A few years ago, my paternal grandmother passed away after a long and grueling illness – first battling breast cancer and later leukemia. She was a strong woman and put up a good fight, never letting her diagnosis or treatment keep her from enjoying everyday life. But, in 2014, the doctors ran out of options and she ran out of time. After a brief hospice stay, she passed away in early November – with grandpa holding her hand.

Her funeral was what many people would call “traditional” – an immediate cremation followed by a formal visitation for friends and community members, a somber memorial service at the local church, a lunch reception at the community center and a short graveside service at the Veterans cemetery. It was a full and meaningful day for our family, but not a memorable one. Nothing about the service felt like a tribute to the woman we knew – full of life, laughter and more than a little sage advice. It felt like her service could have been anyone’s service – the flowers and urn there to honor anyone’s grandmother. Nothing about it felt personal, except perhaps the stories we shared as a family while we picked at leftover ham buns and potato salad.

In late November the following year, my youngest cousin, Drew, inexplicably collapsed during basketball practice. He went into cardiac arrest and never regained consciousness. When we held his funeral a few weeks later, it was under a cloud of grief and confusion – how could an otherwise healthy 16-year-old athlete slip away so quickly?

As you can imagine, our approach to Drew’s funeral was different than the way we thought about grandma’s services. Though both were cremated, my uncle felt very strongly that his son’s classmates would benefit from an open casket and visitation. The viewing lasted for hours – a steady stream of family, friends, teammates and teachers lined up in the halls of the high school, some waiting two or three hours to pay their respects.

We held Drew’s funeral in the high school gymnasium, with his name lit up on the scoreboard above a red bowtie – his favorite accessory. The funeral home staff had dressed him in his jersey, the same one worn to the funeral by his former teammates. Every member of his graduating class wore a red bowtie, even some of the teachers. When my family followed the casket into the service, we did so wearing red shirts and blue jeans.

During the service, dozens of teachers and friends shared stories of their time with Drew, some sweet, others funny – all memorable. The luncheon afterward was catered by his favorite barbeque restaurant. Afterward, my uncle and his friends lined up their Harley Davidsons and revved each engine as the hearse passed by on its way to the crematory.

Drew’s service was tailor-made and designed for him – every moment felt like a unique celebration of his life. It was a meaningful day for my family. But, unlike my grandmother’s service, it was also a memorable one for everyone who attended, and many who didn’t attend have since heard stories about the experience.

Disrupting the Arrangement Process
Throughout my first few years at Homesteaders, I spent a great deal of time interviewing funeral professionals – asking them about their businesses, their staff, their community outreach and their pre-need programs. I ended every interview with the same question – what has been your most memorable service? The stories they told nearly always involved sudden, tragic losses – the military officer killed overseas, the elementary school student who passed away after a long illness, the victim of a tragic school shooting. Not once did the respondent share memories of a service for someone who died of old age or after a long and well-lived life.

This strikes me as significant. As-a-whole, the funeral profession is very, very good at designing memorable services when death feels unnatural, unexpected and disruptive – perhaps because disruptive death often disrupts the “traditional” arrangement process. But we tend to lose that creativity when faced with losses that occur “as expected.” This is interesting, of course, because long lives often offer a wealth of inspiration for personalization – older decedents are likely to have touched many lives, adopted many hobbies, traveled many places and made many memories.

You may still be asking why you and your staff need to focus on personalization – after all, there is nothing inherently wrong with a run-of-the-mill service if that is what the family feels would best honor their loved one. But problems can emerge for your business when nearly every service you plan fits the same mold – or, in the worst of circumstances – when a family feels they would have done things differently if they had known all their options.

Increasing Word-of-Mouth Referrals
The most successful funeral businesses rely on word-of-mouth recommendations and testimonials to increase brand awareness in their community. Those first-person endorsements are often the tipping point for undecided client families when the time comes to select a funeral provider. In fact, branding experts estimate that word-of-mouth recommendations influence more than half of today’s purchase decisions.

Think about it this way: Homesteaders’ latest policy owner survey found that 73% of respondents only considered one funeral home when making their prearrangements. Leveraging word-of-mouth recommendations is a powerful way to ensure that your funeral home – and not your competitor down the street – is the one families in your community consider first when they need your services.

So how do you encourage those testimonials? You start by making every service personal and memorable. Consider the events we planned for my grandmother and cousin. Which one offers a more compelling picture of that funeral home’s services? Which one is likely to be remembered and passed on to others in the community?

If you are not actively planning services that are meaningful and memorable, you are missing out on opportunities to have your client families share your value offering with their friends and family, which is a powerful way to generate more business for your firm.

Debunking the DIY Funeral
There’s a second reason your firm should be focusing on personalized services. In the age of Pinterest and “DIY” projects (“do it yourself”), more and more families expect a personal touch whenever they purchase goods and services.

Consumers know what deeply experiential events look and feel like, and they want the same thing for their loved one’s services. These families expect funeral providers to be accomplished event planners, skillful at setting a scene with thematic music, decorations, smells and even snacks. If that skillset is unavailable at their local funeral home, modern consumers are more likely than their predecessors to turn toward other sources for that support. It may be your competitor, or it could be the helpful staff at a local hotel or country club. Some families may decide to cut out the middle man entirely and just do it themselves. None of these options are good for your business.

Personalizing Every Service
So how do you personalize the services you offer each family? It may not be as difficult – or costly – as you expect.

Very little about the customization at my cousin’s funeral was expensive. It cost nothing to put his name up on the scoreboard or have his classmates share their memories. The lunch was going to be catered anyway, so why not use his favorite restaurant? Even the bowties were inexpensive – a simple online purchase with a small up charge for overnight shipping.

None of these personalized touches cost much for the funeral home or my family, but they offered tremendous value to everyone who attended. What they did require was a creative funeral planner who was willing to ask good questions, generate ideas and perfect that personal touch.

I know three days is not a lot of time to pull together a meaningful event, especially when there are hundreds of details you already coordinate for even the simplest services. However, personalization always pays off. And you can start personalizing every service by asking four simple questions:

• What can we display to honor the decedent’s hobbies or interests?

• What can attendees wear to celebrate his/her passions?

• What can we serve to eat/drink that will help remember him/her?

• What can we give attendees that will remind them of their loved one?

You can ask these questions directly when you meet with a family, or simply keep them in the back of your mind when making arrangements.

Final Thoughts
Last year, I had the opportunity to attend Lacy Robinson’s Arranger Training – something I strongly recommend for anyone on the “front lines” of funeral planning. Toward the end of our time together, she drew our attention to a key component of successful, personalized funerals: “Guests want to feel an emotional connection through understanding what made the loved one special, whether they personally knew the deceased or not.”

That emotional connection is the key to transitioning from a meaningful service to a memorable one. To a family, any loss is emotional and disruptive. The service should mirror their experience, presenting attendees with an emotional, meaningful and memorable reminder of their loved one. FBA

Danielle Burmeister, Homesteaders’ Marketing Communications Lead, joined the company in 2015. The daughter of two funeral professionals, she has firsthand knowledge of and a deep appreciation for the business as well as 10 years of marketing and communications experience. You can reach Danielle at [email protected]