Death ecommerce is the latest sector to feel China’s internet boom

It’s not difficult to understand why, of course. In general, the funeral industry is driven by older generations, who are less likely than young people to turn to the web for solutions when they encounter a problem. And China’s young internet entrepreneurs generally aren’t thinking about funerals and death when they’re coming up with hot startup ideas. The end result is that a lot of China’s funeral business is still done offline.

But there are a lot of problems with the offline funeral industry. It’s fragmented, meaning that finding and pricing something like an open burial plot can be a real pain; you might have to call around to dozens of different small places to ask about availability. And because offline buyers can only access local offerings and time is often a factor, it can get expensive. If there’s already been a death, the family doesn’t usually have the time or inclination to shop around for the best prices. And the elderly person in an assisted-living home planning their own funeral likely doesn’t have the mobility, inclination, or energy to spend months chasing down the most affordable options either.

Ecommerce is an obvious solution to the price problem. It could take days to call a dozen different shops to inquire about the cost and availability of caskets, for example, but you can get that same kind of information in seconds with an internet search. It should come as no surprise, then, that ecommerce vendors have stepped in to fill this void.

China’s big-name ecommerce firms all have significant offerings, of course. On JD.com you can buy caskets, urns, and other funeral-related items, and the most popular among them have been purchased hundreds of times. On Alibaba’s Taobao and Tmall platforms, the options are similarly diverse, and Taobao’s sales figures suggest the platform has sold thousands of cremation urns in the past month alone.

Death ecommerce is the latest sector to feel China’s internet boom
Death ecommerce is the latest sector to feel China’s internet boom

Buying from a big platform like JD or Taobao does allow you to find the best prices quickly, but it isn’t the perfect solution for everyone. It still requires you to identify each item that you need, source it individually, and then put all of that together – it’s more effort than some people would like to go to, especially when they’re bereaved. And you can’t find everything on the big sites anyway – neither Alibaba nor JD sells grave plots, for example.

For those people, botique funeral ecommerce shops like Yiko have sprung up. On Yiko, you pick and choose exactly what you need, or go with a more all-inclusive one-stop service package. You can search for available grave plots in major cities like Beijing, with prices, ratings, photos, and map integration all there to make it easy to compare options. You can buy all the items you’ll need, from urns to memorial rings and 3D printed models of the deceased, right on Yiko’s site. And you can book funeral services like interment or fengshui guidance through the company as well.

Startup services like Yiko have also taken a new approach to marketing that’s helping them catch on among the elderly. According to a recent PingWest feature, Yiko reps have become quite popular in one Chinese retirement home because they do things like sing songs with the residents, help them take photos, and openly discuss their options with them. This more fun-loving and frank approach is in sharp contrast to the approach of traditional funeral service marketers, which is often just wordlessly handing out business cards and grim flyers.

From birth, Yiko founder Ma Lei was more familiar and comfortable with death than most of us. His parents both worked at a hospital and they lived in a dormitory just outside of it, only meters away from the facility’s outdoor mortuary. As a child, Ma saw and heard the stages of death and grieving; it was a grim tragedy that played out again and again just outside of his windowpane.

Ma also had his own brushes with death. In third grade, a classmate swinging a broken bottle accidentally slashed an artery in Ma’s wrist. He passed out from the blood loss and woke up in the hospital, alive and remembering that just before he passed out he hadn’t felt pain or fear. This made him curious about death.

He got an even closer taste of it just after graduating college. Driving while exhausted, Ma drifted off for a second and had a brutal accident, smashing his vehicle into two separate utility poles and along a hundred meters of terrace. When he woke up in the hospital, he insisted that he had seen a classmate – one who had already died – in front of his car just prior to the crash.

Taking it as a sign, Ma converted to Buddhism and resolved to get involved in the funeral industry. He first attempted to become a cemetery developer, but that’s a monopoly-dominated industry, and he failed. He then resolved to build some kind of internet-based funerary service provider. In 2014, he even traveled to Beijing to meet with Wang Dan, the founder of another online funeral services site called Bi’an, but the two didn’t see eye to eye. Ma wanted his service to be virtually all online, so he traveled back to Shanghai and founded Yiko himself.