In Japan, there is a 2,000-year-old shrine known as Ise Jingu. It’s a treasured monument for the Japanese people. So valuable, in fact, that they regularly destroy it.
Every 20 years, the Jingu shrine is meticulously deconstructed and then rebuilt by the local community.i The regular rebuilding is the secret to the shrine’s longevity. When historic buildings are lost in the West, they’re often lost forever because the knowledge of how to rebuild them disappears with the structure itself. But by rebuilding Ise Jingu every generation, the Japanese ensure that the structure never outlives the memory of how to create it—and therefore it can always be rebuilt.
Ise Jingu is a powerful metaphor for cultural know-how. And it’s a perfect picture of the challenge presented to the contemporary mortuary.
The U.S. Institute of Medicine’s Committee on Care at the End of Life observed a phenomenon that funeral directors already know by experience:
For most of human history … dying—like being born—was generally a family, communal, and religious event, not a medical one. Because many deaths occurred at home, people were likely to care for dying relatives and, thus, to have a fairly personal and direct experience with dying and death. In the United States, death at home in the care of family has been widely superseded by an institutional, professional, and technological process of dying. That process—its positive aspects notwithstanding—has distanced the final stage of life from the rest of living. ii
In other words, we’re in new territory. The first generation of Americans is now living without any knowledge of how to “rebuild the shrine” of death. Americans are isolated from the process of dying. People are planning funerals and navigating close personal losses later in life and without any earlier exposure or “practice” with death. Funeral service is facing a perfect storm of factors that have obliterated our cultural literacy on death.
In the past century, life expectancy in the United States has increased by 24 years.iii That means we are less exposed to death, and the exposure we do get is later in life, making it of diminished value in training and preparing for more immediate and painful deaths like those of a spouse or parent.
Over the same period, nursing homes have distanced people from the process of dying.iv Half of Americans over age 95 live in some kind of skilled nursing or assisted living facility.v Today, a loved one is far more likely to die in the presence of facility staff than at home in the presence of friends and family.
The process of handling the dead has been outsourced, too. Until the mid-1800s, there were no funeral directors. Families used to care for their own dead at home. That’s the way it was done for millennia, from the Roman Empire to Old World Europe to the American Frontier. But today, for the first time in history, people have no memories of caring for the dead themselves. In 2017, a Kentucky family had to dig their grandmother’s grave when the cemetery neglected its duties.vi The local news story captured the family’s (rightful) indignation, but seemed to overlook the fact that, until very recently, this difficult experience would have been commonplace.
Other societal trends have chipped away at the same knowledge base. Religion, certainly in the Western tradition, brings its own focus on mortality. Funerals often occur in churches, and church can provide a weekly reminder of human frailty that makes death a little less surprising. But Pew Research has noted that more than 56 million adult Americans are now religiously unaffiliated, a figure that grew by more than a third in less than a decade and that now outnumbers both Catholics and mainline Protestants.vii This rise of the so-called “Nones” represents an unprecedented step away from a framework and community proximate to mortality.
It doesn’t add up to a pretty picture. Americans today are less exposed to death, never “learning death” from prior generations. When deaths do occur, they’re in clinical rather than familial settings, further alienating survivors from the experience. Modern Americans have never had to handle a body themselves, meaning they’re less appreciative of those who do it for them. And people are trending against the very institutions that might remind them of, and prepare them for, their own mortality.
On one level, all this should be terrifying. Mortuaries have historically succeeded when people understood them, knew their role, and were predisposed to purchase the goods and services they provided. Today, they find themselves picking up after a perfect storm that has demolished all these advantages. If there were a little shop in Japan that sold the supplies needed to rebuild the shrine every 20 years, it would do a reliable business. But if everybody suddenly gave up on the tradition and quit rebuilding the shrine, you would expect that shop to go out of business overnight. It’s easy to look at the sobering indicators around funeral service—skyrocketing cremation rates, plummeting chapel usage, declining averages—and conclude that this is what is happening today. People have forgotten how to rebuild the shrine, and our little shop that was once a sure thing is now suffering mightily as a result.
But there’s another way to look at it. If our hypothetical Japanese hardware store was a family business, we might expect the family members, over the years, to have learned how to build the shrine themselves. After all, knowing how many of a particular part to order every 20 years might go hand-in-hand with knowing that part’s actual function. In fact, you might expect the shopkeepers to be the world’s foremost experts on shrine-building. And if some tragedy befell the local town such that nobody remembered how to do the rebuilding, you would instinctively look to the shopkeepers to help you figure out what to do next. In that scenario, the shopkeepers don’t go out of business at all. Instead, they become exponentially more valuable, selling their consultative services and expertise for the community’s collective good, rather than simply selling products that everybody has forgotten how to use.
The modern funeral home has a unique opportunity before it. Your target audience has forgotten how to “do” death. On the one hand, that means they do not even know when to call you or what to ask for. But this is a minor concern compared to the massive prospects in front of you. Never in human history has there been a generation so desperately in need of a death expert.
This is why I cringe any time I hear well-meaning funeral directors talk about “educating” families. That mentality is wrong because it squanders an opportunity. Your education—what you know about death that they do not—should be your product, not an ad for it. A half-century ago, funeral directors sold products because the community already understood what to do with them, much like auto parts stores sold equipment to people more or less skilled to conduct their own auto maintenance. But our culture and economy have shifted tremendously since that time.
So, if you have cases of 5W-30 to sell, you can try desperately to explain to people how to change their own oil. Or, you can open an oil change service business and do it for them (and sell lots of oil in the process).
As Boomers die, American funeral homes have a tough case to make. Your prospect finds herself in a position quite different indeed from those of the families your grandparents served. Yet this does not make the situation hopeless—it simply means new models must be considered and new value points must be offered. Funeral homes must be willing to leave old assumptions behind and continually look to reinvent the business model around the evolving needs of the family. If you’re able to position yourself as an expert to families increasingly in need of expertise, you will be realigning your business around grieving families who have forgotten you—and who need you more than ever.
Adapted from The Right Way of Death: Restoring the American Funeral Profession to Its True Calling, by Eric Layer. Available on Amazon and www.therightwayofdeath.com.
About the Author
Eric Layer has spent his entire life around funeral service. His parents were married in the chapel of the mortuary where they both worked, and his childhood was marked by firsthand experience with the funeral homes and cemetery where his family built their careers. Today, he leads the death care division at McKee Wallwork + Co., an internationally recognized marketing advisory firm that specializes in generating momentum for stalled, stuck, and stale industries and brands. There, he has consulted for a number of globally recognized funeral brands and has played an integral role in their campaigns, products, and research efforts.
i Rachel Nuwer, “This Japanese Shrine Has Been Torn Down And Rebuilt Every 20 Years for the Past Millenium,” Smithsonian Magazine: SmartNews, October 4, 2014, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/thisjapanese-shrine-has-been-torn-down-and-rebuilt-every-20-years-for-the-past-millennium-575558/.
ii Institute of Medicine (U.S.) Committee on Care at the End of Life, Approaching Death: Improving Care at the End of Life, ed. Marilyn J. Field and Christine K. Cassel (Washington, D.C: National Academies Press, 1997), 33.
iii The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, “Mortality in the United States: Past, Present, and Future,” Budget Model, June 27, 2016, https://budgetmodel.wharton.upenn.edu/issues/2016/1/25/mortality-inthe-united-states-past-present-and-future.
iv Institute of Medicine (U.S.) Committee on Care at the End of Life, Approaching Death, 33.
v Living Arrangements of the Elderly (U.S. Department of Commerce, Economics and Statistics Administration, Bureau of the Census, 1993), 3:4.
vi WKYT News Staff, “Family digs woman’s grave after burial plot left unfinished before funeral,” WKYT, December 8, 2017, https://www.wkyt.com/content/news/Family-digs-womans-grave-after-burial-plot-left-unfinished-beforefuneral-462867933.html.
vii Pew Research Center, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, May 12, 2015, https://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/.