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Tech can’t solve death. But startups increasingly want to help with what comes after

July 21, 2021, 11:00 PM UTC

The first wave of COVID-19 claimed the lives of several of Rikard Steiber’s colleagues and friends. One of them was a well-known DJ who had a big digital and public presence. When the partner of the deceased asked Steiber how to gain access to her loved one’s Google Photos, the Silicon Valley executive came face-to-face with the difficulty of navigating a post-mortem digital existence.

Families and friends of people who die may be unaware of all the important online accounts of their loved ones. It’s not just social media or photos. The dead may leave behind investment or cryptocurrency accounts. But no matter what kind of account, getting access to it may be difficult.

“So, I got kind of sucked into the question of what happens to your digital stuff when you die—from your Coinbase account for cryptocurrency to your social media photos,” says Steiber.

Soon after, he created GoodTrust, a service that helps relatives deal with the digital legacy of loved ones who die. While alive, users set up accounts in which they list the online services they use and spell out what they want to happen after they die so that their heirs can locate the accounts. The sharing of the information can happen right away, or post-mortem—it’s up to the user.

“We know exactly the information and documentation these companies require,” says Steiber, who was previously a global marketing director at Google.

During the COVID pandemic, which has killed over 4 million people worldwide, a growing number of startup founders have focused their businesses on death. The pandemic exposed a need for services like virtual funerals and services that help people manage their digital legacies.

Overall, death is a growth business because of baby boomers. In the U.S., there are about 76 million people born between 1946 and 1964, with 10,000 turning 65 daily. Older baby boomers are increasingly faced with end-of-life issues, making them the funeral industry’s latest “key market”.

Death tech isn’t entirely new. Since 2012, Forever.com has offered online storage to its users and a digital archive of their photos.

But the industry is increasingly focusing on broader spectrum of niches associated with death and bereavement. The startup Eterneva, for instance, turns people’s ashes into diamonds that their loved ones can then wear in jewelry. Meanwhile, Everdays offers funeral package signups online and a service for notifying friends and family by text message and email after someone has died.

Sridhar Tayur, professor of operations management at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, says that people are turning to death tech because of improved technology. For instance, voice synthesizing technology can now read text while mimicking your dead grandmother’s voice, something impossible just a few years ago.

People increasingly expect technology to solve their problems. Why use Polaroids and bulky physical albums to capture fleeting reality when Instagram or YouTube are available?

Whatever the case, Recompose, a startup that takes dead bodies and turns them into soil through a microbial chemical procedure, got a big lift from the coronavirus. During the pandemic it introduced virtual “laying-in ceremonies,” during which family and friends could tune in virtually to watch a body being interred.

The laying-in takes place indoors at a facility in Kent, Wash. that opened in December 2020, during the pandemic. Since then, it has operated at full capacity, accepting over 50 bodies. Half of them have been turned into soil, a process that takes 30 days. The remains are then ready for relatives to scatter on plants or a tree, the idea being to transform the individual into a physical manifestation that lives on.

“In the beginning, I was pretty negative about this whole thing. I thought it wouldn’t be meaningful. But actually people had very beautiful experiences and were really moved,” says Anna Swenson, Recompose’s outreach manager.

Swenson describes their COVID-induced virtual ceremonies as profound. “The funeral director who is leading the service can lead everyone in attendance to light a candle or do a collective reading,” she says. Recompose is considering continuing the virtual ritual after the COVID pandemic ends.

But David Nixon, founder of Nixon Consulting, an Illinois-based funeral home consulting firm, is skeptical about death-focused tech startups. The funeral profession is extremely slow to change, he says, while many funeral home owners are neither tech-savvy nor interested in learning new things.

“There have been a number of these startups over the last 15 years, in some cases 30 years. Few have caught on,” Nixon says.

He’s also not so keen about the Silicon Valley attitude of some death tech startups. “People you wouldn’t suspect, from fast food places entrepreneurs to Wall Street guys are coming out of the woodwork to jump on the death care industry bandwagon,” he says.

Nixon acknowledges that there is some need for death tech. It’s just a matter of degree.

Satisfaction surveys by the funeral director association, he says, show that the public doesn’t consider virtual services like those offered by Recompose to be as meaningful as live services. And he doubted that there is enough demand for digital legacy management companies like GoodTrust to make them viable businesses.

To succeed, Tayur, the Carnegie Mellon professor, says that death tech companies should focus on wealthy clients to start with. Doing so is one way to create a trend because the middle class tends to follow suit.

That’s what happened with cremation. After wealthy people increasingly adopted the practice in the early 20th century, people in lower income groups followed. By 2023, 59.4% of people are expected to be cremated, according to the Cremation Association of North America.

In general, tech makes it easier to provide cheaper and broader access to certain aspects of the death business, says Steiber. His company just introduced a service that lets anyone create their last will in 15 minutes for free, a type of service that could otherwise cost hundreds or thousands of dollars in lawyer fees. “This new feature from GoodTrust will empower over 140 million US adults who do not have a will today, to get one today,” he says.

Steiber points to a huge potential market for his company’s digital legacy service. Of Facebook’s 2.85 billion active monthly users, nearly 30,000 die every day.

For now, Steiber says that tens of thousands of new users are signing up monthly for GoodTrust. Its basic service is free while its premium service, for users with a large number of accounts and documents, costs $6 monthly or a one-time payment of $499.

Steiber says that the increased use of tech for death and bereavement is inevitable. “This is what happened to other industries like finance, insurance and legal,” he says.

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