'We need people to die': funeral businesses worry about slowdown in deaths
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'We need people to die': funeral businesses worry about slowdown in deaths

Australia's funeral businesses are facing a difficult truth: not enough people are dying.

To be more exact, vendors are saying numbers point to "softer" market conditions in recent months - meaning a drop off in death that hasn't been great for business.

Priscilla Nelson Feaver's family has been in the funeral business for five generations. The teacher of embalming and says the sector has become "more competitive".

Priscilla Nelson Feaver's family has been in the funeral business for five generations. The teacher of embalming and says the sector has become "more competitive".Credit:Jusin McManus

On Thursday, ASX-listed funeral home giant InvoCare reported a 50 per cent drop in half-year profit that sent its share price down by more than 12 per cent to sit at $12.73 on Friday afternoon

InvoCare's data, drawn from Births, Deaths and Marriages in the states where it operates, suggests a drop in the number of deaths of 1.2 per cent for the first half of the year, and down 1.5 per cent for the second quarter, compared to the same time last year.

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"Assuming soft markets continue, this will impact our prior full year financial guidance," the company warned.

But Education director at Mortuary and Funeral Educators & Nelson Bros Funeral Services, Priscilla Nelson Feaver, says as a professional working in the sector it's "very difficult" to gauge death numbers, and there's not much you can do about these figures anyway.

Ms Nelson Feaver's family has been in the funeral business for five generations and she says these days the sector is "more competitive" with "a lot of smaller companies" in the space.

As a teacher of embalming, she believes there's also plenty of demand from people who "really want to get into the industry".

Mild flu season

UBS analysts wrote on Friday "the current flu season is very mild, and could impact" InvoCare's earnings in the second half of the year.

Chief executive Martin Earp said on Thursday fluctuations in death numbers "is not new". While these figures can have a short-term impact, "in the longer-term, the trend for death remains positive".

In the longer-term, the trend for death remains positive

InvoCare chief executive Martin Earp

Elsewhere in the funeral planning space small business owners describe a quiet year.

Funeral celebrant Leonie Adams has been delivering memorial services across Victoria over the past two decades.

She says this past financial year was the first time in a decade where her income dropped compared with previous years.

"Certainly I have noticed this year that my workload has been less, and from talking to my funeral directors, they have all been saying how slow work has been," she says.

Funeral celebrant Leonie Adams.

Funeral celebrant Leonie Adams.

"This year, there has been a big decrease."

Ms Adams says her sector is one where you "need people to die" in order to do business, and while she has seen slow periods before, the past few months have been particularly quiet.

Managing director of funeral sector disruptor Picaluna, Greg Inglis, says despite talk of a slowdown, there's still room for growth, from his perspective.

'Just chugging along'

The online funeral planning platform has recently launched a $900,000 equity crowdfunding campaign and Inglis says the business is on a "rapid growth trajectory".

While he has heard discussion of weaker market conditions in recent months, Inglis says Picaluna is looking to grow by offering new ways to farewell loved ones.

Picaluna operations director Chris Hancock and managing director Greg Inglis.

Picaluna operations director Chris Hancock and managing director Greg Inglis.

He says the funeral sector has been dominated by big players for years, while Picaluna is providing families with alternatives to the big suppliers, who tend to offer "cookie cutter" farewell options.

Picaluna connects clients to a range of suppliers and venues for planning their memorial events, including working with venues like surf clubs to host funerals according to their client's needs.

The business has so far planned 200 memorial services since launching in 2016 and is doing around four funerals a week.

Mr Inglis says while the broader sector might be worried about the number of deaths, "we're just chugging along, doing our own thing".

A Picaluna funeral.

A Picaluna funeral. Credit:Jerusha Sutton.

Those in the sector may be reporting less business than usual, but tracking deaths in Australia all depends on how you slice the numbers.

Each state tracks registered deaths through their Births, Deaths and Marriages offices, while the Australia Bureau of Statistics collects data on Australian deaths overall, but confirming these figures means real-time tracking of death numbers is difficult.

Death rates overall have been falling for centuries, says Professor Peter McDonald of the University of Melbourne's School of Population and Global Health. However, "because the population is ageing, the net effect is the number of deaths has been rising".

And according to ABS data, in 2017, the number of estimated Australian deaths hit the 160,000 mark - an increase of around two per cent on the previous year.

Total deaths registered last year also increased in all states except New South Wales and Western Australia, according to the numbers. For Ms Adams, however, tracking the national stats isn't something she spends time on. Instead, she focuses on how she can help create meaningful ceremonies for the clients she does have.

"I don't really think about it like that - I just see things week by week," she said.

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