The coronavirus pandemic is bringing change to all markets quicker than we would have otherwise expected, and the funeral profession is no different. Digital has found its way into many sectors to enable remote processes and keep people connected, and it has done both of these things in the funeral sector, too.
The restrictions placed on funerals naturally led to much speculation at the start of lockdown as to how funerals may be forever changed. Would direct cremations, or simple funerals, for example, forever be the norm?
In the beginning of April, we conducted consumer research to gauge how some of these changes might impact the pre-planning customer in particular. And having now completed follow-up research, it seems coronavirus is so far creating an evolution in the pre-need customer – but not necessarily a revolution.
For a start, only a quarter (26%) of the individuals surveyed believe coronavirus has had an influence on the type of funeral they want, with the majority saying only slightly. The research indicates that a radical lurch toward direct cremations is unlikely, at least any time soon.
And at the beginning of lockdown, we witnessed a spike in over-70s considering a pre-paid funeral plan. However, as we emerge beyond lockdown, these levels are trending back towards pre-coronavirus levels.
For some time now, the typical pre-need customer approaching a funeral director has fallen in that age group – which may naturally be expected – and they remain the largest customer group. However, our research reveals growing interest amongst a slightly younger demographic, with 55-69-year olds increasingly considering funeral plans as the pandemic runs on.
Why would this be the case? For a start, the pandemic has caused many to consider their own mortality more candidly than before. Daily mortality figures published at national and global levels emphasise the stark impact this virus is having within our communities and around the world. Equally, in the UK many of this age group will have elderly relatives who sadly, are in the hardest hit age demographic. As the public has been repeatedly confronted with the stark reality, it comes as little surprise to me that the generation prepared to actively consider prepaid funeral plans is expanding down the age scale.
In some countries, planning and preparing for a funeral commences much earlier. Take Sweden, where anyone on the national population registry pays a burial fee in their taxes to cover some of the costs associated with death – such as burial or cremation and transport for the coffin, among other items.
Holland is another example where planning for death is an everyday thought. About 70% of the population has insurance to cover the cost of their funeral, at least in part. While the full cost may still not be covered and a minority are not insured at all, this is radically different to the UK where only a minority have any provision in place, and of course the younger the age group the wider the gap becomes.
So attitudes in the UK are changing slowly, but the change is still there. If we respond appropriately by following consumer wishes, there is a huge opportunity in the sector to secure and safeguard future business at an earlier age than we do now.
The sector needs to understand this demographic. They are a group at a juncture with significant financial decisions to take. Many will be retiring or seeking to do so, others are still working to eliminate debts. Many have taken on a care role for a parent; meanwhile they are often still responsible for children, even if they’re now grown adults.
According to the FCA, over three quarters of people aged 55-64 would rather plan for the future than think about today – the highest of any adult age group. Knowing this interest in planning ahead, it becomes even less surprising that this group intends to plan their funerals in greater numbers than the generations that have preceded them.
This emphasises the already known need for digital solutions. Over 70s are comfortable researching and purchasing a pre-paid plan online. We also see that the younger consumers are, the more comfortable they become with online services. Since the 55-69-year-old age group feel greater time pressures than those who have already retired, this group demands time efficient and convenient solutions.
An online presence that makes it easy to get in touch will help this consumer plan ahead. While often perceived as a tool for reaching millennials or Gen Z, according to Edison Research over half of over-55s are on Facebook, so a Facebook page is one example of a simple digital pathway to the 55-69-year-old demographic.
We can’t yet know the legacy this pandemic will create for the funeral profession. Some jumped to guess that direct cremations are part of the new normal, but it seems that people’s wishes, for now, remain largely unchanged. And while our research signposts a shift in the customers actively considering pre-planning,
further changes are still to emerge as a result of coronavirus. As we wait for the shape of the future to crystallise, taking steps to understand the pressures facing the next generation of funeral arrangers and consumer habits, will let us begin to explore the opportunities that they will provide.