Disrupting death: These founders are digitizing mourning and grieving
If you’re in mourning, Unvergessen is a platform for grieving in the digital space, where survivors can create memorial pages for their dead and light candles in remembrance. Behind the platform are four entrepreneurs from Germany’s Saarland, who are hoping that Unvergessen digitizes death and mourning. The startup founders broke down their plans to OMR and explain why it’s their mission to destigmatize death.
Philip Pelgen’s first brush with death came as a teenager. He would help his mother, a flower shop owner from Hüttigweiler, 25 minutes from Saarbrücken, decorate coffins of the deceased. After completing his business admin studies, Pelgen was looking for a job in marketing when he came across an ad: a crematorium run by the Saarbrücken municipality was looking for support in communications and marketing.
There are around 160 crematoria in Germany. Pelgen was intrigued by the idea of working at a crematorium and soon after applying for the job, accepted it. His new office is just five minutes from the largest crematorium in Saarland, in the administration building of Vereinigte Feuerbestattung Saar, an association of several cremation services in Saarland.
Cremation is B2B?
Pelgen is responsible for PR, marketing and communications, and to ensure that the website is up-to-date. His main job, however, is to attract and cultivate relationships with morticians, who commission crematoria with the cremation of a deceased person. To put it in the bluntest possible terms: morticians decide how much “business” a crematorium has, meaning cremation is a B2B business.
For this reason, Pelgen regularly sends brochures by mail to the local morticians, for example, when there are new furnaces, also known as cremators. He also engages in outreach with morticians, organizing a day every year where around 200 surrounding morticians are invited to a morticians day, where there is a barbecue, live music and performing fire breathers. What strikes Pelgen across the entire process is a complete lack of digitization—something that is spreading everywhere else in the funeral industry.
The predecessor was DOA
When Pelgen’s mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer in 2019, she told him on her death bed how much it pains her knowing that she’ll never get to know her grandchildren. “I realized at that moment, other than a photo and memories, there’s nothing left that will help my children understand who their grandma really was,” he says. So, together with two computer scientists, he founded Eternio, a platform where bereaved families can create online memorial pages for their deceased.
The launch is anything but smooth. “We made a lot of mistakes,” Pelgen says. “The user experience was too complicated,” he says, “and the color scheme didn’t stand out enough from that of funeral directors.” On top of that, the business model, too, was flawed. In the free version, bereaved people can only use a few functions, such as writing funeral texts. For more, such as a digital photo wall or self-written memories, they are required to pay. “People never even tried the premium version in the first place,” Pelgen says.
“Grieving continues to be taboo”
When Felix Wenzel got wind of Pelgen’s platform, he quickly saw the potential in the idea. Wenzel is an entrepreneur and social media expert, and in 2020 he operates a successful mourning page on Facebook called “Unvergessen,” which loosely translates to “not forgotten.” The page generates over 200,000 likes, and the group of the same name has around 10,000 members. Wenzel has a base on which to build somehting greater, so when he contacted Pelgen shortly afterwards, he knew how to push ahead with the expansion. Together, their aim is to create a place outside of Facebook where mourners can come together and express their loss. Eternio is laid to rest and the platform is relaunched under the name “Unvergessen.de” on Christmas Eve 2020.
“Grief,” says Wenzel, “continues to be taboo in our society. There are so many people who do not know how to appropriately approach someone in mourning. And it’s this fear of contact that can make bereaved people feel even more alone,” he says. In the digital world, on the other hand, he says, you can always find someone who understands you. “When coping with grief, it helps above all to exchange ideas with people who have experienced the same loss,” he says.
Digital candles, genuine condolences and real donations
However, Unvergessen takes everything one step further, digitizing traditional acts such as obituaries, condolences and even the lighting of candles, all of which visitors to a memorial page can do, plus even donate money to the bereaved. “A normal obituary, for example, can only be seen in the newspaper for one day and costs between 200 and 2,000 euros,” says Pelgen. On Unvergessen creating a memorial page for the deceased costs nothing and remains, theoretically, in place forever. Visitors can add photos of the deceased, write and publish their memories of them, light a virtual candle or send a private message to the family.
After a month, Pelgen says that memorial pages are automatically put into inactive mode, at which point no more memories or photos can be added. Unless the creators decide to pay a monthly fee. Then there is no time constraint on the amount of changes that can be made. “Although it is recommended to pay between three and 29 euro, the amount users wish to pay is ultimately up to them,” he said. “If someone wants to only pay one euro, then they are welcome to do so.” The ability to express grief, he says, should not be dependent on income. According to company figures, over 50,000 people have created memorial pages. Since its founding, the company generated revenues in the upper 5-figure range.
The grieving masses use Facebook
The average age of death in the EU is 80, in Germany it’s 82, so most mourners are statistically between 50 and 60 years old—and many of them are on Facebook. The Unvergessen mourning group on Facebook has now grown to around 18,000 members, while the Facebook page has nearly 300,000 likes.
On Unvergessen, users and visitors can also purchase items, such as a small teddy bear for 99 euros, sewn from the clothes of the deceased. The stories behind them, which they publish on Facebook in consultation with the bereaved, are typically well received. “Almost every post generates thousands of likes and comments,” he says. New commemorative products are already being planned, including jewelry made from the ashes of the deceased and photos engraved in glass.
From startup to undertaker agency
About 80 percent of Unvergessen users come from Facebook, the other 20 percent through SEO. What’s useful here is that surviving dependents often search directly for the name of the deceased. And this often leads them quickly to unvergessen.de. As a result, ad spend is quite low, somewhere in the 3-digit range per month.
In the future, the Unvergessen team also wants to be active in an advisory capacity, setting up its own marketing agency to help morticians to digitize their social media activities. “Grief starts with the funeral director,” says Pelgen. “Bringing grief into the public sphere would help finally destigmatize death, helping us talk about it naturally, openly and without fear.”