Kim Stacey is an anthropologist, licensed funeral director, and certified grief counselor. She has been writing trade journal articles, as well as generic and custom website content, for funeral service professionals since 2005. Not only does Kim enjoy her work, she is deeply appreciative of the intellectual challenges each day brings.

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