Michael Schimmel has an interesting background for someone who operates an entire digital care ecosystem dedicated to helping funeral homes, cemeteries and the families they serve.
A reformed attorney who launched himself into the technology world in the late 1990s, he first started thinking about death care when his grandmother died.
He found himself thinking globally about customs and traditions when a death occurs, particularly those related to his own Jewish faith. He noticed the challenges that come with planning a funeral and burial and the many decisions that had to be made during this emotional time. He further recognized that friends and colleagues who were not Jewish were uncertain of what to do, how to act, or familiar with how to show support.
Additionally, hearing about his father writing acknowledgement notes to family members and friends who had sent gifts made him feel uneasy. This whole experience had a lasting effect. “The entire process seemed disjointed, burdensome, and overwhelming,” Schimmel said. “Although it is important and the right thing to do, when mourners feel obligated to write a timely thank you note it seems to add another burden.”
As a result of this direct and personal experience, the concept behind shiva.com was formed. Schimmel recognized an opportunity to “develop and build an educational platform from the Jewish perspective,” he said. Understanding today’s trans-denominational world, the central focus was education and support tools.
He hypothesized that similar to the people who visited sites such as theknot.com to get information surrounding weddings, mourners and supporters of families who have lost a loved one are also looking for a place to understand the how and what to do with regards to Jewish funerals, shiva, and mourning. Shiva.com is a comprehensive resource designed to educate, inform and guide people to answer any questions and help simplify support surrounding Jewish mourning.
- econdolence.com, the resource for providing appropriate support to mourners.
- cemetery.com, the resource for funerals, burials, and lasting care.
- Jewish Funeral Group, the resource for Jewish funerals.
The sites were recognized as a go-to resource generating meaningful interest for mourners and supporters alike. The next phase of expansion for services was providing direct access for those engaging in the content with help to honor and commemorate. Shiva meals, sympathy gifts, and memorial items were introduced.
“During a time of loss, we not only mourn and grieve, but we consider our own futures. In addition to the gifting side, the natural evolution of our offering continued to include preplanning and memorialization content and developing ways to connect families, funeral homes and cemeteries directly, including enhanced profiles,” Schimmel said. “We are driven by customer interactions, always listening and shifting to meet the needs of our audiences.”
Although Sympathy Brands started with a family and consumer focus, Schimmel always intended to connect families to the death-care professionals. Similar to how the consumer sites evolved with planning and based on consumer input, he and his team spent time learning and building relationships with the industry. In 2013, he began serving the industry directly, but there was a shift in priorities.
“We spent several years researching, studying and speaking with the profession,” Schimmel said. “We built relationships that ultimately sculpted our partnership program because funeral directors, cemeterians and owners tell us what they need and where they see value.”
In the early days of the pandemic, Schimmel recognized the opportunity to accelerate the connection between families and the profession. Several funeral directors and owners who he had relationships with called in March of 2020 asking specifically about ways to help grieving families who could not gather together in person as the lockdowns loomed. Schimmel suggested a customizable, easy-to-use livestreaming option.
Sympathy Brands quickly developed best practices and a series of tools, coupled with white glove concierge service to help funeral homes conduct streaming, which they coined “Viewneral.” Schimmel understood funeral home and cemetery partners needed something simple and easy to operate. Schimmel said, “The entire profession and the families it served experienced challenges and were required to learn on the fly.” He continued, “Our focus was on doing good work and helping people because when you do the right thing, the right way, it comes back to you.”
After validating that the livestreaming service worked for both funeral directors and families, Sympathy Brands continued innovating, partnering with more independent and corporate-owned firms, funeral homes, and cemeteries. Through conversations, additional needs were uncovered, including the desire to film memorial events or help families film smaller, private gatherings without a staff member attending.
Sympathy Brands enhanced its technology, allowing families to film memorial events on their own. The funeral home provided a link that included the funeral home’s branding. “Funeral homes could offer new support to the family,” Schimmel said.
Sympathy Brands Viewneral premium streaming solution evolved through listening to both families and the industry. It offers a one-stream capability and dual-stream capability and can be easily set up in a chapel or other location on behalf of the family. “It’s a complete service system that you as the funeral home can host and provide a family with a livestreaming service,” Schimmel said. “And if someone wants to join remotely, they can, so you can stream two ways.”
Helping the funeral home interact with families was the foundation to enhancing Viewneral with services such as the digital guestbook and extending into other areas such as automated aftercare.
As this business grows, Schimmel has gained an even greater appreciation for the profession and what funeral directors do. “This is not something just anyone can do,” he said. “They help families during the most difficult of times with compassion and care.”
The pandemic has allowed Sympathy Brands to mature at a faster pace than it may have done otherwise, and while the world is slowly shifting back to normal, the advancements and tools are now socially acceptable and expected.
“When there is a loss, if you can be there for someone and embrace them, there is a value to that connection and no substitute for a hug,” he said.
Schimmel added, “Technology has made it acceptable to create connections and express support in ways beyond getting on a plane and traveling across the country to attend a funeral. Virtual events allow a broader audience of people to support mourners because they can attend virtually.”
What also has changed is the number of firms Sympathy Brands works with is growing every month. Now, it serves several hundred firms.
“We have a diverse group of partners across the country. The mix includes funeral homes, cemeteries and combos, along with independently owned and corporate,” Schimmel said. “We help to deliver complete and holistic family care and support.”