Live-streaming technology has entered the funeral home. Increasing consumer demand, fueled by the ubiquity of popular streaming services like Netflix, is driving the relatively new practice of providing internet-enabled recordings of funerals for those who can't attend in person.
Families can opt in to the service for less than what they would typically spend on flowers, according to one company that sells its proprietary technology to funeral directors around the world.
"I think it's the emergence of video-on-demand, like Netflix. It's becoming more common to expect to go to the internet to watch something and it will be there -- especially among younger generations who get annoyed when it isn't," said David Lutterman, founder and CEO of One Room, a company that provides streaming services exclusively to funeral homes.
Roughly 20% of funeral homes across the country now offer a streaming service to families, according to Bryant Hightower, president-elect of the National Funeral Director's Association. It's a consumer-driven trend: "A lot of people have experienced watching a funeral online and now the market is really beginning to come to us," Lutterman, of One Room, said.
It suits families with children who might be away at college or living abroad, for example.
"Families tell us they are really touched by it. It feels like they are part of the experience and they are happy to be included because it's marginalizing when you want to be at a funeral but can't, so they express gratitude for being able to see it," Lutterman said.
Other would-be attendees are sometimes prohibited from traveling because of the cost or their deteriorating health.
K.M. Robinson, a social media marketing strategist, used her technology savvy to set up a live stream of her grandmother's funeral for relatives who couldn't attend the service.
"She died rather unexpectedly, and relatives across the country with health issues were heartbroken they were going to miss the funeral, so they asked us if we could record it for them," Robinson said.
Her grandmother's sisters were among those who tuned into the service remotely. "I set it up through a webinar program and they got to experience it with us," Robinson said.
Interpersonal connections are increasingly scattered across the country -- and world -- making it hard to reunite on short notice.
"People don't grow up and live and die in the same places anymore, so we have connections across the country. It affords folks to participate in that event to help them deal with their grief and their loss when people move and live in different cities," Hightower said.
A change-averse funeral industry
Streaming technology has been around for a while, of course. But the notoriously archaic funeral profession has been slow to enter the digital age and incorporate it into its services.
Chalk it up to the nature -- and age -- of those who work in the business. "Funeral homes tend to be family businesses passed down over generations and I know funeral directors in their 80s who still work seven days a week. You don't see that across many careers," said Philadelphia-based funeral director Brett Schwartz.
Schwartz, 41, offers One Room's streaming capabilities to clients, but only about 10% of the families he serves choose the service.
"At the end of the day, the adoption of anything like this across the funeral profession is slow because of the nature. It's very old-school," he said. He sees potential for growth, though. "I think it will definitely become more widely offered."
Hightower, of the NFDA, also expects the technology to become more widely used over the next few years.
"I do believe that funeral directors, by nature, have been more conservative than in other professions. We are seeing that change as younger funeral directors enter the profession and families ask for non-traditional offerings," he said.
Big biz opportunity
An estimated 2.4 million funerals are performed by roughly 19,000 funeral directors in the United States each year, according to U.S. Funerals Online, and Schwartz says he expects the technology-adoption rate to increase.
Lutterman, for one, is banking on it. One Room, which began as a business that live streamed everything from birthdays to corporate events, seven years ago decided to focus exclusively on funerals and memorial services.
"We could do other events, but we have made the decision as a business to understand very deeply the sector we operate in. You have to treat this event a bit differently because of the nature of the content," Lutterman said.
It's a delicate topic -- and the key is to be as unobtrusive as possible.
"You don't want to change the experience by having a camera man floating around filming people crying. But it it's filmed by a discreet camera on the ceiling it's like being a fly on the wall," Lutterman said.
There are, of course, privacy concerns when it comes to sharing personal anguish online.
"There is some reluctance of families to air their grief over the internet. They didn't want to be portrayed in an unfavorable light in times of emotion, stress and grief. Sometimes it's unpredictable as to how they will act, so to throw it out there with the unknown of how it will unfold is unnerving," Hightower said.