Tom Crean has been helping families deal with death, grief, and final goodbyes for over 40 years.
A third-generation funeral director and president of the Canadian Independent Group of Funeral Homes, Crean has seen the traditional funeral change drastically over the years, particularly in the past decade.
Technological advances, increasingly dispersed families, financial realities, changing spiritual beliefs, cultural attitudes, and environmental awareness have all contributed to the decline of the traditional funeral.
“The baby-boomer trend has been one of overall abandoning of the previous traditions,” says Crean, who operates Kearney Funeral Services, one of the last family-owned funeral homes in Greater Vancouver.
“What’s happened in the last 10 years is that not only are the cultures changing, but the entire way we do business is changing.”
Traditional funerals consist of the standard visitation/viewing of the body, a funeral service, cemetery burial, and reception. But many funerals these days tend to be more to personalized, with social media memorials, digital slideshows, and video or musical tributes.
According to funeralfund.com, an organization that helps families raise money to fund their loved ones’ end-of-life ceremonies, many funeral homes are also increasingly offering specialized services such as prayer vigils, eco-friendly caskets and cremations, or philanthropic options that make it easy for families to donate to the charity of their choice in lieu of flowers.
“People are rediscovering the importance of memorialization, but they don’t want old solutions, they want new ones,” says Crean. “There’s a huge movement to redefine the funeral as a life celebration.”
A desire for less expensive and simpler ceremonies also appears to be a major driver. Cremation, which can be had for about a quarter the cost of most burials, has exploded in popularity over the last few decades and is now the preferred option for about 65 percent of Canadians—up from 6 percent in 1970.
Increasing consumer awareness is also forcing change, says Crean, who has long advocated for better regulation of the industry to protect families vulnerable to exploitation by monolithic funeral chains. These chains have acquired 80 percent of the Vancouver market in recent decades.
Conglomerates such as Service Corporation International (SCI)—which owns 1,800 funeral homes in North America, including in eight Canadian provinces—tend to charge nearly double that of small, family-owned funeral homes, according to data compiled by Everest Funeral Package, a Houston-based funeral planning service.
SCI has been accused of violating embalming laws, overselling cemeteries, mishandling corpses, and desecrating graves, making it the target of several class-action lawsuits.
A member of non-profit advocacy group Partners in Care Alliance (PICA), Crean has made it his mission to protect families from this type of abuse and regularly puts on educational seminars for end-of-life caregivers such as those who work at hospices and nursing homes.
Crean says the conglomerates charge more “because their entire legal framework exists to maximize the return to the investor.”
“I don’t believe in commissioned salespeople in end-of-life care,” he says, “There’s no place for public companies in funeral service.”
Crean is not alone in his concern. Other consumer advocacy groups have been springing up in recent years, and PICA will launch a sister organization this fall.
“I cannot believe the scale on which family enterprise is starting to organize,” he says. “It’s incredibly exciting. We’re the future, not [the conglomerates].”
As consumers become more aware of their rights and options, Crean sees the potential for a complete transformation in the funeral profession, where private or family-owned businesses offer a range of personalized, intimate, and affordable services.
Better regulations would spur cheaper, more sustainable services as well as overall efficiency, he says. In addition, cemeteries could become profitable if the land was zoned for re-use—which is the case in many countries but not in Canada—and designed as multi-function spaces featuring attractions such as picnic areas, botanical gardens, and child-friendly play areas.
“Once burial is affordable, once cemeteries are truly sustainable, once we have a [profitable] economic engine … I think our memorial parks will become celebrated,” says Crean.
“From my point of view, cemeteries need to become a destination.”