The Non Question: Why Are Funerals So Expensive?

This question and its brother: “How much does a funeral cost?”  Are non questions.  When we attempt to answer them directly with rational logical explanations we only end up annoying most people.  Especially if we weigh them down with a litany of hours, cost of having a building and the time we waste being ready to take their call.

S0, how do we respond to these questions when they are posed? I use the word respond instead of answer because respond is what we should do.  But first a little background.

During the last 30 years funerals have morphed from being a simple product (where the only real decision was selecting a casket) to a complex product. That is complex as opposed to complicated.  (another one of those Creedyesque nuances).  Complex as applied to products and services is actually a well-defined concept among sales and marketing experts.  I don’t know who has missed this, the advertising agencies specializing in our industry or the funeral professional.  Probably both.  Our continued belief that we are a simple product / service is a large part of why we have so much trouble engaging the public.  But I digress…

Among the attributes of complex products and services are that they are expensive and buyers have an inadequate frame of reference from which to assess value. Complex services also involve buyer resistance and, often, multiple decision makers.  But most important among the attributes of complex products is this one which is entirely new to our paradigm:

In addition to the age old “why buy from you?”  it includes “why buy at all?” 

 What people, then, are really asking is not about cost.   It is:

Why have a funeral at all?”

How to respond

Again, we should respond instead of react or defend.  And the first thing to do is offer a challenge.  Something the inquirer has to react or respond to.

As products and / or services become more complex the natural tendency of people is to look for ways to reduce that complexity and its attendant risk.  Opting out altogether is one way of doing that.  But in the majority of cases that is not what people really want.

It turns out that what people want is for someone to offer them a new and unique perspective and then teach them how that perspective best fits their real need.

When I am asked this question I redirect the conversation by challenging my inquirer.  In this case I might say: “Actually, when you think about it, it’s surprising funerals aren’t more expensive than they are.”

Typically, people give me that “tell me more” look.  So, I will continue with something like:

“Well, honoring a loved one is a pretty important thing in most peoples lives and you only get to do it once, right?  It takes a special skill to be able to pull that off without notice in 3 or 4 days time and be effective at it.”

Generally, that will get me into a conversation.  Sometimes it’s a “tell me more” conversation and sometimes it’s something else like: “I’d just as soon skip the whole thing”.  Either way I am prepared because my response to either is pretty much the same:

“What I find when people really get a chance to talk about it…I mean after they get over the whole ‘creepy’ thing…is that they really do want to be remembered and they have something to say.  If you go back over 4,000 years of human history we have always had this need and always had designated people who helped us with it.

My observation is when people take the easy way out and do nothing they aren’t giving people a chance to do what’s normal like gathering and comforting.  When we are under any kind of stress we need other people around and we need physical touch and reassurance.  Otherwise we could get stuck in our sadness and despair.

So, It may sound creepy but it really isn’t.  It’s hard work helping people with their sorrow come to a better place…to find release.  Wouldn’t that be what you would want for those you leave behind…release and transformation and not being forgotten I mean?”

And then, of course, I shut up because 99 times out of 100 I have opened the gates and they want to talk and all I have to do is listen and explore options.

Ain’t so hard really.  You just have to make certain assumptions that I think a lot of practitioners aren’t making any more.

  1. The need to gather and comfort and offer physical reassurance is a normal and natural human need
  2. The need to designate someone in society to coordinate that activity is time honored
  3. If people opt out their needs aren’t met and…MOST IMPORTANT OF ALL
  4. PEOPLE REALLY REALLY DO WANT TO TALK ABOUT IT…WHEN THEY FEEL SAFE.

 

Comments

  1. Funeral directors seem to correctly assume that an increasing number of families focus more on cost, as caused by today’s economic pressures, than they do on wanting to honestly remember the person who has died though some degree of complex service arrangement. That concern about cost may get much worse in the future, and other ways of remembering may be come into play.

    Alan, your suggested conversation starter is great and should be a helpful tool for those who have opportunity to use it. As costs are truly a concern, your thoughts may be enough to provide understanding that funeral homes are a better choice than some alternative options.

  2. Great post. I’m printing this one off and put it on the table in the break room for everyone to see.

  3. I appreciate this post, as with all the others! It’s so good to hear other believe that it’s not about price…..it’s about what people want. They will always gravitate towards their emotions of what they want….and run away from logical things that they may “need”. So, if we deliver need contained within what they want…..knowing we all want to be remembered, create a legacy, and also be supported….we can continously grow in the future!

  4. Howard Beckham says:

    The questions “Why are Funerals so expensive” and “Why have have funeral at all” are both questions most funeral directors have lost the answer to. It is no longer a given that people have funerals because that is what people do when a loved one dies. Or, especially in a weak economy, why should someone spend money on a funeral or memorial service. Funeral directors have forgotten how to offer and explain the real value of their professional services.

    I think of it as a value break even formula comprised of A. offered emotional value, and 2. real value, and C. the price for that service(s) and merchandise.

    The intercection of these points should reflect some sort on mean average.

    See I have over complated this already….the point is that we are not very good at really explaing to families the real value of what we offer and in most cases why it really should cost more than what we are charging because of the value to the family we are able to deliver. This is something we need to become very good at.
    Thanks for the pointers Alan.

  5. Alan Creedy says:

    Howard, stay tuned, I have more answers and even more powerful ways of engaging coming soon.

  6. Al,
    You’re absolutely right! People appreciate leaders who are able to clarify a problem.

    You wrote, ‘It turns out that what people want is for someone to offer them a new and unique perspective and then teach them how that perspective best fits their real need.’ – Nicely put.

    Every leader in business should practice that attitude on a daily basis, but few of us do it really well and consistently. And yet, what you’re underlining is just part of basic customer service/satisfaction. And, as we all know, a happy client is a loyal one and loyalty, hopefully, creates a word-of-mouth buzz.

  7. Eddie Winkenhofer says:

    Alan, I really like your thoughts. You have articulated this so any of us can feel comfortable talking about this topic. However, there is still the issue of high price! Like here in Nashville, where the average funeral with an evening visitation and funeral the next day using a A40 Primrose and a Continental vault cost $14,000 to $16,500 at 65% of the white funeral homes. How does one really justify this? The corporate places, which make up the majority of the 65% have been paid for, for years. In addition they have the economy of scale and fine tune operations, compared to the independents. Are the extraordinarily high prices driving families to cheaper alternatives? These high prices will open up the door for the Newcomers or others with similar focus of promoting affordable pricing! Apparently there is a growing segment of the country that is wanting traditional funeral services but can’t justify paying 30% to 50% higher prices.

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