Bringing Innovation to the Funeral-Home Business (No, Really)

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"We had more information on where to go to dinner... than we did for my cousin's funeral."

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eFuneral's offices are located on the 21st floor of a downtown Cleveland office building. Running late, I stepped into the elevator and noted with consternation that the elevator buttons only went up to 20. I rode up to that floor, looked briefly around, texted the company's CEO Mike Belsito, and rode back down.

"I'm looking for a place called eFuneral," I said to the security guard I found in the lobby.

"They're putting that 'e' on everything now, aren't they?" he said. "They used to actually bury the bodies."

He thinks this joke is so funny that when Mike Belsito, the CEO of eFuneral comes down to get me, he repeats it to him. Judging from his polite, restrained reaction, Belsito has heard more than a few jokes about his business. Reinventing the way people shop for funeral homes "is not the sexiest thing," he admitted. 

We headed back up the elevator to the 20th floor and into a set of offices that are half Being John Malkovitch, half Hudsucker Proxy. There are windows looking out on all sides at Cleveland and the lake that made it. Each one is a perfect half moon. It was here that Belsito spun out the story of their founding.

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The idea for the company did not originate in dreams of Instagram glory or joviality. His cousin died, and when his family went to plan the funeral, they encountered some difficulty in selecting a funeral home. There were 12 places within two miles of where his cousin lived. How do you pick one?

"For us, the big question wasn't, 'Where is there a funeral home?'" Belsito said. "It was, How are we supposed to know which of these is going to provide us good service? And what is it going to cost?'"

"I remember my dad was saying, 'I've used Angie's List for contractors. Is there something like that for funeral homes?' And I said, of course, yes, there had to be... But it turned out there wasn't," he continued. "There are dozens of directories. Funeralhome.com. Or TheFuneralHomePlace.com. They weren't going to give us information to make a decision. They were just phone numbers."

They eventually picked a spot and had the funeral. Later that night, he was out at dinner with his wife at a restaurant they'd picked with help from Yelp, when he realized something weird.

"We had more information on where to go to dinner, where we're spending 40 bucks, than we did for my cousin's funeral," he said.

"After doing some research, it turns out that [a funeral] is one of the highest ticket items that someone pays for in their life after a house and a car," added eFuneral co-founder and lead developer Bryan Chaikin.

Yet it's precisely the kind of industry that a room full of 24-year-olds is unlikely to choose to work on. Why help grieving families when there are more fun apps to build? Plus, you have to spend months dealing with funeral home directors, who are not all as fun as the cast of Six Feet Under.

Funeral homes are subject to certain regulations, including that they have to reveal their prices if someone asks. But there's publicly available and there's publicly available on the Internet. So eFuneral has had to do some heavy data-acquisition lifting to populate the site with pricing and service information. The other big problem is, as always, getting the word out.

They've found recently that hospice care facilities are turning out to be helpful partners. Hospice social workers can't recommend individual funeral homes, but they can recommend an impartial service like eFuneral. "It's morbid to say, but where people are dying, we're trying to go to those groups and say, 'Hey, this can actually help the families you're working with," Belsito said.

They plan to make money in two ways. One, funeral homes can spruce up their profiles. And two, they can offer coupons (Groupon for funeral services!) for ancillary funeral services like flowers.

Think of all the places trying to help you buy a car or a house. Turns out there was no one trying to help you buy funeral services. Yet it's precisely the kind of experience where online shopping could be helpful. I mean, who wants to turn down upsells from a funeral home director? Who wants to be the one who cheaps out on the funeral of a loved one?

"We're passionate about transparency for the consumer," Chaikin said. "This is an industry that isn't transparent and hasn't been innovative for hundreds of years."

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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