How did a tough market in 1992 become particularly dynamic in 2022? Has death become a trend? Or is it due to the ingenuity of many players who, surfing on cultural, legislative and technological developments, have almost managed to make people “like” death?
These actors are, of course, not only the undertakers, the inevitable interlocutors of the families and the entourage of the deceased, but also the countless start-ups seeking to disrupt the various mortuary markets one by one, such as Grantwill, which wants to become the “first post-mortem social network” , or even Testamento, which attacks notaries with its offer of secure holographic wills.
It is these players, their offers and their way of functioning that Faouzi Bensebaa and Fabien Eymas analyze in their book Le business de la mort (Éditions L’Harmattan), which we offer you the good sheets here…
The revitalization of the death market began notably with the promulgation of the Sueur Law, which sounded the death knell for the municipal monopoly on undertakers. This led to the development of a smaller number of private players who, by exploiting the oligopolistic structure of the market, were able to raise prices and thus increase their turnover.
Nevertheless, the funeral market and more generally death-related markets still appear to be regulated. When a person dies, it is necessary to respect the temporality indicated in the legal texts. For example, the certification of death must be carried out by a doctor within 24 hours, and the cremation or burial must take place within an interval between no earlier than 48 hours after the death and no later than 6 days. Regulation also plays a role in the development of death-related markets. In this regard, France appears cautious and its rules prevent – rightly or wrongly – the development of markets such as cryogenics, ash scattering or assisted suicide.
By imposing the scattering of all the deceased’s ashes in the same place, French law reduces the ability of families to use certain creative services that are being developed abroad. However, the development of cremation – 1% of deaths in 1980 versus almost 40% today – increases the potential need for differentiation in ash scattering. If in France it is possible to have one’s ashes scattered in the middle of nature (forest, sea, etc.), their transformation into diamonds, their emission into deep space or depositing part of them in a dildo as proposed by a Dutch designer doesn’t seem possible. Should we regret it?
On the more sensitive subject of assisted suicide, legislation that goes against the grain allows a country, in this case Switzerland, to benefit from a competitive advantage over the rest of the world. Specifically, since this market can only exist in Switzerland, this country attracts many non-Swiss European citizens who wish to end their lives, making the Swiss Confederation the leading destination for “death tourism”.
Even when it comes to pet funerals, not everything is possible. If animals weighing up to 40 kg can be buried on the family property, it is in a pit at least 1 meter deep and at a distance of at least 35 meters from homes and water bodies. But burials in animal cemeteries – the one in Asnières-sur-Seine (92) dates from 1899! – and above all, cremations are on the rise. In the United States, more than 500,000 animals a year have the right to a funeral!
An Uberization underway?
Unable to enter legally inaccessible markets, French start-ups are attacking traditional undertakers and… notaries! The former, accused of charging opaque prices – and therefore necessarily abusive – must deal with the emergence of online morticians who offer comparable services while promising knockdown prices.
Paradoxically, the arrival of these digital companies in the 2010s did not – far from – prevent the inflation of prices from traditional undertakers. They certainly take advantage of, or have taken advantage of, the low attractiveness of their customers—people aged 60 to 70 on average—to online shopping. Surely a simple respite that requires profound development of actors who benefit from the emergency faced by families.
Another example of an attempt to exploit historical actors is the start-up Testamento, which is attacking the de facto monopoly of notaries on the market for wills. But on closer inspection, it seems to us that this is not a frontal attack, but rather an additional proposal, which should not, at least at the moment, put notaries in trouble.
There are actually three types of wills: holographic, authentic, and mystical. The first is prepared and kept by the testator himself, while the other two require the intervention of a notary: for preparation and preservation in the case of the authentic will and simply for preservation in the case of the secret will.
Of course, it is much more difficult to contest an authentic will than a holographic will. This is where Testamento comes in, which by providing models offers to ensure the preparation of a holographic will. Thus, it appears that Testamento is currently looking more to exploit an off-market practice – drafting a holographic will – than to compete with notaries in their oh so captive market for authentic wills.
But the markets related to death are not only affected by the digitization found in most sectors, the most modern technologies are also mobilized to discover the key to eternity and resurrect the dead.
Technology not to die…
The pursuit of eternity is old. Since antiquity, the way of eating in particular has been associated with human – or rather divine – longevity, as ambrosia or nectar was reserved for the gods. Sisyphus paid a heavy price for desiring an immortality inaccessible to mere mortals.
The technological progress of recent decades has been accompanied by projects that some consider crazy, pathetic or, on the contrary, desirable and promising. First of all, there is cryogenization, which, as we have indicated, is not approved in France and is the delight of a handful of companies, mostly American, which freeze the bodies and/or heads of people who died of an incurable disease and which must be awakened as soon as medical advances make it possible to treat them. For those who have made the choice to freeze only the head, other scientific advances are necessary for an “awakening” where the obstacles are not lacking, regardless of what is frozen.
Transhumanism can therefore appear as a more modern and less risky technological solution, although we are still only at the research stage in this area, and therefore no offer is marketed. But this research is promising. Serious scientists consider regeneration of a damaged organ from the stem cells of the same individual to be a realistic goal. Other messages, such as those about copying the human mind to transfer it to another body or to a computer, on the other hand, appear more risky.
Well-known entrepreneurs such as Elon Musk have embarked on the adventure of transhumanism. It was in 2016 with the creation of Neuralink that the founder of SpaceX and Tesla followed in the footsteps of transhumanism. Neuralink’s mission is to develop electronic implants whose function is to improve the capabilities of the human brain. In late summer 2020, Elon Musk’s start-up showed that it had designed an implant which, installed on a pig’s brain, could read its brain activity and communicate it to a computer. Eventually, such an implant could allow humans to direct machines by thought…
… or bring the dead back to life
In the absence of being able to rely on transhumanist technologies immediately, it is possible to “reanimate” the dead, partially without question. There are at least three possibilities.
The first is to use a conversational robot or chatbot to continue exchanging with the deceased after his death. This is what James Vlahos did to continue in dialogue with his father. The correct functioning of the conversational robot requires the deceased’s prior recording of stories, anecdotes and other life stories, which the robot will then tell as needed. But even better, thanks to artificial intelligence, the robot is able to rearrange the words from the recordings to produce sentences and therefore new and non-stereotypical conversations…
This option seems to be compatible with the other one that comes to us from Japan. In 2018, a Japanese artist has actually developed a robot that shows the face of a deceased person and, thanks to an integrated computer program, imitates the gestures and voice of the deceased. Combined with James Vlahos’ conversational robot, this robot would get even closer to the deceased person.
The third option is to visit the deceased(s) in a virtual world using virtual reality technology. This was what a South Korean was able to do in early 2020 in a program broadcast on television. By mixing images of his 7-year-old daughter, who died three years earlier, and the movements of a child, Vive Studio has created a character that resembles the mother’s offspring.
This development is not without raising questions. In particular, these technological means that make it possible to bring back the dead or bring them to life in some other way raise the question of the possibility of mourning. Questions that the creators of these technological replacements for the dead sometimes ask themselves. Thus James Vlahos expresses the contradiction between his desire to improve his dadbot – robot father – and his desire not to make it too real to allow grief…