Thoughts from the Niche’ – Options, Change and Outreach

Cremation rates continue to rise across North America. It began in the larger cities and has continued to creep into every area of the continent. With that continuing increase, we see many communities behind the curve, each trying to catch up with inventory and options. In some respects, this can be seen as an advantage. These communities can learn from mistakes and successes from other jurisdictions over the past several years.

What we see as fickle consumers may simply mean having an area merely for placement is no longer enough. Families we serve want something different, interesting and personal. I will be the first to admit that my focus was not always geared to that need.

When I was running a large municipal cemetery operation, our cemetery rules and regulations were visibly shown at all entrances to our sites. These rules and regulations stipulated everything you were not allowed to do and strict procedures you had to follow for everything else. What I missed is that a great deal of these rules were not necessarily put in place for the families we had the honor to serve, but to make things easier and more aligned to what we thought worked best for us as a cemetery.

Having traveled to many cemeteries, I notice these same signs almost everywhere, and while I realize that we must have them, we must think of the purpose of each regulation. Also, shouldn’t the first impression be how we welcome people into our cemeteries?

The same way of thinking was used when it came to options for cremation interment. We have the standard rectangle columbarium or the 2 inch by 3 inch flat marker plot, both with extremely limited personalization options. Cremation became an afterthought – and we missed the boat early on. It is no wonder we now see that over 60% of cremated remains do not end up at cemeteries or other official places of interment. This is not an indictment on every cemetery location, but it was certainly a large majority.

Many areas have begun to learn these lessons and are now opening their cemeteries and minds to the options. There are benches, monuments or boulders that allow for placement of cremated remains within. Scattering gardens or ossuaries allow for comingling of cremated remains. Large-scale columbaria and small family niche units are all becoming more popular.

We now see committal shelves for use on a niche the day of inurnment. Some cremated remains are being turned into pieces of art or used to create art. Columbarium designs are beginning to suit the sites, rather than just being cookie cutter layouts that are simply dropped in an area. People see the quality of what you have, how well it is constructed, stands up over time or how personal it is.
Being involved in many great projects that were embraced by clients gave me a sense of accomplishment. But having also been involved in ones that did not live up to our original hopes allowed me to learn. All of this moves us forward and adds value for the families we serve.

We have the tools to find and/or show better options. The internet allows for direct contact with families and the public. Having heard many great presenters over the years, one speaker stood out by asking, “Do we really know who our clients are?” It is a great question as they may not be who we originally thought, but a younger generation that wants to see what they can have and what speaks to them. They also want to see their options online.

We know that a portion of society has a negative view of our profession. This perception is based on things they hear of our industry on the news, social media, and word of mouth. When families do work with us, nine out of 10 are surprised by how well they are treated. We receive compliments because we listen and try to provide what they want.

My experience in every facet of the profession has shown me that our opinion is not all that matters. Our clients are dictating what we should offer as they do in all aspects of life. There will always be the price conscious clients or those that just want things to be over and done with. These are not the majority. The majority expects value – and value is different for everyone.

We need to plan for the future but also be open to the change that is confronting us each and every day. This is why I believe we need to reach out to our communities to see what they want. An outreach would allow us to learn and also educate at the same time. Open thinking needs to be incorporated when it comes to what we offer for options. Face-to-face contact with the families and the public is great, but we also must engage in outreach to learn what people want.

We have the tools for outreach like never before. Social media can be used for the positive, and we certainly know how people like to share their opinion. Associations and industry publications can help us gather information. This will create more value for mem-bers/subscribers, and the public. The outreach needs to be outside of our normal groups of influence and ask frankly what people want from us as a profession.

We cannot take this input too sensitively and must learn each day. Let us work on how to make this happen and come together as a professional community to pool the information we gather to help us better serve our clients – our families.

I have been a professional in the industry for over 40 years, and I understand it’s difficult to change. We do not want to change just for the sake of it but change to meet the needs of our clients and our companies.

As new people come into our profession with new thoughts and ideas, let us look at how we can make those ideas work, rather than cast them aside because they are different.
We truly are one of the greatest groups of professionals on the planet.

When we work collaboratively for the common good of our clients, it shows. When we do not, it shows even louder.