The Innovator: Tyler Fraser Continues to Shake Up Funeral Service

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Published in Funeral Service Insider and re-posted with permission.

CEO of Three Growing Companies Promotes the Value of 3D Printing, Technology and Innovation

If someone says the name Tyler Fraser, you may shrug, thinking it’s a person you don’t know. But there’s a good chance you’ve listened to one of his online radio shows, watched an educational video he’s recorded or even bought something from UPD Urns, the Three  Rivers, California, company he heads that sells more than 1,500 products, including urns, scattering tubes and pods, cremation jewelry and other keepsakes.

Fraser, just 31-years-old, is a former Eagle Scout who enjoys talking about computers, marketing and his latest passion – 3D printing.

That’s probably because UPD Urns now offers 3D printed busts/urns. “We are calling the product the Bust Sculpture Urn, and it can sell to the public for approximately $2,000,” Fraser says. “The challenge to offering this product is that a 3D scan needs to be completed prior to death. It will be like preparing for a portrait; people should look their best. So this memorial will need to be connected to hospice and preneed.”

Fraser spent about $90,000 on a 3D printer and is hard at work promoting the option to funeral homes. “It was really common in ancient Greece to have handcarved busts,” he says, explaining that he first became interested in offering a 3D-printed urn after seeing a funeral exhibit that included busts. “I definitely saw the potential in 3D printing to do a bust memorial,” he says.

So living up to the industriousness that most associate with former Eagle Scouts, he went to a 3D printing company to have a bust of his own head made. “The quality is striking – it’s an actual rendition and not a piece of art … it’s more factual,” he says.

Tyler Fraser, CEO of UPD Urns, created a bust of himself to showcase what the Bust Sculpture Urn looks like.

Tyler Fraser, CEO of UPD Urns, created a bust of himself
to showcase what the Bust Sculpture Urn looks like.

The bust that UPD went on to develop includes a square, black wooden base where families can place the cremated remains of their loved one, which is separate from the bust. That way, a family can always inter the cremated remains in a cemetery or scatter them while keeping the bust of a loved one as a memorial, Fraser explains. The person’s name, birth date and date of death can be engraved on the square base, and while the bust can be printed in different types of materials, it’s usually done in a sandstone-like material called gypsum. The bust weighs 2.5 pounds.

“We have to go to the individual who wants a scan (to make the 3D-printed bust),” Fraser says. “It’s kind of like a family portrait or getting your portrait painted. The person will want to look their best, so we will set a date and go to their house and scan them. It’s really important to get a good scan and to do it at a time when they look good – they can’t have already died. That can be done for something like a small, recessed piece of jewelry but not an 18-inch-tall bust.”

Fraser has just started promoting the availability of the bust/urn, but he’s already received several responses from funeral homes interested in offering it to families. “We’re ramping up to send out samples and an educational video and packet for funeral homes to present to families,” he says.

While the 3D bust/urn would retail for about $2,000, funeral directors would pay about $500 for its printing, Fraser says. “The quality of the urn is striking,” Fraser says. “I’ve had people say they’d be happy to pay $3,500 for the bust/urn,” he says.

Someone who wants such a bust/urn,however, would have to be scanned ahead of time, which could entail an additional cost. “There are a couple different approaches that we are working on,” Fraser says. “One is doing events, and if we have enough (where numerous people could be scanned at once), it could be included in the charge of the bust/urn,” he says. “But if it’s one scan, we might outsource it to a company that has the quality equipment that is needed.” Fraser notes that funeral homes would sell the busts/urns and work with UPD to schedule scans.

While Fraser prides himself on being a 3D scanning pioneer in the funeral space, he envisions a day when the practice will be commonplace. “I think in the near future that funeral homes will have a booth where they will be able to scan right there,” he says.

Fraser’s Entry into Funeral Service

Fraser’s soft-spoken style and professional demeanor lends itself well to funeral service – he’s a throwback. His No. 1 mentor, he says, is his mother Susan, who taught him the value of hard work.

Tyler Fraser visits John Beckwith Jr. of “Best Funeral Ever” on TLC. (Photo by Michael Napoli)

Tyler Fraser visits John Beckwith Jr. of “Best Funeral Ever” on TLC.
(Photo by Michael Napoli)

He credits the Boy Scouts with helping him cultivate a drive to succeed. “I was in the Boy Scouts from when I was 6 years old until 18 years old,” he says. “I have recently spoken to a local Boy Scout troop to do a knot tying demonstration as part of their troop meeting. Boy Scouts changed my life for the better. I spent a ton of time hiking mountains, so I was faced with a lot of weekend challenges when I was younger. That put my mind in the right place for the challenges I am now experiencing as a business owner. There was a lot of focus on attitude in the Scouts, and I definitely work to maintain a can-do attitude.”

What led him to funeral service, however, was a tragedy.

According to UPD Urns’ website, the company was started six years after Ryan Fraser – Tyler’s brother – unexpectedly died on Mother’s Day in 1995 at the age of 14.

The death led Tyler’s mother to become interested in funeral service, and she founded In The Light Urns, a company that sells urns directly to the public, as well as UPD Urns, which sells products to funeral homes.

Fraser’s mother, Susan, opens up about her son’s death on the In the Light Urns’ website, which she continues to run as CEO with her husband and Fraser’s father, Rick.

She writes, “This of course, was the most difficult time in our lives, for myself, my husband and our younger son. There was no warning and we lost our boy in an instant. This is how death comes and how many of us have to deal with it.”

Fraser says he was 11 years old when his brother died, and his death traumatized the entire family. The funeral business provided an outlet for the family to cope with its grief. “I’d say this is definitely something I’m very passionate about,” Fraser says. “I still enjoy working with my parents in this business.” He adds that the experience “has certainly taught me the importance of this service and how families feel after a loss.”

However, funeral service was a path he was hesitant to walk down. “I was slightly reluctant,” he shares. “I was living in San Francisco and was really in the technology scene; I was very interested in e-commerce, but the thought of selling urns online and being connected to the funeral business … it took a little bit of time.” He adds, “I came around after college. I worked for the National Park Service for a season, and that gave me time to reflect.”

Soon after, he was traveling to industry conventions – even going to an expo in Hong Kong – and he knew early on he’d found the right place. “I kind of knew right away … I don’t know what it was … but the blending of different things and bringing two different things together (technology and funeral service) was exciting,” he says.

While Fraser once worked at In the Light Urns, he no longer works there and focuses the bulk of his attention on UPD Urns, which he took over as CEO in 2008. “We have a new catalog that just came out, and I’m visiting funeral homes in the Los Angeles area dropping off our new catalog,” he says. “We are doing a lot of new manufacturing with 3D printing and getting some interesting results with the jewelry.”

Fraser notes the company works directly with manufacturers and produces some products on its own.“We do some manufacturing at our facility in Three Rivers and outsource and contract out a lot of our manufacturing, too,” he says. “There is a lot of personalization that happens at our facility (even if we don’t manufacture a product). We engrave more than 50 percent of our purchases, so while it’s not really manufacturing, we are doing some changes. We don’t make brass urns or wood urns in our facility, but we do 3D print some urns. We do biodegradable urns, but we don’t make the paper.”

Other Ventures

While online radio and podcasts have been around for quite some time, it wasn’t something many funeral professionals were gravitating toward in 2008, when Fraser started Funeral Radio after buying the www.FuneralRadio.com domain name.

“It’s quite the undertaking,” Fraser says. “It’s not easy, but it does give everyone involved an oppor- tunity to talk about what we love to do.”

It’s also a venture with an interesting business model: While Fraser owns and operates the Funeral Radio business, each person who hosts a regular show shares a portion of any advertising revenue with Fraser. The split is negotiated on a case-by-case basis, he says.

“I’m still looking for new shows,” Fraser says. “I’d like to do a show on history and historical funeral services with a storytelling vibe to it – a campfire or fireside chat kind of thing where the host tells stories,” he says. “I’d also like to have a show about granite or monuments, and I think a preneed show is definitely coming soon. We just got a show with Dianne Gray, president of the Elisabeth Kubler-Ross Foundation (called “Transformed by Grief”), which is geared for the public. She’s a phenomenal counselor and speaker, and her show has been doing very well.”

While the network of shows still focuses on content geared for funeral professionals, the addition of Gray marks a continuing trend to embrace other types of shows, Fraser says. For instance, the portal also includes “A Good Goodbye,” which features certified thanatol- ogist Gail Rubin, who offers thought-provoking interviews and commentary of interest to the general public.

Dan Isard, founder and president of The Foresight Companies in Phoenix, hosts one of the more popular shows strictly for funeral professionals. While he doesn’t dole out praise lightly, he gives Fraser high marks for Funeral Radio. “Each segment of mine has had a greater audience,” he says. “When I added my first show to Funeral Radio, the best download anyone had was a bit over 100. Myshow within a month had 500 downloads. The other shows hit the 500 mark, and my second show benefited from that momentum to have even more. Now, each show is more commercially viable. Early adapting advertisers will see a solid return for their small dollars invested.”

Fraser’s newest venture – Colma Education – is “a monthly subscription video education servicewhere funeral professionals or aspiring funeral professionals will subscribe to the service and be able to watch videos of people speaking about a topic,” he says. Segments in the works include an episode by Isard on pricing products and services, an episode featuring Jim Malamas, president and CEO of ACE Funeral Products, on the different types of caskets; and one featuring Fraser himself, speaking on how to thrive on the Internet.

The subscription-based service isn’t ready for a full launch, but the plan is to get each video approved for continuing education credits so subscribers could take a test based on each video and earn the CEUs with a passing grade.

In the meantime, Colma Education is recording and selling events for a one-time charge, such as the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association’s recent Wide World of Sales Conference as well as some of the ICCFA’s sessions from its annual convention in San Antonio. “Our focus right now has been on these events, but we’ve gotten four videos completed and need to get about 10 before we begin offering them under a subscription-based model,” Fraser says. “We are working on getting that in place.”

Isard thinks Fraser will have staying power. “As an elder statesman and early adapter myself to techno issues, I can see Tyler being the guy who for the next generation will help this profession,” he says. “He has a great handle on the virtual world but is not so uber-geeky that you can’t follow his process. His work with the ICCFA and its interface with Colma as well as Funeral Radio will be great models to embrace.”

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