I am currently traveling for an industry specific educational retreat. I have been attending the event for the past three years and have focused my studies on Funeral Home Management, Leadership, Sales, and Marketing. This is my graduation year (I’m excited and bummed at the same time) and I decided to try the newest class available: Hospitality and Event Management.
Arguably, no trend has seen such wide spread change in our profession as Catering, Hospitality, and Events.
In a trade not always known for embracing change, I’m astounded by how many funeral homes and cemeteries that are integrating services and facilities such as catering, reception rooms, event centers, and life events, into their general price lists. It has been driven by some privately owned pioneers as well as very large corporations and companies who see the service as a natural extension of how we can serve families as funeral professionals.
Some see it as a means of generating revenue otherwise lost to restaurants. Others see it as a tool to create an amazing experience for their families in the absence of a church reception. Let me tell you, there is NOTHING wrong with a family choosing to have a hospitality event in some place other than a funeral home. However, in today’s time starved world, a family is more prone to choose something convenient for themselves and their guests.
Having an offering of some sort will be a huge benefit for your families. I work for a family owned funeral provider with multiple locations. Most of our locations were built before 1990, and/or were re-purposed buildings such as offices or churches that were not designed with banquets or receptions in mind. We might have a selection room that can show 16 full sized caskets but we don’t always have a space that we can dedicate two 6 foot rectangular tables and a half dozen high-top cocktail tables.
If your funeral home was built without a reception room or an event center, (probably a high percentage of us) don’t get discouraged. Get creative!
With some planning and creative use of space and timing, you can host a beautiful post-service event or a catered visitation without calling the architect.
The first step is to look at your current demand. Analyze your area’s demographics by pulling public data and by using your own stats for the families you’ve served. You may have a higher demand for catered events if you serve an area with a high cremation rate, a higher percentage of families who do not have a church home, or a low average population age. The more traditional portions of our business (burial and church services) may limit the demand for a funeral home sponsored event because the church might typically act as the reception hosts.
If you’re in an area that serves a much more traditional group, you may only be able to fill the events that the church cannot meet. When a family has a service, they WILL be eating before and after. It may be at a restaurant, it may be at their home; either way, they will be having fellowship of some sort during their time of mourning. These families would benefit tremendously from the convenience of a funeral home offering.
Step two is to look at the space available in your funeral home to host an event. If you have pews in your chapel, you will find it hard host a reception in there. Start by looking at rooms that may be less traveled but still accessible to families (avoid a path past the prep room).
I’ve employed several different rooms to serve food to families without having to make drastic changes. They’ve ranged from staterooms (without the decedent present), arrangement rooms, long hallways, and the lobby (if you are serving a single family that day).
Another modification some funeral homes are considering is a permanent remodel of existing areas. Selection rooms are prime targets for some as cremation rates rise and some funeral homes explore different ways of presenting casket options to families. I am not anti-selection room (I’m sitting next to a casket company sales manager as I type this) but I am pro-change for the sake of growth and continued relevance. It is up to ownership to decide what the best use of space in the building should be.
I do not recommend you start ripping out permanent fixtures until you have a plan in place and know the demand from your area. It may not always be the decision that best benefits your business.
With the low change options I listed above, you will probably have just enough space in those rooms to serve food but not enough space for ample seating. If that is the case, consider making your catered options based on finger foods so that people don’t feel fully inclined to sit down for their meal. Small sandwiches, cheese trays, and cookies make for good, clean, easy to carry foods for mingling in a crowd.
I would avoid casseroles (FUNERAL POTATOES!!!) as they can be messy and difficult to serve. Casseroles are a staple for church receptions but I think that the modern consumer is looking for a different experience for their guests.
Without a dedicated reception area, your guests might unfortunately set their glass of sweet tea on your antique mantle. A great way to avoid this and also save space is by employing the cocktail table:
These can be stored easily and allow for people to set down their food without the need for a chair. They take up less space and can be deployed in areas throughout your funeral home like hallways, lobbies, and small rooms without hours of setup and tear down.
Step three is to decide how you want to cater these events. Starting in-house can be difficult and expensive. If you have a kitchen at you funeral home, you may have an upper hand, but you may not currently have the permits and insurance involved in serving food in your state. I found a local family owned catering company that I vetted through interviews (I ate all of their food) and worked out a menu, standards of serving, and ultimately a price point that allows us to be a value to our families while still making a small margin.
This is not as easy as I made it sound. Start researching your area and see if anyone is interested in partnering with your funeral home. It will take some time to find the right fit. Their food may be great, but if their employees show up late, under-dressed, or do not act funeral appropriate (they are representing you for the few hours they’re there) then they should not be your choice. Find the perfect balance of quality, timeliness, and service. Pick a caterer that you want to be an extension of your firm.
The last step is to integrate this into your current business. Simple menus will help your funeral directors present the options to a family. If you are inclined to include these offerings in packages you currently use, then you will want your directors to have a strong presentation to explain why a family may want this service.
Having a good visual of what you offer for families to see at the conference makes a difference. Plan a dry run with your coworkers so they can taste the food and understand the value first hand. Use that time to take high quality photos of the setup so you can share them with families. Put those photos on your website and make promo flyers for the information you give to families. Another option is to print table toppers for your arrangement tables so the conversation starter may come up naturally. Like any offering, your families will have to know about it if you want them to choose it.
These steps are only some of the ways you can start to offer hospitality and events to those you serve. If you have a dedicated event center with in-house catering and beverage service, you will drive this trend into the next century. If you are in a similar boat to a majority of the profession, remember: don’t get discouraged! Get creative!
Written by: Matthew Morian, CFSP
Matt is a licensed funeral director & embalmer in the State of Texas and is a founding member of Millennial Directors. He is also a monthly contributor to NOMIS Funeral Home & Cemetery News.