From funeral homes joining Facebook to Harley-Davidson hearses, members of the "baby boom" generation continue impacting national consumer trends until their final days. The funeral business, seen by some as slow to embrace change, is becoming increasingly innovative in order to meet the needs of aging boomers. But as Illinois Public Radio's Peter Gray reports, not everyone in the business is along for the ride:
In the front room of Springfield's Butler Funeral Home, Lew Bird of Springfield prepares to say goodbye to a friend he's known more than 30 years. Bird says his buddy Dave spent much of his time on the road seated on a Harley:
"When we came to this day and having to make the choice of how we were going to get him to the cemetery, they happened to have this hearse that's pulled by a trike, it's a three-wheeled motorcycle, so yeah, we said, go ahead and let's do that."
In the parking lot, mourners gather around a black-and-chrome Harley Road King and matching glass-sided trailer equipped to tow a casket or cremated remains. It's the pride and joy of Jack Feather of Bedford, Pennsylvania, who reluctantly admits he's a "boomer biker" himself:
"Yeah, I'm 59, so I guess I'm part of that group. I've been riding longer than I care to say."
Feather started building trike hearses after a trip to Bike Week in Daytona, Florida, when he spied a replica of a century-old horse-drawn hearse at a funeral home across the street. For the past ten years he's been filling orders from around the country. Funeral directors tell him roughly a quarter of those who choose his funeral coach have never been on a bike. He says his idea has proven good good for funeral homes' bottom line:
"For the funeral directors it's very profitable, because they find when these things show up everybody's got a camera and takes a picture and they show it to somebody else and they show it to somebody else and it gives them marketing exposure. So they use it as a marketing tool."
Springfield Funeral Director Chris Butler says he bought the trike hearse because it's one way he stays competitive by mixing tradition with innovation, at a time when many families are following national trends toward increasingly unique and highly personalized memorials.
"Today people are wanting very much their ceremonies to reflect the meaning of their lives, so we as an organization have to be able to help achieve that."
One way Butler keeps tabs on the changing tastes of his customers is on Facebook:
"Social media is nothing more than a gathering of people and so, as such, we just try to be part of the conversation."
But that conversation is no longer just between the funeral home and mourners. Butler now pays a monthly fee for an online assistant to help manage its Facebook presence, or as Greg Young of Funeralinnovations.comcalls it, a "co-pilot":
"Through our co-pilot solution, we will automatically post content on a scheduled basis that we have filtered and that has been proven to increase reach and engagement of their Facebook strategy."
The former IBM software engineer helps funeral directors leverage emerging technologies, but he says many in the funeral business are slow to adopt change. For five years he's worked to convince them of the value of social media and mobile devices in the funeral planning and grieving process. Funeral director Randall Earl remains unconvinced:
"We live in a society today that wants a quick fix for everything and in our profession we have found that that's not the most favorable thing to do."
Earl is the immediate past president of the Funeral Directors Association of America and runs a funeral home in Decatur. He's been in the business for 40 years, and has seen and adopted many changes, but says social media has its risks:
"You have no control over what's said or done in the social media world. It can be very harmful if you have family members who are angry with other family members and they have a death and I would say we're just trying to protect our business as well as the families we serve. I do not have a Twitter or a Facebook page for those reasons."
Greg Young with Funeral Innovations assures his clients around the country that social media can maintain privacy and be respectful of families' wishes, if carefully managed:
"Every funeral home needs to have their own strategy. There is no cookie cutter approach for every funeral home across the United States."
Young says sharing the latest innovations, and existing ones such as webcasting that can bring together mourners from around the world , is what social media is all about: Educating the public about the growing list of funeral options.
"I think every funeral home would agree that it's very important to put out engaging information, educational information that can help the families they serve."
If the next change to funeral customs starts with a "tweet," "post" or "status update," it's aging baby boomers, who make up more than a quarter of the US population, who are likely to set those trends. Lew Bird in Springfield says he's glad his buddy, Dave, got to be one of those trend-setters. Dave was the first at this funeral home to get a "final ride" in a Harley hearse.
"You know, I guess if you go out, go out the way you really like to go. He's happy."
Before family and friends sent him on his way, they made sure to crank up the funeral home's stereo.
"When I die and they lay me to rest I'm gonna go to the place that's the best. When they lay me down to die, going up to the Spirit In The Sky."
Support Your Public Radio Station