By EILENE ZIMMERMAN
November 2, 2016
Death and dying can be costly, but they are rarely considered a business by consumers. Many would rather not ponder critical decisions about feeding tubes, funeral homes and other end-of-life issues until the need is thrust upon them.
But as our population ages and the industry gets more attention, new firms — many of them technology companies — are setting out to compete on price and convenience.
This $18 billion funeral industry has long been a technology holdout, said Dan Isard, president of the Foresight Companies, a financial management firm in Phoenix, which specializes in funeral and cemetery professions.
Mr. Isard said funeral directors “would rather sit across from someone and talk to them, listen to them, than have them go online and try and figure it out for themselves.” That is also one reason the death care industry, as it is called in the industry, has been able to maintain its lack of pricing transparency. But with nearly 2.6 million people dying annually in the United States, entrepreneurs see an opportunity to innovate.
A new crop of tech start-ups is hoping to capture a slice of that sector. Many are founded by millennials, who have grown up online and expect to shop for — and curate — everything there.
As baby boomers become more comfortable shopping online, these start-ups are finding a highly engaged audience. And those in their 20s and 30s, hitting major life events like marriage, the birth of a child or the loss of a parent, also require planning services.
The typical customer would be someone like Michelle LaBerge, a resident of Oshkosh, Wis., who recently turned 50 and helped her parents move into an assisted living community. Those events reminded her that she needed to get her own affairs in order.
She was put off, however, by the hassle and expense of having to consult a lawyer. But when she ran across a Groupon offer in February from a start-up called Willing, which provides state-specific estate planning documents online that can be updated any time, she decided to try it.
For $30, Ms. LaBerge created a will customized to suit her particular circumstances. “It was very easy,” she said. “I compared it to my parents’ will, done by an attorney, and it looked the same.”
The founders of Willing, Eliam Medina and Rob Dyson, wanted to create a platform that allowed users to complete their own estate planning documents like a will, power of attorney and health care directive.
“If you look at what TurboTax has done for tax planning, we wanted to do the same thing for estate planning,” said Mr. Medina, the company’s chief executive.
An early version of the platform was introduced in Florida in January 2015. Consumers were invited to try the service free and about 500 wills were created, Mr. Medina said. That summer, Willing, based in Miami, went through the start-up incubator Y Combinator, where it expanded to all 50 states. The company has raised $7 million. Mr. Medina says 25,000 wills a month are created on the platform.
Until the 2008 recession, the funeral industry had largely been unchanged, said David Nixon, president of Nixon Consulting, which works with funeral home owners. But since then, consumers have been actively looking for deals and other ways to simplify the funeral process.
Enter the start-up Parting, founded about a year ago in Los Angeles, an online directory of funeral homes searchable by ZIP code, which allows users to compare prices and services, and view the homes’ locations.
A team of people posing as shoppers seeks out pricing and services information from funeral homes that are unaware the information is for the site. An increasing number of funeral directors, however, are voluntarily working with Parting to put their information in the database, which now has more than 15,000 funeral homes.
It is backed by an angel investor and is increasing about 27 percent a month in searches and visitors, said Tyler Yamasaki, a founder.
Still, it has been an uphill battle getting these traditionally small, mom-and-pop companies to promote themselves, Mr. Yamasaki said.
“It’s a big, slow industry and a lot of these funeral homes aren’t open to start-ups,” he said. Funeral homes can get a free basic listing on Parting or pay for a premium listing, which increases their visibility. If a home gets a customer through the listing, Parting collects 12 to 15 percent of the funeral bill as its fee.
Another start-up in Los Angeles, Grace, is tackling all of the issues that can overwhelm family members coping with grief after the death of a loved one. There is little guidance about what to do when someone dies, said Alex Kruger, Grace’s co-founder and chief executive.
“Like what are the 60 things I need to do in the next three months? At Grace we say, ‘Here are the 17 things you need to do this week’ and you can check them off as you do them. Here’s what you do the week before someone dies, when they die and then two weeks later.”
Today, most of Grace’s customers call in and are helped by staff members who are also licensed funeral directors — including Mr. Kruger and his co-founders. “In some ways death is still handled by talking to other people,” he said.
Grace connects families with vetted providers, including estate lawyers, financial planners, funeral homes and caterers. Customers receive a list of tasks to complete before and after a death, including the necessary paperwork, but the staff can also help with funeral planning, filling out forms and other tasks.
Mr. Kruger said Grace has had some unusual requests, like shipping a body to Romania and closing a deceased individual’s Tinder account.
The company, founded in June, has raised under $2 million in seed funding and transactions are growing about 20 percent a month. Grace’s services are offered only in Southern California, but Mr. Kruger said they would be in Northern California by the end of the year and in additional states next year.
Possibly the most difficult situation consumers face is to decide how to be cared for at the end of their lives, and communicating that to family members.
Cake, a start-up in Boston created at M.I.T.’s Hacking Medicine conference’s Grand Hack in 2015, helps users decide end-of-life preferences, like the extent of life support or what to do with their Facebook page. It then stores the choices in the cloud and shares them with those who are designated.
The start-up has been self-financed until now but is now closing a seed round, said Suelin Chen, a founder and chief executive.
The platform asks users a series of questions to help them determine their preferences. Their answers are used to populate their Cake profile, to which they can add notes and instructions to family members or friends.
An environmentalist, for instance, could learn that others sharing his green values donated their bodies to science. Or the person could arrange for a biodegradable burial.
“People get very inspired by what other people do. It’s a part of living,” Ms. Chen said. And now it’s part of dying, too.