Death will happen to us all, but it’s not something we like to talk about or prepare for. The UK population is now older than it has ever been – by 2039, more than one in 12 of the population is projected to be aged 80 or over – and the death rate has risen. There were 602,786 deaths in the UK during 2015, according to the cumulative England and Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland figures, up 5.4% from 2014. But some digitally-focused entrepreneurs have spotted an opportunity in the rise, and see this traditional industry as ripe for disruption.
Death in the modern age comes with an entirely new set of issues – how to handle our online legacies, such as our tweets, Facebook posts, playlists and other virtual creations. It is a question that has occupied Suelin Chen, founder and CEO of online end-of-life planning service Cake. The platform differs from others as it also provides a concierge facility to handle posthumous profiles online.
“Most people haven’t thought about what they would want to happen to their online accounts after they’ve passed away. We help people understand that there might be precious memories or even actual assets in their Dropbox, Gmail, Facebook, Instagram accounts, etc,” she says.
Chen says the terms and conditions for each site vary and this can be a potential problem for grieving relatives. Also, digital legacy is such a new concept, it is often missed by traditional will makers. “[Wills] are not typically updated enough to manage how often the digital landscape of our lives change. Legacy-building in the digital age is a whole new frontier.”
Dan Garrett, founder and CEO of London-based startup Farewill, is aiming to make it easier for people to update their wills. The business enables people to create a will online for £50 and make updates for just £5 a year. Before launching, Garrett spent time interviewing funeral directors to gain an insight into their work. He discovered that more than half of all people fail to draw up a will and of those who do, most documents are old and unreflective of the owner’s final wishes.
Garrett and all of his team have training in writing wills and the business has created around 2,000 so far. “There are a lot of costs and problems if you die intestate,” he points out. Latest figures estimate the average cost to an estate of dying without a will is £9,700 because of unclaimed assets and poor tax planning.
For some, the financial burden of organising a funeral can also be vast. Insurance company Sun Life found that the average cost of a death in the UK is £8,802 once funeral costs, probate and the send off have been paid for. A 2014 report by the University of Bath estimates that 100,000 people cannot afford to die.
Among the business’ investors are Zoopla and Lovefilm founder, Alex Chesterman, venture capital company Kindred Capital, and Wonga founder, Errol Damelin. Garrett says the nature of his investors is a sign of his own ambition. “Alex Chesterman changed the whole real estate market so I was really excited to bring him on board – we want to do the same with the death industry. The industry is ripe for disruption. I think the fact it hasn’t been is more of a reflection of it being a taboo, than of technical difficulty,” he says.
Perhaps because of its taboo nature, the death and funeral industry lacks the transparency of other sectors. Kim Bird is attempting to alter this with her Cardiff-based company About the Funeral, which was founded in 2012. The business received £250,000 from the investment consortium InspireWales, including GoCompare founders Hayley Parsons and Kevin Hughes (Hughes is on her board), and aims to bring price comparison services to the funeral market. “People are unfamiliar with buying a funeral. They either haven’t done it before, or not for a long time.”
Bird, who previously worked in the funeral industry as a bereavement support volunteer, says there are calls from both the public and parliamentarians (including Frank Field MP, chair of the work and pensions select committee) for greater transparency in the industry. She points to research from YouGov suggesting 85% of people want funeral prices published online. “The main challenges have been the nature of the market. It is a traditional industry – changing it is a big challenge,” she says.
It is early days for her company, which has so far signed up 100 funeral directors to its subscription service, but Bird believes now she has the funding and an experienced board, she is well placed to make a difference. “These days, the internet is where most people go for information and About the Funeral is just an extension of that. Many industries have been disrupted in this way – the insurance industry has been through it and now price comparison is the norm for that sector.”
Derrick Grant, who recently launched his funeral director’s network Willow, says he was shocked by the sheer cost of funerals and felt that grieving families were all too often getting a raw deal. “Having watched a friend struggle to pay for his wife’s funeral, I wanted to understand why it was so expensive. After doing research, it became obvious that a lot of the cost is simply because we don’t have the time or access to question the traditional funeral process,” he says.
Grant launched his business in December 2016 with a handful of independent funeral directors connected to his site. Users fill in a simple questionnaire and are directed to the provider who most closely matches their needs. The business makes money through the sale of funeral products such as coffins, flowers and celebrant services. Grant says people often pay large sums for these and it is easy to undercut his competition. He believes he is also making the process easier.
“There are a lot of questions to answer at a time when most people aren’t concerned with paperwork and chasing phone calls,” Grant says. “Booking a cremation can take several phone calls to agree a time and date. Digitising processes so the public and funeral directors are on equal footing and can make decisions faster will make huge differences in the industry. Talking about death is becoming easier, but it’s still difficult to understand what to do when you lose someone.”
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