Brand Strategy

How a Brooklyn funeral home is trying to put a modern spin on death

Sparrow is one of many companies in recent years to breathe new life into the death care industry.
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· 6 min read

A nondescript gift shop on Brooklyn’s Driggs Avenue sells the usual New Age accoutrements you’d find at other stores throughout Greenpoint—artisanal lavender soaps, rose-scented “body milk,” sandalwood diffusers, greeting cards, and incense holders. Christmas ornaments were sold over the holidays.

But Sparrow also sells something a bit more unusual—urns for the remains of deceased loved ones.

Sparrow, a “contemporary funeral home” that opened in November, looks nothing like a typical funeral parlor. Ceremonies are held in “celebration rooms” flooded with natural light. The walls of the largest one are covered in a soft-hued, hand-painted mural, where funerals can be (and have been) held in-the-round. Did we mention the gift shop? The Addams Family mansion, this is not.

“Yes, we look different than what you expect a funeral home to be, but that’s okay,” Erica Hill, the co-owner of Sparrow, told Marketing Brew. “Nobody wants to celebrate or plan for death, because that’s the end. But it doesn’t make any sense…You can’t avoid death.”

a room at Sparrow, a new "contemporary funeral home" in Brooklyn


She’s aware of criticism that Sparrow is a “hipster funeral home”; a post from a local news organization announcing the business got comments like, “Wow, they gentrified death!” If Hill didn’t own the business, she said she’d probably feel that way, too.

Still, she believes there’s an underserved audience that’s thinking about death differently. Though few may want to spend much time contemplating The End, Sparrow isn’t alone. The pandemic has lots of us thinking about—or dealing with—death, and a wave of companies are cashing in, ushering in a modern refashioning of an industry that’s seen little change since the Civil War.

No way to die

For starters, the casket industry isn’t as popular as it once was—fewer people than ever want to be put in the ground.

In 2021, more than half of Americans who died (57.5%) were cremated. By 2040, that figure could rise to 78%, according to the National Funeral Directors Association’s 2020 Cremation and Burial Report. (And we thought our jobs were fun.)

A decade ago, James Forr, head of insights at Olson Zaltman Associates, a market research firm, was hired by the Funeral Service Foundation to figure out why people were turning away from traditional funerals and turning towards cremation and nontraditional services.

Forr’s team spoke with people ages 50–70 who said they were uninterested in traditional services, asking them what they thought about funeral homes and what they wanted for themselves.

“They framed a traditional funeral like a lonely, lifeless tomb. The setting is stuffy and confining; the mood is cold and dark,” Forr told us. “All of the recommendations that we made are things that, generally speaking, were not being done in the industry…like all the things that [the] funeral home in New York is doing.”

At Sparrow, Hill wants to offer funerals that are reflective of the deceased. “I would go to all these funerals, wakes, viewings, and walk away feeling like that didn’t represent the person who died. You’d go into a funeral home and it would just feel…yucky,” Hill said. “Why isn’t there a celebration that really reflects who they are?”

a room at Sparrow, a new "contemporary funeral home" in Brooklyn


To that end, Sparrow offers to write and publish obituaries on its site. At one family’s request, Sparrow’s funeral director, Lily Sage Weinrieb, made sure to blast a Europop playlist in the car while bringing the body to the crematory.

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“The funeral home industry, seeing as it’s been delivering the same thing for so long, doesn’t feel like a place people are connected to anymore,” Sage Weinrieb told Marketing Brew. “Regardless of a person’s traditions, we want to make sure there are ample opportunities for folks to participate in taking care of the person who’s died.”

So far, Sparrow has hosted seven ceremonies, with two more in the books. Hill says they will need to hold eight to 10 events per month in order to be financially sustainable. The typical cost of a funeral at Sparrow with a viewing, ceremony, and casket can cost (without a plot or embalming) about $7,500. Just a cremation with a memorial service is about $5,000, and a cremation alone is $2,400.

Eventually, she’d like to open another Sparrow, and then another.

Rebranding death

Hill isn’t the only one confident in modernizing death care.

Suelin Chen is the co-founder of Cake, an end-of-life planning app. Cake can help users navigate through personal and important questions about their own death. Do you want to be buried? Cremated? Turned into soil? What kind of flowers do you want? Should David Bowie, Coldplay, or Aretha Franklin be played? There’s also a section dedicated to asset information and legal documents.

”The traditional industries that have serviced this space have been slow to catch up to where society is today,” she said, talking about how end-of-life planning is not as taboo as it once was.

Founded in 2017, Cake serves an audience of 40 million visitors, up from 20 million six months ago. Like Sparrow, Cake’s branding is muted and modern, with a website that rivals any DTC brand. Basic services are free for its users, but Cake makes most of its money by selling its suite of planning tools to businesses, like banks and insurance companies.

There’s also Oaktree, a company pitching “modern urns to uniquely commemorate your loved one.”

Started in November of 2020, the company broke over $1 million in annualized revenue in 2021, selling roughly 200 urns a month, mostly directly to consumers. A far cry from the old dusty vase on the mantel you’re too afraid to touch, Oaktree’s urns come in different shapes and colors, ranging from “warm brown” to “vibrant multicolor.”

“We see it as a way to celebrate life, versus just remembering and honoring in more of a somber tone,” said Max Lemper-Tabatsky, Oaktree’s co-founder. “And something you’d be proud to have in your home.”

Though it won’t be ready for some time—at least six months—Sparrow plans to roll out its own app for death planning. It’s also working with local, independent artists on a line of custom urns.

In the meantime, Sparrow is trying to integrate itself into the local community, opening the rooms (when they aren’t taken for memorials) for grief support groups and potentially even a book club, Hill said.

For now, she’s using the gift shop for exposure, hoping eyebrows will raise and folks will take a tour or consider filling out some of the vital paperwork, taking the first step towards planning their own funeral.

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