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11 Memorable Lessons from the 98th Annual CANA Convention

Aug 18, 2016

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend the Cremation Association of North America’s (CANA) 98th Annual Convention in Chicago with my colleague Diego Meneses, ASD’s Operation’s Lead Trainer. CANA’s convention was very unique because this conference offered an opportunity to hear session speakers in the same room as the convention exhibits. This allowed us to sit in on CANA’s full line up of impressive experts who weighed in on many topics while keeping a strong focus on the effect cremation has had on the funeral profession. This event was very rewarding for myself (and the ASD team) because it provided a wider viewpoint of cremation issues that impact funeral professionals, which helps us to better understand the challenges our clients face. If you could not attend the conference, but want to benefit from the wealth of information shared, we have you covered!

Below is some of the valuable information we learned at CANA’s 98th Annual Convention:

1. When it comes to cremation families, there is a big difference between inconvenient and impossible

Jim Feldman’s high-energy keynote session, Shift Happens, kicked off with Feldman reminding the audience that he had been a speaker at a CANA convention over 10 years ago. Despite the large gap in time, Feldman said nothing about his message had changed except that funeral directors were now further behind the cremation trend than they were a decade ago. He urged directors in attendance to be more disruptive in their thinking, to step out of their comfort zone, and to embrace the growing cremation rate, no matter how intimidating it may be for their staff.

“There is a difference between inconvenient and impossible,” Feldman stated during his presentation. He warned that ignoring cremation trends would signal a downward shift in revenue for funeral homes. His recommendation was for directors to “create a culture” for cremation families rather than providing a service others can replicate.

2. Funeral directors must be able to offer families meaningful ceremonies and experiences

One of our favorite sessions of the CANA convention was Ceremonies That Transform presented by Glenda Stansbury. Stansbury’s presentation was shorter than other sessions, but her words carried a heavy weight that deeply affected those in attendance. It was a powerful speech that delivered a strong message about the importance of a meaningful ceremony and creating an experience for families.

“Every time you invite families to remember, you are creating a ceremony,” Stansbury stated. “When you become a safe space for stories and memories, you become a safe space for planning. If you have not figured out a way to convey the value of ceremony to cremation families, you will not survive.”

In her session, Stansbury used an example of a funeral for a little boy to demonstrate what language funeral professionals should use to encourage families to share memories of their loved ones. She explained how these shared memories provide a foundation based on trust that helps funeral directors to plan a memorial service that is meaningful and healing for the family. Her suggestions for connecting with cremation families were both insightful and astute, which is no doubt the reason why many funeral directors have come to rely upon her celebrant guidance.

3. Families calling with cremation inquiries want to feel welcome, important and understood

We may be a little biased, but we always enjoy funeral seminars that focus on effective communication, especially over the phone. So we were very impressed by Julie Burn’s session on Making the Connection With Cremation Phone Shoppers and her observations about how to sell the value of funeral service over the phone.

“We live in a transient society. Many families are choosing cremation, and they are choosing it for the first time so they are going to have questions,” Burn explained. She detailed what funeral directors risk if they do not pay attention to these calls and treat cremation families in a way that makes them feel “welcome, important and understood.” Burn gave several tips to assist funeral directors in creating a positive first impression over the phone. Her key tips included paying close attention to tone of voice, avoiding background distractions, asking open-ended questions and repeating the caller’s name throughout the conversation. She stressed that these small details are a few of the ways directors can increase their chances of making a connection with families over the phone.

4. Funeral home owners must understand how their revenue models are affected by cremation

Tim Bridgers of Live Oak Bank gave CANA members a crash course on how to evaluate their funeral home’s financial stability and growth. His session, Calculating The Financial Impact of Cremation, included many practical tips for funeral directors to utilize in order to get a clear picture of their firm’s economic health. One thing Bridgers cautioned funeral home owners not to do was to focus entirely on the number of calls they receive. This number is not always a reliable indicator of increased revenue, as the number of calls may be offset by a higher number of discount cremations. Bridgers encouraged CANA members to use a fluid revenue model that allows the funeral home to raise their service charge for cremation in proportion to the increase in cremations.

5. Between 2000 and 2015, the cremation growth rate in the United States grew by over 22%*

“In order to look at where we’re going, we have to look at how statistics have changed over time,” said Funeral Director, Bob Boetticher, who reviews CANA’s Annual Statistics Report every year. In his session, The Answer Is In The Numbers, Boetticher emphasized the importance on looking back to see how the cremation rate in the U.S. has grown over the past 15 years. In 2015, the cremation rate in the United States was 48.6%. Cremation has risen 22% since 2000 and increased 7.8% between 2010 and 2015. The current average growth is 1.57 annually. Boetticher explained how looking at Canada’s cremation rate is a reasonable way to estimate the direction the United States is headed. The Canadian cremation rate was 68.8% in 2015, with an annual growth rate of 1.35%. From these numbers, CANA projects the U.S. cremation rate will be close to 60% by 2020.

6. Directors can gain expertise recognition by becoming a resource to their communities

After getting CANA members thinking about how they could step out of the box to do more for cremation families, Feldman asked directors to brainstorm and write down their ideas. He provided several examples of his own, including a Bucket List event that would draw residents in the community to the funeral to create their own bucket list. Feldman stated that this could be used as an opportunity to talk to the community about preneed. He also suggested holding an obit-writing class for seniors. According to Feldman, hosting these types of events can help directors gain “expertise recognition” and build lasting relationships by becoming the “go-to knowledge base” in their local area.

7. Funeral professionals should lead with their ears

As part of the Cremation Fundamentals panel, Grant Dawson delivered a short but compelling session with tips on how to have authentic and meaningful conversations with grieving families. Dawson’s session focused on how directors can communicate more effectively by practicing active listening.

“So often, we go into meet a family with an intention and I propose that we just throw that way of thinking out. We need to lead with our ears,” Dawson said.

Dawson’s comments were also reinforced by Julie Burn’s session on cremation phone inquiries. Burn also championed active listening when conversing with families over the phone, especially when they are inquiring about cremation. She encouraged directors to demonstrate their interest to callers and make every effort to “speak less and learn more” in order to fully understand what the family needs.

8. There are 3 major ‘vital signs’ to monitor when assessing a funeral home’s overall performance

During his session on monitoring financial stability, Bridgers described three major concerns that must be evaluated when determining if a funeral home business is healthy. These ‘vital signs’ include employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and cash flow. Bridgers explained how these crucial variables could be used as formulas to determine other important financial factors.

“Are you collecting any data on your employee engagement?” Bridgers asked. “Are you sending out surveys to families served in the past? How efficiently have you been monitoring your margins?”

9. Preparation is essential when handling cremation phone inquiries*

One of the many insightful tips given by Burn during her session on cremation phone inquires was the importance of planning in advance for these sensitive calls. Burn recommended directors have their general price list, funeral package descriptions and anything else they would need to answer questions in hand before beginning the call. If this information is readily accessible, it is less likely the director will sound distracted or unknowledgeable about their services, which may create a negative first impression. Advance preparation allows the director to speak with confidence andcredibility while remaining focused on the family. This extra step can make a big difference especially if a family is calling multiple funeral homes to ask about cremation.

10. Areas in the U.S. with a below-average cremation rate provide directors with a valuable opportunity

Bob Boetticher used an interesting word when describing funeral directors living in states with a below-average cremation rate. He described these directors as being ‘lucky’ because they are currently being presented with an opportunity other funeral homes do not have. While many firms across the country are struggling to make up for declining revenue due to an increased cremation rate, directors in states like Mississippi, where the cremation rate is under 25%, can embrace cremation trends ahead of their competitors. These funeral homes are in a better position to adapt their package offerings, revenue models, and marketing efforts in anticipation of the coming changes.

“They have an opportunity to seize this and leverage the growing rate by offering cremation options their competitors are not,” Boetticher stated. He warned directors not to restrict cremation families to working with just apprentices or students at the funeral home. Boetticher suggested funeral home owners instead allow their best directors to serve cremation families because cremation families often have more questions and considerations to make than burial families. When looking at the statistics, there is no doubt that the outdated mentality of viewing cremation as a burden, instead of as an opportunity, must be abandoned for funeral homes to thrive.

11. Funeral directors must become value interpreters

One favorite takeaway from the 98th Annual CANA Convention came from keynote speaker, Jim Feldman. Feldman stated that funeral directors have to become more effective communicators when it comes to demonstrating the value of funeral service to families. He explained that funeral directors have become too close to their own business to effectively convey to families that a funeral is not about price but service.

“You have become too familiar with your product because it hasn’t changed from generation to generation. Some components have changed, but the value of funeral service has not. What you need to do is market why it shouldn’t change,” Feldman rationalized. “If you don’t establish the value position first, every conversation will default to price. You must become a value-interpreter for families.”

We think this statement does a fantastic job of truly capturing the solution to the problems presented to funeral directors by the growing cremation rate. The disposition of choice may have shifted from burial to cremation, but the value of a meaningful ceremony that honors a life is something that is timeless. Whether a family requests burial or cremation, they should understand the emotional and spiritual worth of holding a memorial service for their loved ones. It is the job of a funeral director to interpret that value for them so they can make the right decisions for their family.

Did you attend the 98th Annual CANA Convention? If so, what were your favorite sessions and speakers? Leave a comment below and share with us what tips you picked up in Chicago!

Thanks to everyone who stopped by our booth to visit us at CANA’s Annual convention! It was a pleasure to speak to so many influential funeral professionals and to hear the great line up of educational sessions. Special thanks to all of the CANA staff (especially Barbara, Brie, Jennifer, Sara & Scott!) for making us feel so welcome at the convention. We look forward to seeing everyone again at the CANA Cremation Symposium in Las Vegas.

About The Author

Jess Farren (Fowler)

Jess Farren (Fowler) is a Public Relations Specialist and Staff Writer who has been a part of the ASD team since 2003. Jess manages ASD’s company blog and has been published in several funeral trade magazines. She has written articles on a variety of subjects including communication, business planning, technology, marketing and funeral trends. You can contact Jess directly at

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