Dying in a Digital Age: 3 Ways the Funeral Business Has Been Transformed by Technology

You might say to yourself, “Funerals are not that difficult. Dig a hole, put the body in the ground.”

But what about writing an obituary via email by coordinating with a family member who is out of state? How about scanning treasured family photographs and putting together a memorial video moments before a visitation? Have you ever tried to track the movement of a deceased body from the place of death, through the embalming process, to a funeral, and then to the crematory for cremation? Trust me, we are very careful to be sure nothing gets lost or confused along the way. Planning a funeral takes a few more tools than just some packs of tissues on the pews and a shovel at a cemetery. We live in a mobile, instant access society and (contrary to popular belief perhaps) the funeral business is not immune to using technology in the workplace.

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1. Obits—One of the most observable technological changes has been for obituaries. Obituaries are still published in newspapers, but they are also regularly accessed on the internet. It used to be that a friend would have a few newspapers stockpiled to give you to tuck in the family Bible; now, obituaries are “shared” on social media sites like Facebook. It is also commonplace for funeral homes and newspapers to have websites where friends and family can go to read an obituary and leave a memorial message.

For funeral homes, email has become the new method of delivery for obituaries to newspapers, but every once in a while, we have to step back into the dark ages and send an obituary over the fax machine or read it out over the phone. Thank goodness hand delivering a photograph to the newspaper office is a thing of the past—scanning and sending as a .jpeg or .pdf is a real time-saver.

2. Music—The digital music libraries available at our fingertips are undeniably convenient, but there are few greater terrors as a funeral director than pressing the “play” button on an iPad or computer during a funeral and hearing the wrong music begin to travel through the pipes. Music can be one of the most personal and sacred elements of a funeral, yet many families these days opt for “canned” tunes or versions of old favorites sung by popular artists. I’ve even set up a keyboard to play recorded organ music at a graveside and held up a microphone to play a CD in a hearse stereo at a cemetery.

The words of the tried and true hymns still make their way into most funeral services, but in my humble opinion, there is nothing which quite compares to the harmony of the keys of a seasoned piano matched with seasoned voices singing in an old country church or the majesty of a pipe organ sounding in a grand sanctuary. A guitar solo or a bagpiper every once in a while are not bad either…

3. Virtual Files—Paper trails are important in courts, doctor’s offices, schools, and yes, even funeral homes. Each service we funeral professionals handle begins with a First Call Sheet of basic biographical information. The file balloons from there—containing everything from an obituary and a list of pallbearers to paperwork for an international flight and burial overseas. There are forms, bills, and vital statistics that are used throughout the process of planning a funeral, and all of it must be accurate and accessible. There are enough databases and shared folders and scanned copies to make your head spin. Even many Death Certificates are filed online these days with programs similar to the State of SC’s WebDeath system.

All of these records take up lots of space, but whether they are gathering dust in the back of the file room or stored away in cyberspace, death data and cemetery records make up a big chunk of local and national history and archiving them is an ongoing yet important challenge.

Smart phones give the general public instant access to service information and obituaries, and we funeral folks utilize the countless contacts and resources at our fingertips—GPS, weather forecasts, and Find A Grave.com to name a few. Emailing crucial documents to be signed and returned has become standard practice when serving families spread across the globe, and it will be interesting to see how our mobile society continues to incorporate technological advancements even in seemingly “low tech” fields.

As I post this from my iPhone, I’m acutely aware that striking a balance between “high tech” and “face-to-face” is extremely important not only in this line of work, but in how we move around from day to day, interacting with the public and within our close communities. Think I’ll step away from the screen for a while… Hope you find time to do the same.

 

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