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cemetery full of crosses

By Eric Layer

I literally grew up in a cemetery. My dad ran the largest one in town for my entire childhood, and for a kid in the suburbs, the memorial park was a dream: trees to climb, hills to explore, and a back lot full of heavy machinery. It was a thriving business, too: I remember dinner table conversations about having to buy new land because lots were selling so quickly. As cremation became more popular, it seemed to only increase the upside, since mausoleums afforded more vertical space to sell. My father oversaw the construction of three new ones during his tenure.

It was a strangely gratifying family business. When we lost loved ones ourselves, the gravesites of friends and family members were indispensable places to reflect, gather, and remember. So, there was always a profound sense that we were doing important work by offering the same solace to others.

Somewhere, though, it began to dry up. People just quit going to cemeteries. Scattering became more popular than entombment, and burial became downright archaic. You even see the trends in the movies: graveside services are always settings for uncomfortable family conflict, and cemeteries are obvious spots for horror movies, but heroes like Anakin Skywalker and King Arthur always go out in a blaze of glory atop a fiery pyre. If you own a cemetery, you know what that’s doing to your bottom line.

A now-famous 2014 study summed up a lot of the pain. One in five American households (probably even more today) has cremated remains stored at home, and most of those have more than one set. That’s to say nothing of the remains that are thrown out in dumpsters or illegally scattered. Altogether, cemeteries as a whole have lost at least twenty percent, and likely more than half, of their market to a completely unforeseen alternative.

Still, the greatest opportunities often lie in the worst losses. When my firm was challenged by a cemetery client to help increase sales, we looked to the customers who had written us off. We decided to take a gamble: either cemeteries had been wrong all these years, and people didn’t really need a final resting place for closure; or we’d been right, and the unplaced remains were presenting a growing, unexpected burden to their survivors. Betting on the latter, we created a source of relief by promoting “Scatter Day,” an opportunity to lay to rest those who had died months or even years prior.

It turned out we were right. The phone rang so much that employees could barely keep up, and the cemetery served hundreds of families within the one-month campaign. More important was the emotional impact: we received an outpouring of letters and emails from attendees, thanking us for helping them to finally say goodbye.

Like a baseball player, the most dangerous thing that can happen to a business facing a slump is a loss of confidence. A rough year (or even a rough quarter) can cause leadership to reconsider deeply held convictions, or to become more opportunistic than strategic.

It’s true that the cemetery business will probably never again be what it was during my childhood. People may forever be tempted, now that it is an option, to defer memorialization until years after a death occurs. But really, that’s just a factor we must now incorporate into our business model. And we should expect more changes like it.

The fundamental truth is that grief requires memorialization. The families weeping with us at Scatter Day, celebrating closure after so many years of pain, confusion, and even guilt, prove that. And the cemeteries willing to confidently and bravely deliver on that truth, even as the means of delivery change and evolve, will be not only genuine leaders of their industry but genuine servants to their communities.


Eric Layer

Eric is the oldest millennial you’ll ever meet.

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For over a decade, McKee Wallwork and Company has been a leader and innovator in death care. The firm’s groundbreaking national market research is to this day the definitive consumer segmentation study on funeral care. On the creative front, MW+C was behind breakthrough work including the inception of Passare, “Scatter Day,” YODO, and the documentary The Empty Chair. MW+C has served as the agency of record for leading funeral homes, cemeteries, and death care brands from coast to coast. In addition, the firm’s robust research arm is responsible for developing the Death Care Disruption Index in partnership with Selected Independent Funeral Homes, and the Death Care Genogram in partnership with Passare. This fall, MW+C  will release its first book on the future of funeral service, The Right Way of Death, authored by partner Eric Layer.

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