Changing Faces of the Funeral Industry: Personalizing the Future

by M-Gillies

There are many ways to personalize a funeral sendoff, each as unique as the individual but all help to begin the healing process.

“Boomers are a new and very different breed of customer of funeral services. Understanding their wants and needs and then tailoring services to not only meet but exceed those needs is increasingly essential for funeral homes.”- Alan D. Wolfelt

In an era where social media technology is an essential companion to today’s viewing experience, combined with society’s pursuit of going against the norms to showcase individual qualities coupled with a heightened awareness of self-reflection, modern society has seen an influx of changes sweeping through its cultural norms over the last two decades. While these changes are affecting everything from how we communicate with people to the types of businesses we operate, there isn’t one thing that won’t be impacted by this tsunami of change, and the funeral industry is one of them.

It’s been long documented over the years that funerals are inching further away from their roots of traditional services with the burgeoning trend of personalized funerals – from cremated remains being shot into space or submerged in the ocean amongst coral reefs, to mummification and cryogenic freezing, the trend of personalization is on the rise, but it’s also more than just a trend. Through baby boomers who revolutionized the culture of their times, they’ve further set their cultural re-orientation towards their evolving expectations of what funeral rites should be.

But personalized funerals have often been seen as a deviation of traditions, often overlooked and thought of as glamourous affairs, when in fact personalized funerals reinforce what a funeral truly is – a gathering of family and friends to honor the memory of a loved one. It is because of this understanding and the integration of technology into daily life that personalized funerals are quickly cementing themselves as the new norm of the industry.

As W. Ashley Cozine pointed out,”Technology has played a huge role in changing services. It has certainly increased the awareness of personalized funerals. Before the internet if you were to get information or learn about something, you would look through a book or an encyclopedia, but now with YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites, people are becoming more aware of the different ways that they can use to personalize their final wishes.”

And Cozine should know. He grew up witnessing the numerous changes impacting the funeral industry and as a third generation funeral director working at the family owned funeral home, crematory and cemetery, Cozine Memorial Group, he’s well versed with challenges and rewards of working in the industry.

W. Ashley Cozine and his father William L. Cozine of Cozine Memorial Group have earned the NFDA’s Pursuit of Excellence award seven times over the last ten years.

In fact, Cozine Memorial Group has received the National Funeral Directors Association’s most prestigious recognition, the “Pursuit of Excellence” award several times over the last decade for their commitment to providing funeral service excellence. Meanwhile, Cozine alone has been recognized by the Wichita Business Journal as one of the top “40 under 40″, and currently serves on the Executive Board of the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA).

From the popularity of social media, to technological innovations and the increasing interest in personalized funerals, funeral directors are becoming more aware of the pivot happening in their industry.

“Technology has played a huge role in changing services,” said Cozine. “Webcasting and internet technology has brought that capability around. The neat thing about that is you’ve got a situation where you have a service in Wichita Kansas, but you’ve got family in the military, or who live overseas – webcasting allows them to be part of the service in real time.”

Though Cozine will be the first to say, webcasting shouldn’t take the place of gathering in person, it does offer an alternative for those who cannot attend a service, but want to share their support in a time of remembrance. However, Cozine recognizes the impact of technology’s influence. Even in regard to condolences and social media, with upwards to 800 million Facebook users, information is now being streamlined at a faster rate.

“I may put something in the local newspaper about a recent death, but only people in my local area will be aware of it,” Cozine said. “But with the internet, you have the opportunity for people all over the world becoming more universally aware of that person’s death. When you look at the global impact that is brought to the table with technology, it’s really amazing.”

From online obituaries, to tributes and memorial pages, the internet has grown exponentially in catering to every person’s rite of passage, much like how funeral directors are embracing personalized funerals more and more. In fact, Cozine recalled one conversation he had with a funeral director about personalized funerals in which he was told of a young man who had passed away. At an age barely into adulthood, Cozine learnt how the young man was an avid surfer. It was through this bit of knowledge that the funeral director Cozine spoke with said he recommended to the family that they leave a pile of sand next to the funeral home for the deceased’s friends to place their surf boards in.

“I find it exciting, the opportunity to do personalized funerals, because anybody can have a traditional funeral and that may be what some people want.” Cozine said. “But I like to engage families when we’re meeting with them, and find out what kind of hobbies or special things their loved ones might have been involved in.”

It’s through those kind of questions that Cozine is able to decipher who a person was and how to incorporate their unique qualities into a service to give it a more personal feel. In fact, Cozine recalled one instance in which a family honored the memory of their mother by baking her famous chocolate chip cookies, individually wrapping each one with the famed recipe inside, before handing them out to the attendees.

“Little things like that… people walk out and people are excited to have one of those cookies – it kind of shares the memory.”

And that’s all it takes. It’s not a matter of making a funeral a gala of exponential proportions. It doesn’t have to be over-the-top. It can be as simple as chocolate chip cookies or a tribute CD of favorite songs, or even a memory table showcasing personal belongings which could stir up sentimental memories. All of which positively assists the healing and grieving process with family and friends.

“There’s so many little things you can do to personalize a funeral,” said Cozine. “One gentleman had a passion for fishing, so after the service, when everyone was leaving, as a parting gift, family members and friends were given bobbers that were sitting in a basket. It may sound kind of funny, but it was cool, and I can tell you everybody who took one of those bobbers now has it sitting at home or on a shelf at work and they’re thinking, ‘Jim was such a great guy and we miss him.’ Little things like that just keep those memories going.”

While personalized funerals are becoming more prevalent as final sendoffs, death has always held a stigma with people as a subject of taboo. The idea often leaves people uncomfortable and disinterested in discussing aspects of funerals, but as more and more baby boomers reach retirement, they’re beginning to think about their funeral services, and it’s not going to be the traditional service that’s been a long standard in the industry.

“It’s so important for people to think about preplanning,” said Cozine. “It takes away some of the mystery of when death occurs. Preplanning and educating is very important and that’s the great thing about technology – you can sit at home at night and get information from a funeral home’s website and begin to read about funerals and personalization. Most people don’t want to call somebody to get information about funerals, but with the internet, you have the opportunity to at least begin to research and educate yourself.”

As an official spokesperson for the NFDA, Cozine is no stranger to the importance of education. Even through the Cozine Memorial Group website they’ve maintained active updates on services they provide and alternative options available, along with the benefits they can bring to serving families during their time of need.

“Education is a huge thing. The NFDA is the leading voice of the funeral service internationally. Their goal is to inform, educate and advocate for our profession, and further act as a great resource for not only funeral directors, but consumers as well who want to learn about personalized funerals.”

To further assist families requiring their service, Cozine explained, “It’s a matter of putting yourself in the shoes of the families we’re serving and asking yourself, how can I take their view of the traditional funeral and exceed their expectations to give them a more meaningful experience. No one wants to speak about death, so I have to ask myself, how do I reach out to people and remove that stigma?”

To better assist him in understanding how to make the experience beneficial to families, Cozine said he prefers to find out what some of the loved ones’ hobbies were, what their passions were and from there, they begin the process of personalizing a funeral.

“When I think of personalized funerals, I think custom funerals – not everyone is going to be the same – it’s something that reflects who that person was and what they stood for,” Cozine said.

And it does make a difference. Funerals have long been seen as a service – a rite of passage for a loved one who had just passed away. It’s been known as a time for family and friends to come together and grieve their loss and begin the healing process. However, personalized funerals have the ability to offer something more.

“I see a difference in people’s faces – they leave with a smile because maybe they’ve gone up to a family member and shared a memory. You can see that healing taking place in a positive way as it reinforces the memories. I cannot believe the amount of people who come up to us or write us letters saying how meaningful the funeral service was to them.”

“I find families are the ones who get the most out of personalized funerals and they should, because they’re hearing such positive comments and seeing positive reactions from the people who attend – and that’s really special because the service isn’t just for the dead but for the living. It gives families great comfort.”

In the meantime, Cozine said, “There are a lot of funeral directors who look beyond and try to be progressive and see what they can do to be different and personalize – that’s something I would hope other funeral directors embrace, for them to also say there is value in doing something like this – personalized funerals. It’s important for us to be creative and help give families options.”

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