The last 24 months turned the death industry on its head in a way the sector has never experienced before. The isolation caused by the global pandemic has forced Australians young and old to confront their own mortality and turn to technology to plan their estate, deal with grief when losing loved ones, and begin thinking about the legacy that they will be leaving behind. But before we get into what has changed in the sector, let’s take a look at how and why it’s broken.
The average cost of a burial in the ‘lucky country’ now sits at around $19,000 according to multiple sources within the industry. With one person dying every 3 minutes and 12 seconds, it’s a lucrative industry with little incentive to change. Data from Ibisworld calculates the sector is worth a whopping $1.6 billion in Australia. It’s no wonder the opportunity to get a share of that money has turned the industry into a battleground akin to Netflix’s popular Korean game show the Squid Game.
So, what makes up this $1.6billion industry? Well, those figures only relate to what happens after death. We’re talking funerals, cremation and burial. But this huge figure only captures a tiny piece of the overall pie. What about the other services surrounding preparing for and dealing with death when it happens? That part of the death industry is referred to as Estate planning, and it constitutes wills, probate and estate administration. This in itself is a multi-billion dollar industry, and has typically been the domain of traditional legal service providers.. So when we think about the death care sector we usually think about it in two parts - legal logistics and burial and funeral arrangements.
So this is a sector that annually turns over billions of dollars. While that doesn’t in and of itself make the industry a shoddy one, the way the money changes hands and the often predatory pricing at moments of substantial grief for surviving loved ones has sullied the industry’s reputation. On the Estate Planning side, the sector is dominated by lawyers who charge high hourly rates, commissions that are taken as a percentage of the entire estate left by the deceased, and often annual fees that can last for years and erode the life’s work of the person who has passed away. Even the government-owned Public Trustees have notoriously poor reputations and levels of customer service. It’s also those supposedly impartial providers which are increasingly under investigation for unethical practices and profiting off the vulnerable.
Meanwhile in the funerals and burial space it is funeral directors who are getting the biggest cut. Out of the $19,000 price tag for a traditional burial they are charging upwards of $3,000 as ‘service fees’. Data from Ibisworld estimates their fees alone may make up 39% of the total cost of a burial. Not only this, but up until the past few years the market has operated like a monopoly. Australia’s largest funeral provider Invocare has dominated the funeral space. The company owns and operates 40 brands across Australia including White Lady, Guardian and Simplicity and have a 34% share of the funeral market.
"I think there's a lack of competition when we've got one very, very dominant player and most of the competition that they face is small, family-owned businesses or much smaller operations," University of Sydney academic Sandra van der Laan told ABC news. Meanwhile, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission is actively keeping an eye on the funeral sector. "There are many sectors where there isn't a lot of competition and they are sectors we do need to actively monitor and that's what we're doing," ACCC chairman Rod Sims said. "The funeral sector is definitely one that's on our radar."
This lack of competition, concerns around affordability and the onset of the global pandemic created a perfect storm for change in the industry. The sector was basically forced online when COVID-19 hit in Australia and the government issued stay-at-home orders. Funerals were limited to ten people- including the person conducting the service - so video streaming services were set up so people could still attend from their homes. Even though they weren’t physically present, guests could even participate in these services by presenting a eulogy or singing a song.
At the same time the Estate planning side of the industry adopted technology to continue offering services to customers. Consultations with lawyers and Public Trustees around creating a Will moved to online video conferencing. While law firms and funeral providers created online chat functions and teleconferencing options to abide with COVID-19 restrictions.
In the background while services were shifting online, so too were the businesses providing those services. Startups began popping up all over the place in the death industry - offering everything from will creation and probate services to funeral, cremation and burial services. Tech companies like Safewill, founded by Adam Lubofsky and Dan Bennett, are changing the way Australians think about and plan for death.
Safewill was founded in 2019 to shake up the end of life sector by two former lawyers keen to turn this traditional industry on its head. With over 60% of Australians at risk of dying without a Will, Safewill’s mission was to create an easy to use and accessible end of life planning platform guided by technology and affordability. Instead of paying between $1000 - $5000 for even a simple Will with a lawyer, Safewill charges just $160 and the entire process is done online.
The platform is the polar opposite to the old guard which has been built on expensive fees and complicated, paper-based processes. Safewill uses artificial intelligence to vary what questions it asks customers and allows the creation of a unique and legally valid Will which can be updated at any time without visiting a lawyer’s office.
The vision behind this company was an emphasis on making the process simple, affordable and accessible for Australians. Safewill CEO and co-founder Adam Lubofsky was driven to change the industry as a result of a personal experience. "I started thinking about Wills when a friend of mine passed away unexpectedly without a Will. It was emotionally overwhelming, and was then followed by a difficult and complex legal process that could have easily been avoided.”
As a young founder disrupting a very traditional industry, Adam believes that the culture around end of life planning is fast changing, and is becoming more accessible to younger Australians too: “Our aim was to modernise attitudes towards death. The superstitions and taboos around talking about death are quickly being dispelled, and we wanted to lead that charge - Wills & estate plans should be discussed openly to avoid surprises when the inevitable arrives, and bring closure and dignity to the deceased and their family.”
Co-founder and director Dan Bennett believes the sector is at the cusp of major change. “This is really a modernisation of what is a pretty archaic process and document, and as technology investors, it’s a bit of a holy grail to find an industry that really hasn’t changed in 200 or 300 years,’ he said.
Other investors see the potential too. The startup has just secured $3 million in Series A funding led by Westpac’s Reinventure Group to expand operations into the end of life space. The company has the support of the likes of former Perpetual & MLC CEO Geoff Lloyd, Wesfarmers Director Mike Roche, and John Gowing of the Gowing Group, who believes so much in the company he is a director of the board.
The death industry is facing a major overhaul at the hands of technology and it’s likely to continue changing and growing into the 20s. New competition, new service offerings and new operating models are pushing old-school providers into the background. The sector will need to adapt to meet the needs of Australians and keep up with the new competitors operating in the online space.