Click the link below to read/download the June Newsletter (June 2018 Newsletter Vol 1 No. 2 ).
Over the years I have paid rigorous attention to developments in the lifecare and deathcare professions both locally and on the regional, national and international scenes. I take the time and make the effort to do this because I truly believe that lifecare and deathcare are, like life and death, intimately connected transitions that require not only compassion and sensitivity in the acute phases of bereavement but also awareness of what remains traditional and important and what changes are affecting the funeral homes and families I serve.
One of my roles as a psychospiritual care provider and as an interfaith bereavement chaplain is to stay abreast of these trends and to share and teach colleagues and clients about them and their influence on how we serve in our respective vocations. We are after all not only service providers but educators and teachers, ministers to the suffering.
Flexibility and responsiveness are key to the psychospiritual care and chaplaincy vocation just as much as they are to the deathcare services professions. We are, after all, in the ranks of the healthcare professions just as any physician, nurse, psychologist, or administrator is; the difference is that in contrast with the physician, nurse, psychologist or administrator, the chaplain and the funeral director are called to care for both the living and the dead. That’s an important distinction and has important implications for how we do what we do and the quality of what we do.
As I have written elsewhere, we each have our roles and we have to recognize boundaries, fixed and flexible ones. I frequently use the example that I don’t do embalming and I don’t expect the funeral director to do the spiritual funeral rites. While our roles and engagement with the bereaved do sometimes overlap such as in providing grief support, we each have our specific professional training and we must not overstep our competencies.
That having been said, there are some things that have been conventionally — I say “conventionally” and not “traditionally” because they are done by tacit acquiescence between and among the parties involved in the funeralization processes —, one of which is the creation of the obituary for the deceased.
Conventionally the creation of the obituary has been left to the newspaper obit editor or to the funeral director or one of the funeral home staff. The result is that the obituary, unless it is the obituary of a prominent or eminent personality, has been little more than an enhanced death notice, and there are significant differences between the purposes and composition of a death notice compared to an obituary.
In brief, an obituary is an announcement of a person’s death along with a biography of the person. The obituary generally includes information about the about the deceased, birth and death dates and places, information about the deceased’s life, survivors and predeceased close relatives, the deceased’s life accomplishments, funeral or memorial arrangements, floral tributes and donations, and a frequently a picture of the deceased. The information provided in the obituary should provide the reader with a credible impression of who the deceased was as a person. A death notice is a brief announcement of a person’s death and the funeral or memorial services. A death notice may or may not include a picture. It is not uncommon for the death notice to be the only print notice of a death; the actual obituary may appear only on the funeral home website or an online obituary site. Content is not the only way the two differ; they not only differ in length and content but also in cost, but that’s a topic for another article.
Regrettably, because of (1) the urgency of the situation: the death notice or obituary or both must be created and published within a narrow window of time to provide the public with details relating to the death and to the funeral arrangements. The personal interactions and relationships: The bereaved are in the acute phase of grief with all of the associated emotions, the funeral staff are under pressure to manage not only the legal and official obligations connected with a death and disposition of a dead human being but also with the business aspects of providing funeral services to the family as well as providing short-term grief support. So it’s not uncommon for the obituary to become just another laundry list item that the funeral director must do before getting to bed.
The current options are not all that rosy: either the funeral director makes an honorable but exhausted effort at composing an obituary from the few facts and bits of information he has been able to garner in his contacts with the family OR the task is left to the professional obit writer with the local newspaper who faces the same problems as the funeral director. The solutions are just as grim: Cookie-cutter obituaries. Either the FD or the obit editor/writer uses a form or template or information is plugged into a computer program and then tweaked. Worse still, a family member is stuck with writing something about which they have no clue much less any writing skills.
So what’s the alternative? Well, I’ve given the matter some thought and have come to the obvious conclusion that there’s a lot of duplication or triplication of effort involved and that the current “conventional” practice is not only inefficient it’s downright unfair not only to the deathcare professionals involved but also to the bereaved, and not insignificantly to the deceased him or herself. who deserve a much better treatment at least in their obit.
So, while I was going through notes on past services, articles published in the scientific, scholarly, and professional journals, my own writings, and after having reviewed a considerable number of published obits, it dawned on me that none of these obit writers had access to the quality, amount, and type of information that I have as the chaplain to the family. While it’s true the FD or the obit editor/writer ask certain standard questions, the result is a standard dry obit. The intimate sharing that goes on during the Chaplain-Family Conference results in an enormous richness of information about the deceased, his or her life and activities, accomplishments, anecdotes, legacy, meaning to those close to him or her and to the community. In fact, a whole living narrative is collected in the course of that sharing experience.
While some of the information shared by the family must be held respectfully confidential and never published, my motto being “Tell me your secrets and I’ll forget them.” Other information shared by the family and close friends become part of the memorialization process, part of the coping process, form the basis of the necessary continuing bond with the deceased. As a skilled writer, speaker, presenter, ritual leader, I use much of that information as part of the psychospiritual care I provide both before and during the funeralization rites and rituals I create. One of those rituals is most conspicuously the homily or the so-called Words of Comfort or my trademark Litany of Thanksgiving and Remembrance. So what happens with all of that incredibly healing information after the homily is delivered and the Litany is read? Not much.
So, my question was: “Why aren’t I called upon to create the obituary?” After all, I actually have more information than anyone involved, even more than some family members, which is obvious during the Chaplain-Family Conference when one family member describes an event and another looks surprised and says, “I didn’t know that? S/he never mentioned that.” What a beautiful moment of epiphany for some.
But if the chapel service and the homily and the Litany of Thanksgiving and Remembrance are not recorded, much of this evaporates into the abyss of forgotten memories. That really should not happen and it doesn’t have to happen.
In my view, the obituary is more, much more than a simple death notice. It should be a cheat sheet for remembering who and what the dead loved one was and their meaning and legacy. It should be something that is preserved and enshrined as a source of information about a forebear that can be shared with future generations. It should be cherished as a lasting and enduring portrait of the dead loved one that can serve as a support in establishing the important continuing bond with the dead loved one. To achieve this holy purpose, it must be written with intimacy, sensitivity, reverence, and skill; care must be taken to select and to include the most salient and essential elements that are most important to the family and closest friends. Only then will it be worth the effort.
In order to achieve this noble purpose, I have conceived of several types of obituary: (i) the conventional, which incorporates essential bits and pieces into a coherent whole, and (ii) several custom obits, each focusing on a specific aspect of the deceased’s life:
So why not take advantage of the skills of the bereavement chaplain and turn over the obit writing to him? Sound like a plan?
Whether the obituary is to be published in the print media, in an online public obituary space, on the funeral home tributes page, on Facebook, on an online obit platform like Legacy.com, or in any combination of these, I as the chaplain serving the funeral home and the family am in the best position to provide a quality product. The obit should be between 250 and 500 words in length, depending on the available information and what the family want to emphasize. The question of whether a photo should be included always comes up. I answer with an affirmative “Why not?” but I do qualify that by saying that the photo should be compatible with the content of the obit. For example, if the family is emphasizing the early years, the photo should not be of the deceased late life. If the obit emphasizes the deceased’s community activities, it would be effective if a photo of the deceased in his or her Lions Club or other social or community regalia were shown.
It should be kept in mind that the chaplain is writing the obit, not publishing it. The chaplain can provide some ballpark figures on what, say, print publication of the final obit as approved by the family might cost but the final approved obit should be submitted to the newspaper obit editor for a final pricing quote. Some papers will publish a death notice for free, others will charge a classified ad rate. Obituaries are longer and might include a picture, all of which affect the price, usually calculated on the basis of the column inch (one column inch of newsprint is approximately 35 words).
The funeral home can usually offer space on their Tributes pages which generally includes an Obituary section. The funeral home should provide this opportunity at no charge.
There are many online options and opportunities for publishing an obituary. Some of these online options include social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and similar platforms. There are also the established online obituary sites. I have researched some of the sites and have compiled a list of ten top sites (Click here to view Top 10 Sites.)
So the decision is really a no-brainer. If you’re a funeral director, save yourself the time and stress of writing an obituary. If you are a consumer, hand the job over to the professional who can do the best for you and your loved one, the skilled professional chaplain.
The subject of clergy involvement in the funeral or memorial service comes up again and again. Most people feel that spiritual or religious content is very important in the funeral or memorial service, and I agree. I can’t even start to count the number of families who start off the conversation with me with something like, “He used to go to church but stopped going” or “She wasn’t a churchgoer but she did believe in God and prayed.” My question, sometimes asked aloud, is “Why is that important?” I ask that question because I do not feel that a person’s spirituality or sense of a transcendent God is determined by how often one sees the inside of a church, or whether the individual wears his or her faith on their sleeve, or quotes chapter and verse with every breath. In fact, I’m sometimes very suspicious of such people and smell hypocrisy in much of that behavior. Your essential and core spirituality is how you live your life, and that’s what I as a professional bereavement chaplain explore in my meetings with the bereaved when planning the funeral or memorial service.
I frequently get involved because the bereaved do not want “clergy” involved because they’ve been wounded by their “clergy” or the faith tradition represented by their clergy. The ineffectualism of mainstream clergy is a whole discussion on its own, however, but let’s just say a few words about it. “Clergy” as used in the non-clergy community means anyone who provides some sort of pastoral service, or anyone who has some sort of leadership role in a religious congregation. “Ordination” is a canonical or legal term that means that the particular person is approved by a particular denomination to provide pastoral care to that specific denomination. Regrettably, adhering to the rules of that denomination may not provide much relief of the suffering experienced by the bereaved; it may have just the opposite effect, leaving them with a sense of emptiness and loneliness, and asking the question, What was that all about?!? But it doesn’t have to be that way and shouldn’t be that way. Spirituality and meaning-making is quite different from religion and religious doctrines and notions of popular piety.
In all honesty and fairness, and in my personal experience, clergy is not really what it’s hyped up to be. In fact, clergy tend to deliver the most boring, impersonal, and unsatisfying services imaginable. While there are good reasons for the deficient performance, a lot of the blame should be placed on the funeral home’s hands-off spirituality attitudes, and their failure to provide reliable recommendations to the bereaved. Simply handing the bereaved a clergy list at the arrangements conference is a bit irresponsible. What’s worse still is if a funeral director or funeral home staffer attempts to play chaplain and deliver some insincere “words of comfort” or preside over a prayer vigil. It’s generally like the plumber doing the catering.
Even considering the ignorance of many funeral services professionals regarding the psychospirituality of funeralization rites and ritual, calling an individual a clergyperson can be very misleading. First of all, only the mainstream denominations really have an “educated” clergy; that means attending a seminary or seminary college, assuring that the “seminarian” is properly indoctrinated. Most other non-mainstream, storefront or megachurch, clergy may have attended a so-called Bible college or something like that. Basically all that is is a glorified Sunday school for adults. There are many problems associated with both mainstream and non-mainstream clergy. First of all, most are poorly trained in handling existential crises like death and its sequellae grieving, mourning, healing, transformation, and will turn to their denomination’s religious teachings, their doctrines, first, since that’s all they have. Secondly, they don’t have the necessary training or education in death, dying, grief and mourning. Thirdly, they lack interfaith, intercultural training to be able to understand the cultural dynamics that occur in the particular family system. Fourthly, they very rarely take the time to get to know the deceased, much less the key mourners and the family in general. Fifthly, most clergy do not understand the importance of continuing bonds of the living with the dead. In fact, most have a rather antiquated Freudian approach of the need to cut any continuing bond with the dead and replace the bond with something else. That’s a very psychospiritually unhealthy attitude indeed. And last but certainly not least, since I could go on with this list, most clergy have parishes or congregations to run and can’t really provide the kind of service or care required for funeralization and aftercare. The result is what I call the cookie-cutter service with all of its failures and insincerity. The clergyperson, a priest, minister, deacon, or layperson – sometimes, embarrassingly, even the funeral director – steps up at the appointed time, opens a book or recites a formulaic prayer, and it’s all done and over.
Sometimes there’s the de rigueur church service that’s all but meaningless to most attendees and represents only an additional expense (can approach more than $600 in some cases). Practically and theologically, the dead are in God’s hands, there’s little the living can do to change things, despite what the minister or priest may preach. Most of these characters are mere sock-puppets anyway, ventriloquist’s dummies.
For all of the reasons given in the above, the best choice for the spiritual or religious care of the bereaved is, believe it or not, the experienced bereavement chaplain. An experienced bereavement chaplain is a specialist in dying, death, psychospiritual care, and aftercare. The experienced bereavement chaplain is not only trained in the disciplines relating to interfaith practices, rite and rituals associated with death, psychology and spirituality of dying, death, and survivors, technology of deathcare, and much, much more that is of essential benefit to the dying and to survivors. No funeral director and no denominational clergy can offer the scope and depth of services that the interfaith bereavement chaplain can offer.
It’s the scope and depth of expertise of the interfaith bereavement chaplain that make him or her the go-to when a family is faced with the dying process, death and deathcare, grief and survivor care. It’s that expertise that makes the interfaith bereavement chaplain an essential member of the care team at all phases of the bereavement process. The professional interfaith bereavement chaplain does what neither the funeral director nor the cookie-cutter clergyperson can do: the chaplain makes death a meaningful and survivable experience.
When a family considers spending $2000 to more than $10000 on a casket alone, or when the family opts for an economical funeral package of say on average $3,000-5,000 does it really make sense to do without an essential service costing a mere $200-300, in most cases less than 5 % of the total cost of the funeral? When survivors consider spending up to $800 on embalming which won’t last more than a couple or days or a maximum of a couple of weeks before decomposition sets in, and embalming is not even required by law in the majority of situations, even when there’s a viewing planned. Why would any family not request the services of a professional interfaith bereavement chaplain with all of the long-term benefits to the survivors socially, psychologically, politically, spiritually that are associated with dignified funeral rites and rituals, and aftercare by a deathcare specialist? You’ll consider several hundreds of dollars for unnecessary embalming, several thousands for a casket, a couple of thousand for a vault, but will go cheapo when it comes to dignified, personalized, meaningful spiritual care? Go figure!
I personally serve the Albany-Rensselaer-Schenectady-Greene counties region in New York state, and have been requested by families in the New York City area for special services, but this blog is read internationally. Given that this blog attracts an international audience, I would like to provide some very general recommendations taken from my local practice, which can be applied to most North American and European regions with little or no adjustment for local conditions. Here is how I practice and what I recommend for families, survivors, and others involved in deathcare:
In upcoming articles I will be discussing the importance of revival of traditional funeral rituals and why they are so important to the living. As a sequel to the discussion about traditional funeral and memorial rituals, I’ll share with you why the family’s participation is so very important, and how we can personalize the rituals and ceremony so that they have lasting psychospiritual benefit for you. I’ll also be writing about continuing our bonds with the dead and why it’s normal and healthy to do that.
But in the meantime, if you have any specific questions or would like more information, please contact me directly at email@example.com. I’ll be pleased to help in whatever way I can.
Peace and blessings,
Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney
There is a great deal to be said about our healthcare and deathcare industries in the US, they are similar in many respects and exhibit similar functional flaws in a general sense. In the humanectomized materialist consumerism driven culture in which we live, the corporations have reduced most of us to human means to a corporate end. Most of US humanity has been dehumanized to the level of mere consumers. This is not a new development, however, and can be read in many quasi-prophetic sources.
In a recent conversation with a licensed funeral director and funeral home operator, who read our article on Nicholas Facci and Newcomer Funerals and Cremations (March 26, 2017), we discussed among other things the funeral chains’ exploitation of the demise of our traditions. We continue that discussion here together with some and some interesting anecdotes about the Albany County Coroner’s office.
After that discussion, I couldn’t help but think about one of the many hysterical scenes in the Monty Python film, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” or of the grim portrayal by Dr John B. Huber of the Manchurian Plague (20th c.) and the Black Plague (14th c.).
The scene takes place during the Black Plague in medieval somewhere, and opens with the sounds of strange medieval music. Discordant and sparse images. Wailings and groanings. Close up of contorted face upside down. A leg falls across it. Creaking noise. The bodies lurch away from and scene pans out to reveal they are amongst a huge pile of bodies on a swaying cart that is lumbering away from the viewer. It is pulled by a couple of ragged, dirty emaciated wretches, the cart drivers. Behind the cart walks another large man, a slightly more prosperous Porter, wearing a black hood and looking rather sinister. The Porter is carrying an emaciated old man over his shoulder who is still moving, and protests “I’m not dead!” The dialogue goes something like this:
|The scene: (The Porter carrying an old man slung over his shoulder, approaches the cart and the cart driver…)|
|Cart Driver:||Bring out your dead!|
|Old man:||I’m not dead!|
|Porter:||Nothing…Here’s your ninepence.|
|Cart Driver:||Er…He says he’s not dead!|
|Porter:||Yes he is.|
|Old Man:||I’m not.|
|Cart Driver:||He isn’t.|
|Porter:||Well he will be soon. He’s very ill.|
|Old Man:||I’m getting better!|
|Porter:||No you’re not. You’ll be stone-dead in a moment.|
|Cart Driver:||I can’t take him like that; it’s against regulations!|
|Old Man:||I don’t want to go on the cart!|
|Porter:||Oh don’t be such a baby.|
|Cart Driver:||I can’t take him like that!|
|Old Man:||I feel fine!|
|Porter:||Oh, do us a favor…|
|Cart Driver:||I can’t.|
|Porter:||Well, can you hang around a couple of minutes? He won’t be long…|
|Cart Driver:||I promised I’d be at the Robinson’s. They’ve lost nine today.|
|Porter:||Well, when’s your next round?|
|Old Man:||I think I’ll go for a walk.|
|Porter:||(To the Old Man) You’re not fooling anyone, you know! (to the Cart Driver) Look. Isn’t there something you can do?|
|Old Man:||(Singing) I feel happy, I feel happy!|
|The Cart Driver looks at the Porter for a moment. Then they both do a quick furtive look up and down the street. The Cart Driver very swiftly brings up a club and hits the Old Man on the head. (Out of shot but the singing stops after a loud bonk noise.)|
|Porter:||Ah! Thanks very much! (Handing over the ninepence) See you on Thursday!|
|(Tossing old man onto the bodies on the cart)|
|Cart Driver:||That’s all right! See you on Thursday.|
(View the clip on YouTube)
While transcribing the dialogue I thought to myself how prophetic this 1975 spoof was. More than 40 years later we can watch this clip and it sends cold shivers down your spine. Back then what was morbidly hilarious has become stark reality for us today.
There you are, sitting enjoying a snack thinking “Life is good!” And Warren “Ren” Newcomer, the cadaver-like founder of the Newcomer Funeral Services Group based in Wichita, Kansas, appears on your television screen. He’s the 21st century version of the Cryptkeeper and plays the part really well. He looks like an embalming gone awry and oozes a false compassion and insincere expression that makes you want to choke on your chips. Here’s a guy who has made millions exploiting the deaths of loved ones and doing his part to destroy our death traditions while grinning like a corpse on the way to the bank. Newcomer Funeral Services Group has two locations in the Albany, New York, area, and has a presence in some 10 states. There are other similar funeral chains, Walmart-type factory funeral companies that have bought up private funeral businesses, cemeteries and crematoriums across the country. They operate under names like Service Corporation International (SCI), Dignity Memorial™, StoneMor Partners, Precoa, and of course, Newcomer Funerals and Corpse Disposal. What their advertising and marketing messages say to us, despite the actors and the phony compassion, is what Monty Python is teaching: “Bring out your dead!” Toss them on the cart and we’ll see you on Thursday (and don’t forget your checkbook or credit card).
In New York Times article “They Said She Was D.O.A., But Then the Body Bag Moved” (Robert D. McFadden, 11/18/94) The author reports that Albany County Coroner Philip Furie and Paramedics allegedly “found no heartbeat, no pulse, no breath or other signs of life, and the coroner declared her officially dead.” So they “ zipped Mildred C. Clarke, into a body bag, took her to the morgue at the Albany Medical Center Hospital and left her in a room where corpses are kept at 40 degrees, pending autopsies or funerals. About 90 minutes later, the chief morgue attendant went in to transfer her to a funeral home. “ The attendant noticed some movement in the body bag, unzipped it and found that Mildred was still breathing. She was moved to intensive care and treated but the case has never been explained. The L.A. Times reports later that “Mildred Clark, the 86-year-old woman who spent 90 minutes in a morgue cooler last week after mistakenly being declared dead, died Wednesday of undisclosed ailments, a hospital spokesman said…. Albany Medical Center Hospital spokesman Richard Puff said Clark’s family had requested that the cause of death be withheld.” Any guesses as to the cause of death?
According to the article, “Albany is the only major city in New York State that does not have a medical examiner, an official who is trained in forensic pathology, and this would be a real advantage,” The office of the coroner is a relic still found in many American cities. Albany elects four coroners to declare deaths and investigate their causes. They have no medical training but are required to attend a “death investigation course.” The coroners are expected to evaluate crime scenes and suspicious deaths, but they have no medical training.
We’re investigating some leads relating to the performance of the Albany County Coroners, and will report on our findings in a future article. We suspect that the Albany County Coroner isn’t very popular among local funeral directors. But Hey! this is Smalbany, isn’t it? There’s a job for every misfit in the Albany Democratic Machine, isn’t there?
We’re so very busy and so much in a rush. Why? Because our handlers tell us we are. We’ve lost our sense for distinguishing what is nice and what is necessary. We no longer have to think. Advertisers tell us what we need. Marketers tell us what to ask for. Government tells us how to live. Churches tell us how to die. Emails tell us we need to Hurry! and to Rush! because time is running out to buy a certain something. Hell! We don’t even die in peace. Hospitals transform us into cyborgs with tubes and electrodes at every available spot, and when all else fails, they still want to provide “billable services.” Only when you have had enough watching the technology fail do you scream STOP! Even when the so-called healthcare team has the good sense to admit that they can’t do anything more, they recommend shipping what’s left of mom or dad to hospice. And so at hospice the saga continues. When death finally occurs, whether it’s helped along or drags out to the end, we are still in a hurry, still have other things to do. But yet again, the materialist consumerism we are addicted to has the solution for immediate relief of any inconvenience, even death. There are customized death packages for every budget ranging from direct burial or direct cremation to the “traditional funeral.” Just ask for the Detailed Price List required by the FTC’s Funeral Rule and prepare to be nickel-and-dimed. You have abandoned the traditional funeral home with the family funeral director and have opted for the Walmart funeral chain, the factory funeral service provider. And you deserve everything you get. Sorry but it’s true.
We’ve all read about states like Oregon and Washington that have legislated physician-assisted suicide (PAS), euthanasia in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. We all know about the hospice movement that has degenerated into another instance of corporate exploitation of death and the demise of the family. So it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that Monty Python prophesied the hastening of death movement. True, we no longer use a club to help the dying along; we’ve become much more refined in the 21st century. We now use chemicals and drugs. Or, if we’ve made mom or dad into an ICU cyborg, we simply remove the respirator, inject some morphine and “Ah! Thanks very much. See you on Thursday” at the viewing. We’ve come a long way into our degeneration!
Get the shocking truth about Service Corporation International (SCI) here.
We really have to chuckle when we read such crapola like “Service Corporation International is dedicated to compassionately supporting families at difficult times, celebrating the significance of lives that have been lived, and preserving memories that transcend generations, with dignity and honor. (SCI site at , last accessed on April 6, 2017). If you’re ready to believe that operations like SCI or Newcomer, corporations with their eyes on the bottom line, with their programmed funeral directors and staff operating on a corporate agenda, are there to do what the family funeral home once did, you’re already brain dead. SCI is constantly being sued, settling, or paying out huge judgments resulting from their mistakes. But when you’re making billions, who cares. The living keep dying; sky’s the limit! Get on the cart.
A bit of history: In 1962, Robert L. Waltrip, a licensed funeral director who grew up in his family’s funeral business, founded Service Corpration International. SCI started out as a small network of funeral homes and cemeteries in the Houston, Texas, area.
SCI gradually increased its offshore presence, and it continued to acquire business interests in North America. Since the late 1990s the US and Canadian marketplaces a saturated battleground of competing companies intent on buying up and exploiting the deathcare business sector. SCI, In the course of the melee, Alderwoods Group and Stewart Enterprises emerged as the three principal companies in the resulting funeral corporation industry. As of December 31, 1999, SCI owned and operated 3,823 funeral service locations, 525 cemeteries, 198 crematoria and two insurance operations located in 20 countries on five continents. In 1999, SCI introduced Dignity Memorial, the first transcontinental brand offering deathcare goods and services in North America. By consolidating its network of funeral homes and cemeteries under a single brand, SCI expected that they could create a recognizable and marketable brand image. In 2000, poor market conditions forced SCI to reevaluate operations. While foreign operations had once shown promise, nearly 70 percent of SCI’s revenue was generated by operations in the United States and Canada. The company decided to divest many of its offshore businesses, in addition to many North American funeral homes and cemeteries. The UK arm now operates as Dignity PLC.
Monty Python presents an interesting scenario at a time when Jessica Mitford was enjoying the fruits of her muckraking book, “American Way of Death,” (1963), and the funeral home chains and funeral service factory corporations were reaching their peak of exploitation when Mitford’s “American Way of Death Revisited” was poshumously published (1998). Monty Python had it right. But we all laughed our way straight to hell.
Moving from a 1975 comedy spoof we can cite a remarkable article that appeared in the December 1911 journal, Medical Times, by John B. Huber MD. Dr Huber writes about the great Manchurian Plague (1910-1900), and compares it to the Black Plague (1347-1351). I’d like to quote some passages from that 1911 medical journal article. See if you can draw any parallels with our 21st century society.
Yet business was conducted as ordinarily—by those still alive; and the stroller “viewing the manners of the town,” would hardly realize from the superficial aspect of things, that a dreadful scourge was gradually but surely destroying its people. Yet the plague had, from November last up to this New Year’s Day, done for one-fourth of the twenty thousand inhabitants of that community; and it was then expected that more than half the remainder would be doomed before the plague would expend its energies.
On this festive New Year’s Day in that Manchurian town, the mounted policeman’s horse had its tail brightly decorated with green and red streamers; a shop keeper burst merrily out upon a group in the street, scaring them with a bunch of firecrackers which he flung up into the air. A green house was decorated with bright red, gilt lettered posters, festive banners and green paper flags, all by way of celebration. Next door the yellow poster of the Sanitary Bureau was in evidence, sealing up that house, and marking it unclean; “eight dead, two dying,” are the tally with which it began the New Year. (Huber p. 353)
Sounds like our modern lifestyle: death looms around us but we just continue partying, ignoring it, until we have to go down that dark alley and have no choice but to confront the darkness, the gloom. Manchuria in the early 20th century doesn’t seem much different from Troy or Albany in the early 21st century.
“Eight dead, two dying.” Sound’s like Monty Python’s Cart Driver, “They’ve lost nine today.” Or like the handoff report in an ICU. Whether you’re tallying plague victims or scheduling body collections, or handing off your charges to the next shift, the language used tells it all: We’ve all become mere garbage bags laying about until we get collected, transported, disposed of. Don’t you think there should be more to the final chapter of a life lived, and the received legacy?
“The carters that loaded the dead on the wagons and took them away would not walk, but sat companionably beside the corpses.” (Huber p. 353)
And so do we in the 21st century. The 21st century carters load up the dead and take them away; the bereft sit complacently beside the corpses. One would hope that we have advanced a bit farther along than our ancestors, that we would observe the traditions handed down to us, perform the grief and mourning rituals so important to psychospiritual healing. Some of us do. Most haven’t a clue, and rely on the bean counters to guide them.
“Nine hundred were buried coffinless in pits; above two thousand frozen corpses, in a most desolate stillness, awaited burial near the town, in a heap a quarter-mile long. Some coffins were in evidence, standing upright, without covers, the bodies erect in them; here an arm stuck upright out of its receptacle; there a naked leg protruded. Near the pile of which he was soon to become a member, was seen an outcast kneeling, worshipping, half falling in his weakness, as he bowed his head and rose again, before the grave of an ancestor.´ (Huber p. 353)
On the one hand we get a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes at one of the funeral home chains or factory-funeral homes as described by a young licensed funeral director now employed by Newcomer Funerals and Cremations. On the other hand, we are presented with a feeble suffering wretch who, despite his own suffering, has not forgotten his obligations in continuing his bonds with the dead, one of whom he shall soon be. It’s a rich, telling image; in a sense very real but very metaphorical. Once you create that image in your mind, you’ll not soon forget it.
“[T]he plague was coming to its most dreadful stage, for it was now destroying the family affections…Thus, most gruesomely, does the twentieth century repeat the fourteenth.” (Huber p. 354)
While Dr Huber is describing a real epidemic, the Manchurian Plague of 1910-11, and describes the Black Death of the 14th century that swept away a substantial part of medieval Europe’s population, we are faced with a more insidious plague that is robbing us of our core values to family and kin, both living and dead. Huber, a medical man, calls this the “most dreadful stage” because it was destroying the core of the culture, the bonds of family. I’d guess he’d probably go further to say that the 21st century repeats both the 14th and the 20th, but that our plague is materialist consumerism promoted by greed and the catastrophe of so-called individual choice.
“Next to the fear of death was the fear of desertion.” (Huber p. 354)
Early 20th century China had very strong family ties, ties of responsibility, filial piety. This sense of duty was the basis of the veneration of ancestors, a form of continuing bond with the dead, similar to the West’s veneration of its sacred dead, the saints. Huber is describing a fear of abandonment, of “desertion” to be on a par with the fear of death. In clinical practice, whether in the nursing home or the hospital setting, or hospice, we find persons who are ready to confront death but fear doing it alone; they have a fear of desertion. We might extend that fear of desertion to the bereaved, as well, but their desertion is far more subtle than committing the dying to some remote corner of the medical ICU or to a hospice facility. The bereaved are not only saddled with their loss but also with the daunting confrontation with the corporate funeral director with his endless list of goods and services with their respective prices. All is done with the sensitivity of an embalming trocar. What ever happened to the compassionate family funeral home and its director, frequently assisted by his family.
“Who, then, would be so foolhardy as to throw good life after bad, by nursing a dying friend, when the Black Death lay per chance in his last sign, in the farewell pressure of his hand. So the nearest and dearest ties were dissolved, the calls of kindred and humanity neglected; the sick left to die and to be carted to the grave by hirelings…” (Huber p. 354)
Indeed, who today would be so traditional as to give up his or her self-time to care for a dying relative or friend, especially one who is in the disturbing phases of life’s end. Most persons are ambivalent about the whole process: On the one hand they look to the death as something unbearable in its finality; on the other hand they just want to get it over with. The death occurs and the bereaved are fed the 20th century psychological pablum that their connection with the dead person has ended, that they have to get on with a productive life. That was Freud’s teaching: You had to cut your ties with the dead. Quite the opposite of that in the East or in traditional societies, and quite a contrast to what we now teach in the 21st century. We now teach continuing bonds with the dead, a transcendence phenomenon, meaning-making, that the living’s relationship with the deceased is not only normal and healthy, it’s encouraged! We do it in the rituals of the support group or in ways like the AIDS quilt. We may do it differently than the poor wretch venerating his ancestors described by Huber but we nonetheless do it. We do it because it’s the human thing we do. But it’s also so very inconvenient for the chains and the corporations; they don’t encourage humanity, they encourage production and consumerism. Take three days and get over your grief. Back to work with you. See you on Thursday.
“Boccaccio attests vividly how the human organism in all its phases—physical, spiritual, moral, intellectual—deteriorated in stamina and in co-ordination. Compassion, courage and the nobler feelings were found in but few; whilst cowardice, selfishness and ill-will, with the baser passions in their train asserted their supremacy. In place of virtue, which had been driven from the earth, wickedness everywhere reared its rebellious standard and succeeding generations were consigned to her baneful tyranny.” (Huber p. 354)
Boccaccio here is describing the pitiful demise of humanity in the Middle Ages. We could describe the present state of affairs without changing a word, couldn’t we? Take a moment and go to the Newcomer Funeral Service Group or their Albany/Latham websites for Newcomer Funerals and Cremations and read their ridiculous claims of what they offer the bereaved. Go to the Service Corporation International site and read about their “compassion”, their caring, their sensitivity to the needs of the bereaved. That’s worse than General Motors telling you they care about your lower back pain. Yet how many consumers actually swallow that sordid brew. These factory-funeral corporations aren’t making billions because no one’s falling for the marketing hype, the sales pitches pressuring the bereaved in their most difficult moments to sign and buy. We say look at the lawsuits and how much they’re paying out for failing the bereaved, for causing the bereaved more suffering than they had ever bargained for.
“[t]he Black Death “seemed to arise the worst passions of the human heart, and to dull the spiritual sense of the soul.” Who would think, declared Papon, “that in the midst of horrors so suitable (it would seem) for extinguishing the passions, there were two—libertinism and greed—which should be carried to so high a degree!” (Huber p. 354)
Indeed! Who ever thought that liberties, individualism, choice could lead to the present situation we find ourselves in. How is it that human beings in their worst possible moments should be exposed to the worst possible motivations and motives of modern mankind: libertarianism and greed. Those very libertarians preaching choice and liberty are deeply rooted in the horrible hypocrisy that such choice and liberty give life to. The plague that is upon us now in the 21st century is not a plague that is carried by fleas, and it’s not a plague that kills in five days. Our 21st century plague is called materialist consumerism, market economy, capitalism and it’s carried by fellow human beings, and it kills insidiously but totally in mind, body and spirit. There’s no way to discern with any certainty the extent of the infection but one thing is certain, there’s no effective vaccine, and most people would not want to undergo the cure.
One woman was married five times in one day—four of the bridegrooms having been buriers of the dead, dressed in the clothes they had stripped from the bodies of the deceased.” (Huber p. 354)
Huber describes the total depravity of the people who now have lost all sense of morality and values, and who now in a devil-may-care attitude of let’s be merry because we’re dead anyway. He describes a woman who marries five men in succession who are carried away just as quickly. She describes those who profit from the belongings and property of the dead, whom they have stripped. For all of Jessica Mitford’s muckraking, she would have had a picnic with this line, somehow drawing a connection between these “buriers of the dead” and those “dressed in clothes they had stripped from the bodies of the deceased.”
Like horrors disgraced many other communities. He: is furnished another example—such as are so deplorably frequent in history of how fanatical frenzy, associated with hatred and the play of the baser passions, will work powerfully upon nations and peoples to the utter exclusion of the restraints of reason, of law, or of any other wholesome factor. And the greater part of those who, by their education and rank, might have been assumed to raise the deterrent voice of reason, themselves led on the savage mob to murder and to plunder the Jews. (Huber p. 355)
Throughout history, Satan has always been the “other”; humankind has never really been able to see its true self, it’s never been able to accept its shadow side. Huber is describing the desperate search for a cause of the plague and, then as now, hatred and baser passions take control, and the necessary scapegoat is found. Whatever doesn’t support the new agenda has to be demonized and sent packing. The dead are not producers, the bereaved are not efficient workers. The dead are distracting the living from their production or consumption. Make the dead and dying disappear, marginalize the traditions, deny grief, exploit the bereaved, then send them back to work. The voice of reason is muted. Our institutions teaching and training the healthcare and deathcare professionals teach technology and business law, not ethics and humanities. The mortuary science programs wouldn’t want to whisper a word against the multinational funeral chains and factory funeral homes, after all they pay the bills and hire the graduates. Why cut your own throat? Why bite the hands that pad your pockets? Of course they won’t hire anyone teaching real deathcare, psychospiritual support, tradition, ritual, healing. The bereaved are, after all, consumers. And you wouldn’t want to keep them from their producing activity for any longer than necessary. Besides, there’s always another body and we have to keep turning over the visitation rooms and chapel. Headquarters wants to see numbers, you know.
That the emotions played a part regarding the plague was observed by many. Those who were terrified were more prone to contract the disease. Those who feared not and were of a cheerful, equable mind were, to the extent at least of that benign influence upon the organism, the more likely to escape. Boccaccio, in writing the Decameron, recognized that pleasant thoughts were the best preventive….Those who despaired threw away their one chance of life; those of sanguine temperament resisted well. (Huber p. 355)
It’s really ironic that I should close with this passage from Huber’s article. Not really. What Huber is saying here is that if you despair you’re lost already. If you become complacent, you’re dead in the water. Those who step up, ask the questions like: Are you part of a funeral home chain? Are you owned by a funeral service corporation? Are you still family owned? will likely come out on top. It’s not necessarily the pleasant thoughts that get you through any plague, it’s the positive, affirmative thoughts that will prevent you from being taken for a ride. It’s really very true what Huber and Boccaccio are preaching here: You have to have the courage to ask the questions, to look beyond the bells and whistles, to see through the smoke screens, and to assert what you feel you need in your bereavement, not what’s on the corporate menu. The more you do your own thinking and planning the more likely you’ll escape the snares set by the corporate funeral directors. The article may have been written in 1911, over a hundred years ago, but it still has substantial relevance today. I hope to have shown that in my analysis.
Thus are all phases of individual existence mutually and inextricably interrelated: extensive and prolonged deterioration in any one aspect is bound in time to affect perniciously the others in time; such hideous psychic phenomena as are here stated do not obtain in the beginning of any such calamity as the Black Death. But it is the circumstance (and a most pathetic one) that the exercise of the heroic virtues for any lengthy period is contingent upon the maintenance of normal living conditions in general; otherwise the psychic stamina deteriorates, manners become dissolute, morals depraved and consciences debased. (Huber p. 355)
What Dr Huber is saying in this paragraph is that life events are intimately interrelated — I understand these life events to be the basis of our traditions and rituals — and that if we allow any of those events to be exploited or to lapse into irrelevance, all others will suffer as the result. Huber’s phrase “heroic virtues” equates with human values and ethical conduct, which logically rely on “normal” living in our society. When “psychic stamina deteriorates” we have a disturbance in coping and resilience, we forget the ritual and become lost, we forget our obligations, and our whole mindset, our worldview, deteriorates. This, in the 21st century, is what happens when we fall victim to the materialist consumerism of our age and become slave consumers of the corporations and their perverse messages.
And so you have it: From none other than Monty Python’s 1975 depiction of the Black Death, and from a physician writing in 1911 about the pneumonic plague in Manchuria, China, do we have the evidence that really nothing has changed; we have learned nothing. What more can one say?
Support Your Local Funeral Home
(And don’t forget to ask for some time with
the interfaith bereavement chaplain!
(518) 479-0525 or firstname.lastname@example.org)
I am a professional caregiver. As a professional, I figure that a professional chaplain would have at least a bachelor’s degree, preferably a master’s degree, in a subject like psychology, comparative religion, sociology. The coursework alone for a four-year degree today would probably run something like $40-60,000 at an “average” 4-year college. Unless the chaplain has done studies in religion, comparative religion, psychology of religion, or some theology studies, s/he would be well advised to find a program in religious studies, pastoral studies or theology. Ideally, a master’s degree in one of the study tracks mentioned above would be followed by a couple of units of clinical pastoral education (CPE) in a healthcare facility. Even more ideally, a degree in psychology or sociology plus a degree in theology or divinity would be desirable. Then there’s the continuing professional education in the form of courses, seminars, workshops, webinars, and conferences. None of this comes cheaply; it all costs money. (The final tab for my 3-year graduate studies for the M.Div. was $60,000! And I commuted from home!) Of course, American’s can create a demand ex nihilo: now there’s the new fad, so-called board certification. If all else fails, a certificate will fix it! It’s something the agenda-organizations have cooked up that appeal to the ego of some practitioners, and impresses small minds, like those of human resources departments and the like. My opinion is that if you feel you need to have some organization certify your skills, you’re probably not made of the stuff to be an effective chaplain; you’re too full of yourself and lack self-confidence. You simply don’t have the ‘right stuff.’
But I don’t want to distract you from the point of this article: A chaplain, no matter what his or her speciality, is obviously not in it for the money. And if you’re after kudos and compliments, forget it. Administrators couldn’t care less whether you’re there or you’re not, and would rather just refer you to the “volunteers coordinator” of the facility. Your “best” client may drop you like a hot potato if keeping you means standing up for ethics or principle.
Most of the institutions who really should have a professional chaplain on board don’t. I’m talking about healthcare facilities, nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, first-responders, even government departments; you’ll likely find persons who would benefit from the presence and availability of a professional chaplain in most any organization. This is especially true of the funeral home and the funeral service business.
The biggest obstacle that the professional chaplain has to overcome when approaching any organization is, of course, ignorance and indifference. Even those institutions in which one would clearly expect to find a professional chaplain — not one of those pablum-puking, whispering, sad-faced, constantly half-grinning, hovering, sorrowful types –, and I don’t mean a social worker (God save us!) but a trained person who has a clear understanding of suffering and does not conflate compassion, empathy and understanding, one who has not been trained in the discipline of so-called “detached concern.” Any chaplain or wannabe chaplain reading this who is not competent in the subject matter of suffering or who cannot distinguish compassion from empathy from detached concern, STOP READING! this article and find a training course!
Ask if the funeral home is still family owned or run by a group.
If you’re looking for an ego boost, don’t look for it in a healthcare or nursing facility. Funeral homes are not much better. Most funeral directors will probably size you up for what you can afford and sell you a tad more. Beware of the corporate funeral homes, those funeral corporations that buy up once family-owned traditional funeral homes, keep the name but run the show. These corporate operations may include 5 or ten funeral homes in a local area, or may be interstate or even international. If your family’s been using a particular local family-owned funeral home, my best advice is to ask if it’s still family owned or run by a group. Another unfortunate result of the American denial-of-death culture is the funeral factories, large operations with very low prices and running on volume of bodies they can process in a year. If it’s dignity you’re looking for, avoid these places like the plague.
Most of these operations will pick up, process, package, and plant or burn on a budget basis, all credit cards accepted, they’ll to the paperwork. All you have to do is die and they’ll do the rest. That’s how far much of the American funeral service has declined in the United States; the rest of the industrialized world isn’t far behind, either, though they’ve kept some of their self-respect and tradition for the most part.
But the American way of death hasn’t happened in a vacuum. Funeralization and memorialization of our dead kin has not descended to the present level of discarding dead human bodies as if they were household or hazardous waste. No, indeed. Our pitiable emphasis on the individual, “me” and to hell with you, our fascination with our toys and our aversion to anything that distracts us from our toys, especially death, our own or anyone else’s, has become our new morality. We discard our sick, our old, and our dead with the ease and care with which we discard an old phone or a melon past its prime. It’s a sad but true fact.
Who’s to blame for this deplorable state of affairs? Well, to be honest: You are! This is not an accusation intended to offend or to wound but it is true that the majority of funeral service consumers are simply so deprived of any notion of reality or of tradition, that they’ll do anything just to avoid the unpleasant business of facing reality, death, and making it disappear as quickly and cleanly as possible. If the pleasant things in life are to be done without thought or concern as dictated by the popular slogan, “Just do it!” Most bereaved today have their own slogan, “Just make it go away!”
Enter cremation, direct burial, and direct cremation. No fuss, no messy wakes, no distraction from the things you really want to be doing. After all, why be a human being today when you can have the memorial party tomorrow, or the next day, or whenever. No self-respect. How can we expect respect or reverence for the dead when there’s none for the living?
With that prologue, I’d like to launch into a contribution by a veteran bereavement chaplain, who is rather well known for his “beautiful” personalized services. This chaplain really goes over the top in establishing a relationship with the family of the person who has died, putting together a unique service for every case, carefully selecting music and readings, even designing a program or creating a memory token, such as a lapel ribbon, for the grieving family members. He discusses every detail with the family members and requests a maximum in family participation such as by reading, participation in ritual actions, etc. His credentials are outstanding. His motto is, “It’s not about me; it’s about you, the family.” So, you’d think this guy would be in such demand he’d be worn out. You’d think that the families and funeral homes he serves would swoon with gratitude. Well, think again.
I chose the title of this article for a very specific reason. The chaplain I described above recently did a rather exceptional job for an unusual family. The chaplain bent over backwards and went to almost extreme lengths to create a memorable service. He did even did this at extremely short notice, having just returned from a conference, because a very dear funeral director friend had recommended him so highly, and the family was in a very unusual situation. I’m going to give the lite version below using initials instead of names, in order to protect the innocent as well as the guilty.
I limit my practice to bereavement chaplaincy and came highly recommended to the family by the funeral director of a local funeral home client, with whom I have been working for several years. Because of the circumstances, which I’ll outline briefly below, the funeral director couldn’t give many details since the death had occurred suddenly on a Thursday, and, because of medicolegal/forensic formalities associated with the nature of the death, the funeral director would not be able to hold the arrangements conference with the family until that Saturday, but had already informed the family that I would be calling. This meant that the first opportunity for me to physically meet or talk to the family would be late on Saturday. It was really tight because the actual service was to take place on the Monday afternoon. This was further complicated by the fact that I was at a grief and loss conference in Boston when I received the request, and would be returning only on that Friday. Nevertheless, the situation was manageable, given the circumstances.
All things considered, the earliest I could interview the family would be on Sunday, after the arrangements conference. I called the family late on Saturday but the telephone interview wasn’t going very well so I offered to make a housecall that Sunday afternoon, and I met with the family. The young widow, MW, the deceased’s father GW, his aunt CW, and his uncle SM, as well as his young son were all present at the family conference. I asked permission to record the meeting so that I could capture all details without having to take distracting notes. The family agreed and for more almost two hours I collected memories, anecdotes, shared photos, and was able to form a reasonably accurate composite image of the deceased. I was very satisfied with the rapport established with the family and the outcome of the meeting.
Immediately upon returning to my office I set to work designing the program, selecting readings and music, etc. In the process, I provided the family contact person with ongoing inputs and copies of what was designed or selected. In other words, the family was kept very informed and updated throughout the process and was completely aware of what was going on. I received the family’s approvals for everything.
At the family meeting, the aunt, CM, a retired physician, and apparently the one running things, mentioned that the service was under time constraints because some persons had to “catch international flights”. I suggested 45-55 minutes for the entire memorial service, and CM thought that was reasonable and approved.
On the day of the service, I met with the family just before the service briefly describe what was going to be done, to answer any questions, and to give some short instructions to the family members participating in the service. Everything was on track, and the service itself went flawlessly. Even the music was on cue!
After the service, the father of the deceased, who, throughout the entire process was understandably emotional at the loss of his only son, approached me saying, “That was over the top. I want you to have this.” A bit taken by surprise, I didn’t really know what to think about the father’s words, “over the top”, and initially didn’t notice that the father was holding out his hand to me. The father continued, “That was over the top. It was very beautiful. Please take this.” The father was attempting to hand I something, apparently several bills, but I gently refused saying that I ‘had been paid by the funeral home,” and “that wasn’t necessary.” After several polite refusals, it was apparent the father really wanted to express his appreciation, and so I accepted the gift–and later shared it with the funeral home staff.
While preparing to leave, the uncle SM, approached I and handed me a check. Again I attempted to politely refuse the apparent “gift”, and — now with the funeral director at my side — saying that I had been paid by the funeral director, who nodded in agreement. Nevertheless, the uncle pressed the check into my hand saying, “Take this little extra, you must have spent a bundle on the food yesterday.” (On the way to the family’s home, I had stopped to pick up Danish and bagels as a gift for the family!). Again, I accepted the gift and was astonished at the uncle’s generosity — or so I thought — and again shared the gift with the funeral home staff.
The funeral home staff felt that I had earned the signs of appreciation, given the circumstances and short notice and the work that went into the service, but I felt that the success and the family’s satisfaction was the result of the “team’s” efforts, not just my contributions.
Leaving the funeral home, I was approached by several of the mourners who thanked me and complimented me on the service. The deceased’s best friend approached with hand extended and the words, “That was a brilliant service.”
I was overwhelmed by the response and exhausted by the effort but I was grateful that everything had gone so smoothly, and that the family and the funeral home were both very pleased.
That was the serenely grateful chapter of the story.
What happened next was the wounded beast chapter: The next day, I received a call from the uncle, SM, who started out by saying that the family was having some money problems. SM then launched into a diatribe saying “I can’t believe you accepted my check and cashed it! You took money from GW, too!” SM then accused I of “causing his wife, CW, hurt” and of having “left out important details from the service.” Dumbfounded and aghast, I explained that I had included everything requested by the family in the service and still kept it within the agreed time. I also noted that it was not my practice to accept gifts in addition to the honorarium paid by the funeral home but did so only because both the deceased’s father, GW, and he, SM, had pressed me to accept, and even recalled to SM the details of the moment. The conversation deteriorated into abuse by SM and I gently terminated the conversation, saying I would gladly return the gift made by SM.
Because of the bizarre and extraordinary nature of the call, I immediately called the funeral director to advise him of SM’s call. The funeral director was almost speechless and very, very apologetic. He was very supportive and told me that he had not heard from the family, and thought everything had gone excellently. The funeral director apologized profusely for the experience repeated that he had heard nothing from the family.
A day or two later I contacted the funeral director to follow up on SM’s call, and the funeral director confirmed that he had received a call from SM on the day after I reported the call from SM, and that SM was still rather unhappy.
I noted that the deceased’s next of kin was the father, GW, and the father’s sister, CW, apparently took control of the arrangements to take the burden off of the father. SM was aunt’s husband, an uncle by marriage to the deceased, and really had no standing whatsoever to get involved, since his relationship to the deceased was somewhat remote in kinship and legal terms. I and the funeral director had not heard from the widow, the father or even the aunt! I wondered if SM had gotten into trouble with his wife for being generous, and needed an excuse. Certainly, if he was having financial difficulties and had been honest and said so, the entire incident would have taken a different turn, but was he being dishonest and seeking a scapegoat? Whatever! It didn’t matter at this point.
The funeral director and I agreed that I would write a letter regretting SM’s reaction and offering to discuss the concerns privately. In addition, I requested the funeral director to respond to SM in a letter, and to return SM’s gift to him on my behalf. I expressly asked the funeral director not to mention the incident to the rest of the staff, with whom I had shared the gifts, in order not to embarrass them. For me, at least, it wasn’t a matter of money.
Some time later it was revealed that I had self-disclosed by way of simple conversation during one of the breaks in the family meeting that I, too, was involved in an earlier career in similar fields as the aunt, CM, a physician, and the father, GW, a medical device developer. The uncle, SM, was a non – medical department head in a hospital laboratory; all were retired. One of these had done a sort of background check on me and couldn’t verify my disclosures, scant and vague as they were, not to mention the fact that the events went back more than 25 years! SM even went so far as to impugn my religious affiliations (it was actually at this point the I had heard enough and had respectfully terminated the conversation). Enough was enough. The service was flawless and our conclusion was that SM, or his wife, CW, had reconsidered their “generosity” and needed some way to get their money back. Apparently, the best way to do that was to go after the service and me. So what if the grounds were insubstantial and had nothing to do with the service? They alleged having some “cash difficulties” and reconsidered their generosity. Had they simply said they couldn’t afford the gift and would appreciate it if I had returned it, there would have been no problem whatsoever. I did so even without having been asked.
So why all the pretense? Why, after having been so impressed and happy with the service did this family member make a 180 degree turnaround and attack me 24 hours later? Why was it so important to cook up something just to get $150 back that was initially apparently given in gratitude, despite my several refusals, and even when the funeral director was present and confirmed my affirmation that I had been paid? And Why? when handing I the gift, did SM make the remark about the “food” I had brought. That made the story SM had concocted in the attempt to justify his conduct even more bizarre.
I did not have much to say about this except that I was incredibly hurt by the entire incident. I did what was necessary and more, the family and other mourners were clearly delighted, the family participated, the family had shown their appreciation. So Why? I asked, did they feel they had to go to such lengths concocting such a fiction just to recover their gift. What’s more — and in line with my character — I was more concerned for the impression and effect that SM’s conduct would have on the young widow and her impressions. Overall, I felt that SM’s conduct was spurious and inconsiderate; it was insensitive and devoid of any compassion for the immediate family.
I concluded that this was a manifestation of a grief reaction, and chose to reflect on it, journal it, and let it go. At this time the residual effects are not clear, and time will tell whether SM’s conduct will adversely affect my relationship with this or other client funeral homes. The lessons learned are complex and compound, as will be the ramifications of the incident. What I can say is that neither the funeral director nor I have received a response to our letters. Is that the end of the matter?”
Those of us in pastoral care, and who invest a big part of ourselves in relieving suffering, can commiserate with this chaplain and with the funeral director as well. We can appreciate the chaplain’s concern not for himself but for the funeral director, who also put his heart and soul into serving this family, and most of all for the young widow and her son, now suddenly without a life-partner and without a father! Fortunate indeed are those of us who have not been made to suffer unjustly like this chaplain. But all things considered, we can reflect on the chaplain’s response to our inquiry:
“It had to happen some day. You can’t serve as many families as I do over time and not expect one to really knock your socks off. You can’t do this work and have your head in the clouds and expect to shine in everyone’s eyes. You have the gentle grateful lambs and you have the wounded beasts who lash out at anyone. That’s grief; that’s how some people are. You have to live in hope, not expectation.”
Those are heroic words now but what if SM’s conduct adversely affects the chaplain’s relationships with client funeral homes or his reputation overall? What if SM went beyond just calling the chaplain and then calling the funeral director? Internet ambush is not uncommon these days and can have a devastating effect on one’s life’s work. But how would the chaplain know? What would he be able to do?
This incident drives home the unfortunate fact that grief can make beasts of even the most refined people. According to our information, the principal characters in this vignette are all professional, well-educated persons. True, they are retired, but given their backgrounds certainly are not impoverished. On further inquiry we learned that they live in a rather upscale suburban neighborhood, travel frequently to Europe, Turkey, where the young man lived with his wife and son. The deceased and his wife and son were here for a reunion of friends, when he unexpectedly died. The aunt had already allegedly announced we are “spiritual but not religious; we believe in God but not organized religion.” That’s a statement we often hear and it’s not a problem. What was important is that they wanted a spiritual service for the deceased. What we didn’t mention in the narrative above was that the wife is Turkish and culturally Muslim. There were, according to the chaplain, a variety of faith traditions in the assembly, including at lease one Orthodox Jew. According to the chaplain, he attempted to respect all faith traditions present, and even opened the service with a Muslim reading accompanied by traditional Turkish flute music. Noting the presence of the Orthodox Jew in the assembly, the chaplain remarked that he on-the-fly edited out of his prayers and homily any direct reference to Jesus Christ or the Trinity, and substituted “Lord” or “God” to keep it within acceptable parameters and inclusive.
We also agree that SM’s conduct was the ultimate in bad taste and totally insensitive. There were apparently a number of family system background issues that could have incited this unusual and unfortunate behavior, and we should all be on alert for any such red flags during the family meeting. Let’s not forget our training in human development and let’s keep in mind that what happens in childhood may have ramifications in adulthood. The chaplain mentioned SM’s childhood experiences in the RC tradition, and his wife, CW, actually referred to him as a “recovering Catholic.” Was there an element of anticlericalism at work? Let’s also not forget that some of our clients have lived a life in the culture of Cartesian dualities, like this family, and we, as helpers, have to recognize their limitations, while responding with biopsychocultural sensitivity and deep spirituality.
Given the information we have on the family system and the background of this family, we cannot discount the possibility of a fractured assumptive worldview, which may have arisen painfully to the conscious level simply in virtue of the narratives that were shared in the course of the family conference. That fractured assumptive worldview may have been aggravated by the composition of the memorial service and its liturgical elements, as well as by the content of the homily, which revisited some of the narratives of the family conference. The fractured assumptive world view compounded by the tangible and intangible (symbolic) losses may have taken SM over the edge, so to speak.
We are sometimes the authors of our own misfortune. This may be the case with the chaplain. First of all, self-disclosure is appropriate only when and if it is for the good of the client. Unless I missed something in the telling, the chaplain self-disclosed inappropriately. His past career had nothing to do with his role as chaplain to this family. In all fairness, though, and emphasizing that the chaplain’s past careers or history had nothing to do with his role as chaplain, the question does arise as to the truth or the motivation of the family in doing what is tantamount to a background check. That sort of behavior under the circumstances is plainly bizarre and certainly raises questions regarding the family’s priorities. If they were so bereaved under the circumstances and given the time constraints in this case, who on earth would have the time or the energy to do any checking? Why? What would be the motivation? How on earth did the focus move so acutely from the deceased to the chaplain? Such behavior is strange to say the least. But, again, the chaplain should have known better not to have self-disclosed. Period.
Another point I’d like to make regards the axiom that even otherwise rational people can behave irrationally in an irrational situation. We can all agree that the sudden loss of an only son in the prime of his life is traumatic and tragic in human terms. SM, the deceased’s uncle by marriage to CM, the deceased’s paternal aunt, were childless and according to information provided by the chaplain, had doted on the deceased. With the death of their nephew, and under such conditions we are clearly dealing with an irrational situation and with a family that may not be playing with a full deck. We are constantly teaching that no big decisions should be made in an acute grief situation. Some people should even avoid making small decisions that may run counter to their day-to-day character. Obviously, the chaplain played by the book in most of the encounter. And it’s not uncommon for a family to offer a “little extra” to the officiant when they feel that the job was well done. Under the circumstances, I can’t fault the chaplain because he did refuse the gifts, until it likely became embarrassing to continue to do so. But it wasn’t out of greed, since he proceeded to share the gift with the other staff! While I am not one prone to making excuses, and the chaplain did handle the situation appropriately, whether he felt that the family was genuinely appreciative [and could afford it], that he had put in such an effort he appreciated the recognition, or he was simply too exhausted to put up a bigger fight all can play into the discussion. The bottom line is this: both the father GW and the uncle, SM, felt that the service was well done, even “over the top,” as the father said. The response of the mourners was also very positive. Accordingly, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the chaplain’s performance or the service was unsatisfactory in any way whatsoever. Given the facts, the comments allegedly made by SM that the service failed in some way is, at best, a ruse.
Again, bereavement, especially in an event of untimely death, is irrational and those affected by the death behave irrationally, that’s why our role as level-headed professionals is so important. But if we forget that the bereaved may be irrational in both their thinking and their actions, we are asking for trouble. If we don’t keep in mind that the bereaved can be thinking or acting one way now and do a complete 180 in a New York minute, we are asking for trouble. If we stop expecting the unexpected, we are asking for trouble. Again, the chaplain handled the situation appropriately prima faciae. He could have played tit-for-tat and the situation would have likely become inflammatory, even explosive. Everyone would have suffered. The chaplain responded appropriately. If SM chooses not to acknowledge that or to respond, that’s SM’s choice to burn bridges. If SM hasn’t yet responded it would be unfair to fault him; he may yet respond more sensitively when the time is right.
I personally feel very uncomfortable when a family member attempts to hand me a cash gift after a service. I do realize that they can be very insistent to the point of being embarrassing but I also recognize that it’s their only real way of expressing their gratitude. When it gets to that point I will usually thank them very graciously for their generosity but decline it; instead and in order not to appear arrogant or ungrateful, I tell them that I would really appreciate a card when things simmer down or a letter of appreciation to the funeral home for the service. That usually works, although sometimes the card or the letter never comes. But that’s all right, too. I’ll likely follow up with a card or a letter in a month’s time or at the holidays, anyway.
Finally, we all should adopt a professional code of ethics. I use the ADEC code of conduct. As to self-disclosure, I use the APA guidelines. I also recommend that if you are providing services like the chaplain, that you have a personal policy regarding gratuities and either address that during the family conference or ensure that the funeral director mentions that you do not accept gratuities. And if you have a policy, stick to it.
No matter how well or how badly the mourners behave, we are not there to judge. If we can’t handle the situation perhaps we shouldn’t be in it. Realistically, we find ourselves in infinitely complex situations, every one of which is unique, and we have to have the skills to cope with each and every one of them if we are to avoid doing ourselves and our clients a disservice. We have to have the awareness and wherewithal to recognize the red flags and to adjust our approach accordingly. We have to be constantly vigilant at all stages of the relationship; we need to identify and respond to very subtle verbal and non-verbal communications. We need to read the symbolic language accurately. My rule of thumb is to hear the question behind every statement and the statement being made with every question. But most of all, be authentic, sincere, gentle, and sensitively compassionate. Whatever you may be or have been in the past, you are in this moment the chaplain. That’s all. So in your chaplaincy be in the moment and make sure it’s all about the family and no one else.
May you all be passed by unnoticed and unwounded by the SM’s of the world; if you happen to cross the path of an SM, follow the example of our chaplain above. Your character will be your best response; SM will likely not be swayed by your wisdom; like a wounded beast he will strike out at the most vulnerable.
Good work, Chaplain, you did well. Learn from the experience and drive on.
Peace and blessings!
Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney
The chaplain wrote back to let us know that the funeral director was a true champion in the face of this crisis, and was very supportive of the chaplain. In fact, as a sign of solidarity, the funeral director sent the chaplain this short prayer, which we would like to share with our readers (with the chaplain’s consent):
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