The COVID pandemic has accelerated disruption in the funeral industry. This has presented numerous problems throughout the industry, including funeral homes that just aren't prepared to rapidly modernize. But that has also led to cutting edge startups like Eterneva utilizing their technology expertise to help them adapt to a new way of providing services.
As an article in funeral Business Advisor Magazine stated in its July/August 2020 edition:
"Texts and emails are a perfect example of how fast digital technology works. These tools, combined with social media, have revolutionized how we communicate with each other." There is no doubt the writer is correct, but the statement illustrates the resistance of the funeral industry to change. Perhaps this resistance to change explains the observation that despite an increase in the number of deaths in 2020, aggregate revenues for the funeral industry continue to shrink at an annualized rate of 0.7 percent.
Contrastingly, 2020 has seen an explosion of startups in the grief wellness industry. Over the past year, angel investors and seed backers have capitalized at least 26 companies offering products and services to the bereaved, according to CrunchBase.
The new bereavement support companies offer innovative approaches to dealing with grief.
Austin, Texas-based Eterneva provides grief counseling across a nine-month period while the cremated ashes of the deceased are transformed into a wearable industrial diamond.
San Francisco-based Better Place Forests offers a final resting place beneath the trees of a beautiful, protected forest.
Michigan-based Everdays raised $17 million in venture capital for a social media platform that survivors can use for funeral invitations, tribute videos, photos, and messages of condolence all on a single page.
And UK-based Deadhappy Insurance operates on the principle that life is too short to spend it searching for life insurance, providing a product that enables some customers to " end the pain and say coochy-coo to a new type of life insurance to die for." The company notes that it is not always able to provide happiness for applicants who weigh more than 17 stone (236 pounds/107 kg).
Bereavement support companies take an attitude toward death that would have shocked much of the public before the dominance of the Millennial Generation. Rather than providing a one-time memorial involving a crowd of mourners for the deceased, the new grief wellness startups offer an ongoing guided journey for a few surviving immediate family members and close friends. The boom in bereavement support reflects trends that were well underway before 2020 and only accelerated by the pandemic.
The New Face of Bereavement
For about 100 years, the ritual of mourning of the deceased centered on funeral homes and churches.
After death, the body of the loved one was taken to a funeral home to be prepared for public viewing. The family gathered at the funeral home to receive family members and friends expressing their condolences.
A funeral service was offered at the funeral home or at a religious center, and the body was placed in an ornate casket in a cemetery. The opportunities for scheduling funerals were limited to the time the preservative process for the body was effective. An open-casket funeral typically has to take place within 5 days of death.
Adults under the age of 45 often reject this ritual.
More and more families are opting for the cremation of remains, permitting flexibility in scheduling memorials. According to figures Crunchbase attributes to the National Funeral Directors Association, 56 percent of those who died in 2020 were cremated. The Association expects this figure to rise to 78 percent by 2040.
The growing percentage of final dispositions by cremation is partially a matter of cost. In March of 2020, an article in USA Today revealed that the average cost of cremation is about one-third of the cost of a funeral with a casket.
Fewer and fewer mourners are taking religious prohibitions on cremation seriously, and restrictions on gatherings due to the pandemic are making traditional funerals impossible.
What's driving the popularity of cremation?
Neither cost nor convenience is driving the modern preference for cremation, National Funeral Directors Association President Randy Anderson says. The fundamental driver of the growing preference for cremation over casket burial is that saying goodbye at a funeral or at a graveside visit is just not enough, he believes.
Modern mourners want to boost their connection with the one they loved with more than a one-time ceremony. They want more than an occasional remembrance. They want a more tangible connection than a social media page, although Anderson told Southern Funeral Directors Magazine that he expects the social media page to become a permanent fixture of life memorials in the future.
Urns, Ashes, and Healing Memories
The traditional method of staying in physical proximity to a deceased loved one was to keep their ashes in an urn.
Cultures all over the world collected the cremated remains of family members and loved ones and store them in decorative urns in places of honor.
Military cemeteries in the United States enable military spouses to share the resting place of their deceased by burying urns together. Churches provide columbariums for permanent storage of the ashes of their members. Public cemeteries provide cremation niches. And many families take comfort from having the ashes of their loved ones in an honored place in their homes, such as at the center of a mantel.
For a while, at least, Baylor University researcher and associate professor of religion Dr. Candi Cann has found.
Dr. Cann was commissioned by grief wellness startup Eterneva to study anchor objects as a means of maintaining continuing bonds with loved ones who have deceased. Dr. Cann's research takes a relatively new theory of healthy bereavement to its next logical step.
The traditional view of death had focused on the dying rather than the grieving. Especially in the era before modern pain control, end of life was often an arduous process. Allowing a loved one to pass peacefully rather than encouraging them to endure pain was thought to be, and is, an expression for the dying.
Counselors, ministers, therapists, and psychiatrists of the twentieth century minimized the process of grieving after a loved one died. Having let the loved one go, mourners were encouraged to "move on" from their loss and get on with their lives. The problem with this approach was that human beings continue their emotional attachments with their loved ones even after their loved ones die. Without appropriate grief support, these attachments may become dysfunctional.
Some mourners develop an avoidant attachment. They find ways to avoid the reality of their loved one's passing. They may reflexively answer any expression of sympathy with a statement about the loved one's being in a better place. They may quote a teaching that death is just a transition. But they may have difficulty accepting their sadness and feelings of loss.
Other mourners develop an anxious attachment. Having experienced the death of a loved one, they become absorbed with their own death avoidance. They become obsessed with extending their own longevity as if it would bring the loved one back.
Many mourners develop a disorganized attachment. They never find a way of processing the loss of their loved ones. They develop a state of mind similar to PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and become more and more fragile as they lose more and more people as their lives progress. Or they avoid new attachments to avoid more losses.
Dr. Cann looked at the use of funeral urns holding cremated remains as a method of developing and maintaining healthy attachments to loved ones who only live in memory. These continuing attachments are a source of joy to the bereaved because they keep the bereaved grounded in reality.
When you have an urn with your loved one's ashes on your mantle, there is no denying that they are no longer physically present with you. There is no excuse for avoiding the tasks of getting your life together to keep on going without them.
The mourner is constantly redirected to find a secure attachment in joyful memories of the deceased.
Of course, not all memories of the deceased will be joyful.
What Dr. Cann discovered in her research was the ability to accept the reality of death increased the emotional valence of happy memories. All mourners remember happy times and sad times with the deceased. Mourning does not make bad memories go away.
But when mourners have tangible reminders of the reality of death, what she calls attachment tokens, their minds are free to derive more joy than pain from their memories. Everything stays in the brain's memory banks, but happy memories have greater emotional power than sad memories when healthy attachments are maintained.
Do funeral urns help mourners maintain healthy connections that empower happy memories of the deceased?
In her interviews with American mourners, Dr. Cann discovered that funeral urns are usually displayed in prominent places at home for several years.
As time goes on, urns filled with cremated remains are moved to less noticeable places in the home, to closets, to storage cabinets, and to keepsake chests. Memories of the deceased persist, but the power of attachment tokens, such as urns, to give greater weight to happy memories requires constant reinvestment of meaning into the token by which the dead are remembered.
As Dr. Cann notes in her comments for a Baylor University publication, Eterneva has found the perfect attachment token for joyful remembering of the dead.
As we have mentioned before, Texas-based grief wellness startup Eterneva creates jewelry-grade industrial diamonds from small amounts of the cremated ashes of deceased people and pets. Eterneva co-founder discovered the therapeutic value of this unique form of remembrance after the loss of a friend.
Diamonds of Remembrance
Eterneva co-founder and CEO Adelle Archer is often identified as a leader in DeathTech. She has gained fame as half of the team who found the way to turn cremains into diamonds. But Archer says that Eterneva isn't a death commemoration company. Eterneva, Archer says, is a celebration of life company with a mission to transform the funeral industry.
Adelle Archer was a serial entrepreneur before she and Garrett Ozar launched Eterneva. She began her career cold-calling prospective customers for an upscale skin care company in New York. She was a network relations associate for the Institute for Humane Studies in Arlington, Virginia. She ran storytelling workshops for nonprofits teaching personal political communication and developed a sales funnel for a donations-based yoga studio and became the first non-engineering hire for an eCommerce platform called Cratejoy. Not yet 30, she kept moving through other formative experiences until she and Ozar decided to take on a marketing challenge for a friend.
The friend's father was involved in an industrial diamond foundry, a factory for making diamonds. Archer and Ozar decided to work with him to break into the consumer market. At the time she became involved in the project, Archer says, she didn't even know you could grow a diamond in a lab. She and Ozar found the project to be a fascinating sideline and determined to help the foundry grow into a brand.
About that time Archer's friend and mentor Tracey was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Tracey didn't have any children of her own, and when she died just a few months after diagnosis, Tracey's ashes were divided between her mother, her aunt, and Adelle Archer.
Adelle didn't want to keep Tracey's ashes in an urn on the shelf. Adelle wanted to find a way to keep her story alive. That's when she got the idea of using the carbon in Tracey's ashes to create a diamond.
This wasn't absolutely the first time in history that cremated remains were incorporated into objects of everyday use as a way of remembering the dead. It is possible - although it is not reliably documented - that some tattoo artist has incorporated cremation ashes into the ink used for a commemorative tattoo. (Commemorative tattoos with ink not containing cremation ashes are a global phenomenon so common that Dr. Cann writes about them as "bereavement bridges.") And the Catholic Church and other religious bodies have a long history of honoring relics, parts of the bodies of saints and religious leaders. But Adelle Archer and Garrett Ozar would be the first to transform cremation ashes into gemstones.
The process of transforming the carbon in Tracey's ashes into a diamond took eight months. During that time, there was nothing for Adelle to do but mourn and wait. Adelle was overjoyed with the result, but she resolved that future customers of the newly incorporated Eterneva would have the support that she did not:
Eterneva would engage with its customers at every step of the transformation of ashes to diamonds. They would communicate by Zoom, by video, email, and telephone to keep the bonds with the loved one alive while the diamond was being made.
As Adelle told Medium writer Dana Iverson:
"The reaction to the updates was unbelievable. We received tearful messages back and deep expressions of gratitude. We began to outfit our labs with video equipment and record every single stage in the ashes to diamond journey. We hired editors to create personal, multi-media updates and experiences about the transformation of a loved one into a diamond."
"We started to enable customers to post the updates to dedication pages and share with friends and family who could subscribe to the posts. We discovered that Eterneva created an ongoing eight-month dialogue and celebration of someone's life that did not happen before."
Creating a celebration of life that could not happen otherwise turns out to be the critical
distinction for Eterneva from the rest of the bereavement support industry.
Most recent startups in the bereavement support industry are focused on providing services before death. They with the future decedent to make the transition easier for families and friends left behind Eterneva is focused on providing services after death. As Archer puts it, Eterneva deals with what is left behind after loss.
Archer believes that Eterneva operates in a different market segment, or at least with very different customers, from most companies in DeathTech.
The capital markets seem to agree with her. Archer and Ozar were able to bootstrap their way to their first $1 million in sales. They had raised $1.2 million in capital before an appearance on ABC's Shark Tank, which attracted a $600,000 investment from Mark Cuban. Since their appearance on Shark Tank, Archer and Ozar have assembled "a remarkable group of strategic angels," as she described them to Iverson, with $100 million to $200 million exits.
Archer says that word of mouth raises the public profile of her company. Every customer tells an average of 20 people about their diamond, she estimates. Archer claims that Eterneva has greater engagement on social media than Taylor Swift or Kim Kardashian. The company's vision of bereavement care, Archer believes, is firmly established.
So, can every bereavement support company become an Eterneva?
The challenge for other DeathTech companies is timing. Companies that provide pre-planning and life insurance aren't creating and sustaining personal connections. They are providing financial advantages in a highly competitive market. They provide emotional security for the person who is going to die, but they do not sustain memories and connectedness for survivors.
Some of the processes for turning carbon from human remains into synthetic diamonds are patented and have been patented since the early 2000s. There may be significant barriers to entry for an aspiring Eterneva competitor, but other companies are free to adopt Eterneva's paradigm for bereavement care:
Treat death as real.
Show that you care.
Provide your customers with tangible evidence of the lives of those who loved them.