Five-minute briefing: deathcare

The end-of-life economy has been painfully slow to adapt – until now. Innovators in this space are reimagining the industry, from making digital wills to turning human remains into compost.

For centuries, the deathcare industry has been dominated by old-fashioned funeral directors marking up prices in an unregulated market with a limited offering. Over the past few years, though, deathcare has shifted to a more people-focused ethos and aesthetic, with technology-driven companies leading the way. Finally, traditions for honoring the dead are being brought into the 21st century, thanks to green burials, biodegradable coffins, live-streamed funerals and much more. 

Countries in the Asia-Pacific region account for the biggest slice of the deathcare market – 40% in 2019, according to Research and Markets. With a heavily ageing population and high tech adoption, Japan in particular has a sophisticated end-of-life (shūkatsu) market. Online funeral parlour Uniquest, for example, enables family members to receive payments of koden (condolence money) digitally. North America is the second-largest region for global deathcare cited by Research and Markets, accounting for 27% of services, and is pioneering models that seem ripe for export around the world.

Expert opinion: David Odusanya, from Nike to online funerals

Founded in Portland in 2019 by two former Nike employees, Keith Crawford and David Odusanya, Solace is was set up with the aim of digitising and streamlining the transitional rituals of death. In less than five minutes, customers can arrange to have their loved one’s remains picked up and transported to a local crematorium. Within a week, the ashes are delivered to their door in a sleek, rectangular urn the size and shape of an iPhone box. Here, David explains more. 

‘We knew that the funeral business was old-fashioned, but we were surprised to find out just how much it was frozen in time. Typewritten documents, fax machines, handwritten paperwork, in-person meetings – it is a business that hasn’t changed in decades. Yes, the funeral homes now have websites, but not in a consumer-centric way. The current online funeral experience is actually pretty similar to the analogue version… just with a URL. 

‘Death could come tomorrow to all of us. The truth is that nobody really wants to talk about it. But our goal is to help people to be comfortable with these conversations. 

‘With the Covid-19 pandemic, thinking about our mortality has become more top of mind for many. There has been an increased awareness of the need for planning and the need for making things easier on family members. Some of the things we planned for our business – being able to make arrangements digitally on a mobile phone, online paperwork, touchless delivery – all helped families who didn’t want or need to have in-person appointments.’

Good grief

Aura, a platform that helps people facing the end of life to leave an online legacy for their loved ones, recently carried out a survey of 2,000 people. It found that young adults have more mature attitudes towards death than any other generation: respondents aged under 25 were four times more likely than those aged over 55 to plan ahead and make a bucket list, despite having time on their side. 

They were also found to be three times more likely to talk to their friends about death and more than four times more likely to speak to their families about the often difficult topic. 

Having open conversations with friends and family reflects the explosion of ‘deathfluencers’ such as Caitlin Doughty and popular podcasts like Cariad Lloyd’s Griefcast (in which she speaks to comedians about the human experience of grief and death). 

Farewill, a London-based wills, probate and cremation company, received 267% more online and telephone wills over the past year – an increase led by those under 35. In the US, end-of-life planning platform Lantern experienced a 123% jump in users, with most not yet 45. 

The ‘death-positive’ movement is facilitating more nuanced treatments of mortality through organisations such as Colorado-based doula collective Deathwives and global Death Cafes, which host group discussions about death. To cater to more progressive types, Poppy Mardall, of London-based funeral director Poppy’s, believes the industry will transition into something ‘inherently open, educational and conscious’ at an exponential pace in future. Vancouver funeral event planner New Narrative bills itself as ‘not your grandma’s funeral (...unless it’s your grandma’s funeral)’. 

The common thread here is an open mind and taking a lead from clients, rather than following a predetermined playbook, which can leave mourners feeling cold. 

Posthumous possibilities now go well beyond a simple urn on the mantelpiece. Austin-based Eterneva makes diamonds out of ashes, starting at $2,999 each. It may sound niche, but investors see big potential: the company has raised $5 million to date. 

People are also becoming more aware of how much information they leave in their wake, with companies such as California-based GoodTrust leading the charge in taking care of the deceased’s digital account, from deleting LinkedIn to extracting Google Photos.

Q&A: Katrina Spade, founder of Recompose

From Loop’s biodegradable fungus coffins to zero-emissions hearses, people are increasingly seeking ways to make their end-of-life arrangements more environmentally-friendly. Recompose is a Seattle-based business that transforms human remains into soil in compost bins. Founder Katrina Spade began exploring the idea in architecture grad school a decade ago. She and her team of natural organic reduction operators (she calls them ‘gardeners’) launched Recompose in December 2020 and are planning expansion to other US states and the UK.

Q.
How's it been since the launch?

A. ‘We knew there was demand for ecological deathcare, but we wouldn’t know how much until launch. Immediately, our system was at capacity and now we have 700 members on our prearrangement programme Precompose, as well as 20,000 newsletter subscribers.’

Q.
What's been your biggest learning?

A. ‘Our clients aren’t just stereotypical, die-hard environmentalists – this concept resonates with anyone who’s had a bad experience of the funeral industry or felt empty after the typical rituals. Offering the opportunity to return to the soil gives peace of mind to so many.’

Q.
What about your biggest challenge?

A. ‘There are digital elements, but Recompose isn’t an app and can’t be one. I love that caring for the physical body has to be tactile – it makes for such meaningful work. But it’s also a challenge because we have to build places where we care for the dead hands-on.’  

By the numbers: death versus the environment 

Death has a big impact on the environment, and fighting climate change is a major reason why many new companies are launching into the deathcare economy. 

• Cemeteries take up more than 1M acres of land

• Caskets destroy 4M acres of forest

• In India and Nepal, funeral pyres consume around 60M trees annually

Burials collectively use:

30M boards of wood

800,000 gallons of embalming fluid every year

246,240 tons of carbon dioxide = 41,040 cars' emissions are released each year due to cremation

Key moments in deathcare

2011 

Jon Underwood runs the first Death Cafe in his home in east London – there are now more than 12,000 in 76 countries

2015 

Farewill launches and within a few years raises $25 million, the biggest single funding round by a deathcare startup to date

2016

For the first time, cremation overtakes entombment as the body disposal method of choice in the US 

Spring 2019

Human composting is legalised in Washington, the first state in US to do so 

2020

Deathcare startups raised over $77 million across five firms 

2030

The global deathcare services industry is set to reach $201 billion

This article was first published in Courier issue 41, June/July 2021. To purchase the issue or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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