For all of my years as a funeral director and embalmer, I’ve constantly heard ways to improve business, increase cremation profits and connect with families on Facebook. I’m overwhelmed by new products that will “disrupt” death care or new methods of disposition that will make us “think outside of the box”.
We are constantly considering how to save the “traditional” American funeral with new methods of personalization, celebrant-led services, and products galore. Aftercare and social media are sold to us to save our business but rarely do I hear the answer to Todd Van Beck’s question, “what is the Value, Purpose, and Benefit of the Funeral”.
In my journey with Undertaking: The Podcast, I’ve been obsessed with learning new ways to explain the value of a funeral director and a funeral. Recently, while discussing plans with a fellow funeral director, we swerved off-topic to discuss alternative methods of disposition and I was posed the question “why don’t these catch on?”
And then it hit me, right out of the blue.
We funeral directors MUST be the expert in our community and we must tell them what we know – that people are important, living and dead. And the best way to support a friend is to put down the phone or the remote and walk into the church, the funeral home or wherever the service may be and say “I’m sorry about your husband or wife.”
Brian C. Waters
Let me pose this question to you. What is an essential part of funerals that everyone has overlooked from suppliers, to educators and to us, the funeral directors? We’ve all heard many of the answers before… embalming, music, personalized eulogy, obituary, personalized products, value, communication, technology, and meaning, right? I’ve now come to think of these as ingredients to a good funeral but none stand alone.
Consider the old-fashioned family dinner. Grandma spends all morning and afternoon the day before preparing the homemade ingredients. She spends hours putting everything together in the correct proportions, maybe even in a way that her family has done for generations. And then what?
The family arrives and a fine time is had by all. Right?
Now remove the family. Grandma goes to all the same effort and no one shows up. Sounds awful and terribly sad, right? Somewhere along the line, somebody has a great idea to get Grandma Styrofoam containers so she can divvy up the family dinner and wait, we don’t even have to go get it, Uber can deliver. How convenient for everyone.
Let’s try removing one of the ingredients. This time Grandma forgot the garlic bread. The family gathers and maybe someone notices but probably not. We can try this with funerals too. What happens if there is no music, no prayer cards or even no officiant?
We’re taking the long way around but stay with me. So, what have we missed? It’s the people. Hands down, no questions asked. It’s the people.
Now think of all the technological advances that funeral service has made and ask yourself this question, “are we our own worst enemy?”
If we can agree that people are an essential part of a funeral, then why have we created all these options for people to contribute while they’re at home watching Netflix? From online guestbooks, live-streaming, tribute walls, flower shops, online memorials and social media. It’s never been easier to “support” our friends and neighbors during their time of grief than now. 2020 showed us that these can great tools for support but 2020 also showed us that’s it’s the presence of our community that can make or break a funeral.
When we use the tools a funeral home offers, we, as a community, believe we’re actually supporting the bereaved but in reality, we’re taking the easy way out, the easy way provided by you and me, the funeral directors.
Think about this- have you ever had a family leave your funeral home after visitation and say, “I wish we didn’t do that!”. Chances are, probably not. If so, the situation only stands out in our memory because it’s so rare.
Instead, we always hear, “I can’t believe Cousin Billy or our neighbor from thirty years ago, drove four hours to see us.”
So let’s be honest. We know, as Thomas Lynch says, “nothing we do, will benefit or harm, those that are dead”, and he’s right. The deceased will receive no benefit for anything that we choose to do as a family or as a community. None, zero.
But the living, that’s where rubber meets the road.
When no one shows up, how many family dinners will Grandma continue to make? At what point does she just stop? I understand Grandma, she’s an excellent metaphor for us as directors but more importantly, our families.
On Undertaking: The Podcast, we interviewed Peter Cheney, a funeral director from upstate New York. He shared a story of a family that were very concerned that the funeral home could not accommodate the crowd. The father of the deceased said he has received over 700 messages on Facebook.
Ten minutes before the funeral, the father came up to Peter, deflated, with tears in his eyes and said, “I don’t get it. Where is everyone?”
His support system, his community stayed home and he was crushed. This situation, the death of a child, the one time we can all agree that support is needed more than ever, and they all stayed home. The community thought a text, or a DM is a replacement for effort and a replacement for showing up.
Folks, funeral service for years has struggled to find an answer to why things are the way they are. Direction cremations are increasing, people avoid the funeral director and even conversation about death but I get it. I understand Grandma in the story. We’ve all gone to great lengths to make everything perfect and there are times in our career that us and our staff sit in the chapel, just so it’s not empty, just so the family isn’t alone.
So what do we do? That’s the sixty thousand dollar question. In general, I’m normally not one to point out a problem unless I have a solution to offer but this situation can’t wait for me to have the perfect answer. That answer lies in one of you, in the collective mind of funeral directors across the nation. Together, if we think this through, I guarantee there is a brilliant idea out there and when you have it, please share.
Now I can’t let you leave without offering some ideas, I’ve got some, but I don’t believe individually they’re exactly right but here’s what I want to do.
First, I intend to leverage social media to encourage our community to attend, to show up – even for five minutes. We can get attention and push this message with graphics, postings and best of all video messages. Second, we can use traditional media. Writing a letter to the editor is a start. And finally, make this topic a part of our daily dialog. I plan to engage my community. And when they do show up, I plan do everything I can think of to make them feel welcome and that their presence has made a difference.
Our communities need to know that funerals are a rite and not a right. In fact, an open invitation to a funeral via an obituary is an honor and a privilege. If our communities continue to neglect their neighbors in their time of need, what will happen? It’s simple, people will stop holding funerals at all. Why bother when no one will show up? Just ask Grandma. Is she still making Sunday dinners?
My fellow funeral directors, we have an opportunity like never before. COVID-19 has told Americans “no” for over a year now. Over that time, we have seen what happens when people cannot gather to say goodbye and receive the support of their neighbors. The value of a funeral has never been more obvious and now is our time to reinforce that value with our community.
No matter what your families choose, their community play an essential part in their grief journey. We as funeral directors, working as advocates for the bereaved must do all that we can to support them in the most difficult time of their lives. This new avenue of discussion must be taken outside the walls of funeral service.
We must relay the value, purpose and benefit of a funeral and one of the most overlooked parts of funerals is the presence of the community.
We funeral directors must be the expert in our community and we must tell them what we know – that people are important, living and dead. And the best way to support a friend is to put down the phone or the remote and walk into the church, the funeral home or wherever the service may be and say “I’m sorry about your husband or wife.”
Friends, we can do this. The time has never been better for us to spread the word, not to save funeral service but help gather support for our grieving families.
In the meantime, I pledge to continue talking with funeral directors everywhere to learn what they know and to share it with you on Undertaking: The Podcast.
So, if a personalized vault falls in the forest and no one’s around to hear it, does it make a sound?