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Jeff Harbeson

By: Jeff Harbeson

From passé to progressive: Rethinking personalization

My objective for this article is to challenge readers to consider refreshing stale practices developed over the last few years. In addition, I challenge you to take a new view of what has become “passé” (for my fellow preppy rednecks, that means the same old thing) in many funeral home and cemetery operations.

Offering keepsakes and personalization has become a staple in our business, but in some cases, the way we’re going about it is making us lazy and failing the families we serve. I wonder whether keepsakes and personalized products have the same value to the families you serve as they do to you.

From a historical perspective, keepsakes to remember the dead have been around a long time. Just for reference, the Webster’s Dictionary definition of keepsake: “(noun) something given or kept as a memento.” It is interesting to me that the definition does not include “purchased,” but I’ll address that later.

I have many friends and acquaintances who supply the funeral and cemetery industry with keepsakes and/or personal­ization. In fact, there was a time when I was among them, doing my best to make sure that funeral directors knew the value of a casket adorned with “personalization.”

I also believe that everyone should have a chance at redemption. Thus, I publicly beg forgiveness for the words I invariably used: “Families will love this.”

Before any suppliers or funeral directors initiate a social media campaign (today’s weapon of choice) against me, please take a deep breath. Remember, this is a cerebral exercise—I want to challenge assumptions, to make you think about what you’re doing and consider some changes.


The personalization boom

In recent years, we have witnessed a boon of keepsake and personalization innovation.

If you attend any of the convention expos, you will see lots and lots of keepsakes, everything from coffee cups made with cremated remains to 3-D replicas of a person’s head to an actual tattoo, still affixed to the skin of the deceased, repurposed for artistic display. You can even buy a “personal massager” that holds some cremated remains so you can keep a deceased loved one close, especially in those lonely times.

I submit that the market for personalized keepsakes is saturated, though I’m sure that somewhere out there is an inspired genius inventing the newest and best memento for us.

Let’s ponder the definition I cited earlier: “something given or kept as a memento.” I can offer a couple of personal examples that may resonate with the families you serve.

Last summer, we lost my wife’s younger sister to cancer. Because of my industry knowledge, our family had access to virtually any keepsake and memento available on the market, but the sweetest and most poignant item that reminds us of her life is the decorative art-glass flower plates (garden ornaments) my sister-in-law made herself. When I see these pieces, I’m reminded of her: simple, sweet and whimsical.

Another keepsake that is one of my prized possessions is my grandfather’s tin drinking cup. Where we live in rural eastern South Carolina, the summer’s oppressive heat causes everyone to seek shade and cool drinks.

I have vivid memories of my grand­father drinking tea (so sweet your teeth shook) from this tin cup full of ice chipped from a block. He would offer me sips, and that cold tea was heaven in a heated hell. I touch this cup every day, using it to measure water for my one-cup coffeemaker, and sometimes I fill it with ice and tea to fight the “dry” Arizona heat.

Such keepsakes cannot be purchased in a funeral home or online; they are truly personal. I give these examples because they are examples of keepsakes as defined by Webster’s.

However, not everyone has such memory-evoking items to hold onto. Thus, funeral homes and cemeteries offer all sorts of alternatives. The question is, which ones should you offer families?

Consider taking a refreshed look at your keepsake offerings by conducting an inventory of products in your display. If a keepsake has not sold five to eight times during the past year, it’s not worth the shelf space.

If you paid wholesale for something that has not sold and collects dust, it must go. If it hasn’t sold, it probably won’t sell in a different color, size or even price point.

Just because you like something doesn’t mean that your families will, and just because your competitor can’t have it doesn’t mean that you should. Think logically about keepsakes and whether they truly can be personalized enough so that consumers will value and buy them.


What does personalization mean?

And speaking of personalization … In an effort to maintain consistency, I offer Webster’s definition of personalize: “(transitive verb): personify; to make personal or individual specifically.”

Our profession has taken personal­ization in different directions. Of course, just as everyone has a bellybutton, everyone will have an opinion on what constitutes personalization.

Early on in my funeral career, personal­ization involved including elements on a casket that reflected the life of the deceased, or displaying a picture board, or maybe showing a video that included photos and a few songs.

Recently, personalization has reached new heights of creativity, and I salute those leading the way. One example that comes to mind is a service for a young boy who was a big superhero fan. At his funeral, virtually everyone, including the preacher (dressed as Batman), attended in costume. That service reflected his young life and was deeply personal.

Another example is a service for a young girl who was a rodeo competitor. The funeral was in a horse arena adorned with rodeo-related items, including horses. Everyone in attendance knew her story without even hearing the eulogy.

How about a veteran who was a helicopter pilot in Vietnam having his casket loaded up on a chopper, or a tow truck driver having his casket placed on the back of his tow truck for a “last ride?”

Some funeral professionals are setting the standard for the rest of us to follow. When was the last time you created some­thing memorable? Not just for the family, but for those attending the service.

If the people who attend a funeral your firm handles leaves saying, “I want something like that,” it bodes well for your firm’s future. If they leave saying, “That sucked,” you know that does not bode well.

These personalized funerals are great examples of funeral professionals co-creating, with the families who loved the deceased, services that reflect the life lived. If your standard “personalization” offerings are a picture board and a cap panel, you’re missing an opportunity to show people what a funeral can and should be: a reflection of a person’s life.

Unfortunately, some funeral homes continue to limit themselves to now stale products and practices, to the detriment to the entire profession. A funeral director needs to be—or to hire—an event planner. I can sense the resistance from some people reading this statement, and I know that many directors disagree.

But those same people are the ones who refuse to see that the hospitality industry is diligently working to persuade families to use their properties, event-planning experience and catering services for a better funeral experience. Those same naysayers don’t believe that churches are vying for some of our profession’s memorialization business by offering cremation niches.

It is often easy to identify the people in our profession with their heads in the sand by looking at their websites. What source do you think consumers are going to when researching information regarding funeral providers? The Yellow Pages? No; they’re checking out websites.

I have some bad news for you: Families researching different websites are not “your families.” They have no allegiance whatsoever—that’s why they’re checking out you and your competition online!

You no doubt have some loyal families who will come to you no matter what, but consider their children and friends who attend the funeral. “I won’t have the type of funeral my dad did” is a recurring theme, even with our beloved baby boomers.

If your website is provided free to you in exchange for buying boxes with graphics just like other funeral homes all over the country, you’re in trouble. If your website has music playing in the background, too much copy (words) and no video, you have cause for concern.

This is an opportune time to refresh our industry in the eyes of the consumer. I am passionate about the funeral and cemetery profession, as well as optimistic about what our collective future holds for those of us willing to consider positive changes.

The alternative is continuing to see the world the way it was and letting people outside the industry determine our future and possibly our very existence.

It’s time to refresh what may have become stale in our own views and operations to accommodate the ever-shifting markets we serve. The ICCFA provides an international platform for discussions about how to advance our collective businesses. Get involved in the discussion and become passionate about moving beyond passé to progressive.
I truly would enjoy your feedback; send me an email or give me a call.

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