Business of death care gets a technology makeover

Funerary urn and candles Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption The traditional funeral business is gradually adopting new technologies

Death is big business.

With more than half a million people in the UK dying each year, the funeral industry makes about £2bn in annual revenues, according to market research company Ibis World.

Nearly 1,500 businesses employ 20,105 people, and industry revenue is expected to grow by 4.7% by the end of 2014, as increased competition for burial space is slowly pushing up the price of cremations.

With such a large and lucrative market, it's no surprise that tech firms have been eyeing up the death care and funeral industry.

Video wills

Your Last Will, for example, is an iPhone app that lets anyone create a last message for loved ones in the form of a "video will", to be viewed after death.

You create and upload a private video will and are then issued your own QR code - a kind of smartphone readable bar code - which you give to a trusted confidant who is likely to outlive you.

After your death, your confidant signs in to the app using the specified QR code and receives an email containing a link to your last message video. This link is automatically sent to your chosen list of recipients.

Image copyright Your Last Will
Image caption Some people are leaving final messages to loved ones and the general public via iPhone apps

The company acknowledges that "in most countries video wills cannot replace written wills", but for an additional fee, Your Last Will does provide the opportunity to have your video submitted for legal review in what it describes as "an easy process".

"Death is obviously an unpleasant but unavoidable part of life and it's much easier to leave a last message or last will via video than in the traditional way, which involves a lawyer and witnesses," Wolfgang Gabler, chief executive and founder of Your Last Will, told the BBC.

He believes technology will continue to influence death care in the UK and across the world.

"There will be many new businesses around this theme in the near future. I already met with other start-ups that are working on other issues of life and death," he says.

"Our goal is to make it really easy and comfortable for people dealing with this important subject."

'Multi-planetary species'

Some firms are more creative with their ideas. Celestis, for example, is a US-based company that uses rocket technology to blast human remains into space.

The first "memorial spaceflight" took Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and psychedelic drug advocate Timothy Leary to the stars in 1997.

Since then, the company has added a variety of options. A simple Earth orbit service will cost $4,995 (£2,930), but something more fancy, such as a lunar orbit, will cost $12,500.

And in 2016 the Voyager service will truly go where no-one has gone before.

Using solar sail technology - which uses radiation pressure from the sun as a means of propulsion - to power the flight, the idea is that the craft will travel on indefinitely into deep space.

Appropriately enough, the remains of Gene Roddenberry and his wife Majel, and James Doohan who played Scotty in the series, are part of the crew on this continuing mission.

Once the remains have been launched into the stratosphere loved ones can track the deceased in real time with live satellite feeds on the Celestis website.

Biographies may also be uploaded and DVDs of the launch are available as part of the package deal.

Image copyright celestis
Image caption Small canisters of loved ones' ashes are fitted inside the body of the rocket....
Image copyright celestis
Image caption ...before being blasted into space watched by friends and relatives

"We don't think of our services as an expensive novelty, with prices beginning at $1,000 and the average cost of a funeral in the US reaching $8,000," Celestis founder Charles Chafer told the BBC.

"But rather, we offer a compelling tribute for someone who has longed to travel in space as their final wish.

"We do believe that as humanity becomes a multi-planetary species we will take all of our rituals and memorials with us, including our funeral and memorial services, not as a solution to reduced available space on Earth but as part of a natural evolution."

Bitcoin funeral

Technology is also being used in less bombastic ways, with some individuals paying for funerals with bitcoins, the digital crypto-currency.

One user of popular news aggregator Reddit described last year how he paid for his grandmother's funeral with the currency.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Some undertakers have accepted bitcoins as payment for funerals

Kadhim Shubber, who writes for Bitcoin news site CoinDesk, is not surprised a funeral has been paid for with bitcoins, particularly as the currency is already being used in healthcare in various parts of the world, including London.

"On the whole we find that committed bitcoiners are keen to pay in bitcoin wherever they're able. Already there are doctors in California and elsewhere who accept bitcoin payments for privacy reasons and a private practice in London does too," he says.

Apps v tradition

The traditionally conservative funeral business is certainly becoming more technology aware, the National Association of Funeral Directors (NAFD) believes.

"There is an increasing number of apps being used by funeral directors, and the NAFD has an arrangement with a company providing apps to our members," a spokesman said.

"The vast majority of members have websites, so there is a growing number of ways funeral directors can reach and inform the public."

For example, the NAFD's free online obituary service, Forever Online, enables relatives and friends to inform everyone of a bereavement via the internet, complementing the usual newspaper announcements.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Funeral directors are having to move with the times

While "smart funeral software" from the likes of Cemneo is on the increase, the NAFD, which represents 80% of all funeral homes in the UK, says it has yet to see the swathes of new funeral and death-care-focused start-ups that Your Last Will's Mr Gabler believes are on the horizon.

"Bereaved families are becoming more involved with funerals - how they should be conducted and the content of the ceremony - and there is a lot more personalisation of funerals than there has been previously.

"So the vast majority of funerals are still arranged face-to-face between the bereaved families and the funeral director," the spokesman said.

It seems that for the time being, funerals will remain relatively traditional.

But it may not be long before many of us are booking funerals on our smartphones, watching pre-recorded "wills" on our tablets, and blasting loved ones into space, quietly monitoring their ashes orbiting the earth on our smart TVs, instead of visiting a dreary graveyard.

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