Planning a funeral or memorial often still involves traditional things such as purchasing a casket or arranging services, but millennials seem to have a very different set of expectations than their older family and friends when it comes to dealing with death.
According to a 2015 study by the Funeral and Memorial Information Council (FAMIC), adults ages 20-39 are more likely than any other age group to share funeral information via social media, participate in online memorialization sites, and even turn to crowdfunding to try to raise money for funeral expenses.
“The biggest thing people expect,” says Walker Posey, funeral director at Posey Funeral Directors and a spokesperson for the National Funeral Directors Association, “is information. They want it online and on their mobile devices, and it’s not just millennials – everyone expects to be able to access information on demand.”
These expectations have changed the nature of funerals and memorials, allowing for broader and faster dissemination of information to allow more people to immediately recognize and pay respects to an individual’s passing. But some may find the changes disconcerting and, in the case of crowdfunding, misleading.
Social media, virtual memorials and etiquette
“Younger people aren’t picking up the paper and looking through obituaries,” said Diana Duksa Kurz, owner and funeral director at Duksa Family Funeral Homes. “Death is the last thing anyone wants to think about.”
But it isn’t just millennials who find social media convenient when it comes to sharing funeral information or investigating crowdfunding sites for memorials.
“Even people who are not in the millennial generation are relieved that they don’t have to call people,” said Posey. “They can just send an email or share a post. It takes a lot of pressure off them during a difficult time.”
The most important thing when sharing news of a death or funeral online, Posey noted, is to make sure the family is the one controlling what gets shared and when.
A social post or email announcing services will often contain a link to a virtual memorial page. According to the FAMIC study, virtual memorial websites are visited by 26 percent of adults age 40 and older, and 39 percent of adults in the 20-39 range.
“Online memorials are great because they allow a lot of interaction and they’re very convenient,” said Posey. “People will send flowers or gifts through the website in addition to sharing memories, and it can all be done from a mobile device.”
Many funeral homes offer memorial websites as a matter of course, according to Posey, which may be why only two percent of adults age 40 or older and 5 percent of adults ages 20-39 said in the FAMIC study they’d actually created a memorial website, as opposed to the higher percentage who have used them.
Crowdsourcing funeral expenses
Many people want to host an event that respects and celebrates the life gone by, but this desire to honor a loved one can come with a hefty price tag.
The cost of a North American funeral often ranges between $7,000 and $10,000,1 and “there’s a stigma associated with saying you can’t afford it,” says Posey, noting such costs can be a burden for many families. (Related: Funeral costs and concerns)
But that might explain why some people organizing a funeral may be trying to get in on the recent growth of the crowdfunding phenomenon. According to the 2015 FAMIC study, 17 percent of adults ages 20-39 said that they have used the internet to raise money for funeral-related arrangements, as opposed to just four percent of adults age 40 and older.
Crowdfunding has some potential to ease the burden of cost, but it’s not a guarantee. And in many cases it may come up short of expectations in the face of the cost of a funeral, particularly an unexpected one. (Related: Why crowd-sourcing doesn't replace life insurance)
“Young people tend to be very unprepared,” said Kurz. “A couple of generations ago, everyone moved in with each other to take care of the dying, and kept money aside to pay for the funeral. Death used to be something we talked about and prepared for – just like any other big life event.”
While 46 percent of the adults age 40 or older told FAMIC they’ve discussed with their loved ones how they want to be remembered, only 17 percent had actually made any kind of pre-arrangements. (Related: Pre-Planning a memorial service)
On the positive side, the rise of social media and digital mechanisms like virtual memorials can also help ensure that those in mourning do not have to handle it on their own.
Modern American culture in general doesn’t seem to like to think about death, and those who have lost someone tend to be expected to grieve alone. Dr. Allen Wolfelt, founder and director of the Center for Loss & Life Transition makes the distinction between grief, which is each individual’s private, emotional reaction to loss, and mourning, which is the public expression of our grief, noting that while mourning is often not supported, both are important for the process of healing after the loss of a loved one. 2
Social sharing and digital efforts for funeral and memorial services may be the digital age’s answer to bringing back a common space for the sharing of grief.
“Crowdfunded funerals, believe it or not, are beginning to happen more often,” said Posey. He shared as an example the story of a gentleman who passed away after a long-time career as a favorite server at a local country club. A call went out to the community he’d interacted with over the years – and they raised $25,000 in one day to pay for his funeral expenses.
But such success stories are likely to be in the minority. Indeed, between 69 and 89 percent of crowdfunding efforts fail to reach their target, according to one recent report. (Related: Options for life insurance later in life)
The new face of support
There has been concern over death – something we’re used to as being a private affair – coming back into the public eye, especially now that the public eye extends beyond our local communities into something with potentially global reach.
This was exemplified in 2013, when NPR host Simon Scott tweeted his mother’s final days from a Chicago ICU, sharing instances of her humor, wisdom and warmth.
Meghan O’Rourke argued in The New Yorker that far from being a gruesome imposition of Scott’s grief on others, it was “simply a modern version of what has always existed: a platform for shared grief where the immediate loss suffered by one member of a community becomes an opportunity for communal reckoning and mourning.”3
Though funeral customs and expectations change over time, one thing seems to remain constant: the need for a healthy support network as we grieve.
For many, especially younger generations, web-based social media outlets have become that source of solace (and, in some cases, financial support) in a troubled time.
“Social media has changed everything in every part of our lives,” said Duksa. “Funeral services are no different.”
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This article was published in October 2016. It has been updated.
1 National Funeral Directors Association, “Statistics,” 2016.
2 Allen Wolfelt, Ph.D. “Helping Dispel 5 Common Myths About Grief,” 2011
3 The New Yorker, “Tweeting Death”, 2013