NVC Alum Lighten Helps Mourners Plan Virtual Funerals. How Will It Pivot Post-Pandemic?

When Alexandra Koys’ uncle died, about four years ago, she took charge of the funeral planning to relieve her grief-stricken mother of the burden. She didn’t like her options: gloomy, impersonal funeral services that didn’t reflect her uncle’s personality.

“He was the kind of guy who was always the life of the party, not the most serious of people, but the type of person who could make anything fun,” said Koys, MBA ’20. “It was this very somber, morose, and stuffy environment, and not what felt right for him.”

Koys eschewed the funeral home and instead held a service at one of her uncle’s favorite restaurants, where people toasted to his life in lieu of lining up in dour clothes to offer condolences.

Koys, who at the time was working a corporate job at Health Care Service Corp., began to formulate a business idea: a more modern, uplifting alternative to the conventional funeral home that would provide a one-stop-shop suite of services, like an end-of-life version of the wedding planning site The Knot.

Alexandra Koys

“I wanted to offer something that felt like life rather than felt like death,” Koys said.

Her company, Lighten, started to take shape once Koys started business school at Chicago Booth and, last year, she entered the Edward L. Kaplan ‘71 New Venture Challenge (NVC).

Then, just as Phase II classes had gotten underway, COVID-19 hit.

Suddenly, mourners could no longer gather in person to honor their deceased loved ones, presenting a logistical as well as emotional challenge. For Koys, it presented a unique opening.

Koys shifted Lighten’s model to focus on virtual funeral services. The challenge was to make the events feel meaningful and personal over Zoom.

“It starts with really getting to know the personality of the person who passed,” Koys said. “Understand who they were, the way they lived their life, and now we can weave those elements into the ceremony itself.” That can come through in the selection of songs, food, drink, the clothes people wear, or types of spiritual elements, Koys said.

Lighten won second place, and $280,000, in last year’s NVC, allowing it to build out the first version of its online planning platform and expand the team. The Chicago-based team of eight includes a licensed funeral director and others with backgrounds in end-of-life care and counseling.

The NVC pushed Lighten to articulate the steps to accomplish its vision and to start operating rather than theorizing. “What really stuck with me was the advice to start testing and iterating and to learn by working with customers, to learn by doing,” Koys said.

Lighten has since partnered with some funeral homes to livestream services to guests, in addition to being hired to organize services. The company raised additional cash in a friends-and-family round.

Its customers grow each quarter.

“Families often come away surprised at how connective and deeply emotional the virtual gathering can be,” Koys said. “They didn’t think it would be the case.”

Lighten helps families plan virtual memorial services.

As a business birthed during the pandemic, Lighten’s greatest challenge now is the uncertainty of the market as in-person gatherings resume.

Koys believes the virtual format will continue to play a role in funerals, in part because many families are spread out across the globe and relatives who wish to attend a service can’t always make it.

“This shift into the virtual world made this OK to do in a way that it wasn’t so obvious,” Koys said. “I think there’s been a bit of a sea change and even if there is an in-person gathering, there will almost be the assumption that a virtual option will be provided.”

Lighten has started to plan for post-COVID demand, and already offers hybrid virtual and in-person services for people gathering in small groups. It will soon launch a service to help families coordinate cremation, and another offering grief support.

“It’s really about being nimble and adaptable to what our customers need,” Koys said.

Koys’ vision is to offer end-to-end support to ease the strain of funeral planning when the fog of grief makes every decision feel impossible. But as she endeavors to transform the $16 billion funeral industry, she must contend with deep societal hurdles.

Death tends to be a taboo topic for many people, so it can be difficult to get them to talk about it and articulate what would be a positive experience, Koys said. One of the company’s goals, she said, is to destigmatize grief.

Koys, who grew up in La Grange and got her undergraduate degree in foreign service from Georgetown University, never imagined she would be in the death business. But it fits.

“This is a job that requires a lot of care, a lot of compassion, and a lot of empathy and patience, and all of those things are natural things for me,” Koys said. “People have commented on the warmth of the experience.”

Article by Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz, associate director of media relations and external communications at the Polsky Center. Alexia was a journalist for 20 years and joined Polsky from the Chicago Tribune, where she was a business reporter. Reach Alexia via email or on Twitter @alexiaer.

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