'Horrible and sad' - COVID-19 boosts the death business

by Jack Graham | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 3 December 2020 18:06 GMT

A mourner holds a candle outside St Eugene's Cathedral in Londonderry, Northern Ireland August 4, 2020. REUTERS/Lorraine O'Sullivan

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The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the need for start-up apps like Untangle that provide end-of-life services, from funerals to wills - and a place to talk about grief

By Jack Graham

Dec 3 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Most startups are struggling to survive let alone thrive in the pandemic - yet 2020 couldn't have gone better for Untangle, a new player in the age-old death business.

Launched in January as COVID-19 began circling the globe, Untangle was born from the grief of two women on a mission to help others cope better with death and the big, snap decisions it foists on mourners.

“It’s really horrible and sad, but our market and the awareness of the need for the service has grown,” Untangle's co-founder Emily Cummin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Cummin came up with the idea after her grandfather died and she was ill-prepared for how overwhelming the whole process would be, from the pain of her loss to the logistics involved.

Her family faced a raft of exhausting challenges - from planning the funeral to managing a will - and doing it all at haste and in a haze.

“I watched my family go through these big transitions and realised that there wasn’t much support around them,” said Cummin, a 27-year-old business strategist based in London.

She said there are often supports in place in the runup to a death but found that help just “drops off a cliff” afterwards.

Last year she met Emma Dutton, a 26-year-old software engineer whose father had died of cancer in 2017 and whose family felt the same void in their greatest need.

So the first-time entrepreneurs decided to quit their jobs and create a business to help guide other people through their loss and rebuild their lives.

Untangle was born in January, supporting grievers online through message groups and one-to-one advice.

When the pandemic hit, their small online community morphed into a budding technology startup.

It won a 50,000-pound ($67,000) grant from Innovate UK, a government agency looking to fund businesses focusing on new needs emerging from the pandemic. They used the money to create an app and hire five employees, who all work remotely.

Untangle is aiming to grow its reach to 5% of bereaved British families in the next four years, and eventually expand its business abroad.

The Untangle app aims to gather emotional and social support for the bereaved in one place, in London, United Kingdom, May, 2020. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Handout by: Untangle

EXCESS DEATHS

Some 600,000 people die in Britain a year, the Office for National Statistics said, and a 2018 YouGov survey found 70% of adults suffered a bereavement in the last five years. 

At least an extra 70,000 people have died this year due to COVID-19, according to official data, upending life for their loved ones amid the distance constraints, sheer speed and shock of the novel coronavirus.

A study by Bristol and Cardiff universities found people had higher grief and support needs in COVID-19, with 85% unable to say goodbye as they would have liked.

“COVID has created a big opportunity for us, so I think we’re in quite a unique position,” Cummin said.

The number of Untangle users has increased by more than 400% since COVID-19 began, and 10% of them use the app daily.

Untangle says it has money committed from early-stage investors and is in talks to get more, including with technology investors and institutional funders. With new funding, it plans to hire five more employees next year.

A BEREAVEMENT PLATFORM

Untangle’s app aims to gather emotional and social support for the bereaved in one easy-to-access place, with support groups, one-to-one chats and access to a raft of information.

Its chat functions were developed using behavioural science to be sensitive to vulnerable users, and they are developing algorithms to personalise recommendations for users.

Currently living off the grant from Innovate UK, who awarded Untangle another 25,000-pound grant this month, it plans to earn revenue through referrals, be it to funeral providers, probate lawyers or counsellors.

The idea - to save people shopping around in their grief and having to choose between services that can be poor and pricey.

“If we can make it a bit cheaper and a lot easier for people, and provider higher-quality services in one place, we’re actually benefitting everyone – the consumer and us,” she said.

The market for services and products related to bereavement runs into the billions. The overall cost of dying, from funeral to estate fees, averages 9,500 pounds in Britain, according to a 2020 report by the insurance company SunLife.

Much of it is also old fashioned and ripe for reboot.

While so much has moved online during COVID-19, Cummin said that many of the processes - be it sending death certificates or funeral planning - are still offline.

Recognising this chasm, a host of new companies has sprung up in what is a rapidly-growing "death tech" sector.

“It’s an industry that needs disrupting and digitising,” she said, with financial and legal tech investors keen to get aboard. "We’re seeing this shift where people are trusting technology more and more for support with everyday things."

Yet as the business prospers, Cummin said she needs to keep her eye on why it all started in the first place.

“Each new customer for us is someone who’s had a big life-changing experience,” she said. “We can’t lose touch with the reason that we’re doing what we’re doing.”

(Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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