The second installment (find the first herefrom awesome Austin-based funeral director Sarah Wambold documenting the process of opening her own funeral home.

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Hello funeral fam —

My last post was a big step for me. Putting my idea into the world was exciting and terrifying. Your wonderful response has helped me identify a need that was bigger than I expected. People need funeral homes that are reflective of them in much the same way that they need art they can identify with. Putting my idea out there also helped me understand the one thing I need to do to achieve my goal: stop thinking like a funeral director.

The funeral web is full of overwrought advice that goes nowhere. For example, I follow several funeral consultants and professional organizations on Twitter. This week, their tweets included that silly Starbucks-opening-in-a-funeral-home story (more consumerism!), various links to generic guides to social media, and another asked excitedly, “Does your funeral home have a blog?!” (They actually tweeted that one twice.)

I continue to follow them for examples of what not to do.

The real funeral world is not much better.

Last year, when I was still new to the idea of opening my own funeral home, I was seeking any advice I could get. At one point, I drove an hour and a half to meet with a funeral-home owner who was a friend of a former employer. I tried to avoid the drive, but after several uninformative emails and a failed attempted to Skype, in which he completely flaked on me (he blamed his age), I agreed to meet with him in person. He was 45 minutes late.

If I felt at that point that he didn’t take me seriously I knew for certain when he tried to get me to work for him instead of discussing my idea. He went on at length about his professional affiliations and the success of his many firms across several states. When I asked if he knew any women who owned funeral homes he said he did not but he had heard of them.

I had heard enough.

His advice was not to open a firm, but if I did I had to do at least 75 full service funerals a year to stay in business. While I was angry that he clearly hadn’t heard a word I’d said, I was even more upset that this person was in charge of a large number of funeral services in this country and considered a “leader” in the industry. It is infuriating, but oddly humorous, to find that the people at the top are so inconsiderate and out of touch.

Luckily, around this same time Your Mortician and I were in touch. She put me in contact with another funeral entrepreneur (yes, they exist!), Jeff Jorgenson of Elemental Cremation & Burial in Seattle, Washington. Locally owned and operated, Elemental is refreshingly 21st century in its understanding of what families want when planning and holding a funeral. They specialize in green options, perform online or home arrangements, and work with local providers to maintain and support the integrity of the community. Just spending time on the website feels different: no stock photos of folded hands, no mentions of church affiliations or street view photos of the funeral chapel. Even a quick comparison of Jeff’s photo with a Google image search of some local funeral directors shows that he seems a little more, I don’t know, alive?

 

I had millions of questions for Jeff about starting a business. Since his firm includes web-based services, I knew he’d be able to handle Skyping and email. Several conversations later, he has provided me with some very valuable guidance, particularly during moments when I sat in worriment as we talked about money, business structure, etc. — more on that in another post. And this advice from one of his emails is something I couldn’t agree with more:

I think that it’s critical for entrepreneurs to look across the boundaries of industry to identify practices and procedures that can be applied in their own firm. As absurd as it sounds, you need to look to sheep ranchers and software developers, credit card companies and house cleaners — collectively — to identify components that will spur innovation within your own world. There could be a supply chain innovation in tulip farming that revolutionizes the cremation process. Who knows?! The fun part is that innovation isn’t planned; it is a bizarre organic process that unfolds in concert with the relationships that you build outside of your own island.

It is almost too simple — if you don’t act like a “normal” funeral home, people will not be as quick to react to you as one. Given our industry leadership, it should surprise no one to see how hard it is for funeral firms to pin this exact concept down. Nearly every time I try to look into funeral “innovation” I slink away from my computer having consumed numerous articles that do little more than suggest new ways to promote old ideas.

Neither Jeff nor I are opening funeral homes for funeral directors. We are starting new businesses specifically with our own communities in mind — communities that value compassion, the environment, creativity and local ownership. When that notion begins to be considered industry-wide, maybe I’ll consider taking industry advice.

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Elemental Cremation & Burial

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