What is a modern progressive funeral director?

January, 2010: What is a modern progressive funeral director?

When looking at a definition for “progressive” one sees that: it’s the act of favoring or advocating progress, change, improvement…as opposed to wishing to maintain things as they are.  Well, I have certainly been on the latter as opposed to the “favoring of change” for many years. I joined this firm, in which I now own, twenty one years ago this month. The family who owned the firm at the time of my employment was a second generation family who was certainly stuck in the “time warp”. When questioning “why do we do it this way?” the answer was always the same:  “My dad did it that way!” Me: “Can we change the décor in the conference room?” Him: “Why? My dad had that paneling installed in 1950…what’s wrong with it?” Me: “ugh!!”

While we were the leading firm in town it became very apparent to me, early in my career, I was working for a family who not only wasn’t progressive but didn’t have a vision for the future. That’s great as long as our families we were serving never changed! Guess what…they did and still are!!!

When I purchased the business in 2006 one of the first things I felt needed was a total décor update. The mauve draperies were still in good condition and absolutely beautiful…back in the late 80’s and 90’s!!!…not in the 21st century! After weeks working with professional decorators and months of implementing their plan, we finally had a 150 year old building that looked like it belonged in the 21st century, while still maintaining the 150 year old historically integrity. Did it bring us more business?  Probably not…who knows? But it certainly improved our image and the comments from our community were staggering!

The following summer, we decided hanging baskets of wave petunias on our front porch would “dress” things up a bit. At that time we also planted over 100 wave petunias in the front landscape beds to match the hanging baskets…a color of vivid pink was chosen. These plants “exploded” by mid-summer and the front of our building took on a new look like no one had ever seen. People were literally pulling their cars to the side of the road to take pictures and once again, comments were unbelievable! Going into our fourth summer people were calling to ask when we were going to put our flowers out…Lowes Building Store’s Garden Dept. called inquiring what  the “Day & Carter Mortuary” flower was!  Huh??? People were actually going to Lowes asking for our flowers? Yeah, they wanted to plant them at their homes and Lowes needed to know what to tell them. Something as simple as brilliant, pink wave petunias differentiated us from our competitors…it showed the community “small things do make a big difference” and they appreciate it!  Our new brochures, newspaper advertising, billboards, price lists, etc. all have the theme with our wave petunias. While we, have for years, enjoyed a wonderful reputation in our community we now have a brand that certainly sets us apart from everyone else. Wave petunias being progressive…you bet!!!!  It’s about changing and keeping people talking about whom you are and what you offer and what makes you different!

One of the benefits of offering funeral services in a small mid-west community is changes do come slow…while much of the country has experienced huge cremation rates we have enjoyed an “envious”  low cremation rate for years.  Twenty years ago our firm had an annual cremation rate of 3%!!!  Not bad for a firm with a fifty year average of 230 calls!!!  Now our cremation rate has almost quadrupled!  Yes, 11% is still incredibly low but we have seen a significant rise in cremation and the interest in our community regarding cremation is overwhelming. While it still doesn’t make financial sense to install our own crematory it does make sense to take a proactive role in educating our families and community on all of the options available for cremation. For our family’s peace of mind, as well as ours, we have made arrangements to use an independent crematory for all of our cremations. I think it pays to know with whom you are doing business with and I want to make sure our cremations are handled properly. Our new cremation module, in our showroom facility, allows family members to view all of the services and products available to them when cremation has been chosen for final disposition. Last year over half of our families, who opted for cremation as opposed to burial, still had services and purchased a casket!

As a business owner the struggles seem endless and one nightmare that I encountered from the “old school” was inheriting accounts receivable. For many years our firm ran on our funeral contracts being written “due in 30 days”…never did we make sure a family could afford the services and merchandise they selected nor did we have the courage to ask them how they intended to pay for these services. Well guess what? At the end of every year we had many contracts that we were writing off. Not to mention many families coming back in telling us they were going to make payments…on their terms! I was now in a position, with a large debt, to make sure my company had the necessary cash to run on. I was no longer afforded the pleasure of just waiting and hoping families would pay. After much reading, research and attending numerous seminars, we implemented a new payment policy effective March 2007 that simply read: “Provisions for payment are due at time of arrangements” offering nine different payments options ranging from cash, check, credit cards, insurance assignments, and 90 days same as cash (funded thru American General)! Was it an easy transition? It was much more for my directors than it was for me. I made sure that all of our arrangers understood the policy and we rehearsed, practiced and talked for several weeks before the actual implementation. The results? I don’t have accounts receivable problems anymore!!!! Many of our families that are coming back in since 2007, needing our services, either have their insurance policies with them or simply write the check after you ask the one question at the end of reviewing their statement of goods and services: “how do you wish to pay for these services?” You business owners reading this are now asking the question: “how many families have left and called another funeral home?” Since this policy went in to effect in 2007 a handful have left mad! However, I can tell you that those were the families that it was my pleasure to call another funeral home for…they were the ones over the years that never paid, always complained about you and your services and always trashed your facility…but always came back for more! What’s interesting, my competitors obviously have had enough of these families also, because we have noticed that they are not so eager to run over here when we call to tell them that a family wishes to use them now instead of us!  It’s amazing how they have the same business struggles as we do!!!!

Personalization has been a “buzz” word for several years in our profession. While we offer the typical DVD tributes, memory boards and tables, special music and recordings we recently emerged into the memory portraits and Thumbies program. At first, we thought, will this really be something our families might have an interest in? Well, yes they do…during arrangement conferences we now see families bringing a special photo they want for their memory portrait and they wish to discuss how they can get a Thumbie well before we start discussing funeral arrangements. They are also very well in tune with our website and being able to view the obituary, sign the book and light a candle in memory of their family member.

Our lounge facility has had several renovations since we put it in a few years ago. It is more of a kitchen area than an actual “lounge” area. We are amazed that the food our families are bringing in is no longer just the meat and veggie trays but actual “hot” food items kept in crock pots! Yes, sometimes it’s a pain but we are accommodating them and they love being able to eat in the kitchen! Our children’s room is very simple but an amazing place for kid’s to be here with their parents but still get away and be able to act like children.

Yes, things are changing and changing fast they are! Hopefully are firm can stay on the cutting edge of offering our families what they need and want. We will certainly keep abreast of the many changing concepts and practices our profession is seeing and certainly will adapt if it serves our families well and they see the need. I would like to think we are now a progressive funeral home operating in the 21st century!

Brian Pace

Day & Carter Mortuary, Inc.

Bedford, IN

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