I hold the hand of my nine-year-old son as we walk into the funeral parlor, past the stained glass windows and flowers bursting with beautiful color. With each step we take towards the highly polished casket, his trembles grow stronger, bringing back memories of my childhood.
As an Irish Catholic with a large extended family, I attended funerals as often as birthday parties. But they were often for a great-aunt, or a neighbor’s parent — nobody I particularly had a strong bond with. All I knew was I had to dress up, and then, I got to see all the cousins.
I didn’t understand the purpose of a funeral until I turned seven. At the service of my grandfather, I told my mom I was too afraid to walk to the casket. “Don’t be silly, honey,” she said, ushering me through a doorway into a large room filled with huge bouquets of flowers, and a coffin in the middle.
“Dying is just a part of living.”
Those words echo in my mind, decades later, at my uncle’s visitation just last month. The scene is the same, but the times have changed. My out-of-town cousin sent notice of the service over Facebook, and even made arrangements half a country away over the Internet. It seems odd to turn to social media at a time of death, but her decision highlights the ways technology is altering even the most traditional of industries, helping us solve nearly all of life’s daunting challenges.
When we face tragedy of death, we look to family and friends to shepherd us through the difficult time. Some give spiritual guidance; others help us navigate the strange, delicate logistics. In fact, the practice of “deathcare,” or what we do with the deceased, dates back to the beginnings of human life itself.
While Egyptians so-famously mummified their dead to preserve them for the afterlife, the tradition continued to the New World. In the 19th century, funeral undertaking fell to carpenters and woodworkers who, according to L.W. Billups & Son, one of the oldest funeral companies in the U.S., dating back to 1850, would travel to retrieve the deceased for preparation. They would embalm and prepare the body, before returning it for placement in the wooden box they made on the spot so it could be visited by family and friends in the residence.
The practice ended when people began to move into apartments, with several flights of stairs, making it difficult to do. Amid that shift in lifestyle, in 1928, the invention of the air-conditioner allowed Billups to take the groundbreaking step of expanding its building, creating a large chapel, and holding and hosting the body for viewings and gatherings.
In modern times, funeral directors do more than simply prepare the body. They coordinate and organize burial needs, such as securing a coffin and hearse, and plan the viewing and graveside services. When someone dies, grieving family and friends also need a caring professional, and an efficient administrator, to handle documents we don’t think about in our everyday lives.
Since funeral directors enter our lives at such stressful times, they need a compassion, respect and knowledge of different customs, rituals and traditions — a delicate balance of a business-like efficiency and an emotional strength and support, all without treading on the boundaries of families during an often tumultuous time.
“When I started working at my first funeral home job at the end of the summer of 1978, everything that needed to be known, or kept for a funeral, was found on the back and front of one page of a ledger book,” Ray Visotski, founder and managing partner of South Carolina Cremation Society, told me. “When someone died, you picked out a casket, set the time, and show up the next day for the first viewing — done on a handshake.”
According to Visotski, who is in his early 50s, the end-of-life tasks used to run on autopilot. “We called our ‘ethnic’ neighborhood funeral home, and they just took care of everything,” he said. “A few questions, no contracts or disclaimers, no authorizations for this and that — it just happened.”
When he began his career, families lived in the same area, making the idea of the “neighborhood funeral home” a viable business, and work was built on word-of-mouth. But as close-knit communities expanded, people began to turn to the Internet to help them make final arrangements. And, technology has made funeral homes more efficient, at the same time, increasing their reach to more people.
“I can operate my business with a cell phone and a laptop,” Visotski said. “Whereas the telephone used to be the first point of contact, it is now our website.”
According to FuneralOne, four-in-five funeral homes have an online presence, and nearly half report using social media as part of their marketing. Visotski blogs under the name, “A Simple Village Undertaker,” and describes his posts as “sometimes very serious, sometimes frivolous, and more often than not somewhere in between.”
As a funeral director and a blogger, Visotski is on the forefront of the transformation of the deathcare industry, not only in helping people with simple logistics, but also to solve bigger problems when a death impacts their life.
“We live in an age when people send photos and authorizations to the funeral home from their smartphones, and use text to communicate with an ever-widening circle of contacts,” he said. “Out of the 300 or so families we served last year, I met with less than 50 of them face to face, while the rest were via technology.”
He also credits technology with reducing stress for the family. While we criticize e-mail and texting for being impersonal, in the case of a death, that nature allows us to delay or contemplate difficult details when we’re ready — on our own time, in our own private space.
Texting is more convenient for grieving members and funeral homes, alike. Visotski said when he asks for permission to use it, which he always does, so far, nobody has ever said no. “I think people who use technology regularly — and are comfortable with it — are easier to move into that kind of relationship.”
My cousin appreciated the less-obtrusive nature of texting when she confirmed visitation times, and reviewed the wording of the funeral cards. And at night, when she wasn’t able to sleep, she found comfort in browsing websites for venues in the privacy of her home, and not running around in the frigid January chill.
The embrace of technology comes at a time when the funeral industry is in flux. According to the National Directory of Morticians Redbook, 2,000 funeral homes closed down in the decade from 2002 to 2012. Visotski told me the industry is simply too competitive, with too many services struggling to keep their doors open in towns across the country.
“For the most part, a significant number of funeral homes have not adapted, adapted poorly, or don’t know what adapted means,” he said, adding that some didn’t expect and integrate digital tools, or respond quickly to changes in deathcare, such as a rise of cremation services. According to the Cremation Association of North America, those opting for cremation over burial steadily rose to 43 percent in 2012, from just 4 percent in 1960.
“If you ask most funeral directors, they have the misguided belief that everyone in their community knows them, and how wonderful their funeral home is,” Visotski said. “But I have come to believe that less than 10 percent of a given population has a strong affinity for any funeral home in their area — the rest give as much thought to the decision as they might to where to get a flat tire replaced.”
According to Visotski, many businesses are being run by third-generation owners, whose grandfathers built the company, and whose fathers just had to show up each day to make a good living. Now, the grandchildren of the founders, who never really had to work hard, are finding that a new storefront down the street is eating their proverbial lunch because so much of the business is cremation.
“You do not need a 10,000 square foot historic mansion on Main Street to provide that service,” he added.
The industry will keep changing, as technology gives rise to odd, otherworldly ideas like online funerals. Internet startups are working with funeral homes to stream “live coverage” of a visitation for family members to view, on a password-protected website. While only certain funeral homes have arrangements with these online companies, some of these websites run 24 hours a day, making viewing convenient for those abroad, such as military personnel, who aren’t able to travel to the service.
Opponents argue technology can’t replace a kind, knowledgeable, and often invaluable, presence a person gives when navigating the tough times of the death. My cousin took a traditional burial route, and remarked on the professional and compassionate way of her funeral director.
He suggested, for example, creating a carousel of digital photographs to automatically display at the service. But when she ultimately chose to assemble photographs on large poster boards, he made certain they were lined perfectly at the wake.
As I look at the artfully-displayed pictures, remembering my experience, I contemplate how to soothe my nine-year-old, who tells me he “feels weird” about seeing the lifeless body of my uncle.
Like my mom years ago, I take his hand in mine, as we kneel together, cross ourselves, and whisper a prayer. And just like me so many years before, he stares past the waxy face to the photographs to the side of the coffin.
While he didn’t know his great-uncle well, it’ll help him see that dying is a part of life, as my mother said, and prepare him for the other deaths that will certainly mark his life.
I can’t imagine how he’ll communicate with the funeral director when I die, or what kind of arrangements he’ll have to plan for then. But I hope the core of compassion and sensitivity during the difficult time will remain the same for him, even if technology changes everything else around him. ♦