Published in the December 2021 Issue of Memento Mori
By John T. McQueen, CFSP
During my 35-year career as a funeral director, I have heard many families say a multitude of things about their deceased family members, from accolades to things I wouldn’t dare put in print. Some felt relief, some felt devastated, some shed tears, while others were celebrating. The range of emotions could be as erratic as the weather. However, in most cases, the inward signs of grief and outward signs of mourning were delayed due to all the decisions that had to be made surrounding a death.
Conversely, when a beloved pet dies, the signs of grief and mourning are greatly pronounced in the early days. I have watched grown men break down in tears over the loss of their longtime furry companions. I have seen women more emotional over the loss of their cat than they are over the loss of their mothers. For many children, the loss of the family pet, which is often their childhood playmate, is their first exposure to death, setting the tone for future outcomes related to loss.
Like me, you might be asking, “Why would someone be more upset over the loss of a pet than they are over the loss of a mother, father, or grandparent?” I believe the answer lies in what is referred to as unconditional love. We can all recognize the multitude of family dynamics that await us in our interpersonal relationships—whether intentional or unintentional—between siblings, spouses, parents, and children. But our pets are all forgiving, even when they have been scolded by us just moments earlier.
Let’s face it, in the funeral business, you’ve probably come home late and been greeted by an unhappy spouse because you’ve missed dinner or an upset child for missing his or her school play; yet your dog or cat is always happy to see you when you come home. It’s their unconditional love that captures our hearts and makes their loss so profound in the early days.
Pet loss services in the world of the funeral and cemetery industry is nothing new for many of us, especially if you are in an urban or suburban area. Yet many in the funeral profession still say, “I didn’t get into this industry to care for dead pets.” Yet, the key to building a lasting relationship with those in your community is often through their pets.
As my good friend, Thomas Lynch, states, “A good funeral gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be.” If the family doesn’t want a funeral, do we simply dispose of “the body” and let the survivors “flounder” in their grief? Of course not. For those of us in this profession who entered it as a calling and see it as more than simply a paycheck or a lucrative industry in which to invest, we recognize our duty to care for the dead—whether people or pet—while continuing to care for the living.
A Booming Business
According to the American Pet Products Association (APPA) statistics, the U.S. pet industry reached nearly $99 billion in sales in 2020, more than doubling sales from just 10 years earlier. But even more important than just the annual revenues is the ownership category of pets.
Most of us remember hearing that the savior of funeral service was going to be the Baby Boomer generation simply because of the number of deaths that would occur when this generation begins to die.
However, the Millennial generation (born 1981 to 1996) has surpassed the Baby Boomers as the nation’s largest living generation according to the latest estimates available from the U.S. Census Bureau.
This is important because 76% of Millennials are pet parents with over 50% owning dogs and 35% owning cats. In addition, 42% of Millennials think of their pets as their kids, making them pet parents rather than pet owners. In fact, 42% also state that spending more time at home during the COVID pandemic has made them closer to their pets.
These same pet parents are having a profound influence on the buying decisions made by their parents and grandparents. If they are helping their parents decide upon an end-of-life provider, the one who cared for their pet with compassion and dignity will have a leg up (or should I say a “paw up”) on the competition.
It has been proven that people buy based on emotion, then justify that purchase decision with logic. Based on this fact, we can see how emotion plays into the buying decisions of pet owners by referring to the results of 2020 YPulse PULSE survey.
The top answers are all emotional decisions that ultimately drive the purchases reflected. In other words, because of the love they have for their pets and how happy their pets make them feel, the more often they buy presents for their pets and their desires to purchase higher quality products increase. So, the emotion drives the sale, then they most likely justify the sale by saying that the more expensive food is higher quality—meaning their pets are going to stay healthier.
Service the Pet, Service the Family
Beyond the basics, more and more pet owners are looking for unique services and products for their pets. Look at the increase in the number of pet salons and pet daycare centers. These pet owners are looking for an experience for their pets. Fewer Millennials want to board pets with their veterinarians but rather take their pets to boarding camps where the pet can have a great experience with other pets, including grooming and photo options. It is no different in the funeral world when the pet dies. Pet owners are seeking providers who offer unique services and products to honor and commemorate the life of their beloved companion.
Funeral providers who enter the world of pet death should consider offering a multitude of options from pet memorial blankets to diamonds created from pet remains. When I was in the funeral business, our pet division served over 2,600 pets annually. Many of these pet parents selected urn alternatives that could be customized to their individual pets. Others chose to have necklaces created from their pet paw prints. We even had clients who turned their pet’s cremated remains into a diamond necklace, or simply had the pet’s name tattooed on their body.
As more and more funeral providers fall into the trap that “everyone wants direct cremation” or that “no one is willing to spend money on a service,” our industry continues to see a downward spiral in revenues and relevance. Pet cremation services and pet burial services can change one or both for a funeral home that is willing to meet the needs of today’s consumers.
Open the Door to Opportunity
We entered the pet arena after several long-time clients asked if we could cremate their pets just as we had done before for their parents. What began as an opportunity to serve existing clients grew into a marketing arm for our funeral homes that unleashed a growth in revenues and market share. Although we owned several funeral homes at various price points in our market, we only offered pet cremation through our premier funeral brand. On average, our premier brands were seeing six new families per month that chose us for funeral services because we had cremated their pets. Pet cremation services were instrumental in helping our firm secure not only more market share in our community, but it also allowed us to become the largest family-owned funeral home in Florida prior to our sale.
The time for unleashed opportunity in our profession for those willing to go beyond the norm for the customer is now. For those who want to stay true to the “ways we’ve always done things,” just do so knowing that the competition will be nipping at your heels.
John T. McQueen, CFSP, is the director of client experience at The Foresight Companies, a Phoenix-based business and management consulting firm specializing in mergers and acquisitions, valuations, accounting, financing, human resources and compliance services. He is co-author, with Nikki McQueen, of Lessons From the Dead: Breathing Life Into Customer Service. McQueen has an MBA with specialization in hospitality management from Florida Atlantic University. He can be reached at 800-426-0165 or email@example.com . Check out additional insights and educational information at www.theforesightcompanies.com . Connect with Vullo and Foresight by following them on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook.