Dying is a complicated business. No one really plans for it in advance. For those who are charged with the affairs of the ones who pass away, there is always so much to do and limited time to do so.
Funeral service providers have become more than just parlours where proprietors prepare the deceased for burial. They have evolved into invaluable assistants in helping bereaved families retrieve the remains of loved ones from the hospitals, prepare legal documents, and make available facilities for relatives and friends to get together.
Many funeral providers also offer cremation services, which instead of burial, the deceased’s remains are burned and the ashes placed into urns or vessels. Families would then inter the urns in niches at a columbarium, the final resting place for cremated remains often located at the grounds of religious churches.
Cremation has become a popular option due mainly to economic reasons if not for the expediency it provides. Many families do still opt for the traditional interment of late loved ones at cemeteries and funeral providers do help in the paperwork and burial assistance.
Cemeteries and columbaries are typically separate entities that funeral providers and the bereaved of the deceased deal with. On top of needs such as urns and coffins, funeral providers also procure materials (e.g. chemicals) for the preparation of the remains either for cremation or burial. They also supply paraphernalia, such as flowers, guest books, cards, and placeholders. In some Asian countries, these paraphernalia include banners, streamers, incense, ceremonial clothing, and paper money.
The business of sending off the dead is a complicated one that requires a supportive supply chain.
Demand first of all is not certain. The dying do not arrive in steady predictable numbers one day to the next. Funeral service workers may be idle one week with few arrivals only to find themselves working overtime the next due to a surge.
A friend of mine who works in the funeral business says that arrivals are few in number usually before Christmas but many towards the end of a calendar year. “It’s as if those close to death are scheduling when they will go,” she said.
Funeral providers by experience keep stock of coffins and urns in anticipation of those surges but they sometimes still run out. Coffin makers would always be busy even if their market share has dwindled due to the growing preference for cremation and urns. Churches and private groups have invested increasingly in constructing columbaries to make available more niches. And funeral supply shops always make sure they have enough paraphernalia for the traditional rituals families would hold for their departed loved ones.
During the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 to 2021, funeral providers were challenged. Health protocols forced the temporary closure of chapels but caused a spike in demand for cremation.
Funeral providers who already had cremation facilities didn’t feel fortunate; they had limited capacity on how many can be served in any one day. Service crews were also not allowed to report to work every day to avoid risk of infection.
The queues for cremation grew as a result and so did the demand for coffins to temporarily safe-keep remains while they waited their turn. This surprised the coffin makers who believed their businesses were becoming a sunset industry. They found themselves busy when they thought they would no longer be needed.
Funeral providers lengthened operating times to accommodate the continuous arrivals. They did so carefully. Cremation furnaces needed to cool off and rest for at least a few hours a day. And one cannot speed up the burning. The process had standards to follow to ensure completion and thoroughness.
What funeral providers gained in cremation revenue, they lost in the drop in the demand for venues and paraphernalia. But for my friends in the funeral business, that didn’t matter. As the pandemic raged on, they found no time to reflect.
The dead just kept coming. They had to keep on working.