Skip to Main Content

UNF study addresses best practices to support vulnerable funerary consumers

A recent study conducted by University of North Florida, in collaboration with the University of South Alabama, explores how flexibility can improve experiences of funeral services provided for vulnerable consumers during bereavement. Insights presented in the study are ideal for the funerary business as well as any service industry serving vulnerable populations.

The paper titled “Harmonious Homegoings: Alleviating Consumer Vulnerability Through Service Fluidity and Compassion” is based on research conducted about second-line funeral processionals that take place in the streets of New Orleans. These historic, unique services are steeped in tradition within the African American community. Equal parts heavy mourning and extravagant celebration of life, the processions travel in police-escorted, two-mile parades to the sounds of brass bands and revelry. Data was collected and analyzed through in-depth interviews with funeral service providers, coupled with observations and photographs of three second-line funeral processionals over two weeks in 2019.  

Study results reveal three key themes that highlight funeral directors’ service decisions that resulted in meaningful impact for clients: offering service fluidity, acting as a community member, and leading with compassion. Funeral directors reduced limitations and constraints for the second-line parades, designed accommodative solutions, and created a much-needed spectacle through planning and improvisation. Service providers also reported balancing their professional role along with their presence in the community by negotiating on behalf of clients like neighbors, and showed empathy for financial hardship, presenting options to remedy it (e.g. fundraising efforts). Lastly, service providers also leverage creative community ties and used cultural capital with local businesses to support clients.

Given the persistent vulnerability some New Orleans residents experience due to devasting weather events, high crime, health disparities and more, the investigators described this segment as chronically traumatized consumers.

“This coined term—chronically traumatized consumers—illustrates chronic challenges they face day-to-day,” said Dr. Natalie A. Mitchell, UNF marketing instructor and co-investigator. “Bereavement is exacerbated by these factors while planning funerals. When funeral directors choose to lead with compassion and flexibility, they minimize emotional and financial burdens by providing fluid options during the planning process to enhance their client’s well-being at a difficult time.”

Historically, services marketing has talked about service firms standardizing some practices in order to prevent heterogeneity in service delivery. “Because of the human element, services can vary from time to time, and that can make it difficult for customers to know what to expect,” said Dr. Courtney Azzari, UNF assistant professor of marketing and co-investigator. “Instead, we found that in our context, the converse was true—being fluid and able to alter services on-the-fly made it possible to create experiences that provided comfort, self-expression, and a sense of control for clients facing vulnerability. It went beyond customization to more of an improvisation, or the ability to sense and adapt to customer needs in the moment.”

Practical implications of the study include that when consumers experience vulnerability that demands reliance upon service industries, service providers should consider intentionally implementing fluidity and agility in service design, adopting and understanding altruistic practices, and operate with empathy and compassion to orchestrate mutually-beneficial service outcomes. Vulnerable populations such as those studied here warrant additional focus from researchers so that creative solutions may be discovered and recommended to improve well-being.

The published study can be viewed here.