I grew up in a small town north of Dublin, in what is now referred to as Ireland’s Ancient East. Ancient burial tombs, castles and monasteries are part of the natural landscape. The jewel in the crown is Newgrange, the ancient burial tomb that is older than both Stonehenge and the Great Pyramids of Giza. My family had been in the casket and funeral home business for many years, and growing up I worked in the family business on weekends and during school holidays. Surrounded by ancient history and family tradition, it seemed as though there was a timeless essence to the funeral customs and traditions and it was inconceivable that this would ever change. Choices of coffins, caskets and services were largely determined by tradition, local custom and previous family choices. Cremation was almost unknown in Ireland back then.

Today, Ireland is a very different place – the role of religion has declined, cremation has increased dramatically and there has been a big change in the nature of products and services that many families now look for. The change is broadly similar to what has happened in other western countries. Over the past 25 years, I have been very fortunate to work as a supplier, adviser or consultant, and have learned from some of the leading funeral businesses in Ireland, Britain and across Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States. The changes in some of these countries has been more radical than what we have experienced here in the United States (I am now a dual citizen, as I proudly became an American citizen in 2015.) Much has been written about the nature and fundamentals of this change and most every business has seen a significant impact on their business because of this change. Whether the decline of religion, the change wrought by the Baby Boomers, a more mobile population or a decline in the perceived importance of funerals, my belief is that a common thread that has under-pinned change in all of these countries can be summed up in one word – relevance.

One definition of the word relevance that I like is “appropriate to the current time, period, or circumstances; of contemporary interest”. In the context of funerals, as we know many people have turned away from what they have decided they don’t want, or what is ‘irrelevant’ to them. Where there is no ‘relevance’, there is a very low perceived value which then typically results in choosing the lowest cost option. As such, I believe what we need to work towards, is a quest for new found relevance to help us reconnect with many of these people.

Today I live with my family just outside Boston, where our business is headquartered. I have seen first-hand some of the radical changes that have happened in the Boston market in recent years. Often when I sit down with a customer to analyze their casket sales or business performance, some customers will explain the decline in performance by saying that many families no longer want to spend money on funerals. I wonder if this is really true, or is it perhaps what we are offering to families and how we present it? This is not just in Boston or in the US – I have also had similar conversations with funeral homes in places as seemingly diverse as the UK, Italy, Holland and Australia. It would appear that there has been a growing disconnect between many families and their local funeral home. The radical changes that have occurred in western society over the past 25 years, driven by the relentless acceleration with technology in particular, have created a new consumer world order. More and more money is spent on an ever increasing array of consumer choices that help to underpin a new found sense of ‘identity’. The most successful of these new technology and consumer businesses, and the ones that we spend most money on, are the ones that are most relevant to each of us, that reinforce our sense of who we are – or who we think we are.

In this torrent of change, the unfortunate reality is that many funeral businesses have become or are becoming ‘irrelevant’ in this new world order. Many funeral homes are caught in the crosshairs of change, and struggle to adapt. Hampered by declining sales, shrinking margins, lack of capital and restrictive regulations in certain states some businesses may inevitably die. The biggest challenge to not only survive but to thrive is likely our ability or inability to change.

The good news is that there can be a better tomorrow for funeral businesses, or at least for the ones that can reinvent and embrace the changes that are necessary to forge a new sense of relevance where it may be lost. Much of what I have worked on in recent years has been informed and inspired by a wonderful book called ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’. A ‘Blue Ocean’ refers to the creation of new, uncontested market space that makes competitors irrelevant and that creates new consumer value, as opposed to a ‘Red Ocean’ where products and services become commodities or niche, and cut-throat competition turns the ocean bloody. One powerful example from the book of how change can be wrought from the embers of what might appear to be a dying fire is Cirque du Soleil. While comparing the circus and funeral service might appear unusual, there are very relevant comparisons and the success of Cirque du Soleil is an inspiration to what can be achieved by being courageous and daring to be different. This is also particularly relevant with the closure earlier this year of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus after 146 years in business.

From ‘Blue Ocean Strategy’ on Cirque du Soleil – “What makes the rapid growth all the more remarkable is that it was not achieved in an attractive industry but rather in a declining industry…. suffering from steadily decreasing audiences and, in turn, declining revenue and growth.” Sounds all too familiar, right? So what underpinned their success? Having studied this, to me the title of one of their early productions captured the essence of Cirque du Soleil’s success “We Reinvent the Circus”!

Cirque du Soleil succeeded spectacularly in part because they changed the rules and created a new way to entertain people. By reinventing what the circus could be, they created a new found relevance that brought huge numbers of people spending significantly more money than Barnum & Bailey ever thought possible. They created a vast new Blue Ocean of opportunity.

Through my work in the funeral business, I have been fortunate to meet and work with some great leaders and companies that gives me great optimism for the future. Australia, Canada and the Netherlands are three countries where there has been rapid change in recent years, in some instances even more challenging than what we have experienced here in the United States. Faced with challenges that included high or rapidly increasing cremation rates these businesses recognized that change – radical change – was crucial for long term survival. Each of these businesses crafted a new model which respected the core ethos of their business, but embraced the need to change. Today they are thriving and have a rock solid foundation for the future. These businesses reinvented and today are more relevant to the communities and families that they serve. Growing volume and market share suggests that their client families value this reinvention very highly, which is reflected in customer satisfaction surveys, in revenues and in growing profitability. Cremation is embraced by these businesses, and in some instances is more profitable than traditional burials. They have truly found Blue Oceans where their competition have great difficulty in competing.

The CEO of one of these companies remarked to me recently that in many respects the secret of this success is relatively simple – be courageous and don’t be afraid of change. Embrace and own that change. Work with good business partners. Be proud of your history, but know that future survival demands reinvention today. This future is possible for many other funeral businesses, and I firmly believe that having the courage to change and reinvent will help to build a more relevant future for all of us. I’m told that the word relevance comes from the Latin word ‘relevare’, meaning ‘raising up’. Perhaps your business too can be ‘raised up’, and can become more relevant for the future through reinvention that can start today. FBA

John Finlay is the Founder and President of Legacy Tribute Inc. which operates in the United States, the UK and Australia. Legacy Tribute provides innovative caskets and funeral home products and craft tailored business development and merchandising solutions for their customers. John can be reached at (617)TRIBUTE, by email at [email protected] or connect on with John on LinkedIn www.linkedin.com/in/johnafinlay. Visit Legacy Tribute online at www.legacytributeusa.com