Wealth Issue 2016: The Originals

Funeral Services: Bilva Desai, 32, Founder Mokshshil

Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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“For the first cremation, I myself went as the manager because we didn’t want any mistakes”


IN ONE UP On Wall Street, a classic on investing by Peter Lynch, one of the most successful mutual fund managers ever, there is a small insight into the business of servicing deaths. Lynch found that stock markets as a rule didn’t like it, but because earnings would inevitably lead a stock price to its right level, there was opportunity there. The company Lynch invested in was called Service Corporation International (SCI), which ran a chain of funeral homes in the US. When SCI floated an IPO in 1969, he wrote that ‘not a single analyst paid the slightest heed for the next ten years!’ The company went around integrating operations vertically until it owned ‘461 funeral parlours, 121 cemeteries, 76 flower shops, 21 funeral product-and-supply manufacturing centers, and 3 casket distribution centers.’ By the time Wall Street discovered it, SCI’s market cap had multiplied 20 times in value. Lynch made a killing on the stock.

Funeral management has been an organised business in the US for decades. Last year, when Ramavtar Agarwal, a prominent businessman from Ahmedabad, read a newspaper clipping about a new startup in the city that would take care of cremation and final rites, his mind went back to the 1980s when he had called a cousin in the US and by mistake got routed to a funeral manager. A few days after he read the news report, his sister passed away and Agarwal decided that he would use the service and called it. The team came the next day, took charge and conducted the cremation seamlessly. “They did an excellent job,” he says, “They were so compassionate in such a time.” It was the first cremation of Mokshshil, founded by a 32-year-old Management professor, Bilva Desai, since the firm’s official launch.

Desai’s realisation of the absence of an organised service provider in this field came from a personal tragedy. In March 2012, 19 days after being diagnosed with cancer, her mother passed away. The family was in shock, her father so much in grief that he was virtually incommunicable. Without many immediate relatives, it fell upon Desai and her brother to make the arrangements for the cremation and she found herself drowning in a sea of small decisions when all she wanted was to mourn. “After two-three days, I realised the cumbersomeness of the process,” she says. “We knew nothing, like from where to buy the materials for the final rites, arranging the cremation, getting a certificate from the doctor, giving it to the cremation ground, taking a receipt from them—which is very important because the death certificate that you get from the municipal body is dependent on this receipt. Only when a very close immediate relative passes away, do you realise all this.”

After the period of grief, when she resumed her daily life, Desai, who teaches at LJ Institute of Management Studies (LJIMS) in Ahmedabad, wondered whether there was scope for a professional service to help people in this process. She discussed it with friends and colleagues at the institute, but they weren’t encouraging. “They thought you can do it as a social activity, but it is not possible to start a venture,” she says. In LJIMS, she taught a subject in research methodology. As part of a classroom project, she asked students to do a survey in Ahmedabad on people’s experiences in the aftermath of losing someone. About 12 to 14 students fanned out across the city and got 4,500 people to answer a questionnaire she had prepared. Once they tabulated the results, Desai realised that there were common issues everyone faced. “Like calling the priest on time, arranging the materials needed, like flowers, and the cremation ground, negotiating with the local municipal body for paperwork,” she says.

She discussed with her husband, Abhijeet Singh, who is also on LJIMS’s faculty, whether they should start something. He suggested that she present the idea at the ‘Startup Week’ hosted by the institute. While preparing for this competition, they identified kits that would make up for materials required for rites, local vendors of those materials and pandits of different castes. They came up with the name Mokshshil, which means a ‘path for liberation from life’. The institute later offered Desai a place in its business incubation centre to develop the project. Students who could intern with them were identified and the initial process to get the business rolling started in 2014.

The first step was to have tie-ups with vendors. They divided Ahmedabad into 21 parts, going by the location of crematoriums. “Based on that, we also divided our vendors. So if a call came from a certain part of the city, we could go to a particular vendor. We identified 82 pandits in Ahmedabad for different types of rites,” she says.

Their first-ever funeral was conducted long before they formally launched the company. It was of a neighbour of Desai’s father-in-law, who had told the deceased’s wife about the service she was planning. “That time we were not clear about the processes. After that, a lot of people were calling us and we realised the need to do it in a more organised and professional way. We identified different processes for different religions and castes and prepared kits accordingly,” she says.

Mokshshil came into being on 7 September 2015 with the promise of providing an end-to-end solution for funeral management, from cleaning and dressing the body, transferring it from the hospital to home to crematorium, organising the prayer ceremony, issuing obituary notices in newspapers, to even organising for the ashes to be immersed in the Ganges at Varanasi or Haridwar.

We are India’s only one stop end-to-end funeral management service

“Once we get a call, within 45 minutes, we can be there,” Desai says. The person who receives the call has a checklist of the steps involved in conducting the service. A Moksh manager, a helper and a pandit are then deputed. If the family has any particular requirement, that is also taken care of. “A Keralite family some time ago wanted a pandit from their community,” she says by way of example, “We arranged for it.” She and her team have built networks with various communities in Ahmedabad, making it easy for them to cater to such requests.

When she conceived the idea, Desai had only thought of Hindu cremations. But there was demand from other religious groups and so Mokshshil does those too. New services have also come with experience. During a cremation last year, an 82-year-old man and his 75-year-old wife approached the team and asked whether the company would handle their deaths when it happened. “We were surprised,” says Desai, “We thought they were making fun of us. We ignored it. Then they called, asking to meet. They did not have any children or relatives nearby. What had triggered their need was a friend dying and his body lying unclaimed for days. They wanted to write down their requirements, like taking their ashes to the Ganges.” Desai realised that the couple’s step made sense: why be dependent on or burden others if they could arrange their funeral themselves? Now Mokshshil offers pre-booked funerals as a regular service. In September, the firm did its first pre-booked cremation of a 102-year-old woman. A neighbour called up to inform Mokshshil of her death and then the team took charge of the entire process, even though no immediate relatives were present.

Many of Mokshshil’s senior staffers are students of LJIMS. Like Raj Makwana, who has been there since its inception and is a Moksh Manager. His responsibility is to direct the helper during the process and interact with the family. He also initiates tie-ups with vendors in Ahmedabad. Initially, Makwana had found it difficult to deal with the funereal environment, but now, not only has he come to terms with it but also finds job satisfaction in the response of families. “It feels good when after we finish our work, they come, hug and tell us how grateful they are because they had not known what to do,” he says.

Another management student working full time with Mokshshil is Ajeet Choubey, who is also its resident pandit. He had learnt how to do the rituals back in his village in Bihar. After he joined LJIMS, he did an internship with Mokshshil, during the course of which they realised that he had an interest and knowledge in performing rituals. While families can choose to get their own pandits for final rites, should they ask Mokshshil to do it, Choubey steps in.

TWO DAYS AFTER Mokshshil’s formal launch in 2015, the team was called for a cremation. This was of Ramavtar Agarwal’s sister. Desai herself went as the Moksh Manager for it. “It was our first and we didn’t want any mistakes. The deceased’s body was in the hospital, we organised its storage for the night. In the morning, we arranged the ambulance to transport the body and then everything at the cremation ground. We arranged for the rituals and prarthana sabha. We worked day and night because we were not sure about some parts and didn’t want any oversight,” she says.

The roles and responsibilities of the team were not clearly defined then. Operations were streamlined gradually and the company now even has a creative marketing and branding strategy team. “Directly, we can’t market such a service. That goes negative. It is also ethically not right, I feel. We do small events, like heritage walks. We do our branding and marketing among different groups and communities indirectly,” she says. The brand is also active on social networks.

Since the beginning of this year, Mokshshil has done over 110 cremations, and the number is steadily increasing. The services start at Rs 4,500. It has started doing more than 30 cremations a month, often more than one a day. While it started off with one team, it now has another part-time team for such days.

Abhijeet Singh, Mokhshil’s co-founder cum CEO, calls the funeral space an uncontested market where the firm is bringing in organisation. For example, the company has tied up with vendors at pilgrimage places in Gujarat, Haridwar and Varanasi for the immersion of ashes. “There have been many vendors in this sector who are part of the value chain, like Kashi Moksha in Varanasi. We have strategic alliances with them. But we are [India’s] only one stop end-to-end funeral management service,” he says.

Singh believes that the company is at an inflexion point, with plans to scale up across India, beginning with Mumbai, Bangalore and Delhi. Desai and he know of the demand because of the daily calls received from these cities asking for their services. Driving this need is the isolation of the Indian family. Earlier, community groups would assist in funerals, but with nuclear families in big cities, there is no one to turn to in times of such a need. The size of the market is potentially enormous. There are 13,000 deaths every day in India and little competition because death is forbidding territory for most. As Lynch notes of funeral management in his book, ‘But it’s a steady business with as reliable a customer base as you could ever find.’

The Wealth Issue 2016: For the full list of portraits of the Smart-up Generation, click here