People spent less on funerals during Covid: Invocare

Australia’s largest funeral provider says families chose simpler funerals and direct cremations for their loved ones during 2020.

Announcing its FY20 results to investors, Invocare reported the average cost of a funeral was down four per cent on the year before. That is, the average cost of a funeral was $7882.

“Funeral case volumes were 2.5% down for the year, with volumes in the second half down just 1.6% as restrictions eased. Funeral case average suffered the greatest impact from COVID, down 4.0% on the PCP (prior corresponding period).

Simpler arrangements and an increase in direct cremations during the height of lockdowns drove a decline in professional service fees and demand for catered funeral services.

In most markets the business was able to meet this change in demand through its Simplicity and Value Cremations branded locations. As restrictions eased, signs of a return in demand for the ‘gathering’ element of a funeral service to celebrate the life of a loved one have been observed.”

Invocare ASX Announcement, 24 Feb 2021

What are direct cremations?

Direct cremations are exactly what the name suggests. No funeral, no frills, just a cremation. The body is transported from the home or hospital to the funeral company’s mortuary where they are kept until a cremation can be organised. They are then transported directly to the crematorium. Direct cremations have been increasing in popularity over the past five or so years.

My mother was directly cremated a year ago this week. She had told me she didn’t want a funeral and we had discussed a direct cremation. There was no costly coffin, no hearse required (coffins are moved in a van), no funeral venue hire, no catering, no printed order of proceedings or hymn booklet etc. My family used an independent funeral director to collect mum from the hospice and within two days she had been cremated. I had made inquiries about witnessing the cremation. The crematorium was Invocare-owned and I was told that would cost an additional $600.

The nitty gritty $$$

Let’s talk dollar$ briefly.

Today InvoCare Limited reported a statutory net loss after tax attributed to shareholders of $9.2 million for the year ended 31 December 2020. The COVID pandemic and the associated government restrictions had a significant impact on both InvoCare’s ability to deliver full-service funeral arrangements and on the mortality rate in the countries in which its businesses operate. As disclosed to the market on 17 February 2021, this 2020 full year result includes the impact of net $26.5 million (pre-tax) of significant operating and non-operating item, mostly linked to the impact of COVID on the Funeral Services sector and the broader economy in Australia and New Zealand.
• Statutory Revenue down 4.5% to $477.7 million
• Operating Revenue down 4.7% to $476.2 million
• Operating EBITDA down 29% to $102.6 million
• Reported Loss After Tax attributable to shareholders of InvoCare Limited of $9.2 million

FY20 Results Investor Presentation

Families happy with their Invocare service

There’s no denying 2020 was a challenging year for all of us. It was particularly difficult for those who lost loved ones because funeral restrictions prevented gatherings and collective grieving. But funeral directors, whether they be independent or owned by big business, did every thing possible to help families as best they could. The live streaming of funerals is nothing new to the funeral industry – it’s been done for years – but Covid restrictions really upped the ante on this type of funeral technology and its use. And funeral directors had the responsibility of keeping people safe by implementing strict Covid plans. It must have been really difficult at times when people were feeling overwhelming grief and hugs could be few and far between.

The hard work, agility and dedication of InvoCare’s frontline workforce was clearly recognised by client families, with the Australian Funeral Services business maintaining a strong Net Promoter Score (NPS) of +79, an excellent result in a challenging year.
The business experienced difficult trading conditions in the middle of the year but the breadth of its brand portfolio and the geographical diversification of its network have assisted in limiting the decline in operating revenue to 7.3%, delivering $292.3 million in revenue for the year. The intentional focus on maintaining service capability, plus a $2.0 million increase in its provision for aged debtors contributed to a 27% decline in Operating EBITDA to $62.5 million.

Invocare ASX Announcement, 24 Feb 2021

So what’s a NPS, a net promoter score? It’s a feedback mechanism. Clients are surveyed and asked if they’re likely to recommend the business. The NPS rates their likelihood to recommend a company, a product, or a service to a friend or colleague. Invocare says its NPS is +79 which is very, very good. 

Pet cremations not affected by Covid

For the past few years InvoCare has been diversifying into pet cremations. Late last year it bought two large pet cremation businesses for just under $50 million. The acquisition gave InvoCare a national footprint when it comes to pet cremations. And it’s going to be a big earner. I’ve got the urns containing three dogs’ remains at my place.

The average cost of a pet cremation with InvoCare in 2020 was $316. Almost 15,000 pets were cremated. And InvoCare expects strong growth in the pet cremation sector. But there’s a new player in the pet ‘cremation’ market. We’re going to see an increase in the offerings of (non-InvoCare) water cremation of pets. But that’s a whole other blog which I’ll get to in coming weeks.

Funeral are big business so be prepared

So there you have it. Funerals are BIG business and they’re worth LOTS of money. InvoCare is the biggest funeral player here in Australia, by far. It owns 278 funeral director businesses, 25 crematoria and 17 cemeteries/memorial parks. Like all funeral businesses, they’ve been working in challenging conditions with Covid restrictions affecting funerals, mourners and the way they grieve. I say a big congratulations to all funeral workers for working so hard for families in difficult times. You play a very important part in the lives, and deaths, of people.

InvoCare’s average funeral cost last year was nearly $8,000. That doesn’t include the price of a cemetery burial plot. To reduce that cost, don’t be afraid to shop around and ask questions. You don’t have to let the funeral company print your order of proceedings or hymn book. Make your own. Organise your own flowers, provide your own catering. Tell your family you don’t want an expensive coffin so, when the time eventually comes, they won’t feel like they have to spend $3,000 on a coffin.

Perhaps invite your local funeral director to your local Lions or Rotary meeting where you ask them about the ins and outs of funerals. Or just call one for a chat. While researching my book, The Bottom Drawer Book: the after death action plan, I found funeral directors to be very approachable. Being informed will help you make better and easier decisions at a time of great grief.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a death literacy advocate, a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. It is available in Australia for $24.95, including postage (Additional postage of AU$9 is payable for overseas orders). 

Lisa Herbert, blogger and author.

Telling stories from the grave: Gold Coast teen’s memorial becomes a technological world first

Strolling through a pretty memorial park nestled between Brisbane and the Gold Coast, I stumbled across technology that will revolutionise how the stories of the dead are told and how the deceased are remembered.

Gold Coast teen Lucas Millott died suddenly from a heart condition aged 15. His memorial is at Eco Memorial Park in Stayplton, halfway between Brisbane and the Gold Coast.

In between the headstones, plaques, photos, flowers and trinkets at Eco Memorial Park at Stapylton, there was a headstone that had a little white plastic-looking disk stuck to it. The disk is Bluetooth-enabled technology which enabled me to get to know Gold Coast teen Lucas Millott via an App I’d just downloaded on my phone. Sadly Lucas died in class last September.

The Memento is fitted with a Bluetooth beacon which connects to the modUrn App to reveal the story of the deceased. It provides a central place for photos, videos, voice recordings, music, documents – all sorts of things.

The little disk is called a Memento and it’s fitted with a Bluetooth beacon that relays information to the modUrn App (more about modUrn in a sec). Lucas’ parents and friends have uploaded photos, videos, documents and text on to the App. When someone like me comes within five metres of the memorial or grave, that information becomes accessible on my smartphone. But, as someone who’s not connected with Lucas or his family, I could only see a handful of the information that had been uploaded onto the App. Lucas’ family have the final say on who can see what. Just like social media, the information can be either public or private or a mix of both.

I took some screenshots of what I saw when I logged on to the App as I stood at the garden site of Lucas’ memorial:

Who was Lucas?

Sadly Lucas made the news when he died in class at Ormeau Woods State High School last September. The 15yo suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy which can cause sudden cardiac death in one per cent of those with the disease.

Lucas liked technology and gadgets. Headphones sit on his memorial stone and his love of his Xbox is written on his memorial plaque. It makes sense that his grave is the first in the world to be using what’s called a Memento (developed by an Aussie company called modUrn).

Lucas would have been 16 a couple of weeks ago so his friends, family, classmates and his dog Leila attended a memorial day for him. Photos from that day have since been uploaded to the App.

Lucas’s mum Agneta Millott says it’s great that anyone who visits her son’s memorial will be able to see life events and photos of Lucas.

“I’m hoping that whoever goes there can scroll through the photos, enjoy great memories of Lucas and sit there with a smile on their face.

“Seeing new updated stories and new images from his friends and also messages when others are visiting Lucas’s memorial in the future is going to be great”, said Agneta. 

Who’s behind this technology?

Followers of this blog and my Facebook page know that I’m a cemetery wanderer who likes to give a voice to those who can no longer speak. Cemeteries can teach the living such valuable lessons about the past and this technology offers a very cool way of doing that. I’m in no way affiliated with this company but I am very excited by what I’ve seen.

As soon as I got home from the memorial park I rang the young creator of the Memento for a chat. Sonia Vachalec is a photographer by trade. (Just hours before I rang her she’d signed a deal for this technology to be distributed in three countries including the USA. SO COOL – a little Aussie company doing big things – the concept has been created, developed and manufactured here in Australia.)

Sonia’s dad died when she was in her 20s and her stepfather died five years ago. She had stacks of their photos, voice recordings and videos lying around. “I was hoarding so many things,” she admits.

Sonia wanted to collate all her memories in one spot “so there was a time capsule to capture the essence of the person that can be accessed at any time or any place”.

Urns have the technology too!

Sonia hasn’t just created the Memento, the little disk that sits on a grave or memorial. The same technology is included in a bunch of funky urns called modUrns. So now the cremated ashes (called cremains) of Granny Mary can sit in the lounge room and you can access all her memories, photos, videos, letter, documents, certificates, story tellings, family tree, whatever, via the App.

Yup, that’s an urn for cremated ashes. The world’s first Smart Urn! The Bluetooth technology sits in the top, powered by a small battery that will need changing every couple of years. When your phone is within five metres of the urn you can use the App on your phone to scroll through photos, videos, etc.

The modUrn is certainly not your traditional-looking urn. And it can’t hold all the ashes of Granny Mary. (They hold about a litre or 61 cubic inches but these days lots of people are starting to split the ashes of their loved ones anyway.)

Here’s a video explainer of what you can do with the modUrn technology. https://youtu.be/JGssGwnOK7E

Sonia has a six-year-old girl who’s too young to remember the times she spent with her grandfather who passed away when she was 2. But she now has a physical reference of her Pop in the shape of a modUrn that is filled with photos of her grandfather. It sits next to the TV in the lounge room.

“She picks it up and hugs it sometimes,” said Sonia.

Death in the modern era

When it comes to accepting death and talking about it, Australians are way behind the times. While other cultures have a very personalised and hands-on approach to death and funerals, Aussies don’t want a bar of it. So it’s great to see an Australian company that’s leading the way in offering people an easy way to remember their loved ones. And yes, that includes pets as well. There’s a pet range of modUrns as well!

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. It is available in Australia for $24.95, including postage (Additional postage of AU$9 is payable for overseas orders). She enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Lisa Herbert holds The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan.
Lisa Herbert has authored The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, a informative and amusing funeral planning guide.