Our Journal

Lessons on the funeral industry from a new market entrant

by Luke McInnes, CEO Tomorrow Funerals

We recently launched Tomorrow Funerals – a modern funeral business aiming to bring some fresh ideas to an industry that has changed very little over the past century. This is my story on how we got to where we are today.

As a frequently locked down Melbournian in 2020, like many others, the year provided me with plenty of time to think. Adding to that was the addition of our first daughter to the world, which forced me to assess what I wanted to get out of my years ahead.


I made the decision to start a new business, though doing what exactly was unclear at that point. One particular theme that was getting attention was funerals – with constant guest restrictions in place, I felt incredible sympathy for those who were faced with the difficult task of organising a funeral during such uncertain times. I can’t remember what the exact trigger was, but soon after I started looking at the death industry.

We’re hardwired to avoid death, so most of us choose to ignore it. Aside from attending a few funerals over the years, my knowledge of the death industry was very limited too. As I started researching the industry further, I came to realise that my lack of experience was actually a blessing. Most people planning a funeral are doing so for the first time too, so assessing it from the lens of an amateur allowed me to see the process the same way that most customers do.

The process of discovery was like peeling back the layers of an onion. Every answer I found created another set of questions and I came to the conclusion that for one reason or another, this was an industry that was vastly outdated and in need of some fresh changes. What follows are some of my most interesting learnings during that discovery process.


Lesson One – Funerals as we typically know them are designed around a burial process, despite consumer preferences changing.

A typical funeral follows the following process:

  1. A person’s body is taken to a funeral home, placed in a coffin and prepared for a funeral.
  2. Within a few days, perhaps a week at most, the coffin will be placed at the front of a room (generally a chapel) where a funeral service will be read to a crowd of mourners.
  3. At the completion of that service, the person will be transported in a hearse to a local cemetery where they will be lowered into a grave, with onlooking mourners who have followed from the earlier service.
  4. Afterwards, family and friends may head back to the household for a wake.

This process makes complete sense for a service that centres around a burial, but with 70% of Australians now choosing to be cremated, there’s very little reason that the same process needs to be followed. Nevertheless, most cremation based funerals today still follow broadly the same process. Instead of designing a process that makes sense for a cremated person, the industry has essentially just retrofitted the old burial process.

The questions I started to ask were:

Why must the service still take place with the person’s body physically present? Why must we still do the service so soon after death? If a cremation is chosen for the benefits of it being fast, dignified & cost effective, why should there continue to be a focus on all of the intricate elements of this process? Why do we need a funeral parlour, a hearse, or even a funeral director?

That final question got me looking at the role of the funeral director.


Lesson Two – are funeral directors the right people for every single part of the process?

Let me start by saying that over the past 12 months I’ve met with many funeral directors and nearly all of them have been great people. My critique of the funeral director role is not of the people in the position, but rather the parameters and expectations we set for them.

I think it’s an impossible position. The role, which requires no qualifications, pays relatively poorly, offers very little in the way of career progression and has a required skill set that most corporate CEOs could only dream of.

Their primary day to day task is the logistical management and ‘preparation’ of the deceased – organising their collection, storage and various tasks that fall under the category of mortuary preparation. Rather than going into the details, I’d suggest Googling the topic for anyone that wants to know some of the details required in preparing a dead body for a viewing.

Next is the logistics of arranging a funeral service. From managing the booking of venues and suppliers, to actually running the funeral event itself. This is essentially an events manager role, with the added difficulty of incorporating the deceased’s body into the event. Not to mention that the funeral director will also be in charge of delivering the service in what’s more or less an MC role.

On top of all of this is what’s arguably the most important part of all – comforting and supporting a grieving family. This very human task requires an incredible degree of empathy and emotional intelligence, which is only made harder by the need to adhere to corporate KPIs and guidelines throughout the process. And I didn’t even touch on the fact that it’s a 24/7 role where they need to work in the middle of the night, weekends and public holidays.

In conclusion, I’m not critical of the individuals working as funeral directors, I’m critical of how big a role the funeral director is required to fulfil in every single part of the funeral service.


Lesson Three – I’m not sure there’s another industry where the customer is so ill-informed.

The average funeral costs almost $11,000, a big ticket item in anyone’s language, yet I struggle to think of another purchasing decision where the customer knows less about what they’re buying.

One of the main reasons for this is cultural. Because we don’t talk about death and prefer to think it never happens, most people aren’t interested in learning about funerals.

The other reason is a simple one – funerals are just not something we purchase or organise all that often. Given we generally have two parents and one spouse, it might mean that someone could organise three funerals over their life split across several decades. But most of the time, the person organising a funeral will be doing so for the first time.

Now consider that funerals are organised with extreme time pressures (a funeral director is one of the first calls a family will make immediately following a death) during a period of intense grief. Yes there are stories of people getting taken advantage of, but I think the bigger issue is the setup for poor and ill-informed decision making.


Lesson Four – The whole thing is the opposite of customer centric.

There’s a famous Steve Jobs quote where he says that ‘you’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology.’ The idea being that you work out exactly what the needs of the customer are, then design products and processes that are a solution for those needs.

The traditional funeral process, quite frankly, does the opposite. The funeral is what it is and the customers will choose from what’s put in front of them. Single service or dual service? Attended cremation or direct cremation? Coffin or casket? Most of the decisions put in front of customers will mean nothing to them, but everything to the funeral home.

The structure of the industry is not set up in such a way that families can create truly unique funeral experiences that are as varied as the lives of the loved ones they’re honouring. The customer simply is not empowered to make any groundbreaking decisions on how the experience will look. The end result is that all funerals look more or less the same. 

In most industries where companies have failed to evolve, the incumbents eventually get destroyed as more customer centric models enter the market. But the funeral market isn’t exactly a sexy industry, so there’s very few new people entering the space and it continues to be dominated by big players who have been around for decades.

What’s the future?

My research led me to the conclusion that the only way to really create change was to design a model from scratch, throwing out all preconceived ideas of what a funeral business was meant to look like.

I looked for examples of what I considered to be remarkable funerals and I was pleased to know that they do exist. Something these types of services had in common was that they were celebrant led, held at completely non-traditional venues and with little to no focus on typical funeral rituals with regards to what would be done with the body. This podcast episode is a great example of one of the best funerals I had seen.

The common thread with these types of funerals was that the typical funeral elements were kept ultra simple and they relied on one special person who could design and run the event – that person not necessarily being a funeral director, but often an independent advisor or a celebrant. With that being the case, it answered most of those questions I had when I questioned the funeral process. 

The person’s body does not need to be physically present at the service and in fact, by removing this constraint it opens up a whole lot of possibilities for what the service can be. Not to mention that by leading the whole process with a simple dignified cremation, there’s really no need for a parlour, a hearse, or even a funeral director. Instead, families can plan and design the event in the same way they might think about a wedding or a party, with complete creative freedom around every single element.

Paddle Out

Our North Star

Once I had concluded that these highly bespoke celebrant-led services were the types of funerals we wanted to focus on, the challenge was understanding how to do this at scale. Because what they all had in common was a lead person who was totally committed to each individual family, so how could we ensure that this level of detailed service is maintained once we’re doing several funerals at once?

I am confident that the business model we have developed solves this problem. Whether we deliver 10 or 10,000 services per year, the celebrant-led model means that each client will still receive the exact same level of personalisation and care.

Sure, we could keep the business small and deliver an exceptional service for the handful of families that were lucky enough to find us, but that’s not going to make a dent in the almost 200,000 funerals held per year in Australia.

Success for us is not that we can deliver a set number of services per year, but rather that we’ve really changed the conversation on what it means to have a funeral. Instead of 200,000 people having a service that looks pretty much the same, how about 200,000 funeral services that all look vastly different? Some choose very traditional offerings with the bigger operators, some choose a more personalised service with small suburban funeral homes, some go ahead and organise the entire service themselves and some come to Tomorrow.


Tomorrow Cremations & Memorials – Our Focus

In building the Tomorrow product offering, we’ve focused on something that’s both simple and remarkable. There’s some key elements that allow us to do this.

Firstly, we only focus on the option of a simple cremation. In Australia, 70% of people are now choosing to be cremated and though some of those might still prefer a ‘traditional cremation service’, many don’t care about how this part goes so long as their loved one is treated with dignity. 

For those in the latter category, our recommendation is to do a cremation first and a memorial second. It removes the entire logistical challenge of planning a service around the cremation, which severely limits the possibilities of what a family can do. Instead, you’re not bound by any venue restrictions and you don’t need to worry about dressing your loved one’s body or coffin for display.

This method allows us to focus on the second key element of our offering – remarkable, celebrant-led memorial services. With a dignified and simple cremation done first – the time, energy and budget can all be devoted to the personalised memorial service. Instead of deciding on coffins, you’ll be deciding on venues and crafty methods to personalise the event. Instead of making rushed decisions around a funeral service that needs to be held within a week, you can start the planning whenever you like. Instead of spending money on upgraded coffin handles, you’ll spend it on food and drinks (or, of course, nothing at all).

You’ll have a dedicated celebrant holding your hand through every step of the process. The first bit of advice that our celebrants will give you is to throw out whatever you think the funeral ‘needs’ to look like – they’ll help you to understand that it can be whatever you want it to be. That might be traditional, it might be more of a celebration, or it might be something completely out of the ordinary – but most importantly, it will be something that truly reflects the life of your loved one.

To deliver these packages in a way that’s as simple and stress free as possible, the Tomorrow model is to offer one single fixed price package. That package includes absolutely everything you need for a dignified cremation and remarkable memorial, including the choice of using it at several of our partner venues (think amazing venues like Elwood Bathers, Captain Melville or Rupert on Rupert). There’s no optional upgrades or downgrades, just one crystal clear $6,800 all inclusive funeral package

Of course, some families may wish to spend a whole lot more than this. Maybe they want to bring in a live band, book out an entire venue, or put on a 3 course meal and drinks for the entire party. If that’s what matters most for them, we encourage them to do just that – their celebrant will help with any recommendations or advice, but we won’t clip the ticket on the bookings and let families go directly to suppliers. 

Equally, our service works for the family that wants to keep things simple and is not interested in spending any extra money. We wanted to build a business model that wasn’t reliant on upsells and extras, as even with the best intentions it can incentivise the wrong behaviours.

The end result – simple cremations, remarkable memorials. We don’t want to be everything to everyone, we just want to be another option for those who want something different to the traditional funeral service. 

We’re always here to help

Call us 24-hours / 7 days on 1800 574 824
Our Journal contains our entire list of resources for creating personal memorials.
Or visit our funerals page, for more information on our unique memorial style funeral package.