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 result is that much of China’s funeral business is still offline.
But there are a lot of problems with the offline funeral industry. It’s fragmented, meaning finding and pricing something like an open burial plot can be a real pain; you might have to call dozens of 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 older adult in an assisted-living home planning their funeral likely doesn’t have the mobility, tip, or energy to spend months chasing down the most affordable options.
Ecommerce is an obvious solution to the price problem. For example, it could take days to call a dozen different shops to inquire about the cost and availability of caskets, but you can get that same kind of information in seconds with an internet search. It should come as no surprise 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 has been purchased hundreds of times. The options on Alibaba’s Taobao and Tmall platforms are similarly diverse, and Taobao’s sales figures suggest the venue has sold thousands of cremation urns in the past .
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 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, boutique funeral ecommerce shops like Yoko have sprung up. You choose exactly what you need on Yoko or 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 to make comparing options easy. You can buy all the items you’ll need, from urns to memorial rings and 3D-printed models of the deceased, right on Yoko’s site. And you can book funeral services like internment or Fengshui guidance through the company.
Startup services like Yoko have also taken a new approach to the market, helping them catch on among older people. According to a recent PingWest feature, Yoko reps have become quite because they sing songs with the residents, help them take photos, and openly discuss their options. This more fun-loving and frank approach is in sharp contrast to the process of traditional funeral service marketers, which is often just wordlessly handing out business cards and grim flyers.
From birth, Yoko founder Ma Lei was more familiar and comfortable with death than most. His parents worked at a hospital and 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; a grim tragedy played out repeatedly just outside his windowpane.
Ma also had his 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 he hadn’t felt pain or fear just before he passed out. 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 who had already died in front of his car just before 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 internet-based funerary service providers. In 2014, he even traveled to Beijing to meet with Wang Dan, the founder of another online funeral services site 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.