Sometime last year, a septuagenarian couple living in a senior living facility in Gurugram, Haryana, started thinking about their post-death rituals. Deaths due to covid-19 had peaked and loss and grief filled the air. The worry of not having anyone around if they were to die—their only daughter is settled in the US—made them pre-book funerals for themselves with a Delhi-based company.
“Even though the couple had no major ailments, they were anxious about who would carry out their last rites if they were to die during the pandemic,” says Vikaas Gutgutia, managing director and founder of Ferns N Petals, which started the Last Journey funeral service just ahead of the pandemic, in December 2019. The ₹2 lakh package included conducting the last rites in Haridwar with five priests, a 50-member guest list and details about the kind of food to be served (at the post-funeral ceremony).
He say they started getting pre-bookings only from June 2020, after covid-19 had swept through large parts of the country. Over the last six months, says Gutgutia, Last Journey has received more than a dozen pre-bookings. “Children living abroad or senior citizens in old-age homes opt for this package.”
The outbreak of covid-19 has put the focus on death and the funeral industry like never before. As the pandemic limited gatherings, the industry diversified into digital obituaries and started live-streaming prayer meetings and cremations. “For families living in other cities and countries, we would live-stream the prayer meetings,” says Shruthi Reddy, CEO of Anthyesti Funeral Services, which operates in six cities, including Kolkata and Bengaluru.
Obituary portals like Tributes.in, run by Pan India Internet Ltd, a Noida, Uttar Pradesh-based website design and development firm, added more features last year. “When we launched in 2015, the market was not ready for a digital way to pay last respects but the pandemic has changed things,” says Rajkumar Jalan, CEO and co-founder of Tributes.in. Since October last year, traffic on the site has increased over 200%, he says. The site allows people to create a page for the deceased on which anyone can post memories, share anecdotes—or just grieve.
Business, as dark as it may sound, has never been so good. Gutgutia launched Last Journey as a streamlined solution, offering everything from posting obituaries in newspapers to arranging prayer meeting halls for funerals. “I have run many businesses in the last 25 years but am yet to see anything grow as steadily as Last Journey in the last few months,” he says. In March, the company organised close to 400 funerals. In May, it provided 1,500 families various services, including funerals, online prayer meetings and post-cremation services. “We have grown 25-30% month-on-month,” he adds.
According to an August report by Technavio, a London-based market research firm, the funeral homes and services market is expected to reach a value of ₹27.82 billion (around ₹2 trillion), at a compound annual growth rate of 5.85%, between 2021-25.
In India, funeral and allied rituals had so far remained an unorganised sector, with communities following different rituals and hiring local priests and vendors. This has started changing. “Just like wedding planners, the demand for funeral planners has started growing, especially among the Christian community in Kerala,” says Raju Kannampuzha, managing director of Executive Events, an event management company headquartered in Kochi, with branches in several cities in Kerala.
He chanced upon the funeral business in 2017, when a client who had booked Kannampuzha for his son’s Holy Communion asked him to be the funeral director for his father. Another client followed and soon Executive Events created a brand, “It’s Your Day”. “The business was growing 100% every year but the pandemic has put a dent in it,” says Kannampuzha—they weren’t able to transition smoothly online. However, he believes that though covid-19 protocols bar large gatherings at present, the market “will grow exponentially, especially in Kerala, which has a large NRI population and seniors living alone”.
Delhi-based Antim Yatra, which was launched in 2014, has grown 150% in revenue every year. “We try to be there like an extended family member, set up WhatsApp groups to inform about various rituals and coordinate everything from meals to flowers,” says the founder, Daljit Sean Singh.
After the outbreak of covid-19, Antim Yatra started a counselling service to help people who couldn’t be with their families after a tragedy. “There have been cases where we stored ashes of the deceased for three months before the family could return home from abroad,” Singh says.
It was, in fact, a personal tragedy that prompted Plaban Mohapatra to start Swargadwara, which offers funeral services across religious lines, in 2016 in Bhubaneswar, his home town, and Bengaluru, where friends could supervise the logistics. “Unlike the West, our rituals change as per religion and region. So it’s no surprise that we are yet to be an organised setup like the US,” he says.
Between 2017-20, the company’s cumulative revenue was ₹1.3 crore, but it has seen a minor slump since the covid-19 outbreak. They suffered losses in the initial few months since the cities they operate in were enforcing strict protocols. “But with ease in restrictions things have improved. From June, we started receiving at least four clients a day,” Mohapatra says.
Even an online ritual services platform such as Guruji On Demand, which offers priests for religious ceremonies, shifted focus to funeral management last year. “Due to the pandemic, a lot of pujas and gatherings at home came to a standstill. So our focus shifted to ‘Moksh’, which is our brand for funeral services,” says Abhishek Kulkarni, co-founder and director of the firm based in Pune, Maharashtra.
The major challenge is to find customers, and go about it sensitively. For a family that is grieving, a sales pitch call won’t work, and many Indians still don’t like to discuss death, says Singh. Empathy, compassion, allowing a family time are key, he adds. The companies rely mainly on word-of-mouth.
Mohapatra agrees: “The primary challenge is reaching out to people. No one wants to hear what service we provide but when there is an incident, they don’t know whom to contact in that moment.”
Death is inevitable and not talking about it isn’t the answer, says Gutgutia. With nuclear families now the norm, many do not know about rituals and practices. “The pandemic has further added to the isolation,” he says. The practice of hiring funeral directors, he believes, will soon become the norm here, as it is in the West.
Smitha Verma is a Delhi-based journalist.