Publicising the funeral market – a role for PR?

I’m not quite sure what to make of the news that one hundred hearses will be “making an attempt on a Guinness World Record” as the  British Institute of Funeral Directors (BIFD) promotes its members’ services to the public at the annual conference in Croydon at the end of October.

The press release states  that:

The BIFD wants to open up the profession and its suppliers to their market, to make the whole process less intimidating. The hearse cavalcade is an event that puts us in the public eye, it lets the public and the funeral directors see the range of vehicles available from the carriage masters. A visit to the conference’s exhibition allows the public to see the wide range of options available to them, without being under the immediate stress of a bereavement.

It is this blatant seeking of publicity and commercialism that makes me uncomfortable, although I appreciate that people are increasingly taking control of their send off.  Indeed, after my dad died in April, we had the cremation, then a service and burial in France and a celebration of his life with friends and family in Great Yarmouth, each of which helped us enormously.

Last Friday, the BBC Radio 2 Jeremy Vine show had a guest who has written a book We Need To Talk About The Funeral – 101 Ways To Commemorate And Celebrate A Life and established the Association of Independent Funeral Advisors.  A phone in discussion revealed how much people value being able to deal with their loss through a commemorative or celebratory event.

Although everyone who attended my father’s celebration said it was very well organised, I am not sure such events should go the way of weddings, complete with professional planners.

Do we want the equivalent of the choccywoccydoodah cake or cupcake towers as a fashion for funeral teas?  Or a Top 10 of funeral song choices?  How do you feel about Co-op Funeralcare sponsoring the World’s Bowls Tour?  Is it okay for death and grief to be seen as a market opportunity?

There already seems to be a trend for wicker or willow caskets as an aesthetic or environmental statement.  And, in the US, one entrepreneur has made a fortune with software that produces “emotional memorial videos“.  Such marketing ideas are a staple feature in the Funeral Business Advisor magazine.

Laderman, author of Rest in Peace claims:

…from its earliest years, the funeral industry- has devoted a great deal of time and energy to public relations, and much of the industry literature is replete with advice about how to reach out to the bereaved, understand the dynamics of grief, and provide mourners with a satisfactory, therapeutic funeral. By the second decade of the century, many industry publications began to regularly include articles on managing the public image of undertaking, focusing on everything from the layout of a casket showroom to personality tips for interviewing clients. Whether articles were specifically related to improving public relations or not, the publications arriving at funeral homes around the country provided a wealth of material for funeral directors to draw from in their drive to shape public opinion about why American funerals are valuable and legitimate.

Of course, funeral rites as as old as mankind, and the Victorians made an art form of the funeral with special mourning clothes, and jet jewellery becoming a fashion. 

The UK “funeral market” is said to be worth around £1billion annually, with over 600,000 funerals taking place each year. 

The Economic Psychology of Everyday Life cites the risk of exploitation to many “consumers” of death services and the industry is largely unregulated.  Consequently, costs run into many thousands of pounds, and people are unlikely to shop around at a time of great distress.  So perhaps opening up the “market” is a positive step.

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Heather Yaxley PhD

Dr. Heather Yaxley is passionate about sustainable careers, reflective practice and professional development. I am a rhizomatic educator, practitioner, consultant, academic and scholar. As a qualified academic, I teach the CIPR professional qualifications with PR Academy and have experience teaching at various Universities. I run the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association (MIPAA) and my own strategic consultancy. I was awarded by PhD researching Career Strategies in Public Relations by Bournemouth University in 2017. I'm a published author, with books, chapters and academic papers to my name.

4 thoughts on “Publicising the funeral market – a role for PR?”

  1. There are several reasons why funerals can’t be as choreographed as weddings. For one, the timing is hard to manage. For another, there are no formal invitations. Because of their speed and spontaneity, I often find funerals more affecting (enjoyable, even) than weddings. Perhaps it’s just me?

  2. I think funerals, like weddings, are a product of cultural variance. Coming from a Portuguese background, a funeral is more a celebration (like a wedding) than it is dreadful. There are certainly similar elements– food, family, etc.
    Where I do side with you, Heather, is in pointing out the “exploitation” of funeral services. The last thing a funeral should do is leave a financial burden where the burden of loss is already so great.

  3. I am a CPA and financial planner that specializes in helping families save money when making funeral arrangements, so I have a fair amount of funeral planning experience.

    While most traditional Western funerals are more solemn, I think a lot of it has to due with the type of life lead by the decedent. If the decedent had lived a “full” life with few regrets, the funeral service tends to be more a celebration of the decedent’s life.

    If the decedent had living a less satisfying life the focal point of his service often fixates on missed opportunities.

    You can learn more about funeral customs at:

  4. Richard – I think that more and more people are planning funerals and memorial ceremonies. It seems to be the case particularly for those who know they have a terminal illness. We did have formal invitations to the celebration of my dad’s life, as well as having adverts in the local paper, as the funeral was in France and he had so many friends in the UK.

    Thinking about it, I think what makes such events memorable and even joyous is what Mike says, that there is a focus on the decedent’s life – which tends to be so personal. Weddings seem to me to lack a real connection to the bride and groom in such a special way.

    I think we’re also seeing a change owing to cultural developments as Brandon indicates. The UK is becoming less Victorian in terms of the need to wear black and be serious. Particularly when someone much loved or young is involved, there is a real recognition today of the need to recognise the joy we feel at having known someone rather than the sadness we feel at their loss.

    As I know all too well, you still have to deal with the feelings of bereavement. But capturing the individual spirit of someone seems to be a positive step. Let’s just keep the professional organisers away though.

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