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
This new blog will share with its readers a plethora of information on the funeral services niche, what to ask for, what to avoid, who to avoid, and what services you should ask for, if you are a consumer, or offer, if you are a funeral director, both during pre-arrangement meetings and when making immediate need arrangements.
We feel it is extremely important that consumers be offered the opportunity to consult and to talk to a professional interfaith bereavement chaplain, and that consumers should request such a conference; on the other hand, funeral homes should provide such an opportunity to all persons making funeral or memorial arrangements.
We are staunch supporters of the traditional funeral for all of its important psychological, spiritual, and cultural benefits. We are also strongly in support of locally owned and operated funeral homes as opposed to the corporate funeral groups and the factory-funeral service providers. Having said that, we do not believe that the traditional funeral should be outrageously extravagant or expensive but that it should be simple and dignified, personalized to reflect the family culture and the life of the deceased.
Welcome to this blog. Contribute to this blog. Make this blog a place of sharing.
Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Chaplain Harold at firstname.lastname@example.org or, if you are in immediate need of chaplain services or bereavement support, please call Chaplain Harold at (518) 810-2700.
Visit us also on Facebook and become a friend!
Are we hearing the cries for help? Are we really relieving the suffering caused by our “care”? This is a question I have been asking myself for several years now, after having done an elective 400 hour intensive clinical pastoral education unit at Albany Medical Center (AMC), a 600+ bed regional acute, primary, secondary, tertiary care teaching hospital in Albany, New York. For about four years now I have been tracking the Pastoral Care department there and, over that period, have been able to make some on-site, personal observations of the “pastoral care” being provided at AMC, and must report that, at best, the overall care was very disappointing.
If AMC is representative of the state of “pastoral care” in the Northeast or in the United States as a whole, what does that say about all those words and ink spilled in the scientific, clinical, and professional journals about “relief of suffering?” Is it all pablum-puking palaver from the top of the ivory towers? Wishful thinking? Are the chaplaincy organizations and “certifying bodies” simply self-serving special interest (their own) groups providing certificates for cash, and satisfying the paper-mill appetites of both consumers and human resources dullards? We want certificates not skills or competence? It would seem so from our observation point.
As an informal survey, we looked at the AMC pastoral care staff page on the AMC web site and reviewed the credentials of the people working in pastoral care at that hospital. Here’s what we found:
The travesty and biggest joke that healthcare facilities — I mean hospitals offering primary, secondary, tertiary, and the rarer quaternary care — and skilled nursing facilities, including those offering rehabilitation, are foisting on the paying pubic is that they offer what is commonly called “pastoral care,” a term eschewed by those of us who are really professional chaplains because “pastoral” is a hugely Christian term and serves to alienate non-Christian traditions. Fancy that! Far from appreciating what a real chaplain is, most of our healthcare organizations use a discriminatory term to describe the paltry spiritual support they think they provide, but in fact are not providing.
Most facilities rely on volunteer pastoral care, that is, local “visiting clergy” who drop in and wander around cold-calling (dropping in on patients or residents) or visiting their own church members. As for those that actually have a paid— and reimbursed chaplaincy program — the composition of that staff raises concerns about competency and bias. Seriously.
One regional medical center in Albany, New York, Albany Medical Center — the institution does a great deal of public relations and advertising and is more in the real estate business than healthcare — shows a staff of 14, including chaplain interns, chaplain residents, full- and part-time/on-call “chaplains”: Pastoral Care Manager Jake Marvel (personal acquaintance), is a Reformed Church of America (RCA) clergyperson. The RCA is a minor denomination, an offshoot of the Dutch Reformed Church, and Calvinist in its doctrines, rightist liberal Christianity in its leanings; Harlan Ratmeyer (persoanl acquaintance), is director of a chaplain training program, a RCA minister, in his late 70’s and beyond retirement; biased and distracted. Staff Chaplain Yervant Kutchukian, is an Armenian Orthodox, with apparently various contemplative interests. Pastoral Care department secretary, Elizabeth Hall, is Roman Catholic, but doesn’t work as a pastoral care provider despite having several units of chaplain training — most of which was apparently acquired by sitting behind her desk. Aloysius Kabunga is a native of Uganda, Black African, with some seminary training and an eclectic educational background but no stated faith tradition (do we assume he’s some sort of Christian adherent?). Valerie Cox, female, another African American on staff, is an “ordained” Baptist minister with a degree from a “bible institute,” whatever that means. Kabanga Boswami — NO! I didn’t make that up — is yet another Black African on staff, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, has degrees in business admin, computer science and divinity. Marjorie S McCoy, female, Buddhist adherent to an American Buddhist tradition, has a B.A. in comparative religions, worked as attorney for 23 years, was a hospice volunteer for six years, and is now an intern in chaplaincy — this means she’s out there on the floors at AMC with little or no training. YA is a staff chaplain but I can’t make out his actual credentials from his blurb. Mary C. Craven, white female, has some credentials and 9 units of clinical pastoral education at AMC (she’s Roman Catholic by tradition). Two Roman Catholic priests serve as chaplains at AMC Kenneth Gregory and Robert DeLeon, enough said. A rabbi and an imam serve the Jewish and Muslim traditions at AMC but are not “staff” in that they are on-call, for their own people. At AMC, the Roman Catholic chaplains serve on an alternating day schedule; I have experienced situations at AMC when neither RC chaplain was available. Naturally, the on-call rabbi and imam restrict their care to their faith tradition. So that’s 4 chaplains out of the total of 14 that serve their specific faith groups: Roman Catholicism, Judaism, Islam. Two part-time chaplains, one cultural Pakistani male, Younas Azad (personal knowledge) and one elderly white female, M. Craven (personal knowledge). That leaves 4 “chaplain residents” who are still in training, under the supervision of HR, and four “full-time” staff. Of the four “chaplain residents” 2 are black African males, unknown traditions, and one is an African American female, Baptist tradition. The remaining chaplain-in-training is a white female, Buddhist, with a law background who served as a hospice volunteer. The remainder of the AMC pastoral care “full-time” staff includes two RCA ministers who are PC manager and director, and a secretary.
It needs to be said that the information provided above is publicly available at Meet the Staff and is not provided as a statement of competence or as an assessment of effectiveness of the individuals or of the department as a whole. I’m presenting it as an example of what a 600-bed regional acute, primary, secondary and tertiary care, trauma center, teaching hospital provides by way of spriritual care. Now, I have to ask my readers, given the composition of the PC staff — excluding the secretary, the part-timers, and the rabbi, imam and Catholic priests, who obviously see their own people, What do you think of the composition of the Albany Medical Center “pastoral care” staff? Presuming Albany Medical Center is a fair representation of the state of pastoral care in most similar institutions, What do you think of the likely cultural competency of the staff? Think of it this way, if you were an 84-year old white female, How open or vulnerable would you feel if one of the resident chaplains paid you a visit? How well served do you think the mainline traditions are served by the composition of the AMC pastoral care staff? Finally, do what I did and visit the site and ask yourself the question, “How well served are the some 600+ patients of AMC by this handful of questionably trained pastoral care providers?”
We chose Albany Medical Center because of its size, the extent of its services, its PR/advertising claims, and because we have personal knowledge about and experience with that institution. A simple online investigation of most of the other major hospitals in the Albany, New York, area, including Schenectady and Rensselaer counties, doesn’t provide much satisfaction. Most simply describe a vague “spiritual care” or “pastoral care” entity but not much more. None provide a staff page, which indicates quite clearly to us that they have none and that all of their pastoral care activity is provided by volunteer (= untrained, non-professionals), ancient RC nuns (that’s all that’s left), or “visiting clergy.” Point made. How is it that these so-called healthcare providers get away with not providing total healthcare?
Our conclusion is obvious: Our healthcare institutions — and we include here most hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, etc. — do not provide competent spiritual care for patients, residents and clients. These institutions donot provide “care” but provide only “procedures.” They operate almost exclusively on the biomedical model which has been around for more than 100 years unchanged, and is based on the body-mind duality espoused by Descartes, the so-called Cartesian duality, in which healthcare treats physical complaints, everything else is in the “spiritual” realm. In other words, our healthcare institutions treat the disease (the physical manifestations) not the illness, not the person. The treatment received in our healthcare institutions is procedural in nature and the very procedures done as treatment are the source of significant suffering, to which our “care” providers are either indifferent or of which they are ignorant.
Considering that the region we are considering, the Capital District in New York State, a region comprising the counties of Albany, Rensselaer, Schenectady, parts of Greene County, and other areas, we are talking about at least 28 hospitals and 56 nursing homes/rehabilitation facilities. The question we should be asking ourselves is not what kind of care is, rather what procedures are done, but how much suffering those environments and procedures are causing, and what is being done to relive the total suffering of the patients, residents, and clients?
Please leave us a comment but please be specific and focus on the questions we’ve posed above. We’ve tried to be non-judgmental in presenting the facts; all we ask is for your honest opinion about the pastoral care situation at this regional 600+ bed teaching hospital.
|Editor on The Value of Memorial Tok…|
|Annette Keane on The Value of Memorial Tok…|
|Editor on Death Bereavement and Be-…|
|Annette Keane on Death Bereavement and Be-…|
|Annette Keane on Why it’s so important to…|