Nobody likes to talk about death. For various reasons, the topic is considered a social taboo by almost everyone except for funeral and cemetery professionals — for this group, it is simply a part of everyday life. The average consumer experiences the inner workings of the death care industry only when they lose a loved one, and thus cannot be blamed for thinking that the funeral and cemetery profession has remained the same since the beginning of time. But the profession is rapidly evolving, and Jake Johnson has written a new book that offers a fresh perspective on the impending changes and their inevitable impact. As the title states, Johnson’s book offers valuable lessons on how funeral and cemetery businesses can “stay alive and find growth” in a dynamic market.

Coming in at 162 pages, Staying Alive in the Funeral & Cemetery Profession is an interesting and well-paced read. Johnson, who is the president and CEO of Johnson Consulting Group (JCG), weaves relatable stories and examples from his 20+ years of boots-on-the-ground experience to help funeral and cemetery professionals succeed in “building a business, weathering changes, and finding growth.”

Jake Johnson’s personal insights are a significant component of the book and essentially make up the soul of the narrative. This fact must be highlighted, because unlike some business books which try to sell easy shortcuts to success using incomprehensible jargon and imaginary metaphors, Johnson has managed to write an inspiring guide based on his own financial and managerial know-how, gained by working with and for his bosses, clients and colleagues in the profession. He writes from the heart, with learned wisdom and a wry sense of humor, to help funeral and cemetery owners understand how to become “bigger, better, stronger” in a highly competitive marketplace.

“Except for embalming, Jake has literally done it all.”

The introduction to the book starts out with a summary of Johnson’s early encounters in a cemetery. He began his career as a teenager working a summer job pulling weeds, clearing sidewalks and trimming rose bushes at Pierce Brothers Valley Oaks in Westlake Village, California. “My deep appreciation for the funeral and cemetery profession began there, on those grounds [of the cemetery].” After graduating with a management degree from Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, he worked as an accountant, an acquisition analyst, a funeral arranger and director, eventually joining Johnson Consulting Group and steadily moving up the executive ladder to take on the role of CEO.

Johnson has truly done it all, and his book is an invaluable tool for seasoned owners as well as new generations working in the death care profession. James H. Busch, President of Busch Funeral and Crematory Services in Cleveland, Ohio, wholeheartedly agrees with this take, noting the following in his review: “I often am skeptical when I see a must-read for our profession, but this is a must-read. [Jake’s] wisdom from real-life experience is more than advice; it is a true testimonial of someone who cares deeply for our profession.”

“If you take care of families, they’ll take care of you.”

Johnson’s book is a beneficial resource for funeral and cemetery professionals who are trying to determine how to cope with a changing market, take their business to the next level and still provide excellent service for their families. Whether you work for a corporate-owned firm or a private funeral home/cemetery, this book is especially useful if you are feeling stuck and unsure of your overall strategic position in the face of new market trends. Rising cremation rates, increasing pressure to provide prices online, and the growth of discount operators are just some of the challenges that death care providers are going to have to manage (if they aren’t already) in order to stay competitive going forward.

To find some semblance of stability in a competitive business environment, funeral and cemetery owners will need to embrace a new way of doing things. A majority of people in the profession often say that the core purpose of their work is taking care of grieving families. There is truth behind this belief of course, but as Johnson explains the main job of a funeral or cemetery professional is to solve a problem. “How each of us handles that death makes the experience more or less meaningful for the family, but the bottom line is that they have a problem and they need our professional help to solve it.”

“It’s time to make life and death decisions.”

To move a company forward, you have to understand where it currently stands. In his book, Johnson illustrates how his consulting team has helped thousands of funeral homes and cemeteries using a model called the “Four-Legged Stool” to highlight the primary business areas that require consistent investment and attention:

• Customer Service
• Workplace
• Marketplace
• Financial Management

The book describes each area in detail, posing questions that stimulate honest discussion and in-depth analysis in order to push funeral and cemetery owners to make hard decisions about the future of their business. For example, what is the big picture for your company? Do you want to generate growth or stay even? Are you in a position to buy or sell? What does retirement look like?

To accurately answer these questions, business owners must dig deep and recognize how each section of the four-legged stool affects profits: “Each area plays an essential part in keeping the business upright. When one leg is missing or even wobbly, everything else suffers and you’re at risk of falling flat on your rump.”
“You can either make it happen or wonder what happened.”

The middle chapters delve into what is basically the “meat” of the book. Without giving away too many spoilers, read this book if you want to learn the best way to efficiently manage the life cycle of a funeral, cemetery, or cremation business. Here are some of the topics Johnson dives into:

• How to start or buy a funeral or cemetery business or negotiate profitable terms with an inheritance.

• How to build up your most valuable asset: your employees – this is a major challenge in today’s economic environment, and especially so in the death care industry. Hiring the wrong person who might turn off potential customers could mean losing “as much as $20,000 in enterprise value.”

• Find opportunities for growth and innovation, even if you don’t think it’s possible for your company.

• Learn to embrace technology – technology is everywhere, and customers expect to see it in the products and services you offer, e.g., online reviews on your website or Facebook page. “You can’t count on legacy anymore.”

• How to navigate the ups and downs of succession with next of kin or a key employee.

• Figuring out when to sell – the book provides a breakdown of the JCG Value Matrix to guide sellers towards the results they desire.

There is a chapter just for cemetery owners, with innovative ideas on how to manage a property that is considered an eternal resting place. Johnson challenges cemeterians to rethink how they approach customer service and the product options they offer. In this age of increasing cremation and changing personal preferences, buyers want to make their own burial choices: “When we make things too difficult, buyers often decide to just go somewhere else. It’s time to look at your list of rules and regulations and determine whether or not any of them are affecting the value of memorialization for your customer.”

The book also includes several case studies with real-life scenarios that illustrate the potential for driving growth and increasing profits, no matter how bad things may seem at first. With some effort and analysis, along with unbiased perspective from an outside source, it is very possible to breathe new life into your business.

Johnson concludes the book with his predictions on the future of death care and how funeral and cemetery professionals can use this knowledge to their advantage. Change is coming to the death care profession, but Johnson believes that proactively embracing the change is crucial to achieving success: “Death will always be around, and people will always need us. What those needs look like may shift, but if you can meet them, you won’t only stay alive in this profession; you’ll thrive.” FBA