Internet businesses may be dropping like flies but at this week's annual convention of the International Cemetery and Funeral Association, they were breathing new life into the multibillion dollar U.S. death industry.
"The Internet has been a pretty risky proposition for a lot of folks over the past year, but for our industry it's going to be a much riskier proposition not to have a Web presence," said Rachel Myers of Forethought.com, an online funeral planning service.
Ms. Myers delivered a keynote speech on the first day of the three-day gathering, entitled, "How to Add Clicks to Your Mortar." She told the 600 funeral and cemetery professionals attending the convention at Caesars Palace that 90 per cent of consumers liked the idea of using the Internet to get information about funerals, burials and cremations.
At the moment, the Internet is a source of information for only about 3 per cent of people planning funerals, according to an industry-sponsored survey. But many in the funeral business expect that figure to rise fast.
"Your Web site can become the first contact many families have with your business," Ms. Myers told delegates.
According to Forethought.com, older Americans are avid users of the Internet, with the number of people 55 or older on-line predicted to more than triple from 11 million in 1999 to 34 million in 2004 when they will account for 20 per cent of all users.
The convention is an opportunity for funeral and burial-related businesses to exhibit their latest products. This year, in addition to makers of mortuary urns, coffins, modular mausoleums, stained glass windows and funerary statues, a large number of computer software companies were plying their wares.
The funeral exhibition fit nicely into the ambience of Caesars Palace, with its scores of fake Roman statues scattered between huge banks of slot machines. With 4,000 professional gatherings a year, Las Vegas styles itself the nation's convention capital.
"This is the fourth time we're holding our convention in Vegas. Our members like the shows, even though they're a pretty conservative bunch - not a real wild and crazy group of guys," said the ICFA's Bob Fells.
Each year, U.S. consumers pay for some 2 million funerals costing up to $16-billion (U.S.) according to industry estimates, although no exact figures exist. The average funeral costs around $5,500, excluding burial arrangements, which may add another $2,500 to the bill.
Some in the industry worry that the growing trend toward cremation may cut their cash flow, since cremations obviate the need for costly metal or hardwood coffins and many graveside services.
But for some, cremations are creating new opportunities in the market, such as the Minneapolis-based company putting 3,000 niches into a chapel at a Virginia university that the institution plans to offer for sale to alumni.
Funeral homes are anxious to push prepaid burial plans to consumers but up to now have had relatively small success. Some 84 per cent of Americans over 30 told pollsters they would prefer to plan their own funerals rather than leaving those decisions to others. But only 26 perc ent have actually made any arrangements.
Some of the computer products on display involved digitizing cemetery data, where records of who is buried where have traditionally been maintained on note cards and paper maps that are hard to look up and can be lost or destroyed.
Another company, Pre-smart.com, offers funeral directors "instantaneous access to your current families, prospects and sales data. It is accessible through any Internet access including Palm Pilots. No more forgotten families. No more 'burned' leads. No excuses for not following up."
While that service is aimed at small businesses, the world's largest funeral provider, Service Corporation International, is also getting into the Internet business, said chief operating officer Jerry Pullins.
Service Corp., which manages some 630,000 funerals a year, has set up a virtual memory archive for families to enter text and pictures of their loved ones. Others can log on and send condolence messages, make charitable contributions or order flowers.
"Within the next quarter, we'll have a streaming video capability on the site so people can add images from the funeral or home movies," said Mr. Pullins. The company put together such Web sites for both victims of last week's high school shooting in Santee, Calif.
Final Thoughts.com offers a service for the living, said founder and CEO Todd Krim, who thought up the idea when he was on a bumpy airplane ride and seized with fear he was about to crash.
"I thought of all the loose ends and unfinished business I would have left behind," he said.
People who sign on with the service get an on-line record keeper where they list the location of important documents, lay out pet care arrangements and record final requests.
The site also includes organ donor forms, a message center for the delivery of posthumous messages, a guide to telling one's life story and writing a newspaper obituary as well as on-line chats about different aspects of death.