Opinion – Futurewatch: will our sector be reactive or proactive?

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Ecoffins customer services manager Julian Ferguson shares the company’s thoughts on how the funeral sector could evolve over the next 25 years

The need to honour and mourn those we care about when they die remains as strong as ever. What is open to question is how we might choose to do this over the next 25 years or so.

Change is here to stay

A number of factors will drive significant change in the funeral industry. The factors that will drive change in the funeral market in UK are:
• changing religious and social behaviours
• financial pressures and social causes
• government regulation and intervention

What the funeral industry has to decide is whether it is best served by being reactive in the face of change, or proactive and interventionist in seeking to influence outcomes deemed detrimental to the industry and the public we serve.

Changing religious and social behaviours

Whilst estimates vary, the percentage of the population that identify as Christian is 43%, with the next largest group, having no religion, at 37%. The balance is made up of all the other faiths. Of course there are significant regional differences but it’s clear that the UK is increasingly secular in outlook.

Christian burials and cremations make up the majority of all funerals. These vary widely from strictly religious to the more interpretive and personality-driven. All the signs are that over the next 25 years the focus will shift away from funerals driven by religious rites towards more secular personalised funeral services.

More funeral options will lead to increasingly secular, cause-related funeral services

The implications for the funeral industry are that requirements will very gradually polarise between those who will be seeking a “total service” akin to today’s wedding planner, and those who will be seeking the statutory minimum such as a direct cremation, terramation or aquamation, as the latter become more cost-effective and established.

Financial pressures and social causes

The cost of living crisis and Covid are the two factors credited with the rise in direct cremations over the last few years. This rise is driven predominantly by it being the lowest cost option. Sometimes it is supplemented with “add-ons” such as a “service” in a chapel of rest.

Funerals are perceived as being expensive, because the public understanding of what is involved is poor and the sudden expenditure is invariably unexpected or unplanned. If the deceased has a funeral plan, the money put aside may not cover all the costs.

The 2024 SunLife survey showed 59% had cut back on certain aspects to save costs, 35% took money out of savings and investments and 25% put the cost on their credit card.

Moving forward it’s likely that more funeral options will lead to increasingly secular, cause-related funeral services. Concerns such as climate change may become popular themes, featuring calls to action to the congregation which in the past were the home of purely religious messages. The speed and intensity of this shift will be driven by the degree of perceived urgency.

Government regulation and intervention

Government both central and local is taking more of an interest in the funeral industry than it has historically. Local councils are seeking ways to cut costs and generate more income, particularly through their own cemeteries and crematoria. This may be achieved through increased prices, improved efficiency or sale of the assets to private companies.

Additional pressure will come from central government by encouraging crematoria to improve their carbon emissions. Initially this will be through moves to electric rather than gas power, and mandating alternatives to plywood and chipboard coffins that are prevalent currently.

Improvements in terramation and aquamation technology, coupled with shortages of burial space in many parts of the country, will spur central and local government to accelerate the legislative changes required for wide adoption, giving the public greater choice and flexibility.

What does this mean for the future?

Funeral directors will need to provide a much broader range of services and funeral options. The funeral director’s role in 25 years’ time will be much more akin to a Wedding Planner. This shift will accelerate the growth of multi-funeral parlour groups, as the need for a wider range of in-house disciplines and skills, combined with tight margins makes economies of scale critical. Creative use of artificial intelligence and establishing a strong brand presence will be increasingly important for success.

The funeral director’s role in 25 years’ time will be much more akin to a Wedding Planner

The social and financial pressures touched on here will drive more change in the funeral industry over the next 25 years than they have done in the previous 200 years. It will be an exciting time for the industry.

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