Peter Billingham is an Independent Civil Celebrant in Bromsgrove and the surrounding areas of Worcestershire, where he conducts more than 120 funerals a year. He is also the founder of Death Goes Digital, a consultancy guiding the traditional bereavement industry on how to create an impact online. He recently joined us at our In-Memory Insight workshop to discuss trends in the funeral industry. His talk was so fascinating that we asked him to share more with us …

What separates those who need to give to those who need to receive? A simple collection box or plate.

These are all collection plates from services I took recently. As a busy celebrant, I do around 110 – 120 or so funerals a year and I see the same situation weekly.

Much of my work is at a very busy crematorium that has about 4,000 funerals a year. That’s about 4,000 opportunities to connect those who need to give – i.e. those mourning a loved-one – with those who need to receive – i.e. charities. However, opportunities are often missed by people who otherwise would prefer – given the facility – to simply, quickly and digitally donate.

The solitary £10 in Picture 3 was given at a service for a young man who I will call Simon, who died suddenly in his 40’s. The crematorium was full of people of a similar age. His family knew that he would have been happy that his life, his suffering and his death could have helped others.

From my experience of conducting hundreds of services, people at funerals need to give money and are incredibly grateful for the opportunity to do so.

At Simon’s funeral, I was asked, and I heard the Funeral Director being asked, how they can give. “I want to give some money, but I don’t have any cash on me.” (How true is that these days!) The Funeral Director offered one person the chance to send a cheque, and the look on the face of this 25 year old was, “what’s a cheque?” So the service ended, and there was £10 in the collection box. The charity nominated that day I’m sure will be glad of the gift, but it could have been so much more.

It is sad, frustrating and in some way unjust that what separates those who need to give with those who need to receive is a traditional system and process that has not kept up with change.

My experience is that Funeral Directors are in the main, hard-working, empathic, kind and caring people. Generally speaking they are not digitally aware when it comes to business processes or marketing. The traditional nature of the funeral business up to now hasn’t embraced digital technology; it’s still mainly paper-based.

Critically, it is mostly the office-based funeral arranger and not the Funeral Director who deals with the family. Staff are responsible for helping families, but that is a big jump for many when the underlying culture is not digital. Yes, the main national players have social media and digital systems for donations available, but they are not always used by local branches.

Yet the digitalisation of death is forcing a change in the marketplace. Many families I meet want to bring personalisation into services. They want to have digital slideshows, or live stream the funeral through Facebook or Skype. They take funeral selfies. They share their sadness and loss through social media, tweeting messages and adding comments to the Facebook page of the person who has died.

So why would it be so strange to offer them digital solutions for the need to give? Why not add TEXT Simon to 8876 to give £10 to his favourite charity into the order of service? Why not find ways to have contactless card opportunities to give? Why shouldn’t that be done either in the printed order of service or by someone like me saying something during the service? It may seem strange to start, but we are used to being asked to give that way by charities every day.

Death has gone digital. From announcing the death of a loved one via Facebook or text, to buying your funeral online. Systems that let the dead digitally talk back are growing in popularity and use. You can leave posthumous tweets, Facebook posts and emails that will be actioned weeks, months or even years into the future.

Discussing death, talking about loss online is now not the taboo it once was. People who see, hear and experience loss, especially the death of someone they love, need to give. Let’s make that easier to do.


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