Lessons from Deathcare: The Greening of the American Funeral Home

Lessons from Deathcare: The Greening of the American Funeral Home

Admit it. You saw the headline and thought to yourself, "What could possibly be green about deathcare?" Not much, actually, but we're trying to change that.

My business partner and I own a small business, we're concerned about the environment and we have tasked ourselves with the somewhat dubious mission of refocusing the American deathcare industry towards a more planet-friendly platform.

We're creating a quiet revolution by building relationships with small, second and third generation family-owned funeral homes. We're climbing the walls, though, because our industry is, at best, reactionary.

The deathcare industry contributes over 34 billion dollars to the nation's economy in a year's time. The average family in need doesn't see itself contributing to the economy; they are simply seeking closure during a highly emotional time. Because of that, they are somewhat vulnerable to the traditional and heritage-based mindset of generations of family businesses who are much more often than not resistant to change.

Our company performs cremation urn burial at sea in living coral reefs, and we are doing our part for the planet by helping people choose anything but land burial. It will take some time before what we do becomes commonplace, but each family we serve tells another family, and each funeral home we engage becomes another outlet to share our vision.

Our journey has not been easy. We offer an unusual alternative to an act that has been carried out religiously for centuries, and while cremation is certainly more planet-friendly than burial, it consumes a great deal of energy.

Though we offer our services directly to consumers, the focus of our business is providing our services through a network of referring funeral homes. While I'm talking specifics here, you may find that some of what we've learned along the way applies to what you're doing, too.

The Soft Lesson: Enacting Change is Hard

As much as we think we can present a green way of doing business and it will be immediately adopted, we can't. People are, by nature, change-resistant, and particularly in business, if it works, why change it? In our industry, funeral homes are exceptionally change-resistant; the standard response to why they do what they do is "because my Dad did it, and his Dad did it." That's why, for example, you don't see many fuel-efficient hearses parked at funeral homes, even though they exist.

Change is also a collaborative process. I have yet to meet a funeral home owner or director that appreciates being told what to do by a vendor. We approach our business relationships with great thought, and present our service as a true collaborative partnership in which everyone has a stake, and which produces positive results for everyone, but the buy-in takes a lot of patience.

Small steps are easier to absorb. As environmentalists, we all wish that American business would just step up to the plate and evolve instantly. It simply doesn't happen that way. Small steps are good. Often when we are meeting with funeral home owners, we "ease into" providing green burial by sharing some tips to reduce energy waste, reduce paper consumption, and the like.

We're honest about it, too. Cremation is better than caskets made from trees or precious metals gobbling up the green spaces of our communities, but it does consume a lot of energy, and it does produce emissions.

The Hard Lesson: It's Really About the Bottom Line

Regardless of the industry, the pervasive stances toward moving into a greener way of doing business always begin with "What's in it for me?" To solidify our desire to help others become greener, we often share some of our own financial information to demonstrate that developing and sustaining green practices enhances the bottom line through savings and through generation of new revenue streams aimed at like-minded consumers who are actively seeking green alternatives to the products and services they've used all their lives.

There is a delicate balance between being green and banking green. The catch for us is that many funeral home owners believe that our service cannibalizes profit derived from the sale of caskets and burial spaces. We intentionally commission our sale through their firms to ensure that profit loss doesn't occur, but we also point out that because cremation is the wave of the future, offering our service goes far beyond simply selling an urn and walking away.

The Hopeful Lesson: Change Will Happen

There are skeptics, certainly, but if you pay attention to the media and to what's being reported about business adoption of green practices, you'll no doubt see that progress is being made. When we entered the marketplace, no one had heard of planet-friendly cremation urn burial at sea in living coral reefs. Now, instead of blank looks, potential business partners say, "Yeah, we've heard of that. Tell me more."

Revolution is an interesting process, and we've discovered that it's far more interesting to be the instigator than the respondent. Helping others understand and enact change takes patience and creativity, but it can be (and should be) done.

We all want a better environment, we all want to leave a better legacy for our children and grandchildren, but none of us are willing to give up the 35 minute commute in the Expedition, either. The U.S. is so enormous geographically that we aren't being forced to consider alternatives to land burial yet, because "we still have plenty of space." In other parts of the world, green spaces disappeared long ago, and progressive, creative deathcare based on sustainability are the norm. In this country, we are a way off from that, but every small company like ours that does its part brings us one step closer.

Andrew Whitaker is the vice president of Great Burial Reef, Inc., based in Sarasota, Florida. He is a lifelong environmentalist, and holds an MBA from the University of Central Florida, and the coveted Certified Manager of Quality in Organizational Excellence from the American Society of Quality.