Stay Positive, Together!

As a licensed funeral director and embalmer, and mortuary school professor I am proud to be a member of a community that collectively arranges for and executes with professionalism the creation of meaningful moments for millions of deceased people’s loved ones. This community can weather ANY challenge, together.

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It’s been a rough year for funeral service, hasn’t it? In the last year we have seen the following things happen—

  • Three funeral homes and two anatomical donation societies neglect, mishandle, and abuse people’s loved ones 
  • The loss of a beloved figure in our community 
  • The loss of two revered staff members at a prominent mortuary school  
  • The loss of a pioneer in cremation equipment and technology 
  • Seemingly countless other contributors to our local communities and associations are no longer with us
  • And the release of a movie starring two Oscar-winning actors which, to some, may not paint us in a positive light  

However, those of you who know me, know that I try not to dwell on the negative for too long, and I try to find value in the bleak experiences that we can all take with us. So, if you can take a moment to indulge me, I would like to write down some hopeful wisdom.  

Our community is full of amazing people but the activities of people that are not only illegal but grotesque to boot are quite damaging to us in the eyes of those we serve. We must consider that the reason these events are so prominent is because there are more information and reporting on such incidents than ever before. I have said many times that the availability of information raises our standard of care and that we have to be aware of possible outlets for information, no matter how grim or unsavory that reporting may be. I do not doubt that many of you dear readers, have had to sit across from a family and discuss these events and waylay people’s fears based on these events. I would like to take a moment to remind you how razor-sharp you all are despite what is reported.  

The numbers for 2023 are not out yet, but the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that 3.2 million people in the US died in 2022. That means that you, collectively, arranged for and executed with professionalism the creation of meaningful moments for millions of people’s loved ones. I know that you are proud of yourselves for this, and you should be. I am proud to be a member of a community that has this ability. While the media reports on our failings as it always has since the time of the Resurrectionists, we also must remember the times they reported on the flawless funeral of a prominent figure, fallen veteran, or other high-profile member of society.

One recently happened in Chicago, with the death of a child that could have sparked violence amongst two opposing sides but was handled with such forthright thoughtfulness it became an environment for discussions of unity rather than hate.  

Another lesson we can take away from bad behavior is to look through the eyes of the public and how they view us. Of course, collectively we are disgusted, but we can use it as an opportunity to communicate that this is not us, this is not the norm in funeral service. There are rotten eggs in every group, and unfortunately, we are no different. The difference is that all of the good work we do is often done away from the eyes of the public, so it is even more shocking when the rock is overturned, and the worms come wriggling out. This may provide us with a chance to be more transparent and discuss proper procedures, ethics, and protocol that we define as our “standard of care.” 

One such place where we find guidance on that standard of care comes from the teachers in our communities, and we lost some very important ones this year. However, the loss of one of our most prolific voices hit us as a community very hard. However, I was impressed by how we as a group rallied together to do what we do best, which is to help family and loved ones to revere the life of a person who died. It became clear to me the impact of that voice on all of my friends and colleagues and how they had guided their careers. That is not to forget the importance of the staff members of the mortuary school who were also lost. All of us can remember someone from our college days that impacted our philosophies and I have no doubt these two people did that for their students. Unfortunately, one I never knew but felt the loss through my friends, the other I had a burgeoning friendship cut short that my heart will always miss. I have always thought we all have three types of funeral directors that shape us; the ones that taught us at school, the ones that taught us at the funeral home, and the ones that simply taught us just by their presence in our lives. To many, these people fall into one or more of these categories.

The same could be said for the loss of the people local to us. Whether they owned the funeral home you worked for, ran the association you belonged to, or simply were a friendly face at events, take what you have left of them and add it to your funeral director’s soul. 

Photo by Artem Maltsev on Unsplash

Of course, to add to this year a blockbuster movie is made about us. I have not yet seen The Burial, but so far, based on what you have been saying, it could be considered a “good movie.” This is bolstered by a Rotten Tomatoes Score of 90% and an audience score of 84%. For those of us who have not yet seen it, this Empire review describes that there is some discussion about the way corporate funeral homes treat their customers as opposed to independently owned funeral businesses. It also points out that the film takes liberties with the truth behind the facts of the case. This also is noted in a special bulletin put out by the NFDA in an email on October 16th, 2023 that says “As is often the case when films are “inspired by true events,” the truth can be distorted, important details can be left out and facts can be made up to make a movie more interesting to audiences.”

In a public statement offered to funeral homes, they note “What is important to remember is that tens of thousands of funeral directors work around the clock every single day to help families take the first steps toward healing following the death of a loved one. With care and compassion, they help families create meaningful funeral and memorial services that reflect their loved one’s personal values, interests, and experiences. Consumers shouldn’t be afraid to “shop around” for a funeral home that will meet their needs. Doing so in advance, when they are not grieving a death that just occurred, enables families to make thoughtful, fully informed decisions. Families should look for a funeral home that has a strong reputation in the community with licensed funeral directors who understand all their needs and concerns.”  

Surely, dear readers, what you can expect is for your friends and clients to ask you about this film. This affords you an opportunity to engage in an educated discussion and something to grow from if it suits you. Further, one of the things I often hear from the public is a question similar to “Most funeral homes are corporate anyway, right?” What this movie does is to remind people that, no, independent funeral homes are still very much a dominant force in funeral service, even though this case is nearly thirty years old.  

I hope to this point, you are feeling a little bit better about things, and that even though it all seems like kind of a perfect storm, that is, in fact, just part of life. If you would, I would like you to see the world through my rose-colored glasses for just a little bit longer. I traveled a fair bit this year which allowed me to connect with a lot of our community and I would like to share some of my experiences with you that make those lenses just a little rosier than those of others.

March 2023 I traveled to Europe and presented to and connected with embalmers from 6 countries who gathered together for the 50th Anniversary of the Belgian Institute of Thanatopraxie. I wrote a blog entitled Embalming’s New Frontlines in April 2023 where I detailed how encouraged I was to see the growth of embalming in Europe. 

April 2023—This is the time of the annual gathering of the American Board of Funeral Service Education where we decide how best to torture our students. There has been an increase in the profiles of many educators from colleges both online and at events, but I am always excited to connect with my colleagues in person (many of whom were your teachers) and get their thoughts on the state of funeral service and how we hope to help navigate it.  

May 2023—I presented at the Indiana Funeral Directors Association. I know, you may be thinking to yourself, Indiana? Really? Well, I am here to tell you that The Force is strong in this association. The funeral culture in Indiana although still leans toward the traditional, does so with relevance and innovation indicative of the expectations of their consumer. This group of humans injects the value of ceremony in a way that is genuine and respectful of the changes happening everywhere. As many of you know, I say that I am an embalmer at heart, and at times I forget that the true purpose of embalming is to help process grief. Time with the Indiana funeral directors always refreshes this value in me. The IFDA annual convention is probably the most underrated convention on the circuit, and if you ever have a chance to attend, go! You won’t be sorry, and there’s a good chance they will adopt you.  

July 2023—I presented at the Illinois Funeral Directors Association. This is my home turf, and this was, for me, the first one at a location outside of Chicagoland. It gave me great excitement to see many of my former students “grown up” and participating in their association. Illinois is my territory so if you don’t already attend the convention in “insert your state here,” I would hope that you will consider attending your state convention in the future and be able to feel the same connection.  

September 2023—I attended the NFDA Annual Convention and Expo in Las Vegas. Honestly, I never really care where this convention is held. I am more interested in seeing everybody. And by everybody, I mean EVERYBODY. Most of my friends live nowhere near me, so it brings me great happiness to spend time with my circle. It also gives me great joy to see all the other people in their circles connecting and reconnecting, viewing funeral service through their own rose-colored glasses, even if only for a few days.

Finally, despite the turmoil, I even enjoy being online. I see people who are emerging voices and helping each other with problems. They find common ground and create their own online communities so that when they do get to a convention or an in-person meetup, they will always be able to find a friendly face. If you don’t have one yet, here are some. The gang at Raven Plume Consulting is always willing to make our circle bigger. You can count on us to be friendly faces the next time you are out there.  

So, are we in crisis? No, or at least no more than we are used to because we are, after all, funeral service professionals and crisis is what we do. Stay sharp out there people and keep doing what you are doing. You are making us all proud.

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