American Funeral Director: Being Tech Savvy in 2021

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For the past 10-plus years, many funeral homes have turned their on-site selection rooms into a virtual experience. There was always a room inside the facility where caskets and other items were on display. Families could touch the caskets and choose what options they wanted as far as wood or metal, the different linings and overall what they wanted for their loved one.

But that has changed for some. Many funeral homes provide online selection rooms of all their offerings. These sites allow families to look at all the products and prices virtually at a visit to the funeral home or from the comfort of their home.

“We’ve been using a virtual selection room for close to 12 years,” said Steve Tweedle, the location leader for the Ocala and TimberRidge, Florida, locations of Hiers-Baxley Funeral Services.

Tweedle admits that when the funeral homes started using a virtual selection room, he wasn’t all that comfortable with it. “When it was first introduced, it was nerve racking moving from an actual selection room where a family walked in and saw a casket, put their hands on it, to having it shown virtually,” he said.

“There was apprehension on our part and we were nervous about it.”

But Tweedle credits the Baxley family and Andrew Clark, who he worked with at the time at Hiers-Baxley and is now the chief customer officer of Foundation Partners Group, with making sure the staff was up to speed and ready to serve their families.

“After we got it in the arrangements office, there was a lot of learning,” Tweedle said. “One of the things the Baxley family and Andrew Clark facilitated was brainstorming sessions – how do you handle certain situations if this pops up? We went over the best practices to use. One of the things I remember, as a family is clicking through a virtual catalog, how do you describe it to the family? If you are manually clicking through 20 caskets, what do you say? We refined that through experience and the brainstorming.

“What I do when they are selecting a casket virtually, I ask them, No. 1, if they have ever selected a casket before?” he added. “Generally I review it with them – the different types of metal and wood – and ask them, ‘What do they think the right casket would be for their mom?’”

Hiers-Baxley Funeral Services uses a program called Advisor from Mathews Aurora for its virtual selection room. Part of that program has an interactive arrangement, which according to its website:

Helps funeral arrangers guide families through the entire arrangement process. Transform your arrangement office with a large video monitor for reviewing choices for creating a meaningful funeral or memorial event.

Bring your general price list to life through an interactive selection process that helps you educate families about the different services available at your funeral home. Review digital merchandise catalogs with high resolution product images and personalization of caskets, urns, vaults, keepsakes and more.

“With Advisor, we can narrow down the casket to a specific color or specific material,” Tweedle said. “Also it will only show us what caskets we can get immediately. We will get it by the next day. If it doesn’t pop up in Advisor, we know we can’t get it.”

Chad Frye, the market leader for the Thompson Funeral Homes with locations in Lexington and Columbia, South Carolina, also uses Advisor for their virtual selection room.

“We use the technology as a method for a family making selections for caskets, urns and ancillary products, including keepsake jewelry, flowers, casket frames and more. All of that is at our disposal,” Frye said. We have been using it since 2014. The software allows us to walk a family through the actual process.”

South Carolina law requires funeral homes to still have a physical selection room with a minimum of six caskets.

“When you tell a family you have the capability to do the selection process virtually, they relax,” Frye said. “It’s tough for families and it’s a sigh of relief for those folks who don’t want go into a selection room. On the other hand, we still have families who want to go into the selection room.

“We have a blend. We’re heavy on the technology but provide the caskets in the selection rooms at our funeral homes,” he added. “We’re pretty blessed to have both. From a business standpoint, it’s good that it lowers the cost of overhead. We can have 60 caskets in a virtual selection room.”

Just like Tweedle, Frye had some apprehension when first using a virtual selection room.

“I’m still old enough to have started with a calculator, general price list and a contract,” he said. “There was a learning curve at first but then I and our funeral directors at our other funeral homes started to feel comfortable and proficient with it. It is so simple the way it flows that it becomes secondhand. It’s really a good thing.”

While some may think that senior citizens may not be comfortable using it, Tweedle says that’s not always the case.

“You’d be surprised that the older generation is quite OK with a virtual selection room,” he said. “I did have a family recently ask about a showroom but many haven’t asked in years. Everything is on the computer now, and it’s no big deal for them. What you’ll see happen is that we show them what we have online and we can filter through the different colors and narrow it down for the families. With urns, there’s a great variety. We have a huge selection, more than 100. The families can also find register books, thumbprint jewelry, flag cases and other memorial products.

“We also work with two local florists and we have their catalogs uploaded into our system,” he added.

“It shows what flowers they can order and that increases revenue. Multiple family members can order flowers.”

Since a Mathews Aurora service center is within a 15-mile radius of his funeral homes, Frye can get the items ordered quickly. “If a family wants to look at two caskets, we can have them at our facility sometimes within an hour,” he said. “Generally speaking, we will have the casket 8 a.m. the next day.”

Another advantage to having the selection room virtually is it opens up space in a funeral home for other uses.

“We allocated some of the floor space where the selection room was to a lounge where people can get a cup of coffee, water or a soda to relax,” Tweedle said.

According to Funeral Service Insider’s 2020 casket survey, 25% of the respondents have eliminated a casket selection room in the past five years – and 27% said they eliminated one more than five years ago. An additional 13% were considering eliminating a casket selection room in the next 24 months – and only 4% reported eliminating a casket selection room and then bringing it back.

“I think COVID-19 will certainly have an impact on the arrangement process from now and on forward into the future,” said Danielle Thacker, vice president of sales and marketing at Thacker Caskets about the 2020 survey. “Many funeral homes who were teetering on the edge of digital presentations have now been forced to go that way. The medium used in presenting a casket is not necessarily an indicative factor in casket sales – it is the product mix and the pricing that is used.

“A poorly merchandised physical showroom can have just as much detriment on casket sales as a poorly merchandised digital presentation,” she added. “It is important to work with someone who is an expert in casket merchandising to create an individualized plan for what is most appropriate for your funeral home and the families you serve.”

Ryan Reyes, the director of business development for J3 Tech Solutions, sees the use of technology increasing in all areas.

“Funeral homes and cemeteries utilizing more technology helps them serve their families. It’s the next level of servantship,” he said. “The baby boomers come into play and they are more technology savvy. Having that versatility means that technology is the way to go.”

When previously working as director of operations for StoneMor, Reyes helped integrate virtual selection rooms into funeral homes.

“We had a wireless keyboard and mouse and connected it to a large screen TV and could show everything there,” he said. “At one location, they had 10 caskets in their showroom. Now they could offer much more than 10 caskets and urns, keepsakes, different types of jewelry. You can show the versatility of memorialization. You pick out everything you need for a service. Some even offer cash advance selections if a family needs that.”

Tweedle has been a funeral director for 27 years and has adapted to all the benefits technology has brought.

“I could have never imagined not walking a family into a selection room and showing them a casket,” he said. “But really the anxiety was on our end at the start, not the family’s. Once we were able to overcome that, it worked well. People are so fluent in ordering items from their computer that they appreciate the options a virtual selection room has.”

“I wouldn’t have seen this coming years ago,” Reyes added. “When I was a kid, my family had a funeral home in Chicago and half of the basement was a casket selection room. I used to play hide- and-seek there with my friends.

“As technology continues to develop and the American consumers like to have options, versatility and speed, we almost have to change the way we do business to cater to the new digital age,” he added. “It’s not the old days when you could show up at a family’s home with a pot of coffee.”

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