A tale of two families—and why funeral directors matter

She was 63 years old; we’ll call her Sally. She was having surgery on a broken ankle that had not healed properly. Her two children had come to see her at the hospital the night before, hugged her and told her they would see her in the morning after she came out of surgery.

There was no danger; it was supposed to be a routine operation. And then she was dead. Heart attack or aneurysm—no one could be sure. All that was certain was that a mother, grandmother, sister and aunt was suddenly gone, and her 27-year-old daughter and 25-year-old son were left with decisions and plans that no one was ready make.

She was going to be cremated. The son and daughter, we’ll call them Mike and Jane, chose a cremation-only firm with the word “affordable” in the business name.

This company is run by very nice professionals, well-meaning people who believe they are providing a service that people are looking for. They advertise that they are serving the needs of those who wish a simple, dignified disposition for their loved ones without the added cost of involving a traditional funeral home. They are very clear in their message: We are here to take care of the body.

I’m not sure why Mike and Jane chose that company, but my assumption is they knew their mother wanted to be cremated and this was the first firm they found on the web. They had never planned a funeral; they had no idea what they were going to need.

I received a call from the daughter. She had called my church because her cousin attended it for a while and she didn’t know where else to turn. My minister referred her to me (see previous articles about my unofficial “parish funeral director” role). He no longer conducts funerals for non-members and sends all such inquiries to me.

When I visited with the daughter, she was distraught. She wanted to have a service for her mother, to honor her life and to gather friends and family together, but had no idea where to turn. She was willing to spend the money. She just didn’t know how.

When family members choose a “cremation-only” firm, they are virtually set adrift to fend for themselves, to take care of all the details that a funeral director would routinely handle. Families do not know this when they make that choice. They find out after the fact exactly what they are missing.

Jane had many questions: Where can we have the service? Who takes care of the obituary? How do we get service folders? What about a video tribute? Who will play the music? Where do I start???

She asked about having the service at my church, but we both agreed that for smaller gatherings, the sanctuary is simply too large. So she embarked on a search and found a lovely little historic chapel in the art district of our city called the Old Trinity on Paseo. You can look it up online to read about how it was built in New Brunswick, Canada, in 1842 and then moved to Oklahoma City, of all places.

It is almost exclusively used as a wedding chapel, and the women who run the chapel are wedding planners and floral designers. Jane’s cousin had attended a wedding there and suggested calling to see if they would be willing to host a funeral. They were most gracious and agreed to a date and time.

I arrived the next day at Sally’s sister’s house for the family meeting and was met by a flustered family. The sister and brother-in-law, two nieces, Mike, Jane and Jane’s husband all sat there looking at me with the proverbial “deer in the headlights” stare.

They knew that there were many, many details to take care of and they had no idea how it was all going to get done. Before we could even begin the family meeting during which I could hear the stories about Sally, we had to spend almost an hour talking through all the elements they wanted incorporated into the service that they were going to have to handle on their own.

After our meeting, Jane was headed to Kinko’s to try to design a service folder and have a picture enlarged to display at the service. Mike was diligently working on the video tribute, and we had a conversation about how it would be played and what kind of sound system the chapel might have. We spent some time working on the obituary, and we discussed music selections.

In other words, I spent the first hour of my family meeting—the time we celebrants spend with family members to help them on their grief journey and to gather information for the service—dealing with all the issues and tasks that a funeral director would have expertly taken on, if there had been a funeral director involved.

Poor Jane was beside herself trying to get everything organized. Finally, I gently said to her, “Sweetie, if you had chosen a funeral home, the funeral directors would be doing all of this for you.”

She looked at me in amazement. “Really?” “Yes, really.”

She was at sea, and didn’t realize that she didn’t need to be—if only they had chosen a full-service funeral home, rather than a disposition firm. She kept saying, “I don’t know how to do this without your help.” Honestly, she should have been saying that to a funeral director, not a celebrant. (Though I am a licensed funeral director, these days I work as a celebrant and educator.)

The day of the service came and I arrived at the chapel an hour early. As anyone who has attended our celebrant training will tell you, we are pretty insistent about showing up early.

Jane, her husband and Mike were already there, trying to get things set up. Amy and Alisha, the chapel coordinators, had arranged to rent a projector and screen so they could show the video tribute, but had no way to hook the computer up to their sound system.

I had brought along my Jambox, a bluetooth wireless speaker (I am not receiving payment for mentioning it in this article) and tried to connect it to the computer. Mike’s computer was a Mac and it was being a snob and not wanting to affiliate with my speaker.

And so, at 12:40, 20 minutes before a 1 p.m. service, I was downloading the video tribute onto a flash drive and setting it up on my laptop, which I knew would connect with the speaker.

As I sat there on the floor in my “funeral suit,” plugging things in and making sure everything was working, my only thought was, “Why isn’t there a funeral director who could take care of this for us?”

The service itself couldn’t have been lovelier. The chapel only holds about 100 people, so it was standing room only as people snugged themselves in to pay tribute to a wonderful woman.

As people arrived, they were greeted with a table of goodies and a glass of wine if they wished. The entire ambiance was warm and felt like a giant hug for this bereaved family.

During the service, I shared her story and talked about her heart, her strength and her love for her family. One of the things she loved to do was buy little trinket jewelry for her 4-year-old granddaughter, so I had found necklaces with beads in the shape of hearts to be the memory take-away.

At the end of the service, Amy and Alisha handed out glasses of champagne, while I handed out heart necklaces to everyone. Then her niece, who adored her like a mother, gave a beautiful toast and everyone stood, wearing their heart necklaces, and toasted Sally.

The service folders were beautiful; the music went off without a hitch, played from Jane’s iPod by one of the chapel assistants; the video tribute worked. It was a very good day.

After the service, as everyone stood around and visited and shared stories, I saw Mike and his father, Sally’s former husband, hauling plants and flowers to their cars, making multiple trips to try to fit all the floral tributes into vehicles not made for such cargo. Again I thought, “Where is the funeral director to help the family?”

I hugged the family and they were overcome with thanks for taking their hands and walking them through the most difficult days of their lives. They said they had no idea that the service would be so wonderful and so perfect. They loved the heart necklaces and the weaving of all the stories of their mother, sister and aunt.

They thanked me for helping with the video tribute and for just being there. I was truly glad that I was there. I was truly sad that a funeral director was not.

Another sudden death, another cremation

He was 70 years old. We’ll call him Bill. He had had some health issues over the past two years, and the last bout of pneumonia had put him in the hospital on a vent. His loving and attentive wife of 50 years and his four children and their spouses sat vigil with him every day.

On Wednesday, the doctors told the family that he was much improved and they were going to take him off the vent and put in a trach so his lungs could continue to heal. They all hugged and kissed him and went home. And then he was dead.

Heart attack or aneurysm, no one could be sure. But what was certain was that this husband, father, grandfather and great-grandfather was suddenly gone, and his wife and children were left in shock, trying to plan a service.

He was going to be cremated. They called a funeral home that uses Certified Celebrants quite often, and as soon as they said they had no church affiliation, no one they wanted to lead the service, the funeral director said, “you need a celebrant.”

When I arrived the next day for the family meeting, I had 16 people in the room—a large group of people, all still having a hard time grasping what had happened. However, we were able to spend our entire family meeting time sharing stories and talking about Bill, because the family knew that all of the details were being taken care of by the funeral home.

Family members had already brought pictures for the video tribute to the funeral home, had told the funeral director what music they wanted played and had dropped off memorabilia to be displayed. They could relax, because their funeral professional, who had given them options and guided them in the planning, was handling everything.

When I got to the service an hour early the next day, the video tribute was playing, the flowers were set up, the display and pictures were ready, the register book and service folders were beautiful and waiting.

The family arrived about 10 minutes before the service, knowing that they didn’t have to be there early to set anything up. I watched as the funeral director gently guided and escorted them into the service, making sure that everyone was taken care of and comfortable.

I watched again as, after the service, the funeral director took the hand of the bereft widow and led her to the foyer, where she could receive hugs, tears and support from the 100 friends who had come to honor her husband.

During the service, we talked about how much Bill had loved his family, and how he enjoyed putting together bags of goodies to give to his kids or to leave as a surprise on their doorsteps.

I had little gift bags to give everyone so they could remember how much he reveled in giving things to others. I asked two of his young granddaughters to help me hand them out to everyone there.

The daughter-in-law who had been in charge of most of the arrangements said to me, “That was so very much more than I could have even imagined. The gift bags just blew us away; that was so perfect. Thank you for telling his story.” I was truly glad I was there. I was also truly glad that a funeral director was there.

What we can learn from these stories

There are several lessons to be learned from these two families’ stories.

1. Busy families are not grieving families. When family members are left adrift, forced to take care of all the service details by themselves, they literally have no time to process, to reflect, to think.

Even for people using a funeral home, the days leading up to a funeral are pretty hectic. Family members are coming into town. Pictures need to be located. Calls and condolences are flooding in. But when you are sitting at a Kinko’s at 10 p.m. the night before your mother’s service, you have absolutely no time to allow yourself to feel, much less begin the grieving experience. You are focused, exhausted and overwhelmed.

Family members should not be messing with a computer 20 minutes before the service; they should be hugging and crying and soaking in the love and support of the people who came to join them in their sorrow. The ex-husband should not have to haul flowers for his former spouse, no matter how understanding his current wife might be.

2. Families want the option of food and drink. I say this to my all of my colleagues— those who can offer food and beverages and those in states that prohibit it: People want to offer hospitality and find a moment of normal in this very unfamiliar situation.

When guests come to your home, your first instinct is to offer sustenance. When guests come at your invitation to honor your loved one, your first instinct is to welcome and thank them with food. People want food and drink!

Some firms have figured this out and are making a wonderful impression and a wonderful profit from these additional services. Some firms choose to offer snacks or even full catered meals, but refuse to allow wine or beer for a variety of reasons.

Some firms in the few states that do not allow food in funeral homes are very happy that they are prohibited from this option. One funeral director I was talking to about this snorted and said, “I didn’t go to mortuary school to be an event planner.”

Really? And what exactly do you think a funeral service is, if not an event—that you are planning?

That sweet family I helped in the absence of a funeral director just wanted to be able to offer guests a small glass of wine when they arrived, and wanted a way to toast their loved one at the end.

This was not a kegger; no one was going to drink to excess, and nothing was spilled. Everyone was comfortable and it was wonderful that the chapel was more than willing to accommodate the request.

3. People don’t know what they don’t know. I know this is a cliché used in training all the time, but just because you’ve heard it before doesn’t mean it isn’t the truth.

A large majority of people who choose stand-alone, cremation-only businesses have no idea that they will be receiving no support, no guidance, no assistance in creating a service. They do not understand what they are facing and that they will be facing it alone.

Would it be helpful if those businesses explained options and offered referrals to another funeral home that would be willing to help families who want services, not just efficient disposition? Would it be helpful if these firms had a list of celebrants who could accompany and assist the family?

Yes, that would be great, but I don’t see that kind of collaboration or cooperation happening anytime soon.

Would it be great if people experienced meaningful, personalized services and realized that they were worth choosing to go to a funeral home that would provide those services for them?

Yes, that is my eternal hope, and it is why we continue to carry the celebrant banner.

We believe in the value of funeral service, and in our assertion that your potential future customers are the people sitting in your chapel today, deciding whether or not what you’re offering is something they want when the time comes for them to deal with a loved one’s death, or to preplan their own service.

Would it be a wonderful day if funeral homes could use their time and advertising dollars to explain how important a funeral is to the grieving family instead of, or in addition to, showing off their chapels or selling preneed?

Yes, that would be a huge step in the right direction, if we could convince funeral directors that families need to know what they have to offer and why they need to have a professional take care of them. Tell families how you can serve them, not what you can sell them.

4. Vacuums are quickly filled. The other interesting result of the service for Sally was very predictable. Amy and Alisha, the wedding coordinators at the chapel the family used, grabbed me after the service. They are very smart businesswomen. They can see an opportunity when it presents itself.

“I think we should put a funeral tab on our website,” Amy said. “This is the third funeral we’ve been asked to do in the past few months. Our chapel is not booked during the week or during the day on weekends, and this would be perfect.”

We chatted for a while, and I mentioned some of the details that they would need to consider, all of which they are more than capable of handling, given their experience with weddings.

And so, for those lonely people at sea after choosing what turns out to be a body disposal firm, this chapel, and thousands of other event and wedding chapels just like it across the country, would be thrilled to step in and fill the void.

They are more than happy to fulfill any request that a family has, they understand the concept of catering and serving drinks and they are proud to be considered event planners. They can learn how to produce video tributes, if they aren’t already offering those for weddings. They certainly can design and print service folders; they know how to greet guests and arrange flowers.

They would be thrilled to have a list of Certified Celebrants for referrals to conduct services, rather than telling families, “We always use the Rev. Rolodex.”

When we first began training celebrants, one of the concerns voiced by a few funeral directors was that we would take services away from funeral homes. I can assure you that 99 percent of the services I am privileged to conduct are in funeral homes.

But I can also assure you that if funeral homes do not find ways to offer the services that today’s families are looking for, others will be more than happy to make use of our skills.

Wedding chapel professionals come to this opportunity focused on serving the customer. They don’t understand the words “We’ve never done it that way before” or “My families don’t want that” or “We don’t allow that at my firm.”

The time is now. When cremation is the overwhelming choice, a funeral home is an optional choice. We need to have a conversation about the message we are giving our buying public.

Either we believe in the sacred time of gathering, how healing it is for families, and the importance of having a funeral professional present to assist the family, or we all decide to become stand-alone cremationonly firms. There is very little leeway in between.

Can we begin to examine how we talk to our families about the value of funeral service?

Can we end the debate about receptions and serving alcohol?

Can we possibly consider that we need to create liaisons between cremation-only firms and full-service funeral homes that could help the family with a service? Can we at least hope that stand-alone cremation-only firms need to rethink their message to the public that disposing of the body is the only important thing that needs to be done when a loved one dies?

Can we embrace the concept that celebrant-led services are among the best advertisements you could possibly place in front of your community?

Can we honor and appreciate tradition while embracing and accepting the challenge of a changing world?

It’s very lonely out at sea, alone. We shouldn’t leave our families there to try to navigate the waters by themselves. If funeral directors don’t step up to help them find their way, someone else will respond.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *