Innovating for the dead and the living

/ 04:00 AM November 01, 2019

People who mourn the loss of a loved one are typically not price-sensitive.

They would spend more for a departed loved one than themselves. This is both good and bad. It is good in the sense that they pay their final respects to the deceased.


As author Dan Ariely said, the motivations that drive this behavior are “the way we want to think about the dead, their role in our lives, our role in their lives and the prospect of our own mortality” and purchase motivations that include “caring for others, helping, making amends and finding meaning.”

However, it can also be bad when the social benefit and meanings that go with it become a huge financial burden on those who do not have the means.


The key is to strike a healthy balance between the competing motivations.

Service innovation

While people design their lives by wanting to have a sense of control, they may also want to design death to give themselves and their families a sense of meaning, and the contentment that comes with it, even in unpleasant situations.

Four case studies of service innovation related to death are shared below.

1. Fantasy caskets

In Ghana, where people celebrate death, many casket makers create coffins that mirror the professions and careers of the deceased, such as building-shaped for real estate developers, planes for pilots, whisky bottles for bartenders, fish for fishermen, etc.

The fantasy casket becomes a focal point of the celebration of the deceased’s life, with a strong sense of recognition and accomplishment.


It is a way for the departed to leave in style by not just putting fun into funerals, but also in a bid to “confuse the spirit” so it would not return and haunt the living after the casket is paraded.

It also helps the newly bereaved as they look back on the life of the deceased, by reflecting on their identity no less.

A fusion of carpentry and art, some of the coffins are exported and even make their way to art galleries and museums in the United States, Europe and Japan, instead of buried six feet under.

And instead of being avoided, they are visited by tourists and VIPs, making coffin makers like Joseph Ashong, more popularly known as Papa Joe, classified not just as a carpenter but as a master sculptor and artist no less because of his exceptional sense of creation.

2. Human composting: Giving life after death

Animals in wood die and decompose without any apparent ill effects on the environment, so Seattle-based Recompose offers “recomposition” as an alternative to cremation and conventional burial methods, the latter adds to carbon footprint (embalming chemicals, wood in caskets).

Human composting gently converts human remains into soil through exposure to microbes, so bodies can be broken down naturally.

Each body can contribute to about one cubic yard of dirt that could be used to grow trees or plants.

3. Forest cemetery

Prices in cemetery lots are always rising as demand far outweighs limited supply.

Better Place Forests sells the rights to sprinkle ashes of deceased underneath one of thousands of redwood trees in their forest in California, with fresh air and great views and without the cramped space of a traditional cemetery.

Its “spreading” ceremony includes engraving of the name of the deceased in a round bronze emblem as marking on the tree, poetry reading and breaking down the ashes into nutrients for the tree more quickly.

4. Aftercare: Bereavement cruise

Bereavement Cruise is the one and only cruise of its kind created just for grieving families by founders who have experienced the same grief in their families.

It is a fusion of a bereavement retreat with a relaxing cruise, in order to “reconnect with their innate wisdom, strength and kindness.”

Losing a loved one can be painful. In the process, meeting new friends who share the same grief experience, while on a voyage for recovery, can help in their journey back to healing.

Coffins as art, forests as cemetery, human bodies as fertilizer and cruises for grief recovery, this is how innovating for the dead and the living has gone, so far.

Beyond solving pain points operationally, innovation can be done by understanding the power of meaning in the novelty being offered and how they are connected to one’s sense of identity, and in the process creating new product categories and attracting the unserved and underserved markets.

That is market-driving innovation in action. —CONTRIBUTED

Josiah Go is the chair and chief innovation strategist of Mansmith and Fielders Inc. Follow him at www.josiahgo.com. Mansmith Innovation Awards is searching for game changers in your industry. Download nomination form via www.mansmithinnovation.com.

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