Startups are defying taboos and breathing life into France’s funeral industry

Startups are challenging traditions surrounding death in France.
Startups are challenging traditions surrounding death in France.
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France’s treatment of its dead is a major tourist draw: from the artfully designed crypts and sprawling cemeteries holding the bones of Voltaire, Oscar Wilde and Jean-Paul Sartre, to the millions of carefully arranged bones that line the Paris catacombs.

But much like the rest of the world, the French undertaking business has historically been a grimly predictable one: people are born, people die, people need to be buried. Typically, funeral service providers haven’t needed to invest in marketing or engage in price wars with competitors. This has proved good business, with the price of funeral services jumping 50% in the last ten years and the average cost of a burial climbing to €3,350 ($3,700). (The US and UK have seen similar climbs, with average funerals soaring to $7,180 and $5,400 respectively.)

This status quo is now being challenged by a number of French startups hoping to dig into the estimated €2.3 billion ($2.6 billion) in revenue generated annually from funeral services, from a site that offers Yelp-like reviews of undertakers, to another supporting funeral crowdfunding. Even the city of Paris is participating—launching an independent service in recent years to help people organize low-cost funerals online. These sites are breathing energy into the funeral industry, by making it easier to compare products, and creating a demand for new services not provided by traditional funeral homes.

Sites like Simplifia, a startup founded by two business school graduates in 2011 that allows users to review and rank French undertakers “bring transparency, which will force undertakers to offer better quality,” says co-founder Maxime Nory. Simplifia also allows users to share death announcements by email, text or on social media.

Charles Simpson is the founder of Senior Media, which since 2010 has launched several death-related websites including Meilleures Pompes Funèbres, which ranks French undertakers according to user reviews, similar to Simplifia, and Collect Funéraire, a crowdfunding site. The idea of using technology to invigorate an ancient industry like undertaking has proved popular for people “who are well connected and active online,” Simpson says.

At the end of January, Collecte Funéraire had hosted 82 successful crowdfunding campaigns for funerals since its launch in June last year, taking a 5% commission on donations towards the up to €8,000 charged by funeral homes for funerals. Simpson acknowledged that it would take time for crowdfunding to be more widespread. “It’s not surprising considering that this sector is very traditional,” he said. But organizing the financial aspect of a funeral online can help people overcome the feeling that money is a taboo topic when discussing funeral arrangements. “It’s easier to ask for money through a computer screen,” he said. “It’s also easier to donate when it takes only three clicks. Even for someone you didn’t know that well: people are willing to help.”

Marc Dourlent was experiencing financial difficulties when his mother died in December last year, and he struggled to imagine how he would pay the €7,000 he was quoted for her funeral. “Feelings are not low-cost,” says the 49-year-old Paris-based hospital administrator, and he did not want to cut corners. Seeking a solution, Dourlent Googled “low-priced funerals” and came across Révolutions Obsèques, an online service launched in 2012 by the City of Paris-owned Services Funéraires.

Révolutions Obsèques offers users a “burial kit” which helps them choose, order, and pay for a coffin, as well as arrange a ceremony, all online. Priced at a thousand euros, its funeral service is three times cheaper than that of a traditional undertaker. Dourlent learned through the service that he could cut costs by completing paperwork himself and asking family members to carry his mother’s coffin.

Dourlent ended up paying €2,400 for his mother’s funeral, with extra fees incurred from organizing the ceremony outside of Paris, and says he initially struggled with the fact that he had used a low-cost service. “You want the funerals to [reflect] the love you have for the person, he says, “But when you’re facing a difficult financial situation, you have to make choices.” Ultimately, he was glad for the option. “The service couldn’t have been better. They helped me a lot.”

Cendrine Chapel is the co-director of Services Funéraires in Paris, which was founded by the city of Paris in 1998 with a mandate to offer affordable funerals to Parisians. She says Révolution Obsèques has been able to keep costs low because they don’t have to work out of a traditional brick-and-mortar funeral home with multiple employees. A part-time employee helps Chapel organize on average 150 to 200 funerals a year and coordinating burials with hospitals, retirement home, cemeteries and religious organizations. That is as many as one of the network’s traditional funeral homes, Chapel said.

The arrangement offered by Services Funéraires usually attracts professionals aged 45 to 55 years who are looking for more affordable options and appreciate the convenience of Internet-based services, like 44-year-old Thomas Legouen, who manages a team of reception clerks. He said he chose an online service because it allowed him to “compare prices and define the service myself, based on my needs for my grandmother’s funeral.”

France’s funeral industry is dominated by two companies: OGF, which has a thousand stores nationwide, and Funecap, which acquired its competitor Roc-Eclerc in August, bringing its number of stores to 650. There are also an estimated 3,500 independent companies, a majority with under 10 employees.

Change is likely to come slowly to this industry, in which tradition and predictability can be comforting for people feeling vulnerable and emotional after a loss, as well as uncomfortable discussing financial logistics. “In this sector, you don’t talk about ‘clients’ but ‘families’,” says Richard Feret, a spokesman for CPFM, a union representing 400 companies in the funeral industry sector.“Innovation will fully break through as soon as companies will trust technology and clients become tech-savvy,” Feret adds. “It’s generational.”

Some of the new services have sprung up in reaction to alarm over how entrenched the digital world has become in our lives—and deaths.

Proche de nous, the Northern France-based company that operates, helps mourners with a range of online services, from ordering flowers or musicians for a funeral, to updating clients on the maintenance of gravesites with emailed pictures. But the company is also looking help people tackle the more ephemeral aspect of our digital lives, such as assisting families with shutting down a deceased family member’s Facebook account, or managing it as a remembrance page—a function Facebook introduced last year.

The company’s co-founder, Gwenaelle Bremilts, wants to eventually help families with the implementation of the “Right to be Forgotten,” a 2014 European Union Court of Justice ruling mandating that search engines scrub search results of European residents at their request.

Senior Media is also working on a service to collect and erase dead people’s online activity, Simpson told Quartz, as families become increasingly concerned about identify theft and the vulnerability of dead people’s accounts to hacking. They’re also looking for guidance on how to turn off birthday notifications and pictures of the deceased on Facebook, which can often be traumatic. “People are really interested in [understanding] how to manage their dead’s identity,” Simpson says. “They feel that they have no control over such things.”