So said the headline of a recent Economist article, and although the dead may not be exactly rejoicing, the previously slow-moving funeral industry is certainly changing in an unprecedented way.

Funerals and funeral directors were the subject of our latest In-Memory Insight research. We wanted to understand what was happening to funerals and how, or indeed whether, charities could influence funeral donations. So we investigated the market, talked to industry experts and interviewed funeral directors, celebrants and industry representatives as well as consumers. Some of the findings took us all by surprise.

We have known for some time that remembrance is becoming more personal, but now it seems that more of the perceived ‘rules’ surrounding funerals are breaking down, as people challenge traditional practices in order to craft the perfect send-off. A new breed of funeral directors – often women – is helping to fuel change. Their mission is to ensure that bereaved families really understand the art of the possible. Families nowadays are also better informed, thanks mainly to the internet. They don’t want to be told what to do, they want to bring their own ideas to the discussion.

There are in fact, no rules about where you can hold a funeral, which means that hotels, clubs and pubs are starting to replace churches and crematoria as preferred venues. One of the fast-growing trends that makes this easier is the rise of the ‘direct cremation’. This is where the deceased’s body goes directly to the crematorium with no family in attendance and the subsequent gathering of family and friends is the main remembrance event. Unrestricted by church protocols and timed crematoria slots, families can celebrate the lives of their loved ones in any way they see fit.

However, more and more, their loved ones are getting in on the act, thanks to greater openness about death and the growth of pre-paid funeral plans, which require people to specify the main ingredients of their funeral in advance. We found that as many as two-thirds of people who had arranged a funeral in the past five years knew at least some of the wishes of their loved one. It can be reassuring for families to know they are doing ‘the right thing’, but the danger is that they feel less ownership of the resulting tribute. Funeral directors often urged families to strike some sort of balance.

Given these market developments, the role of funeral directors is undoubtedly changing, and in 25 years’ time, they may be more event planners than funeral arrangers. That said, we found that their current role is wider than we realised, and has the potential to grow. The funeral directors we spoke to were firmly embedded in their local communities and felt that they had a lot to offer in return. They had close relationships with care homes, hospices and community groups and many offered end of life and bereavement support. They wanted to use their experience of death and funerals to give back to their local communities.

Although we found that funeral directors had almost no influence on the charities that families chose for funeral donations, they were important charity supporters in their own right. They ran or supported events, acted as recycling points, gave up their shop windows, set up their own charitable funds and encouraged staff to volunteer. We feel they offer real opportunities for charities, not just as corporate supporters, but potential partners in the bereavement support space.

For more information, please request a free copy of our In-Memory Briefing, August 2018


For fascinating insights into the changing job of a funeral director, listen to this BBC Podcast