“We’ve had people come in thinking we were a spa; to me that’s a win,” said Erica Hill, the co-owner of Sparrow, a business that opened last November in Greenpoint. Sparrow does, indeed, look very spalike: the décor is pleasantly neutral, with skylights, pastel murals, and a retail storefront on Driggs Avenue that stocks candles, cashmere throws, bath products, and some very nice ceramic vessels made by local women. It’s not until you look a little closer at the titles of the books or move into the main establishment, where the rooms are filled with rows of empty chairs, that the space’s true nature becomes apparent: Sparrow is a funeral home, and those nice pieces of pottery are cremation urns. Hill wanted the shop to be warm and inviting in order to draw in passersby — a route into, if not the next world, then a preliminary conversation about it. “People are given a door to peep in, to walk through,” said Hill. “I feel strongly we don’t talk enough about death and dying. And we don’t plan for it. But everyone is going to die; you can’t get away from that one.”
In addition to arranging funerals, Sparrow also hosts exit parties — gatherings for the dying but not yet dead, to say good-bye — and meetups known as death cafés to discuss the topic. It’s just one of many end-of-life businesses that have sprung up in the last few years, aimed at offering a better, more modern, more millennial-friendly way of death: cost-transparent, with cleaner aesthetics and consumer-friendly interfaces. In addition to Sparrow, which wants to open 15 funeral homes around the country in the next five years, there are death-planning sites like Cake and Lantern, direct-to-dead-consumer casket and cremation companies founded by ex-Amazon and ex-Nike executives (Titan and Solace), a platform called the Dinner Party that connects grieving strangers for meals, and an app, WeCroak, that reminds you that you’re going to die at five random times each day. Their branding is approachable, with soft colors and the kind of cute illustrations that New Yorkers are accustomed to seeing splashed across subway cars. But don’t expect an F-train ad campaign anytime soon — while companies invest heavily in SEO and Google-keyword search, advertising is something of a third rail in the death industry. “What you don’t want to do is put a casket in front of someone who’s not thinking about it,” said Josh Siegel, the co-founder of Titan Casket. Death is something that most Americans would prefer not to be reminded of during their morning commutes. Or really, ever. This, too, is something that end-of-life start-ups are aiming to change, transforming not just the consumer experience of death, but the cultural one. Can you really rebrand death, though?