If ever there was an industry dying for an upgrade, it's death. Just ask the 5,000 souls at the National Funeral Directors Association's convention in Chicago in October. "Our profession has been very, very, very slow to change," says Bob Vandenbergh, a funeral director for 38 years and former president of the association.
And now? Well, this still is a business where old-timers refer to a 10-year-old funeral home as "new." But between the Funeral Service Foundation Golf Classic and a keynote by the Duchess of York, Sarah Ferguson, a tour of the exposition floor here reveals signs of, yes, life. Funeral directors, morticians, and cemeteries are discovering the customer-experience thing, adopting technology to personalize and speed a trade long rooted in cookie-cutter sameness.
Vandenbergh, for one, has teamed with Joe Joachim, a 25-year-old model turned Web wizard. With his spiked hair and entrepreneurial patter, Joachim makes most of the convention goers, with their stolid demeanors and lips-only grins, seem like death warmed over. "I want to be the Walt Disney of the industry," he boasts. "Not in terms of entertainment but innovation."
So funeralOne, the company Joachim and Vandenbergh founded, allows even tech-averse funeral directors to make tribute videos that look like something by Ken Burns. Just choose a theme from the menu for background video, pick some music, and scan in family photos. At a service, Vandenbergh says, "people will watch it several times over and ask for a copy. They're blown away." The video, burned onto a DVD, is a keepsake considerably more vivid than a funeral program. The price: typically, $25 per disk. "It's a powerful new memory and, frankly, a new source of revenue for us," says Kurt Soffe, a funeral director in Murray, Utah.
The expo also features technology to allow real-time funeral Webcasts so mourners unable to go can attend remotely. And that's before a body even makes it to the cemetery, where the $595 Memory Medallion awaits: Touch a special wand to the battery-sized disk embedded in a tombstone to display a picture of the deceased and 600 special words of his (or someone's) choosing—poetry, perhaps, or funny anecdotes—on a PDA or laptop.
Then, a few stalls down, nearly lost amid a Harley-drawn hearse and "extremities positioners"—you really don't want to know—we discover . . . the Vidstone! It's a regular tombstone, but with a 61???2-by-81???2-inch monitor, control buttons, and a gray plastic cover. "It's the same plastic used in sewer lines, so it won't corrode," says company founder Sergio Aguirre. "We didn't want something tacky." Powered by a solar panel, the $2,000 Vidstone, set to debut in January, plays a 10-minute video loop. "This changes the psychology when people visit a cemetery," he says. "They go from crying to smiling."
And that's the point: The death industry, after all, sells to the living, helping them grieve, remember good times, and let go. Or not: LifeGem, a company outside Chicago, turns a portion of your loved one's cremated remains (or a pet's) into an artificial diamond of up to 1.5 carats. In yellow, red, or blue, set into rings, necklaces, or whatever, they sell for $2,700 and up. Creepy? An urn filled with ashes—that's creepy, says CEO Greg Herro, who has already discussed gem colors with his wife (blue for him, red for her). "Most people don't take them off. They want to have their loved one around. And they like to show their diamond off."
Someday, they might even be buried with it.