Breaking the Consumer Code: New Insights Into Ways Consumers Really Think About Funerals

Editor’s note: James Forr was the keynote speaker at CFSA’s 2014 Winter Seminar in Puerto Rico in March.  He wrote this follow-up article especially for the CFSA Newsletter.  His complete 80-slide presentation is available in the member-only section of our website in Resources > Educational Resources.


The ground is shifting in the death care industry.  Recent years have seen a spike in rates of cremation and an increasing number of people eschewing traditional services. The Funeral Service Foundation has recognized how critical it is for its members to reach these seemingly unreachable consumers.


The Foundation commissioned our firm to gain a deeper understanding of people who prefer a non-traditional service for themselves.  (A non-traditional service was defined as one with no body present, one that is a non-religious service, one conducted significantly after the death occurs, or one held outside a place of worship or funeral home).

We conducted one-on-one interviews using our ZMET research technique, which incorporates metaphor exploration and other projective tools to unearth people’s unconscious thoughts and feelings.  ZMET has been a part of our tool kit for nearly 20 years, and we have used it in more than 600 studies for Fortune 500 companies around the world.


In preparation for the interviews, we asked participants (men and women, age 50-70) to collect two groups of images:  one set of pictures representing how they think and feel about traditional end-of-life services and ceremonies, and another set representing what they want from their own service or ceremony.


The contrast was stark.  These consumers frame traditional services as being like a lonely, lifeless tomb — and they mean that metaphorically, not literally, which makes the insight all the more psychologically potent.  The setting of these services seems suffocating, and sterile.  The mood is cold and dark and focused not on the impact the person made in life, but instead on the sadness of their death.  It is an atmosphere that generates feelings of isolation, discomfort, and even powerlessness.  As one respondent put it:


“Traditional services are almost a lecture of sorts.  The ceremony makes participants more sorrowful.  I almost think of traditional funerals as puppetry with someone in control manipulating the people in attendance to act the way they feel is appropriate.”


In other words, mourners enter the service sad and disconnected, and they leave feeling just as sad and disconnected — and if the service fails to transform you in some way, these people contend, what was the point?


On the other hand, what they are looking for from their own service is something akin to a crowning performance.  They want this valedictory to be truly personalized and to demonstrate the ways in which their life mattered.  A woman told us a poignant story about a service she attended that serves as a model for the kind of celebration she would like to create for herself:


“I want plenty of dancing and laughing and having a great time.  When we left [my friend’s funeral] everybody was laughing and talking about the person because we saw all the happy moments on DVD, the person moving around live.  We were talking about the person like they still existed.  We didn’t grieve her life.  We celebrated her life.  I didn’t leave heartbroken.  [My heart] was sliced, but it wasn’t broken.  When I walked away from there, I thought she was sort of still with me.  I [was] basking in her achievements and her friendship and what she meant.”


Based on these insights, we developed three sets recommendations for funeral directors:


1)  Messaging to consumers.  Rather than focusing on how people are different, do what great brands do and focus on the deep commonalities that we all share.  Despite differences in geography, religion, ethnicity, race, and gender, humans are much more similar than different when we get down to our core emotions.  We all want to feel like our lives had some meaning.  When you dig a little bit, you will find that even people who say, “Just throw me in the ground and don’t make a fuss” still want to be remembered in some way.


2) Creating a non-traditional service.  Funeral directors should leave the checklists behind and begin thinking of themselves more as biographers and artists. They should begin the planning process by learning about the person’s life, what mattered to them, and why the world was a better place for that person having been in it.  With those insights in hand, funeral directors can use their experience and imagination to help consumers design a unique, meaningful, and moving service.


3) Funeral home design.  A funeral home can be an intimidating place.  We suggest leveraging learning from environmental psychology and redesigning the funeral home of the future in a way that minimizes feelings of confinement, stimulates creative thinking, and emphasizes that the funeral home is not merely a repository for dead bodies and caskets, but also a place where important emotional transformations occur.


Boomers, as a whole, are less traditional than their parents, and looking down the road it appears likely that Gen Xers and Millennials will be even more iconoclastic when it comes to how they mark their deaths.  A profitable future for the industry depends on understanding these consumers’ deepest emotional needs and developing the flexibility and creativity required to meet those needs.