Graveyard Shift: The Changing Perception of Death

March, 2022

Death is a subject typically discussed only when necessary – often through short, uncomfortable conversations. But with the ongoing pandemic, the realities of death have been pushed to the forefront of mainstream conversation and experience. In fact, more than 1 in 5 (21%) US adults told us in February they’ve lost a loved one in the past twelve months.* With this increase in attention to death, the conversation around its inevitability is evolving to encompass more purpose, pragmatism, and creativity. As death moves from taboo to talked-about, people Flip the Script on what it can mean for themselves and their loved ones. Driven by values like change and empowerment, our macrotrend Flip the Script unearths the mainstream mission to challenge “norms” with a new purpose and perspective. Does our current death discussion have an expiration date? Read on to learn more.

Passing with Purpose

People are taking a more active role in the death planning process and making arrangements tailored more to the individual than to tradition. As a result, emerging alternatives to the deathcare industry such as traditional funerals, burials, and cremation practices are becoming more personalized and value-driven. Some are choosing burial options that are more earth-conscious. For those enthusiastic about protecting ocean life, Eternal Reefs, established in 1998, has recently gained new attention in the Washington Post for its role in the growing green burial industry as the company gives people the power to nurture the oceans’ reef systems with their remains. Other brands offer ways for people to sustain the soil post-mortem. Washington-based death services brand Recompose, which opened for business the same year of the start of the pandemic in 2020, allows people to sustainably turn their remains into organic compost. While at-home composting is well-established in the world of gardening, human composting is an approach that can save one metric ton of carbon dioxide by scrapping the traditional embalming process and coffin burial. Though some people are making their post-burial more purposeful, others are focused on what precedes and what that means for their loved ones during their end-of-life transition. One modern funeral home in Brooklyn, NY, Sparrow, offers “exit parties,” events geared towards celebrating a person’s life prior to their passing. Deathcare alternatives like these are revolutionizing the industry and empowering people to seek out more personalized and purposeful possibilities.

Accelerating Dead-ucation

The conversation around death is making inroads on various platforms, spreading education and broadening perspectives. On TikTok, subcultures foster conversation around niche topics and curiosities, and “death” is certainly not in the shadows. #DeathTok currently has over 125M views as professionals are taking to TikTok to spread information to (or “Dead-ucate”) their followers. Influencers like @hollisfuneralhome (813K followers) and @lovee.miss.lauren (482K followers) dive deep into all things embalming, decomposition, corpse makeup, funeral logistics, and more, through Q&A and informative videos. Influencers like these play an active role in normalizing and humanizing death, which is pivotal to evolving the larger conversation on the topic. Dead-ucation does not stop at social media; brands are similarly taking action to inform the interested public. Eirene, a cremation company launched in 2019, has a prominent “learn” section on its website filled with guides on topics ranging from insurance options to sustainable practices. In an interview with The New York Times, Eirene founder Mallory Greene discusses how logistics for death planning can be stressful and burdensome, especially while grieving. This past November, the forward-facing company unveiled a free online memorial/obituary website to aid in the honoring of loved ones from all corners of the world. Brands like Eirene are simplifying and demystifying the death planning process by helping their customers make informed decisions and enabling people to handle arrangements completely online.

What It Means

While death can be an inherently difficult topic to broach, the dialogue around the subject is evolving and normalizing. In fact, 84% of adults told us in December that “these days, sensitive topics that were once avoided are discussed more openly.”** Deathcare brands are listening to the shifting conversation and adopting new ideas to transform a long unchanged industry. But this shift is not just relevant for brands within the deathcare industry itself. All brands have an opportunity to evolve the life expectancy of their own products and consider the ways in which the life and after-life of these products can be treated with the same level of purposeful intention.

Brand Implications

The increased attention people are giving to death planning can inspire brands to do the same with their own products and services. The value of any purchase does not have to perish after its “life-expectancy.” Brands can consider approaches to repurposing their offerings so that they can embark on a “second life” beyond the trash can, evoking more purpose and possibility. Here is what this can look like in action:

  • Technology: A tech brand can partner with schools across the nation and give a “second life” to unwanted electronics. From new and used computers to recyclable electronic parts, people can get involved and reduce waste at the same time! Sound the alarm on socials with #TechToTeach, set up donation sites in-store, and even explore a door-to-door pick-up option so everyone can get involved.
  • “Post-Live” Events: Sporting events are times for epic experiences, snappable moments, and memory-making. Outdoor venues can repurpose times of vacancy or “post-live time,” and open their doors to their local communities for a #DayOfPlay. Empty baseball, football, or soccer fields for example can make for great parks on a warm day. Open your concession stands for an added level of indulgence!
  • Insurance: A life insurance company has a unique role given its proximity to the death space. A company can implement a program geared towards the loved ones of those that have passed. Through open dialogue around the topic of death and shared experiences, those that are grieving and coping may have a safe space to discuss, question, and unpack. This can range from webinars hosted by guest speakers and professionals to more intimate focus groups.

Sources: *Horizon Media, Finger on the Pulse. Survey fielded 1/30/22-2/13/22, n=1,129;**Horizon Media, Finger on the Pulse. Survey fielded 11/29/21-12/9/21, n=1,140

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