Volume 4 | Issue 1 | Year 2001

In an age in which so many new computer-based, digital, speed-of-light industries have been created, there remain industries that have taken a more cautious approach to e-business. One such is the market for funeral products – caskets, urns, memorial markers and so on. Now, however, one of the leading lights of this old-line marketplace is taking the funeral industry into the Digital Age, and doing it quite successfully.

Aurora Casket Company, now 110 years old, is in the third year of its technology initiative, and has created new business not only for itself, but for the many funeral homes and directors it serves across the United States. In 1998, the company debuted its Family Advisor System, a software program that assists families in making funeral arrangements. Family Advisor can be accessed either through a personal computer used by the funeral director; or on the Internet, in which a funeral home can link its site with the online Family Advisor. Along with featuring Aurora’s full range of products and services, Family Advisor provides tools that funeral directors can use to help families plan all of the details of a funeral.

Teaching Method
“Family Advisor allows a family to go through and get a great deal of information on funerals,” says Chris Barrott, executive vice president of operations for Aurora. “It tastefully and tactfully educates the families on both the services of funeral homes and the products available to them. It also gives the family a greater selection of product than a funeral home might have, and includes video segments on the benefits of the products and information on different types of caskets, urns and burial vaults.”

Family Advisor has already had a tangible effect on Aurora’s business. There are close to 150 Family Advisor Systems now in use across the United States, with its additional features that allow funeral directors to manage inventories and order new caskets from the company. Twenty-eight to 29 percent of Aurora’s orders are now coming from online, and the day in which half of these orders come by this route is not far off, according to Barrott.

Aurora’s funeral-home customers also report very positive results. In surveying their families/customers, the homes cite many favorable comments from the families – especially because Family Advisor allows them to personalize each aspect of the funeral and keep track of the costs at the same time. “The whole goal for us is to increase family satisfaction with the funeral home,” says Barrott. “We focus on the independent, family-run funeral home, and Family Advisor allows them to reach out to their consumers as well.” (Aurora is itself a family business, founded in 1890 by John J. Backman, Barrott’s great-grandfather.)
He continues, “Families prefer making arrangements this way because they can do it in one easy process. It makes them feel they have a greater selection to choose from and that they can personalize the products, such as caskets, urns, vaults and grave markers.”

Online Boost
Aurora clearly believes in the Internet. Along with Family Advisor’s online options, the company offers other Web sites for various memorialization aspects. On funeralplan.com, visitors are directed to funeral homes and services in their areas, and to grief counselors and services. Funeralplan.com has more than 350 pages of information for funeral consumers, and is the most comprehensive site available. The site also features a unique Ask the Experts section, where consumers can get advice from funeral and grief professionals.

Funeralplan.com/abcfuneralhome provides Web templates for funeral homes to launch their own sites. These templates are actually configurable Web sites that can be set up for the funeral home in a couple of hours, with an unlimited number of pages and features. Templates include virtual tours of the funeral home, staff biographies and online obituaries. Plus, the templates allow the funeral home to change any of its features at any time, without having to learn any programming languages such as HTML.

Another site, plaques.net, provides customizing services for memorial markers and architectural bronze plaques. The plaques can be designed online for homes, businesses, government agencies, schools, hospitals and churches.

Aurora even has a password-protected Extranet on its business-to-business site (auroracasket.com) called Family Connections. This includes a product catalogue and information on what products are in stock, plus substitute products for items that are out of stock. Through Family Connections, Aurora does nearly 30 percent of its revenues online. Another feature on the main site is the company’s merchandising assistance. Aurora provides help for funeral homes in the form of signage, product displays and selection-room design, through its Merchandising Services subsidiary. Business-planning and marketing-support materials are also available. The Aurora e-Business Group provides advice for funeral homes that are building their presence online.

The Quality Equation
“What we’re trying to do is provide the most value to the funeral consumer that we can,” says Barrott in summing up Aurora’s business philosophy. The value he speaks of is apparent in the company’s manufacturing operation as well. “We began our Total Quality Management campaign in 1993, and now Total Quality is how we go about our business,” says Barrott. “We’ve gone to higher technology in manufacturing such as the bar-coding of products to track production and how it’s flowing, how the quality is doing and repair issues. We’re always trying to improve our operations and we work with ideas from employees on how we can take out waste, reduce cost and improve the safety of the plant.”

The Total Quality philosophy has become a crucial unifying force, given the fact that Aurora has expanded its products through recent acquisitions and partnerships. The company enhanced its urn line and entered the bronze plaque/memorial marker business when it purchased Meierjohan-Wengler in 1997. This past November, Aurora complemented its hardwood-casket line with the acquisition of Clarksburg Casket Company, a premiere hardwood-casket manufacturer; it was already a player in the wood field through its alliance with Victoriaville, a Canadian firm.

To the Top
Thanks to its high-tech direction, Aurora can now claim to being the fastest-growing manufacturer serving family-owned funeral homes. “We’ve been enjoying solid growth in the last three years,” says Barrott, “and it’s all come from using technology as the differentiator. We’re seeing the payoff from that now as there continues to be more acceptance of technology as the way to plan a funeral. I feel we’ll continue to see consistent growth from this in what is mostly a flat market.

“We have found that educated consumers see more value in funeral service. Through technology, we can assist our funeral director customers in better serving families.”