Like it or not, we’re all going to die. What we don’t all have to do, however, is have a traditional funeral service as a sendoff.
Death is big business in the U.S., with the funeral and burial industry bringing in about $20 billion each year. Packages tend to be expensive, averaging around $7,000 to $10,000; margins are high, at around 23% to 27%; and options for customizing the service to suit the personality of the deceased or their loved ones are usually limited.
There is also significant consolidation and monopoly power. Houston, Texas-based Service Corp. International, the largest funeral company in the world, owns more than 1,900 funeral homes across 45 U.S. states and much of Canada. As it has gained scale, its prices have increased to about 47% to 72% above its competitors.
Enter the funeral disruptors. A small but growing collection of startups is angling to take on Big Death. They offer things like more affordably-priced caskets, apps that allow users to arrange cremation services, and alternatives to traditional funerals or burials — like having a home funeral, shooting ashes up into the sky as fireworks, or a “green burial” allowing bodies to naturally decompose.
Felicia Barlow Clar, an event planner turned funeral disruptor, works as a sort of concierge for funeral alternatives. Her business is growing and appears poised to increase. Millennials, the generation which made “disruption” the norm, are now as old as 40. As they deal with deaths of parents and other relatives, and eventually start working on their own end-of-life plans, it seems unlikely most will stick with traditional funerals over more creative and less costly options.
We spoke to Barlow Clar about her work and how the death industry is changing. Here is what she told us.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Business of Business: Can you tell us, Felicia, what you do and just explain that for us.
Felicia Barlow Clar: I call myself a funeral disruptor because I plan “celebrations of life,” which I’m now calling “celebrations of love,” because that’s what they really are, as an alternative to funeral homes and the funeral home environment. Just doing things that are more personalized.
How is that different from having a funeral in a funeral home?
Well, for instance, I did a few this past summer and one of the readers that I had come in for the deceased was a numerologist. [The deceased] worked at NASA, so she knew a lot about the moon, and had a big connection to the moon. You don’t see a lot of metaphysical people in the space of funeral homes. They tend to lean towards Christianity.
At my sister’s service I had everybody up and dancing at the end. I played a lot of live music and told the story of her life. So I turned the funeral directors in that funeral home into stage management and live stage producers. I’m even doing them outside of funeral homes.
Explain more about that. So you have done funerals, where the deceased is there, and it’s not in a funeral home. Right?
Correct. I’ve primarily worked with people who have been cremated. I can work with bodies. That’s something I actually found out from a funeral director. She’s like, “you can do that.” But yeah, so far all of mine have been cremated.
That’s another reason I kind of founded this business because the cremation rate has risen so dramatically over the past few years. Now it’s a lot more common than actual burial. So I’ve done services like these in somebody’s backyard, and at a botanist facility. There are just so many choices that you can do to fit the person.
Now the funeral industry itself, I think people don’t realize how consolidated it is. A couple of big companies own a lot of it, right?
Primarily around the country. I’m in Maryland, and my sister is actually a former funeral director. And I learned from her that Maryland is almost the opposite of that, that we have a lot of “mom and pop” funeral homes still.
Right. And the costs are very, very high. What does an average funeral cost in America right now?
I think about $9,000 to $10,000 is on the low end. But that’s something else I’m trying to disrupt. I have a podcast airing soon with the director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. He helped me understand how we can flip that on its ear because as consumers, we go into funeral homes thinking they can dictate the price. He’s like, “oh no, just like any other event, you go in with your budget and say, “this is what I want to spend,” and they can always work around it.
What does all that money go to?
It depends on cremation, the burial, you know, I mean when somebody is buried, there’s so many attached fees to that. Like the vault that goes into the ground, the casket, the tombstone. Then there’s all kinds of stuff they tend to want to sell you that a lot of people don’t want or don’t need. The prayer cards, programs, you know a lot of people don’t need that.
"[Y]ou can actually buy a casket through Costco. People don’t know that you can get a bargain casket."
It does strike me that there is an opportunity for very huge margins. I don’t know what it costs to make a casket versus how much these funeral homes sell caskets for. I assume there is a lot of wiggle room. Is that right?
Oh yeah, that’s very right, because you can actually buy a casket through Costco. People don’t know that you can get a bargain casket. And then of course, you know, things like green burial really bring it down because it has to be compostable. You could even just put someone in a shroud [for a green burial].
So about disrupting the funeral industry, then, what kinds of things do you do to help people save money?
For one, just educating them about direct cremation and even direct burial. Those are different options that help bring it down. Even shopping around, I mean of course, it’s ideal to do that prior to somebody passing away. But one funeral home down the street can be drastically different from another one right around the corner because of markups in their pricing. Let’s say you get someone cremated — you can pay anywhere from like $900 up to $3,000, because it just depends where you go.
My big thing, too, is just educating people about all of this. And I have learned the hard way. You know, my family really has suffered a lot of loss in my life. When my stepfather and my sister both passed away, like within a year and a half of each other, we went to the same funeral home. And they handed us the same templates. This company claims to be very personalized, but they’re handing me the same templates. My stepfather, we could find something that fit his personality, but for my sister, nothing fit her.
Interesting. It almost strikes me that you’re sort of acting like a wedding coordinator or a planner who helps couples do DIY, like Do-It-Yourself weddings, that are not necessarily by the book. Is that kind of like what you do?
It’s one of the things that I offer. I’m more than happy to consult with people and educate them. I am an event producer and a video producer. So I offer that service as well. There are a lot of services I did this summer that allow the family to actually participate and have the space to grieve and heal. I truly believe that a service should be a beginning space for healing. I don’t find that’s what most funerals are. It’s all about the grief and people left behind and I like to focus on the person who died and their life and their legacy, why they matter to these people who are showing up.
Just to get at the nuts and bolts, so people come to you for what exactly? For consulting, or how would you describe it?
Primarily right now they come to me to actually do a service, or celebration of life, outside a funeral home. There were a few cases that I worked with over the past year where people died during the pandemic. And so their loved ones were cremated. They came to me because they wanted something far more personal.
Are people doing these in addition to a traditional funeral or in lieu of a traditional funeral?
In lieu of.
Oh interesting. So you’re mostly doing this with cremated remains, but I guess it’s possible theoretically to do it with someone in a casket. What are the regulations around this?
It is state by state. Generally, you can be your own funeral director in most states. There are only nine states where you actually have to call a funeral home to help you. But generally, you can do it all on your own. I mean, home funerals are starting to become a bigger thing. That is how we used to bury all of our families was in home funerals. The Funeral Consumers Alliance, again, is a great resource for that, because they have local chapters which go into each state’s regulations.
"[I]f you want your body to go up in fireworks, you can do that. You can have your cremains sent to space."
Have you gotten any feedback about what you do from people in the funeral industry?
I haven’t really talked to many. When I first decided to do this, I was lucky enough to have a sister who I could turn to and ask her what she thought. She was like, “They’re going to look at you as competition.” So I haven’t approached them. I would like to approach them more. They need event planners. People are starting to grasp spirituality and different religions and more people wanting to do things their own way.
I’m sure I know of people who would rather not put a huge burden on their loved ones and would be fine with a Costco casket. What in theory could a person save if they are going with a Costco casket and a home funeral or cremation. If they’re not dealing with funeral homes?
I would think thousands of dollars. You know the services I’ve done this summer have been less than half of that. Of course, you could add things that would increase the cost, like catering, which might make it more expensive. There’s just so many options out there.
That’s what I think a lot of people don’t realize is how many things that are out there that are available to them. Like, you know, if you want your body to go up in fireworks, you can do that. You can have your cremains sent to space. And these are not things that a funeral home is going to offer to you and tell you about because it pretty much doesn’t hit their bottom line.
Wow, so you can help people if they’re interested in that kind of service?
Yeah, that’s definitely where I lean. Let’s do something that fits the person. So if you want to go up in fireworks, we can arrange that.
Interesting. I mean, it’s such a dark topic, but it’s also like such an important one that we probably should all spend some time thinking about.
Absolutely. Like, I don’t consider it a dark topic. I consider it a sacred topic. Because I’m like, we’re all gonna die. We don’t want to face that reality, but it’s part of the life cycle. We’re born and we die. I look at birth and death as a mirror of each other. So I do consider it a very sacred thing. And I believe everybody should plan ahead.