Tips for Discussing Cremation with Families

I’ve been fascinated by the topic of cremation ever since I started working at Homesteaders many years ago. Being new to the funeral profession, I struggled to understand why the topic generated such differing reactions among funeral professionals. As I’ve spent more time understanding the dynamics at play for many in the profession, I started to realize that the issue was more complicated than I’d originally thought. That is why I was excited that Homesteaders sponsored a joint research project with the Cremation Association of North America (CANA) in 2019. We heard directly from consumers about their personal cremation experiences so we could better understand their motivations and perspectives on this topic.

After listening to nearly 12 hours of consumer discussions over the course of several days, a few things stood out to me that you may find useful when helping a family prearrange, particularly if they have expressed an interest in cremation.

1. Cremation is not always about price.

While some families do choose cremation because it is less expensive than other alternatives, price is not always the deciding factor. There are many reasons why families choose cremation, including practical considerations and personal preferences.

Putting It in Practice: Instead of making assumptions about the services and merchandise a family wants based solely on their choice of cremation, ask open-ended questions and allow them to share their preferences.

2. Cremation provides an ongoing connection.

Several of the focus group participants talked about how they derived comfort from keeping at least some of their loved one's ashes with them as a way to maintain their bond going forward.

Putting It in Practice: Use this opportunity to suggest ways to facilitate a continuing connection to the deceased through thoughtfully chosen personal keepsakes.

3. Word choices matter.

Several examples arose during the discussions that highlighted disconnects between consumer and funeral professional terminology. You may have noticed I used the word “ashes” earlier. That is because it is the term consumers use. Funeral professionals typically say “remains” instead of “ashes.” Another example is the confusion surrounding burial and cremation and the tendency to talk about them as if they are mutually exclusive options when they are not. Even if these terms are used as a type of industry shorthand, consumers don’t know that and may interpret the terms, and their meaning, literally.

Putting It in Practice: Talk to families the way they talk with you, taking care to use the words and terminology that make sense to them, while avoiding industry jargon.

After listening to consumers’ varied experiences, it is clear why it’s so important for funeral professionals to present every option to every family every time so they realize what’s available to them. It would be nice if we could refrain from categorizing families with qualifiers such as “burial” or “cremation” and instead focus on providing consistently excellent service to all families, regardless of the elements they choose as part of their arrangements.

You can never go wrong putting the consumer first when making decisions about how to meet their needs. Hearing consumers share their experiences and feelings in their own words, whether in a focus group or regular conversation, is very powerful. They may not always say what we would like them to say, but we should definitely pay attention. I feel very fortunate that consumers were willing to discuss sensitive, and deeply personal, topics with a group of strangers so that we could all gain insight into how to better serve families in the future.

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