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Disrupting Death: How Tech Is Shaking Up The Funeral Industry

Funeral undertakers belong to one of the oldest professions in the world. But now, start-ups want to disrupt old-fashioned funeral homes. Unafraid to tackle taboos, new services offer ways to live on digitally after death.

A hand scrolling pictures of mourning.

Start-ups are allowing people to digitally "connect" with the deceased.

Isabelle Lesniak

PARIS — The confrontation was aggressive but ultimately turned out to be beneficial. In late January, Lilian Delaveau deeply split the investors of French TV show “Who Wants To Be My Associate?” in which aspiring entrepreneurs present a pitch to experienced investors. The 27-year-old pitched Requiem Code, a QR code app that personalizes graves by displaying various memories of the deceased person in augmented reality when put on a funeral tablet.

“I completely disagree with your project. You are wiping out the contemplation. Each person should be allowed to keep a different memory,” the tourism professional Jean-Pierre Nadim told him.

Another juror Anthony Bourbon said this comment was “old-school”. Bourbon not only came to the candidate's rescue live, but also continued to exchange views with him off-air a few weeks later. The meeting turned out to be decisive: His improvised mentor offered him 40,000 euros in exchange for 25% of his company's capital and convinced him to expand his project to shake up the old funeral industry.

QR Code For Eternity

One month later, the engineer has accepted the controversy. With his geeky beard and faded “Ireland” T-shirt, Delaveau looks like any startupper. He drops punchline after punchline and references Uber, Booking or Airbnb. The entrepreneur, who during his studies had already developed an app dedicated to tinnitus, adopts the startup discourse of disrupters against regulatory and economically outdated systems. “Tourism, education, and health have been transformed by digital. Why should innovation stop on the verge of funeral homes? In the end, death — however irrevocable and detestable — is an ordinary issue," he explains.

His appearance on the TV show fueled memory codes sales, which are currently being delivered to several cemeteries in France, but above all, it made him dream bigger. “Anthony Bourbon challenged me to go much further than Requiem Code and to imagine an entire platform to put competent companies and bereaved families in touch with each other. My marketplace, which has no equivalent, will unburden clients from concrete questions for them to be devoted to their grief and communicate with their relatives.”

Why should innovation stop on the verge of funeral homes?

People already call upon “wedding planners” to organize happy events. Then why not use an intermediary to get in touch with trust-worthy professionals likely to manage death according to your needs and budget?

Chatbots to resurrect the deceased

Delaveau unreservedly claims his “death tech” belonging, a niche that has led to the creation of about twenty start-ups in France. Great Britain, Australia, Canada or the United States are more advanced in this technology. Not only are connected graves widespread there, but some entrepreneurs are pursuing artificial intelligence-based projects worthy of sci-fi series. Everything is an opportunity to extend the deceased digital life and to create a “digital afterlife” for them. Some even want to reincarnate them as conversational chatbotsfrom content posted on social media. Microsoft went viral by registering a patent on this niche in early 2021.

In France, disrupters have lesser ambitions: Overall, the aim is to question funeral industries’ “unearned incomes”, by launching external services in a highly controlled sector. “We operate in one of the oldest, if not the oldest, professions in the world, but that doesn’t mean our situation couldn’t change," Philippe Martineau, deputy general manager of the funeral organization UDIFE explains.

Small independent companies try to establish themselves with offers that sometimes compete. Launched in 2019, the Toodays.me app, with the slogan “your memories have a bright future,” helps gather, enrich, and transmit important memories and documents to chosen beneficiaries with a code activated after the death. Various other services are designed to facilitate the post-mortem management of digital data.

Flowers on a coffin.

Traditional funeral homes have had to modernize themselves too.

Mayron Oliveira

A social media platform for the afterlife

Marie-Bérengère Salmon has had no trouble raising funds for her “world’s first digital cemetery” project. The 48-year-old digital marketing expert admits that she is "not at all a funeral director". "My goal is not to compete with them on their products, but to offer a complementary service," she explains from London, where she is based.

Some even want to reincarnate them as conversational chatbots from content posted on social media.

Like a specialized Facebook, Alanna.life is a social platform that allows the creation of pages about dead people, to make a "record" of their life, but also and above all to connect their loved ones with each other. It is up to each family to decide which messages should be kept public or private. "We can open up general information about funerals and condolences to as many people as possible, while restricting other intimate data to a more limited circle," Alanna's founder says. In four months, the website, which is free for individuals since it is paid through commissions on the services of partners (florists, etc.), has recorded connections from 120 countries, "from Thailand to Greenland". It could soon be translated into English to tackle foreign markets.

COVID as a booster for the digitally departed

Although these offensives on the traditional funeral industry are disorganized, they are creating enough buzz to encourage the old players to move forward. Le Choix Funéraire, the leading French independent network with around 10% of the market, offers a "virtual village" in which families can connect to answer all questions related to death.

The company's services include the online filing of wills, recording messages from the deceased to be listened to by grandchildren when they reach adulthood, a memory library where videos and photos can be shared, and assistance in managing Internet accounts.

Not only has the company been broadcasting funerals live via its Sereneo service since 2017, it has also "introduced Teams into funeral homes" to allow relatives of the deceased to talk without leaving their homes. COVID has been speeding up the digital transformation as much as start-ups. "At the height of the health crisis, we have had to handle a death every thirty minutes," Philippe Martineau soberly recalls.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Why Hasn't Joe Biden Visited Ukraine?

U.S. President Joe Biden has been evasive when asked if he plans to follow European leaders by visiting Kyiv. However, such a move could have far-reaching consequences for Ukraine and the rest of the world.

What message would a visit by the U.S. president to Kyiv send to Russia?

Cameron Manley

U.S. President Joe Biden has been unyielding in his response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: heavy sanctions on the Russian government and financial markets and strong words about Russian President Vladimir Putin, labeling him a “butcher" and “war criminal”. The U.S. has also sent upwards of $54 billion in aid to Ukraine.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

This week, the war looms heavily over Biden’s trips to Germany and Spain for meetings with world leaders at the G7 and NATO summits.

Already on this side of the Atlantic, the staging would thus seem perfect for the U.S. president to reaffirm support for Ukraine by going to Kyiv, following in the footsteps of top European leaders, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and UN chief Antonio Guterres, who have paid recent visits to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

And yet, save a surprise detour this week, it appears that Biden will in fact not be making the much anticipated trip to Kyiv. What's holding him back?

Russians say he's scared

By all accounts, Biden had plans to visit Ukraine, responding positively in April to President Volodymyr Zelensky's invitation to come and see the destruction“with his own eyes.”

However, when asked last week if he still plans to visit Ukraine, Biden evasively said that it depends on “many things regarding whether this will cause more difficulties for the Ukrainians, whether it will distract from what is happening.” When asked to clarify whether this meant that he would not visit Kyiv during his trip to Europe, he replied: “During this trip, it’s unlikely.” He stressed, though, that he spoke with Zelensky three to four times per week.

Russian news has pounced on Biden’s notable absence from Kyiv. On Thursday, Russian daily Kommersant ran the headline: “Not the time to head to Kyiv” and notes that this is not the first instance where Mr. Biden has had to make excuses for not visiting Ukraine.

Russian media sites have mocked Biden for his “fear” of visiting Kyiv.

In March, the U.S. president visited Poland and was closer than ever to the Ukrainian border. The fact that he never walked the streets of Kyiv, unlike British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was explained by the U.S. president himself: He was "not allowed." The White House refused to clarify what or who was stopping him.

Other Russian media sites have also mocked Biden for his “fear” of visiting Kyiv, using tweets from U.S. citizens to substantiate calling the president a “puppet” or “coward.”

Over the course of several months, high-ranking officials from Washington have indeed visited Kyiv, most notably Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and even First Lady Jill Biden, who made an unannounced visit at the start of May.
Photo of \u200bUkrainian President Zelensky on the phone with U.S. President Biden on June 15

Zelensky on the phone with Biden on June 15

Sarsenov Daniiar/Ukraine Preside/Planet Pix/ZUMA

Leaders of war and peace

Of course, when and if he were to visit, the appearance would likely be unannounced, for security reasons. Indeed, a visit from the U.S. president himself carries higher stakes than perhaps any other world leader. It's worth remembering that during the Guterres visit to Kyiv in late April, Russia launched a new round of missile attacks on the city that the United Nations chief said were an attempt to "humiliate" the UN.

Moreover, it may be no coincidence that the first air strikes on Kyiv in weeks have coincided with this current round of European summits, as Russia has continuously demonstrated its readiness to escalate.The U.S. sending its president to Ukrainian soil would no doubt raise the stakes further.

Back in March, Zelensky said that Biden, as the leader of the free world, is also the “leader of peace.” But of course these are war times, and the prospect of a visit to Kyiv begs the question of whether Biden wants to be seen as the leader of the war.

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Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

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