Reflections on My First Ten Years with CANA

By: Barbara Kemmis
Tuesday, August 2, 2022

Ten years and four months ago I decided the next step in my career was to become an executive director. I started looking at job postings and stumbled across one for the Cremation Association of North America. My first reaction was to chuckle and marvel that there really is an association (or three) for any profession. I applied for the position, bombed the phone interview, aced the in-person interview and the rest is history.

Too often, we talk about how slow this profession is to advance. Looking back, however, it’s been an exciting decade of change and growth for the industry and our association in particular. In 2011, CANA was 98 years young – a startup transitioning from an association management company to hiring their first association professional to take the organization to the next level. Cremation was still a threat rather than a reality for non-members. In 2021, cremation is the new tradition and other forms of disposition are clamoring for their own place. CANA’s staff is some of the most dedicated in the business, continuing to evolve our offerings to meet the needs of members and the entire profession. I can see how much I have learned and continue to learn. Here are ten reflections on cremation and CANA in 2021 compared to 2011:

1.) CREMATION IS MAINSTREAM In 2011, CANA was the primary cremation education provider and I was routinely told by well-known thought leaders that cremation was irrelevant and a fad. Others were angry about the growing adoption of cremation and accused CANA of destroying their businesses. Cremation was still considered to be a fringe disposition to be feared or ignored.

“Cremation is taking food out of my children’s mouths!” expressed a tipsy monument dealer at one of my first professional meetings in fall 2011. I didn’t take this personally at the time, and he later apologized, but I soon learned that cremation had a greater negative impact on cemeteries and memorial suppliers than other types of businesses. That impact continues, but even then, there were opportunities going unexplored.

If cremation is the opposite of casketed burial, as consumers seem to understand it, then traditions linked to burial are often viewed as disconnected to cremation. Why then were cemeteries largely offering burial for cremated remains as the only permanent placement option? Why were the companies building and selling monuments and mausoleums avoiding building columbaria? When I asked these questions early on in my career, I heard variations on the theme that these are business decisions.

Now it is clear that cremation is a persistent trend and all types of CANA members are aware of that and eager to explore how it can grow their businesses. Today’s business decisions incorporate cremation in planning and product development. Those previous era’s thought leaders are largely retired or have changed their tune. We have all learned a lot.

2.) CANA’S BRAND IS MORE THAN CREMATORY OPERATIONS “I don’t own or operate a crematory, so I don’t belong to CANA,” was the common response I received when pitching CANA membership. And it was true, CANA was and is the market leader in crematory operations training and expertise. I learned how to answer questions posed by members and regulators alike. Funeral directors were fielding questions from families choosing cremation and needed to learn more about the technical process to respond with accurate and valuable information.

Membership has tripled over the past decade and the growth is among businesses without crematories. They join CANA to learn how to increase profitability and learn strategies to better serve grieving families beyond the basic (though all-important) crematory operations.

3.) CREMATION ADOPTION IS 100% CONSUMER DRIVEN Since 2011, the cremation rate has grown from 63.1% to 73.1% in Canada and from 42.2% to more than 56.1% in the U.S. — almost a 15% increase. I wish that the five CANA staff members and I could claim 18 Southern Funeral Director Magazine w June 2022 Reflections on My First Ten Years with CANA By Barbara Kemmis Southern Funeral Director Magazine w June 2022 19 that we move the cremation rate forward. That would be a remarkable accomplishment. Rather we, like you, are focused on keeping up with and reporting consumer preferences and trends. The more we understand, the better we can bridge the growing disconnect and mistrust between death care professionals and the public. I am proud that we have created a website with cremation memorialization material that helps consumers make decisions and is so valued.

4.) CANA RESEARCH IS THE MOST ACCURATE AND RELIABLE OUT THERE Research is my favorite part of the job. I am a librarian by training and I love helping CANA members find information that helps them. But when I am asked the same question more than a few times, I see a research opportunity. CANA is best known for its rock-solid cremation trend analysis and projections. Building on that reputation, we are expanding into more consumer research with our recent Cremation Insights report and some exciting projects planned for the coming years.

5.) CANA, THE MEMBERSHIP ASSOCIATION, IS STRONGER THAN EVER In the macro world of professional and trade associations, membership is decreasing (as is attendance at conventions). With social media and “free” information online, more people are choosing not to affiliate with an association, but seek connections elsewhere. CANA bucks these trends with a +95% member retention rate and attracting more than 100 new members a year.

Fundamentally, associations reflect their member’s challenges and successes. Associations must change and adapt to meet these needs. For example, CANA responded to the growing adoption of online education by creating an online version of its Crematory Operations Certification Program (COCP) in 2017. By 2019, more operators were certified online than in person for convenience and accessibility reasons, but all received the same training and content. I am grateful that CANA’s education offerings are diversified. Building on that success, we offer CE courses, webinars, and professional development online – we’re investing to make CANA Education available anywhere.

Trends like consolidation, business closure and briefer attention spans are real challenges for all associations that CANA addresses head on.

6.) BOTH/AND IS OUR NEW REALITY This term may be unfamiliar to you, but “both/and” is the concept that when new technologies or products come along, you must add those to existing offerings without dropping anything. CANA members are definitely facing this challenge. Most continue to serve casketed burial families as well as cremation, but the proportion of each type of death call has likely flipped. Or perhaps the proportion of calls received via a website versus the brick-and-mortar funeral home has reversed. Cemeteries are making significant capital investments in cremation product options, while still supporting casketed burials. And the increased desire for personalization is another layer of creating new traditions for families who are choosing cremation for the first time.

7.) THE CREMATION CONTINUUM HAS SHIFTED A decade ago, as I was analyzing CANA member records and meeting members, the majority of members had multiple brands. The brand that was primarily cremation-focused was often the business that held the CANA membership. All funeral service providers could support cremation consumers, and many funeral homes had added “& Cremation Services” to their business names. Generally speaking, cremation societies were largely considered to be “bottom feeders” by their traditional, brick-and-mortar competitors. Advertising on price was a newer, controversial concept. Fast forward to a world where many CANA members retain their Funeral Home and Cremation Society, and have added an online brand as well. The goal of this diversification is meeting cremation consumers where they are and offering a variety of options. This trend is true for the national, publicly traded members as well as regional or local providers. Advertising on price is widely accepted and expected for the value brands, whereas the service-oriented brands tend to promote personalization and excellent service. Cremation consumers have more choices in service providers than ever. 

8.) THE RACE TO THE BOTTOM PERSISTS The assumption that cremation consumers choose cremation for the lowest price persists and it is damaging to our profession. Very few businesses can survive, much less thrive, on the volume necessary to support low prices. There are low-cost providers in nearly every market already, but emphasis on market share is crucial.

Low income and poor families don’t default to cremation because of price. They crowd source funeral funding for the disposition they want, or, sadly, they abandon their loved one. Indigent deaths are on the rise and that is the result of a complete lack of funding for an unexpected death. Assumptions are creating more distance from the consumer and add to misunderstandings.

9.) CREMATION IS THE NEW TRADITION In May 2019, CANA and Homesteaders Life Company conducted joint research on the cremation experience. This research resulted in 7 key insights, but our first critical lesson was when designing the research. We contracted with focus group research centers to create groups for us divided into Direct Cremation and Cremation with Service groups. We defined Direct Cremation as people who chose cremation and did nothing, conducting no services. The contact called us back and said they had hundreds of potential participants in our focus groups who chose cremation and were willing to talk about their experience, but they couldn’t find any Direct Cremation consumers. The mistake we made was defining Direct Cremation as doing nothing, when we meant doing nothing with a cremation provider. People who choose cremation always do something— the question is whether they view the funeral director as an expert to help them create new traditions, or as a body handler. This is my primary question as I face the next decade.

10.) CREMATION IS PREPARATION FOR MEMORIALIZATION CANA has believed that for over 100 years and CANA members agree to the Code of Cremation Practice as a condition of membership. Promoting permanent placement, ceremony and all the other aspects that memorialization supports continues to be our challenge and opportunity. That monument dealer, who adjusted his model and is still in business, was correct, in part. We are fighting against consumer resistance to memorialization and permanent placement, but it is a fight worth winning.

10.) CREMATION IS PREPARATION FOR MEMORIALIZATION CANA has believed that for over 100 years and CANA members agree to the Code of Cremation Practice as a condition of membership. Promoting permanent placement, ceremony and all the other aspects that memorialization supports continues to be our challenge and opportunity. That monument dealer, who adjusted his model and is still in business, was correct, in part. We are fighting against consumer resistance to memorialization and permanent placement, but it is a fight worth winning.

Ten years ago, I joked that I was the executive director of a 100-year-old start-up, but that is the culture I have attempted to maintain over the past decade. CANA is progressive and committed to creating and delivering content that supports our members and promotes ethical, transformative cremation experiences. I am still learning every day and the staff and I always appreciate your feedback, questions and suggestions. This work is hard and requires imagination, reliable data to make decisions and collaboration. I hope you will join me in raising a glass to my first ten years with CANA and all we have accomplished together!

October 17, 2021 was 10-years to the day that Barbara started as Executive Director of CANA. Join the staff and board in celebrating and congratulating Barbara and the whole association on the achievements of the last decade. There’s no end to the celebration in October: wish her a Happy Birthday October 24th!

Barbara Kemmis, CAE is Executive Director of the Cremation Association of North America, where she promotes all things cremation through member programs, education and strategic partnerships. After more than 20 years of experience in association leadership, Barbara knows that bringing people together to advance common goals is not only fun, but the most effective strategy to get things done.

Barbara has served two prior professions as the Director of Member Services at the American Theological Library Association and Vice President of Library and Nonprofit Services at the Donors Forum (now Forefront). Barbara earned a master’s degree in library science from Dominican University, a graduate certificate in nonprofit management from North Park University and a B.A. from Earlham College. In 2021, Barbara earned the Certified Association Executive credential in recognition for her expertise and experience. 









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