The funeral industry in the digital age

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The funeral industry in the digital age

Funeral directors decide which digital products are appropriate to assist with grief and mourning, making it difficult for digital service providers to enter the funeral industry.


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Entrepreneurs offer a range of digital products to help people mourn, commemorate, and manage the estates of their loved ones. These include photo montages, webcast funerals, the deactivation of social media accounts, digital cemeteries tours, and the ability to order cremations online.

But the uptake by the industry has been relatively slow.

Members of the DeathTech Research Team at the University of Melbourne wanted to understand why. The team includes anthropologists, social scientists, and specialists in human-computer interaction from the schools of Culture and Communication, Social and Political Sciences, Computing and Information Systems, and Historical and Philosophical Studies.

Between 2016 and 2019, the researchers interviewed funeral directors, digital service providers and industry in Australia, the UK and the USA. They examined recent developments in digital technology and how it is used in the funeral industry. They also looked at how funeral homes, digital service providers, and customers interact.

The researchers found that digital service providers see funeral directors as the gatekeeper to customers. Directors decide what products are ‘appropriate’ for a funeral. However, they tend to be risk-averse and to stick to established practices. This makes it difficult for digital service providers to enter the market.

However, the researchers did discover examples of funeral directors using apps to guide customers around a virtual reality 360-degree view of a cemetery or to create an online memorial page. One director had considered Skype as a way for someone to give a eulogy. There are websites offering price comparisons for funerals, just like hotels or flights. Other websites help people who are dying to plan and throw their own funerals.

Next steps

The team is working with the Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust in Melbourne, Australia, on The Future Cemetery. This project studies how cemeteries and memorial spaces can improve visitors’ experiences by incorporating technology such as mobile apps, GPS systems, drones, holograms, virtual reality, green burials and water cremation.

Funding

ARC Discovery Project

Disposal of The Dead: Beyond Burial and Cremation (DP180103148)

ARC Linkage Project

The Future Cemetery with Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (LP180100757)

Publication

van Ryn L et al (2019) Managing the consumption of death and digital media: The funeral director as market intermediary. Death Studies 43(7): 446–455. doi: 10.1080/07481187.2018.1522387

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