My own death will someday be part of someone’s paycheck.

This brings me to a cynical and oddly pragmatic thought: all other things being equal, funeral homes will essentially never go out of business.

With constant demand, constant supply should follow. Would this imply that there are places where such a business can be more lucrative? I wanted to find out, so I took a look at how people die and tallied the numbers.


What should a funeral home founder take into account in 2016? Well, how people die, for starters – since they’d want to invest in areas with sustainable sources of clients. And while the absence of life in one’s body might be a universal concept, the ways in which people reach that point varies.

By using the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-10) to map out causes of death, I’ve found that between the years 1999 and 2014 the United States saw 2468 unique causes of death. Considering how classification usually serves the purpose of simplifying and standardizing, the sheer number of ways in which somebody can die is quite daunting; so I tried making some sense out of this information.

Major causes of death (ICD-10 chapters)

On a rough estimation, about 2.5 million people die in the US annually, and all of those instances can find their corresponding place in the chapters of the ICD-10. Even though there’s a multitude of ways in which this can happen, it’s easy to see that some deaths are more common than others.

It so happens that the most common cause of dying in the United States (at least with respect to the total death toll across the previous 17 odd years) is having problems with your circulatory system.

Common, but not universal. When taking into account geographic regions, we see slightly different patterns.

Top killers in each region

While it’s true that for the most part people in the US die from circulatory conditions, the South has cancer as its most common cause of death.

Stranger still, the number of people that have died of cancer in the South beats all other US regions from the past two decades – all this with just an average rate of mortality. Sure, this can be explained by population dynamics and other linked factors, but with respect to brute numbers, it seems that Southerners die the most.

Month distance from average

Considering how timing might influence such a business, a whopping 45 state host the majority of their funerals in the month of January. By representing the deviation from the mean in percentages, we can see that September is at the opposite of the ranking, hosting the least amount of funerals.

The few states that differ from the above pattern seem to rank high in either the months of March (which comes first in Idaho and Montana) or December (first in North Dakota, Wyoming, and Alaska).


When thinking of one’s dying moments, it might come to no surprise that most of us find it easiest to think of our last breaths while wrapped up in bed in a familiar setting, in old age, with friends and family beside us. But in reality, this isn’t always the case: except maybe for those of us so unlucky to consider hospitals familiar settings.

Where do Americans pass away

Most people in the United States die while being patients, which means that it’s great to hear that people get access to medical facilities. But that, sadly, not everyone can be saved.

This holistic view, while revealing, leaves out a few particularities. Considering total counts, some states show different patterns with respect to how their majorities pass away.

Less common places Americans die

A total of 8 states have the majority of their deaths happen in the houses of those who pass away – and another 6 find the majority of their death certificates being filled out with the names of nursing homes.

Explanations are boundless, but I’ll just simplify the whole thing and say that in states where people tend to die at home it’s because it’s more comfortable than doing so in a hospital, and because space in hospitals is more highly valued (prioritized to people in need of immediate care). On the other hand, states where people die in nursing homes highlight an aged population where the high demand for taking care of a constant flux of elderly has created more affordable institutions for long-term care.


But bad health isn’t our only enemy. Sometimes people get killed by animals. And while most of us consider them part of the family, our pets can sometimes be killers themselves.

animal-killers

The majority of deaths caused by animals have small, furry mammals and domesticated livestock as the perpetrators. But do you think that’s weird?

Man’s best friend is the reason behind 250 funerals across the US in the last two decades, with close to an annual 900.000 people requiring medical attention after being bitten by dogs. It’s estimated that the US loses around 1 billion $ per year as a result of dog-inflicted injuries. In all, one-third of those deaths caused by dogs are kids younger than 4 years of age. Just for context,  dogs kill more than 25 times the amount ranked by sharks or crocodiles.

Yet animals account for only a minuscule part of what constitutes immediate danger for us. What if the single biggest killer can be found if we just diagnose our diseases a bit more in detail?

Top 10 killers in the US

A quick tally of the number of deceased from the past two decades shows that heart disease ranks first not only in terms of sheer numbers but also with respect to the average rate it kills for each 100.000 people.

3 million and then some people have died of heart disease in the US since 1999. That’s huge. Keeping in mind that there are over 2.5 thousand possible causes of death and that about 2.5 million people die each year, the number of victims fallen to heart disease becomes all the more imposing.

Major causes of death in each US state

A state-level analysis shows that three conditions kill people in the US in the vast majority of cases:

  1. heart attacks
  2. heart disease
  3. lung cancer

What’s fascinating is that in this view the District of Columbia stands out as the single bastion where most people die from cardiovascular diseases (with a high rate of 88.5) – which is still a circulatory condition, true, but one which fits under another diagnostic.


But are diagnostics really all that important when speaking of the dead? In a sense yes, they show us the reason why someone has passed and give us a chance to learn how to better ourselves and our approach to helping those in need.

But what of the causes behind those reasons? Sure, we can infer why and how certain medical conditions are linked to underlying problems. And it turns out, a very large part of the population starts pushing daisies on account of having lived with certain harmful behaviors.

Vices

White people die most frequently from substance abuse, topping all other groups with respect to overall death toll and death rate – except for one situation. They’re overtaken by native Americans when it comes to dying as a result of alcohol consumption.

What this tells us is that indeed, diagnostics are important when looking at how people die, but the reasons (the ‘why’s’) are not the same. What’s more, research into this has shown that a large part of those reasons are themselves avoidable. Annually around ¼ of deaths in the United States are due to preventable medical errors in hospitals.

And likening reasons of dying with even lower common denominators, researchers from Columbia University found that the actual causes of death in the US looked more like the following:

1) Low education: 245,000

2) Racial segregation: 176,000

3) Low social support: 162,000

4) Individual-level poverty: 133,000

5) Income inequality: 119,000

6) Area-level poverty: 39,000


Considering how we can start off with heart-attack and see that the underlying reason why someone has died is his or her low level of education, it seems to me that the demography of death should interest much more people than just would-be funeral home founders. But this is beside the point.

Given the multitude of metrics one could (and indeed should) employ when researching when and how to open up a funeral home, I decided to create a new metric which would simplify the entire picture and offer a rough estimate of how prime the market is.

By adjusting for state population, the total tally of deceased and the diversity of reasons for which people die in each US state, I’ve created a new metric that’s built for easy understanding that shows us how hard it is for people to get killed.

(I’ve named it the McCormick meter, in honor of Kenny McCormick.)
McCormick meter

States like Wyoming, Vermont and Alaska seem to have really tough populations. Although this isn’t a rule by far, it seems that the colder or more isolated the place, the better the people are at, well, not dying (i.e. high scores on the McCormick scale).

But if you’re looking to start a funeral home, my advice would be to go South or West, and try out your luck. California, Texas and Florida seem to be good places to start.

This was my shot at simplifying a very complex dataset, spanning 17 years. If you’d like more details, feel free to reach out.


  • “Census Regions and Divisions of the United States”(PDF). U.S. Census Bureau. Retrieved June 9, 2016
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Health Statistics. Compressed Mortality File 1999-2014 on CDC WONDER Online Database, released December 2015. 1:1048576 are from the Compressed Mortality File 1999-2014 Series 20 No. 2T, 2015, as compiled from data provided by the 57 vital statistics jurisdictions through the Vital Statistics Cooperative Program. Accessed at http://wonder.cdc.gov/cmf-icd10.html on Sep 1, 2016 3:52:10 AM
  • The Deadliest Animals in the U.S. – http://www.outsideonline.com/1915661/deadliest-animals-us?page=1
  • Fatalities from venomous and nonvenomous animals in the United States (1999-2007). http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22656661
  • Leading causes of preventable death worldwide as of the year 2001, according to researchers working with the Disease Control Priorities Network (DCPN)[4] and the World Health Organization (WHO).[5] (The WHO’s2008 statistics show very similar trends.)
  • A New, Evidence-based Estimate of Patient Harms Associated with Hospital Care”. Journal of Patient Safety. Retrieved 2014-02-21.
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