How did a rigid market in 1992 become particularly dynamic in 2022? Has death become a fashion? Or is it due to the ingenuity of so many actors who, navigating cultural, legislative and technological developments, have almost managed to make people “like” death?
These actors are not only the funeral directors of course, the inevitable interlocutors of the families and the entourage of the deceased, but also the countless start-ups that try to upset the various funeral markets one by one, such as Grantwill who wants to be the “first social network post mortem ”, or even Testament that attacks notaries with its offer of safe holographic wills.
It is these actors, their offerings and their way of operating that Faouzi Bensebaa and Fabien Eymas analyze in their book The deal of death (L’Harmattan Editions), of which we propose here the good sheets …
(De) regulated markets
The revival of the death market began in particular with the promulgation of the law of sweat who rang the death knell of the municipal monopoly on funeral directors. This has led to the development of a small number of private actors who, by exploiting the oligopolistic structure of the market, have been able to raise prices and therefore increase its turnover.
However, the funeral market and, more generally, that of deaths still seem to be regulated. When a person dies, it is necessary to respect the temporality specified by art legal texts. For example, a death certificate must be made by a doctor within 24 hours and cremation or burial must take place in a fork not earlier than 48 hours after death and at most 6 days. Regulation also plays a role in the development of death-related markets. In this regard, France appears prudent and yours the regulation prevents – rightly or wrongly – the development of markets such as cryogenics, ash dispersal or assisted suicide.
By requiring all the ashes of the deceased to be scattered in the same place, French legislation reduces the possibility for families to take advantage of certain creative services that are developing abroad. However, the development of cremation – 1% of deaths in 1980 against almost 40% today – the potential demand for differentiation in ash dispersion increases. If it is possible, in France, to have his ashes scattered in the middle of nature (forest, sea, etc.), their transformation into diamonds, their dispatch into deep space or the deposit of part of them in a dildo as proposed by a Dutch designer do not seem possible. Should we repent?
As regards the more delicate issue of assisted suicide, counter-current legislation allows a country, in this case Switzerland, to benefit from a competitive advantage over the rest of the world. In concrete terms, as 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 main destination for ” tourism of death “.
Even when it comes to animal funerals, everything is not 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 points. But the burials in animal cemeteries: that of Asnières-sur-Seine (92) dates back to 1899! – and, above all, cremations are on the rise. In the United States, these are more than 500,000 animals per year that they are entitled to a funeral!
An ongoing puberization?
Unable to enter legally inaccessible markets, French start-ups are attacking traditional funeral directors and … notaries! The former, accused of charging opaque – and therefore necessarily abusive – prices have to contend with the emergence of online funeral directors who offer comparable services by promising bargain prices.
Paradoxically, the arrival of these digital companies in the 2010s did not prevent – far from it – the inflation of prices charged by traditional funeral directors. Surely they exploit or have taken advantage of the low attractiveness of their customers – people aged between 60 and 70 – for online commerce. Certainly a simple respite that requires a profound evolution of the actors who benefit from the emergency situation faced by families.
Another example of an attempt to uberise historical actors is that of the start-up Want attacking the de facto monopoly of notaries on the will market. But, on closer inspection, it seems to us that it is not a frontal attack, but rather an additional proposal that should not, for the moment, however, put notaries in difficulty.
There are in fact three types of wills: holographic, authentic and mystical. The first is drawn up and kept by the testator himself, while the other two require the intervention of a notary: for drafting and conservation in the case of an authentic will and simply for conservation in the case of a secret will.
Of course, it is much more difficult to challenge an authentic will than a holographic will. This is where Testament comes into play which, by providing templates, offers to ensure the drafting of a holographic will. It therefore appears that, for the time being, Testament seeks more to exploit an off-market practice – the writing of a holographic will – than to compete with notaries in their tightly bound market for authentic wills.
But markets related to death are not only affected by the digitization present in most sectors, even the most modern technologies are mobilizing to discover the key to eternity and resurrect the dead.
Technology not to die …
The search for eternity is old. Since ancient times, the way of eating, in particular, has been associated with human, or rather divine, longevity, since ragweed or nectar was reserved for the Gods. Sisyphus paid dearly for craving an immortality inaccessible to mere mortals.
The technological advances made in recent decades have 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 authorized in France and is the joy of a handful of companies, especially American, which freeze the bodies and / or heads of people who have died from an incurable disease and which must be awaken as soon as medical advances allow them to be cured. For those who have made the choice to freeze only their heads, more scientific advances are needed for an “awakening” to which there is no shortage of obstacles, whatever has been frozen.
Transhumanism can therefore appear as a more modern and less risky technological solution, even if we are still in this area only at the research stage and therefore no offer is commercialized. But this research is promising. Quite serious scientists believe that the regeneration of an organ damaged by stem cells of the same individual is a realistic goal. Other advertisements, such as those of copying the human mind to transfer it to another body or to a computer, appear riskier.
Famous entrepreneurs like Elon Musk have embarked on the adventure of transhumanism. It was 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. At the end of the summer of 2020, the Elon Musk start-up demonstrated that it had designed an implant that, installed on a pig’s brain, could read its brain activity and communicate it to a computer. Eventually, such a plant could allow humans to direct machines with thought …
… or bring the dead back to life
In the absence of immediate reliance on transhumanistic technologies, it is possible to “resurrect” the dead, in part no doubt. At least three options are possible.
The first is to use a conversational robot or chatbot to continue trading with the deceased after their death. This is what James Vlahos did to continue conversing with his father. The correct functioning of the conversational robot requires the prior registration by the deceased of stories, anecdotes and other life stories that the robot will then tell on request. But, even better, the robot, thanks to artificial intelligence, is able to rearrange the words of the recordings, so as to produce sentences and therefore new and non-stereotyped conversations …
This option seems compatible with the second one that comes to us from Japan. In 2018, a Japanese artist 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 come even closer to the deceased person.
The third option is to visit the deceased in a virtual world using virtual reality technology. This is what a South Korean was able to do, at the beginning of 2020, in a program broadcast on television. By mixing photos of the 7-year-old daughter who died three years earlier and the movements of a child, Vive Studio has created a character that looks exactly like the mother’s offspring.
These developments are not without questions. In particular, these technological means of bringing the dead back to life or otherwise bringing them back to life raise the question of the feasibility of mourning. Questions that the creators of these technological substitutes for the dead sometimes ask themselves. Thus James Vlahos expresses the contradiction between his desire to improve his dad – robot dad – and his desire not to make it too real to allow mourning …