From Here to Eternity
A wave of industry up-starts is making end-of-life planning cheaper, easier and more empathetic
Like many tech-savvy Millennials, Mallory Greene always knew she wanted to launch her own start-up. She mulled over ideas and options while building up her resumé at the investment company Wealthsimple, where she was the head of corporate social responsibility. For several years, she just had no idea what kind of business she might want to run. “Then I realized it was in front of me the whole time,” she says. “I grew up around death.”
Greene’s mom is a hospice nurse. Her dad is a funeral director—the Dan Aykroyd to her Anna Chlumsky from My Girl. “My school friends ridiculed me because they thought it was so disturbing,” she says. “People constantly ask if my life was just like that movie.”
In 2019, at the age of 26, Greene founded Eirene, a direct-to-consumer cremation (and aquamation—more on this later) service that lets users bypass archaic and expensive funeral homes in favour of a streamlined all-digital process, where the body of a loved one can be ferried away within hours of dying and their ashes delivered to your door within the week. “Right now, we cater mostly to Gen Xers who are planning memorials for their parents,” says Greene.
Greene is oddly comfortable with difficult conversations. “I think people have a sense of relief when they meet me,” she says. “They think I’ll be like Morticia Addams, so when I show up all perky and happy, they’re pleasantly surprised.”
An ease around touchy subjects, a matter-of-fact approach to death, disruptor tendencies—Greene has all these qualities. Being an upstart in the new death economy is about subverting a largely antiquated industry at a time when the very nature of death is changing. The idea of making the end of life easier, less expensive and less emotionally taxing reflects not just a new set of values but also a changing mindset about mortality itself. “We’re not doing the steely-silence thing anymore when it comes to dealing with death,” says Greene. She’s also seeking better alternatives to a century-old model, which involves securing a lawyer for the will, a wood-panelled funeral home for services and a cemetery plot for burial. The new frontier of death is anything but traditional, offering 20-minute online wills, coffinless green interments and private doulas to prepare you for the ultimate transition.
Canadians are not dying like we used to. More than 30,000 people have chosen medically assisted death since June 2016, when Bill C-14 paved the way for the legalization of medical assistance in dying (MAID) for terminal patients. In March 2021, an amendment to the bill no longer required “reasonable foreseeability of natural death” as a qualifier. More recently, a special joint committee on MAID was formed to review the eligibility of people with mental illnesses. MAID cases represent only three per cent of Canadian deaths, but their implications are vast: Death now feels negotiable and controllable.
These changes reflect a massive shift in mindset. There’s no longer a prescribed way to die or plan for a loved one’s funeral. “A few generations ago, if you were, say, Catholic, you always knew you’d have a Catholic funeral and burial and it would be very much like every other Catholic ceremony you’d ever been to,” explains Jennifer Mallmes, a long-time palliative caregiver who founded the End of Life Doula certification program at Douglas College in New Westminster, B.C.—part of a new profession (also known as death doulas) that has sprung up in the past few years. In the 1971 Canadian census, only four per cent of Canadians reported that they had no religious affiliation; by 2021, that group had ballooned to about a third of the population. The trend toward greater secularization has been largely influenced by patterns of immigration from all over the world, which in turn has contributed to a greater personalization of rites of passage, from weddings to funerals. “So many of us customize our beliefs and create our own rituals,” says Mallmes. A bit of Christianity, a smattering of Buddhism, a sprinkle of mystic poetry—for many, an à-la-carte spirituality has replaced observant formality.
More than seven million Canadians, or nearly one-fifth of the population, are now over the age of 65. The next 10 years will bring the highest death rates of all time, and they’ll be brought to us by the Baby Boomers. This generation isn’t keen to quietly grow old and die in a retirement home, instead prioritizing (and paying handsomely for) a so-called “good” death unlike so many they’ve seen before. “Death has been seen as sad and gross, but we’re trying to change the narrative,” says Mallmes. “If the new death start-ups are cute and upbeat, that’s great. They’re changing the conversation.”
In fact, they’re trying to subvert the entire business model. The Canadian funeral industry, which employs more than 9,000 individuals across nearly 1,700 businesses and has a market size of $1.6 billion in revenue, has changed remarkably little in its entire history.
Prior to the turn of the 20th century, funerals were largely a community undertaking. People would die at home, be administered bedside embalming by an undertaker and receive backyard or church-plot burials in a process governed primarily by families, neighbours and clergy. As populations grew, so too did the need for real estate: Cemeteries proliferated and the professional services of funeral homes (founded in the 1880s in Canada) took precedence over home memorials. A new status symbol emerged. Living-room funerals gave way to public gatherings at appointed venues. Pine boxes gave way to fancier caskets in a variety of grains and finishes.
Today, a handful of publicly traded companies dominate the industry, which is equal parts about death services (funerals and cremations), manufacturing (coffins, urns, headstones) and real estate. The major companies providing goods and services to Canadians are as old as the hills: Indiana-based Hillenbrand, a maker of caskets and other funeral products with nearly US$3 billion in revenue, dates back to 1906. Its competitor, the US$1.6-billion manufacturing company Matthews Corporation in Pennsylvania, was founded in 1850. Texas-based Service Corporation International, the largest funeral-home and cemetery operator in North America, with 1,900 locations and more than US$4 billion in revenue, is the spring chicken of the group at 61 years old. Then there’s the Canadian player: Founded in Toronto, Park Lawn Corporation started out in 1892 with one facility and has since expanded to 1,500 funeral homes and 400 cemeteries across eight provinces and 43 American states. It has a revenue of more than $360 million.
In all, the traditional funeral-home industry in Canada has remained fairly solid, declining by only 2.2 per cent per year, on average, between 2017 and 2022. This is largely because for decades the market has faced only modest challenges. One is the decline of family-owned funeral homes as they’ve been bought up by large chains and corporations. Another is Covid, which made Zoom funerals and lower-key services more accepted by the masses. E-commerce vendors sell caskets and urns with massive discounts, but most people in the midst of grief lack the time and motivation to get resourceful.
Unless you plan it in advance, that is. Lucille Gora is 73 and lives alone on the outskirts of Amherst, N.S. According to StatsCan, single-person households like hers are now the most common in the country—it’s a demographic that has more than doubled in the past 35 years. Since she doesn’t have children, Gora has been taking on end-of-life planning on her own. “I don’t want anyone else to have to do it, and I certainly don’t want them to do it in a way I don’t like,” she says. Gora, who’s retired from a career in health care, is very familiar with issues of death and dying and adamant that she doesn’t want to “be put in a hole in the ground.”
“Cemeteries are polluting,” she says. “They put all sorts of chemicals like formaldehyde into the ground, and we’re running out of space anyway.” Some studies estimate the carbon emissions of a typical funeral—from chopping down trees to manufacturing a casket to transporting said casket to the cemetery—to be upwards of 245 kilograms of CO2, which is akin to driving 4,000 kilometres. Then there’s the cost. Like most real estate, cemetery burials in Canada have skyrocketed in price: In Amherst, a plot alone costs up to $10,000; a plot in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery starts at $31,000. Caskets range from $1,000 to $10,000. Opening and closing up a grave for burial is about $1,500, and a grave marker or head-stone can run up to $3,000. Fees for the ceremonies themselves vary widely based on location, size, required staff and even season, but the average funeral bill—obituary, church rental, flowers, reception—is between $5,000 and $10,000. Beyond her ethical concerns, a traditional burial exceeded Gora’s budget. So she took to Google to explore alternatives.
Online, Gora found a plethora of options for the eco-minded, including natural-decomposition or mushroom suits—bio-degradable shrouds made from spores meant to help break down the body and filter toxins—all for a fraction of the price of a traditional burial. Better Place Forests—founded by Torontonian Sandy Gibson and based in California—will take you on a virtual or in-person forest tour to choose the tree where your ashes will be mixed with soil and planted at the roots. In Washington state, Recompose sells a US$7,000 “human composting” service that will turn your body into soil. For a price starting from US$3,000, Texas-based Eterneva will use carbon pressure to transform a half-cup of ashes (or hair) into a diamond. And Florida-based Eternal Reefs will deposit your “cremains” onto the ocean floor. On the opposite end of the environmental-impact spectrum, Beyond Burials sells a Moon Memorial, in which your ashes are blasted to the moon for US$7,500.
Last summer, after her extensive research, Gora signed on with Eirene. She was initially interested in the aquamation option, in which the body is gradually dissolved in a mixture of water and alkali, but at $3,000, it was still outside her budget. She opted for the $2,500 cremation package and is leaving instructions for a friend to take her ashes to a beach in Brazil. In addition to arranging for cremation and delivery of ashes to loved ones, the company also completes all required permits and paperwork, including a death certificate and an online obituary. Eirene’s team of digital funeral directors are available via phone or online chat—24 hours a day, seven days a week—to help users with their plans. Since Eirene doesn’t have a physical building with overhead costs to maintain—the biggest difference between Mallory Greene’s business and her father’s—the service costs about half of the price of a usual cremation in Canada. Greene reports that “pre-need” sales were up by 600 per cent in 2022, almost twice the “at-need” sales jump of 323 per cent, proving her clientele are making their arrangements early.
Planning your own funeral is among the services offered by Megan Sheldon’s company Be Ceremonial, a web app that sells customized rituals for everything from housewarmings to breakups to pregnancy loss. During Covid lockdowns, people were suddenly hosting funerals at home, or they had ashes to scatter and wanted to find ways to make it meaningful. For $5, Be Ceremonial clients can use an online platform to customize their ceremony, selecting from dozens of options of welcome songs, words of gratitude and even sparklers and confetti. “This might have been taboo before, but it’s becoming more and more common to plan and attend your own funeral,” says Sheldon. “People want their friends and family to come together and celebrate before they die.” Be Ceremonial’s online templates have facilitated thousands of ceremonies in 14 countries since its official launch in March 2020.
Making ceremonial arrangements is just one part of the equation. Planning where your assets and estate will go after you die can be far more consequential. Only about half of adult Canadians have a will, probably because it’s an easily procastinatable drag of expensive in-person appointments and excessive paperwork. In every province but British Columbia and Saskatchewan, a will needs to be in hard copy and have physical signatures from present witnesses. “The process of getting a will in 2022 is the same as it was to get one in 1922,” says Erin Bury. “Why would my will sit in a basement cabinet somewhere when I could just email a PDF to everyone involved?”
In 2017, Bury and her husband founded Willful, an online platform that caters to people in simple situations just like her. “I’m 37, I am a parent, I own a home and I don’t want to pay a thousand dollars to see a lawyer,” she says. In December 2021, Willful appeared on Dragon’s Den, landing a $750,000 investment deal partially funded by Clearco cofounder Michele Romanow and later a partnership with DocuSign. Willful customers can go online and make a completely legal will—no lawyer required—then print, sign, witness and store a hard copy themselves. “It’s like Turbo Tax for wills,” she says, and just as accountants don’t love Turbo Tax, lawyers don’t love Willful either. Initially, there was pushback from the legal community, who saw the company as a competitor. “The alternative to Willful is not a lawyer,” counters Bury. “It’s not having a will at all.” Things evolve quickly, however. This past November, the Law Society of Canada promoted Willful in its Access to Innovation project, a five-year pilot aimed at supporting brave new ideas in the industry.
While an increasingly digitized world lets Bury and Greene modernize old industries, entirely new additions to Big Funeral are popping up in death tech for clients both alive and dead. Montrealer Mandy Benoualid was strolling through a graveyard with her dad when inspiration struck. “We discussed how cool it would be if gravestones had a QR code so you could scan it with your phone and be taken to a page to learn all about that person,” she says. Her company, Keeper, launched in 2013. It’s a digital platform that allows clients to share the story of their loved ones. “We don’t call it an obituary, because it’s not about death; we like to use ‘biography’ instead,” says Benoualid.
Keeper holds several-hundred-thousand clients’ memorial pages. The arrival of Covid impacted the makeup of its clientele. “We’ve had a big spike in business from people planning their own memorial page. They upload the photos they want and write their own obituaries. They then choose someone to be their ‘keeper,’ and when they die, that person posts the tribute,” she says. Daily registrations of new users on Keeper increased by 300 per cent during Covid, and the company expanded its offerings to include virtual memorials for a cost ranging from US$500 to $2,300. It has since arranged more than 100 virtual events with personalized “legacy activities” like yoga, gardening and even cooking classes. “We did one event where everyone made the matriarch’s famous lasagna,” Benoualid says. “It was so beautiful.”
Amid the money-saving start-ups and tech-enabled services, the new death economy has also given rise to a new type of consultant. In the fall of 2019, Adrianna Prosser—a theatre-school grad turned social-media marketer—accompanied a good friend on a trip from Toronto to Disney World. The friend had stage-four cancer, which had metastasized from her breast to her liver and into her spinal cord, but she didn’t want to spend the few months she had left in a hospital bed. Armed with a list of practical matters to tend to, Prosser found herself in the middle of Epcot Center in the role of on-the-go caregiver. “I was boiling water in the hotel coffee maker, MacGyvering a makeshift hot-water bottle for her pain and making sure she got all the right meds,” Prosser says.
After she came home, Prosser recounted the details to her therapist, saying how much the experience had shaped her and how adept she was at even the tough, messy aspects. “Have you ever heard of a death doula?” the therapist asked her. “Because I think you already are one.”
The previous decade suddenly all made sense. When Prosser’s brother died by suicide in 2010, she coped by training in suicide prevention and intervention counselling. Later, she wrote and performed a one-woman play about loss. She became a self-described “grief-support geek,” constantly unpacking the process of bereavement. “Somewhere in there, finding I really resonated with the community, I started to play with the idea of being a death doula proper,” she says. Prosser completed an End of Life Doula certification program at Douglas College and now runs her own death doula business, serving private clients.
Just as a life coach helps you live your best life, a death doula helps you die your best death. What exactly this entails is always changing. “The public tends to assume we’re mostly sitting bedside,” says Sue Phillips, who’s based in Hamilton, Ont., and is vice-president of Canada’s End of Life Doula Association. “We’re here to educate you about your options and make a plan before you’re in a vulnerable stage.” Doulas guide clients through all the usual things, such as how to obtain legal advice on wills and power of attorney. They provide counsel on the options that exist outside of burial. “I can facilitate conversations with your family. I can help you with legacy work, like an art or music project,” says Phillips.
Roughly 2,500 students have gone through the Douglas College program since its creation in 2016—the same year that MAID became legal. Death doulas charge an hourly rate of anywhere from $30 to $130 or an all-in flat flee ($1,000 to $1,500). Most have other sources of income: They’re personal-support workers, nurses, social workers.
Whatever their gig from Monday to Friday, about 100 colleagues find time to meet on a Slack channel called Death & Co. It’s a venue for discussing, among other things, how to do their soul work and still make ends meet. They’re committed to challenging the way Canadians treat death and dying—fostering a tonal shift away from the dark and sombre. This new generation of death doulas is part and parcel of a chipper new pragmatism—in the same spirit as an app that lets you e-sign a will in an hour or plan a virtual funeral with hardly a fuss. At the end of the day, they’re all helping families deal with the formalities of death in novel ways.
Recently, Sheldon invited her “death crew” from Death & Co. to a retreat on B.C.’s Bowen Island. There, a large group of Canadian doulas—ranging in age from 20s to 60s—spent a three-day weekend sitting in candlelit circles, setting intentions, swapping stories and sharing business tips.
“At the end, we brought in a cardboard coffin and we painted it with hopeful messages about the new story of death,” recalls Sheldon. Then they all took turns lying in the closed coffin to help face any lingering fears they had about dying. The night before, they’d had a raucous dance party. Death, as it turns out, isn’t what it used to be.