Departments

Death Care Technology

Technology—Probate provides information on current technology and microcomputer software of interest in the probate area. The editors of Probate & Property welcome information and suggestions from readers.

I recently sat down with Rachel Zeldin, founder and CEO of Funerals360, an end-to-end online funeral planning service, to learn about technology’s current and future role in the funeral and cremation planning industry. Readers can learn more about Rachel at https://www.funerals360.com/about/.

Probate & Property (P&P): Not many tech entrepreneurs are focused on the death care industry. What was the catalyst to inspire you to create Funerals360?

Rachel Zeldin (RZ): My great-uncle Rafe died in 2011. That was the first time I was exposed to the chaotic, stressful, and costly world of funeral planning. As I supported my mom through the planning process, I was shocked and confused as to why it was so difficult to find basic information about funeral homes and cemeteries. We couldn’t find the providers online, let alone understand what products and services they were offering and at what cost.

Most funeral homes did not have websites, so the phone book was the only option. My mom was a bit unusual in the fact that she took the time to call 10 local funeral homes to gather the facts before making a decision with the family. Had she not, our family could have easily worked with a funeral home that wouldn’t have been as good a fit or spent thousands of dollars more than we needed to.

Being an active user of technology to research any major purchase (renting an apartment, buying a car, choosing and booking a hotel, flight, or car rental, etc.), I felt that it was only natural that for an event this important and costly, it should have information about the process available online. I set out to provide an online resource to allow consumers to research in the comfort of their homes with the help of a computer or a smart phone—not during working hours, losing productivity, and having to relive and retell the same story of their loved one’s passing over and over again just to get the basic information that is needed to make decisions for purchases.

P&P: What is Funeral360’s mission?

RZ: Since starting our first website in 2012, our mission has been to be the most comprehensive and helpful consumer-centered resource for funeral planning—a one-stop-shop for information and organization, keeping consumers and their pains and concerns as the guiding light.

We have evolved quite a bit since our first website, but these days Funerals360 is by far the most comprehensive funeral planning resource available to consumers. To us, the “360” in our name means “full circle” and “comprehensive.” No matter where you are in your funeral planning journey, whether planning ahead or at the time of need or remembering a loved one, we are here to support you.

P&P: How is technology currently reshaping the death care industry?

RZ: Technology has provided a whole new venue for consumers to research and educate themselves on the options available to them and the associated costs.

Until recently the death care industry, and in particular funeral homes and cemeteries, have been the sole source of information about funerals. They were the “trusted advisors” as members in the community, despite their for-profit nature. The professionals were who dictated what is “normal” or “traditional.” Even though there are nearly 20,000 funeral homes and over 50,000 active cemeteries in the United States, because of the lack of public information on pricing the industry has operated like a monopoly—setting prices to whatever they want, knowing they have a captive audience. It is so hard (emotionally and practically) to get to that information, and, along with the time sensitivity of the event, historically people have not shopped around. That’s not the case anymore.

P&P: And how do you envision technology will continue to reshape the death care industry in the next decade?

RZ: I think that technology will continue to break down the barriers and balance the scales of knowledge between consumers and industry. I think it will also empower consumers with the tools they need to better prepare and organize for end-of-life events.

Having spent over seven years studying and working in the death care field, the industry has shown me that it does not particularly value innovation and progress. So, it’s imperative that companies like Funerals360 that are independent of the death care industry create solutions to demystify the process, while giving consumers alternatives to planning the way they prefer.

I’m not convinced that in the near future we’ll get to the point where we can buy a full-service funeral online without ever calling or stepping foot into a physical location, but I do think in the near future individuals will be able to purchase basic burials and cremations online, with full price transparency, and without all the hassle a family used to have to go through.

P&P: What are many funeral homes getting wrong about serving the needs of their clients?

RZ: Funeral homes and the industry around them are slow to change. And that’s not just in adopting technology, but that’s also in adapting to new consumer preferences.

Today’s consumers expect businesses to have websites that offer information about the cost of services before they buy them, but the funeral industry has done its best to keep that type of information under lock and key. They fear that having prices displayed publicly is going to commoditize their industry; they do not want to be judged based on price but rather on the level of service. But by hiding their prices, it has built distrust with consumers and often leads to shocked and confused customers once they receive their final bill. This, in turn, builds resentment towards the business and industry, especially once consumers find out that they could have bought much cheaper elsewhere had they known better. Many people feel taken advantage of, which is the last emotion you want to have after losing a loved one.

P&P: What are some of the most common mistakes you see when people are planning funerals?

RZ: There are a couple of mistakes that people routinely make when planning a funeral.

  • At their time of need (“at-need” in industry lingo), many families just choose to work with the funeral home that they see in their neighborhood or that they have worked with in the past, without even considering the other options available to them to ensure they are paying a fair market rate for the services they choose. This is often the case even if they had a poor prior experience working with them.
  • Most people only look for providers that are within a few miles of their home or the cemetery they’ve chosen. With over 50 percent of our population choosing cremation as a final disposition, that opens up the opportunity to work with providers that are outside the immediate area and who may offer services at a lower cost. If you’re not having a service at a funeral home, it doesn’t matter where the provider is. So long as they work within your region at a reasonable cost, you shouldn’t exclude them from your options. Often these are overlooked or never considered because they aren’t “in the neighborhood.”
  • People rarely approach planning a funeral as they would other events and purchases, which leads to rash decisions and overspending. Taking the time to evaluate options and compare them in a logical way can lead to a more rewarding outcome with fewer regrets.

P&P: What are attorneys, executors, and next of kin getting wrong when approaching end of life planning?

RZ: There’s a common misconception when it comes to pre-planning amongst attorneys, financial planners, and individuals. Many people think that pre-planning a funeral means prepaying. Additionally, many people think you can only pre-plan directly with a funeral home.

In fact, one does not need to prepay in order to pre-plan. “Pre-planning” sounds like a formal term, but it is as simple as a person identifying whether they want to be buried, cremated, or donated along with any other preferences they may have and conveying those wishes to their family.
Furthermore, pre-plans do not need to be made at the funeral home and put on file with them. You can tell your spouse or children, or physically write them down, or use a tool like My Funeral Wishes to store them online and digitally share them or print them out.

It’s true that nearly all funeral homes offer a pre-payment option alongside their pre-planned funerals through a state-approved financial product, such as a trust or low-face-value life insurance policy, but that is not a necessity. An attorney or financial planner could just as easily include documentation of death-care preferences along with the family’s other important paper and use it as part of a family’s financial discussion.

Estate planning attorneys and financial advisors are in the best position to lead these types of conversations with families as trusted, impartial advisors with a fiduciary responsibility. When a family is considering their overall financial plan, including what to do with all the assets in the estate and where the gaps are that can be filled by financial products like trusts or insurance policies, this is the best time to ask whether they have thought about what they would like at the end of their life and what type of care they want. It would be appropriate to spend a small amount of time to identity these services and assess the cost of that care so money can be allocated to cover those final expenses. It might seem like a scary topic if it is not part of the professional’s routine discussion points, but it is actually very thoughtful and will save the family unquantifiable amounts of stress and decision-making when a death occurs, while also ensuring that they have the financial coverage to fulfill the wishes of their loved one. It’s giving clients and their families the greatest peace of mind they could ask for.

Attorneys and financial advisors need not be experts on funeral planning themselves, they just need to have the right tools at their fingertips to either guide the conversation with the family or provide the family with the right tools to have that discussion offline and then subsequently incorporate those plans in with the rest of family’s important documents.

P&P: What do you recommend as the best way for individuals to memorialize their wishes?

RZ: As many planning attorneys know, wills are often not found and read until after death care arrangements have been made. Even though some states require these preferences to be in the will to be legally binding, we always recommend that you document your preferences outside of the will as well, and actively share and discuss them with your family members. It is also a good way to start a conversation with your family and give them a place to reference back to at a later date.

Recognizing the importance of this activity, Funerals360 also provides an easy way to think through all the choices and document your preferences through the My Funeral Wishes tool. We provide a free way to store your plan online so that it is easily accessed by you or your family whenever you want. The tool also has a built-in sharing feature to send a link to your family so they can easily see and find them at any time.

P&P: Outside of technology, what are the major trends you’re seeing in the death care industry?

RZ: The industry has seen a dramatic change in consumer preferences when it comes to death care. For one, the swing towards cremation has sent the industry into a panic on how to survive when families are choosing lower-cost services.

Another major trend is the focus on environmentally friendly goodbyes, which include both green burials and bio-cremation (e.g., aquamation or alkaline hydrolysis). Bio-cremation is a newer form of disposition that through a bit of heat, pressure, and water-based solution reduces the body to liquid and bones, which then get ground down to a powder to be given to the family (like ashes).

There has been a lot of talk in the consumer-advocate communities about home funerals (sometimes referred to as family-led funerals). I, personally, love the idea of family participation, especially as a continuation of caring for a loved one through their end of their life, but I don’t think that our society will necessarily re-adopt this practice at a large scale.

P&P: Have you planned your own funeral yet? Can you tell us about your plan?

RZ: Absolutely! I’ve seen how families react under duress, and I’ve seen the costly decisions and heated family arguments that could have been avoided if everyone had discussed what they actually want. So, I’ve been crystal clear on what I want when I’m gone.

My top priorities are simple and eco-friendly, both coinciding with spending as little money as possible to achieve this. I prefer that whatever money I have to go back to my family.

Right now, what that means to me is having a green burial at a cemetery that allows it. That doesn’t have to be specifically a conservation burial ground or “hybrid” cemetery, but any cemetery that will allow me to be buried with just a shroud, no casket or vault, and, of course, no embalming, which is never required by law under any circumstances.

In the future that could change to alkaline hydrolysis (mentioned above). I much prefer the idea of this accelerated decomposition than being burned in a crematory retort. But that’s a totally personal choice, and I’m not sure that’s what I want just yet. The benefits of this option include being about the same cost as a direct cremation; and it can provide my family with a lot more variety on memorialization options, while still also being relatively harmless to the environment compared to flame-based cremation.

Entity: