Category Archives: Authenticity

Is Funeral Home Use of Social Media Moral?

“[W]e are delivered over to [technology] in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral; for this conception of it, to which today we particularity like to do homage, makes us utterly blind to the essence of technology.” — Martin Heidegger, Philosopher

“Technology is just a tool. In terms of getting the kids working together and motivating them, the teacher is the most important.” Bill Gates, Technology Entrepreneur

As spiritual care providers it’s important for us to maintain awareness of the developments that are affecting lifecare and deathcare as we have been practicing it. There are a number of insidious developments in process on what the world has been brainwashed to refer to social media, when such media are anything but social. In this article I discuss one such development that has great potential to adversely influence the relationships between funeral directors and the families they serve, and, by extension, how those developments will indubitably affect our roles as spiritual care providers.

There are so-called entrepreneurs who are investing considerable time and treasure in an effort to brainwash funeral homes and funeral directors, and to recruit them into the ranks of the addicts who have idolized social media and who have forsaken any embodied human relationships in favor of digital algorithms.

In this article, I follow one such opportunist, a veritable false prophet, an inexperienced self-proclaimed visionary who like so many of his generation replaces wisdom with verbosity, humanity with technology, and service with avarice. In this article I follow Ryan Thogmartin’s Connecting Directors[1] and some examples taken from a discussion thread on the so-called professional networking site, LinkedIn.

I started following Ryan Thogmartin and his Connecting Directors (a production of Thogmartin’s DISRUPT Media) a couple of years ago, when I felt that I should start learning more about what funeral directors are thinking, since I work with so many, I need to know what’s going on in the deathcare professions. At about the same time I began independently studying mortuary science subjects and collected a small reference library to assist in my thanatology, psychospiritual support, chaplaincy, and general knowledge, as well as in my writing. All in the interest of professional continuing learning and interest in improving my services. I also joined a number of specialist alternative deathcare forums, professional groups, as well as continuing professional education providers. I take my vocation seriously and believe very strongly that current awareness and lifelong learning are keys to competent professional services.

Serve rather than Disrupt!

Over time I learned that there is an incredible myriad of scams and so-called promotions being offered practically everywhere online; they range from personal blogs to corporate funeral services marketing to certification programs to pundits like Thogmartin to new disposal technologies for dead human beings.

Thogmartin and his Connecting Directors is but one paradigm of the scenario. Curiously and stereotypically, Thogmartin has re-invented himself as a — in his self-description — a visionary, and claims, among other hyperboles, that he has positioned Connecting Directors to be “the leading online resource for funeral professionals.” Like most irresponsible and unverifiable online presences, similar to Facebook, his claims are a bit over-the-top. Furthermore, given the unfortunate and questionable moniker of “Disrupt Media” and Thogmartin’s questionable hygiene and perfected grunge look, I personally find it hard to imagine the otherwise ordered and conventional funeral professional attrobiting any seroius credibility to Thogmartin or his predominantly prirated content.

Ryan Thogmartin.

Thogmartin and his ilk may have something to say that is interesting to some, bizarre to others, and totally untenable to many others. I am one of the latter; I feel that Thogmartin is an opportunist and a source of very harmful misinformation. Regrettably, those types always have a following, most of them wayward waifs unable to conjure up a vision of their own, even one as distasteful as Thogmartin’s. Moreover, the Internet has become the den for many such false prophets.

Some of these scams, and I include Thogmartin’s Connecting Directors in this broadly defined group, are endemic and assume many guises, and affect national and international professional organizations, education institutions, religious organizations; none have remained unscathed nor have they been held accountable. In fact, many of our institutions, including our institutionalized religions, our education institutions, and our healthcare system have all succumbed to or have become some type of scam, be it internal and of their own invention, or external, one to which they willingly subscribe.

While I admit I continue to follow Thogmartin’s Connecting Directors, I do so because I believe I must be informed about all aspects of the field in which I serve, even those aspects, which I find deplorable, reprehensible, and even evil (I do consider Facebook to be evil, that is, not serving Good). We must be aware of the positive as well as the negative aspects of the environment, in which we work, in order to be fully competent. Call it a sort of professional intelligence operation: Know the enemy.

It seems that the industrialized, secularized West’s greatest denial has become the opportunist’s greatest windfall! Western society is so entrenched in denial of death, in consumerism, and materialism that it has created an entire industry focused on treating the newly invented pitiable “victims” of the inevitability of the Grim Reaper as if they were in fact “victims” in need of a rescuer. But those with the Messiah complex — like so many false Messiahs before them — are merely self-serving and immorally using their purported rescuees as means to an end.

I find such a message to be abhorrent, immoral, and generally disordered; it reveals a profound ignorance of the nature of relationship, community, and trust.

Some, like Thogmartin and his minions, offer everything from dictating to one of the oldest professions in human history, the deathcare profession, how they should operate, what they should do, and how to succeed, to informing this privileged and ancient profession that they are doing it all wrong (Thogmartin’s approach), and that they should be going the route of the brainless addict, that is, go Facebook! His message is that today’s funeral director and funeral homes should be building community, trust, transparency and relationship through their social media content (see below for details). I find such a message to be abhorrent, immoral, and generally disordered; it reveals a profound ignorance of the nature of relationship, community, and trust.

For most business purposes, Facebook and most other social media, including the so-called professional networking media, are practically useless. Sure, we get happy birthday and work anniversary wishes but do we get any new clients? Sure, we make colleagues aware that we are alive and still providing services, but anyone beyond a 25 or 50 mile radius from my office is highly unlikely to consider my services, that is, the services I offer to make a living. Sure, they read my blogs and my articles but they then appropriate what they can and dispose of the rest; after all, it doesn’t cost them anything. Do they promote psychospiritual support or chaplaincy to their customers or staff. Perhaps. But not if it’s going mean spending time on the project, o if it’s going to cost them bucks to bring a professional in to do the job. Lord knows (nothing witty intended) most funeral directors or planners don’t press the religious, spiritual, or psychospiritual benefits of the bereavement chaplain, and most families balk at the paltry $150-200 for the services of an experienced bereavement chaplain to officiate a funeral or memorial service. Yet they’ll spend multiples of that on an expensive casket or urn or some toy that is obsolete even before it leaves the shop; or they’ll spend untold hours online wasted with digital “friends” pouring out the contents of their grieving hearts to a cold electronic screen and a digital algorithm they inanely call a “friend.” All of these vaporize after the funeral or memorial but the effects of a competent bereavement chaplain and his presence last a lifetime. Go figure!

During the time I’ve spent on Connecting Directors I have been able to note that Ryan Thogmartin is republishing most of what he has from other sites and sources, acting like a sort of information clearing house, but one that clears only what supports his position. Fair enough. A lot of what you will find on Connecting Directors is old news, rehashed, or totally irrelevant to local deathcare operations and of curiosity interest only. After all, Thogmartin is interested only in the façade of being in the deathcare niche; his real interest is promoting his Facebook branding activities. Somehow the suffering of the bereaved gets lost in the online shuffle; it’s all about image, content, revenues.

My message to the funeral and deathcare professional: The real nitty-gritty of what’s shaping your world and what’s happening in your area in your niche can and should be gotten from your state/provincial, regional, and national deathcare association publications and professional journals. The real intelligence can be gleaned by observing your community, and by maintaining a relationship with your customers. Thogmartin’s obsession with converting deathcare professionals to the millenials’ addiction to social media is particularly disturbing to those of us who work directly with dying, death, the survivors, and the general population of mourners. Even more so since Thogmartin stymies our human efforts at making a dying public aware of and accepting of the inevitable; Thogmartin promotes a fiction, that of social media and digital solutions, similar to the new fad offered by some of our previously most trusted, now turned prostitute, spriritual care organizations, that is, online grief counseling!

The efforts of such opportunists like Thogmartin in the deathcare niche and others like him in the HR niche, who promote check-list recruiting and hiring are, in a word, DEHUMANIZING. If we accept what psychologists and philosophers have taught for centuries, that is, that human beings are the only species that are (or should be) self-aware and aware of their own mortality and finitude, shouldn’t we hold that distinction in reverence rather than commercialize and monetize it?

Thogmartin and his notions of relationship, community, trust through digital technology are perverse, immoral. While technology is amoral, or morally neutral in its native state, how we use it is what makes it good or evil.


Aside: Discerning Morality, Amorality, Moral Neutrality.

The burning question is whether social media such as Facebook and those who exploit it for marketing purposes are moral.[2]

“Just over half, 55 percent, of people with children ages 11-17, “strongly agreed” that social media hinders or undermines moral development.”  Jubilee Center for Character and Virtues at Birmingham University

In theory, only human beings can be  moral agents, i.e., have a moral consciousness. What this means is that everything else in creation, including all technology, is necessarily amoral. The actions of the moral agent, the container of these morals (good or evil) are always expressed in the applications of a technology; in other words, our applications of technologies divests them of any moral neutrality. It is this moral question that must be considered by any discerning user.

“[T]echnologies are morally neutral until we apply them. It’s only when we use them for good or for evil that they become good or evil.” William Gibson

When discussing the morality or neutrality of social media or even technology in general, we navigate perilous waters when we make overreaching assumptions, such as, for example, that all technology is morally neutral, and we and neglect to evaluate each technology or application, new or old, for it’s concealed or non-self-revealing curriculum or agenda.

Important questions that must be asked include: Do the creators of this technology have an agenda or a concealed purpose? What is this technology’s potential to shape my conscious or unconscious behavior for good or ill? Does this technology create or provide opportunities for immorality that I should avoid?

“If we continue to develop our technology without wisdom or prudence, our servant may prove to be our executioner.” Omar Bradley, General of the Army

When considering the use of technologies and applications such as social media or the so-called opportunities that social media dangle in front of us like carrots on a string, we must seriously assess them rather than just passively accept the pre-packaged user-experience the creators intended for our eyes.

The underlying theory of today’s social media is not all that new. In fact, social media technology is based on what is known as the Six degrees of Separation theory. That theory embraces the idea that all living things and everything else in the world are six or fewer steps away from each other so that a chain of “a friend of a friend” statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps. It was originally set out by Frigyes Karinthy in 1929 and popularized in an eponymous 1990 play written by John Guare.[3]

We must also bear in mind that when we use the term “morally neutral” we are not using it as a synonym for “amoral”. Facebook, for example, is amoral; Facebook is not morally neutral, however. Amoral means that concerned technology does not have a set of moral values of its own. Taken in isolation, Facebook has no morals on its own, but Facebook undeniably reflects and projects the morals of its creators and its administrators, as well as its users to the extent that Facebook users comply with Facebook’s so-called “community standards”. Quite clearly, then, Facebook is *not* morally neutral. As professionals, we must take extreme care not to confuse or conflate these two quite different concepts.

Equally erroneous it to assume that something that is in its own right morally neutral means that it is therefore evil; neither does it mean it is morally good. Like so many issues before us, this is not a question of black-and-white; in fact, there is the very reasonable possiblity that the technology under consideration has the potential of being a mix of both evil and good. This is the basis of many of our ethical test theories such as the dual effect theory; we have able to analyze the specific situation and to discern is evil and what is good.


I, for one, shall oppose at every turn such efforts to remove humanity from dying, death and surviving. I shall, at every turn, unveil the fallacies of the imorality proselytized by a grunge specialist! The self-appointed Facebook minions, gurus, and doulas who purport to be the social media experts to the dying and to the bereaved, as well as to the respected deathcare professionals, those with their boots on the ground, those who are present where the rubber meets the road, the local funeral home operators and staff, not the industrialized funeral factories and the digital pundits or their social media keepers.

Contrary to Thogmartin’s and his keepers’ promotions, Facebook has very little to offer locally and most shoppers don’t go to Facebook to find a funeral professional. The funeral professional and his/her facilities continue to be local, even if they are de facto corporative entities (e.g. SCI’s Dignity Memorial) hiding behind a former trusted family operation.

Thogmartin and his ilk are narcissists, infllated self-appointed gurus of BS. I used to be interested, then amused, now only annoyed by him! Think about what he has to say, recognize the pitch, and then get back to running your business compassionately — and successfully.

Revisit, if necessary rediscover the values upon which the deathcare professions from the embalmer to the cosmetician to the chaplain to the usher are founded. Rediscover the values that have made the deathcare professions so important to human beings. Rediscover the values that have, over the centuries, made the deathcare professionals a special and important part of all cultures and all societies. Those values are human values, not industrial or technological. These values are moral values not amoral or morally neutral.

“The Internet […] seems to be creating a new group of people engaged in compulsive sexual behavior, say psychologists and clinicians. The accessibility, anonymity and affordability — what one researcher calls the “triple A engine” — are reeling in people who would otherwise have never engaged in such behavior.” — Los Angeles Times

I recently engaged a discussion thread on a leading professional networking platform. One participant, let’s call him Alan, seemed to be missing my point. Alan works in funeral home marketing strategies and provides ideas to “help funeral homes generate higher quality ‘at need calls’ “. I’m not quite sure what exactly all that means but he does tend to agree with Thogmartin; so I guess his self description already puts us at odds to some degree.

Alan writes:

“Respectfully Harold, I don’t agree with your post. While it is true most shoppers don’t go to Facebook to find a funeral professional, I feel you are missing the point what Ryan does for his clients. The way I see it, a good part of a funeral homes [sic] targeted market use Facebook and I feel it is an excellent platform for a funeral home to brand themselves to the public in a tasteful way. Healthy families don’t want to think about death, they just want to live their lives. That is why funeral preplanning is a hard sell. It’s an uncomfortable topic for people. You heard the expression, “anytime is a good time to plan a funeral, except on the day of the funeral.” Yet that is what the majority of families do. Before Facebook and other social platforms became available, the marketing plan for most funeral homes was to simply wait for an “at need” call to come in. Social media platforms including Facebook now provide the modern funeral home a way to reach out to the living in creative, appropriate ways to build lasting relationships and to bring the topic of pre need to healthy families in a positive way.”

Right from the start, buzz words like “targeted market,” “brand themselves,” all carry the stench of industry, not profession or vocation. What most caught my attention was Alan’s presumption that “[h]ealthy families don’t want to think about death.” “Healthy families don’t want to think about death”?!?! So if a family is in avoidance or denial about death, that is a healthy family; the family that prepares and acknowledges death is by Alan’s reasoning, unhealthy? Alan’s point: Denial is good because we can come up with a slogan to sell it. In my experience, I have yet to see anyone on Facebook interested in, much less looking for a funeral home’s “creative, appropriate ways to build lasting relationships.” In fact, most people on Facebook are generally losers, sociopaths, or worse looking for relationships in all the wrong places, that is, on Facebook and social media!

Alan continues, “I am not a client of Ryan’s, however, I feel he cares for his clients and his strategies might make sense for your business as well.”

I differed substantially from the points that both Alan and Thogmartin were making. I advocated recognizing and exploiting in a compassionate way the opportunities available to every funeral director and funeral operation that has espoused and maintains human values in their operations. I wrote, “Deathcare is human care.” Deathcare is also an extension of lifecare. Once we depart from the embodied flesh and blood interpersonal engagement, and opt for the icy cold digital offerings such as Thogmarting’s “opportunities” and Facebook “friends,” we are violating a sacred trust inherent in those who allege to serve suffering human beings in some of their most difficult times. Once a human services profession takes the marketing and profit route, they have prostituted a noble profession for the profane and mercenary objectives of technology and industry, of materialism and consumerism. What comes next?

Death is death and deathcare doesn’t need to be “creative.” Death doesn’t make an appointment but knocks where he will. We don’t need to “reach out” but must wait. Death smiles at us and all we can do is smile back, not “friend” him on Facebook or other social media. The death care professions (FDs, funeral assistants, chaplains) are similar to spiritual-care professionals (pastors, rabbis, imams, priests, chaplains) and the health care professionals (physicians, nurses, chaplains); they are flesh and spirit professions; once they go full technology or digital, they are no longer truly humancare professions. As a chaplain, I have my feet in all of these niches, and I have the education and the training to recognize when they move from the sacred to the profane, and the courage to make my colleagues aware of their transitioning.

I’ll closed my remarks by responding to Alan’s suggestion that some of Thogmartin’s suggestions may be good for my “business.” My one closing point made to Alan was: Mine is a vocation, not a business.

Alan returned with some further observations, replying directly to me:

“Here is where the disconnect is. No one has said digital offerings is [sic] replacing the human care profession. You say we don’t need to reach out, but must wait. The way you see the world doesn’t mean it’s the only way. It’s simply your opinion. At any given time there are thousands of families facing an end of life situation, sometime quality information can come to these families that will help them make better or more educated choices during a very difficult time. Quality Digital offerings whether researched or provided to a suffering family can be of great help and relief to a family. No one is saying it should be a replacement to human care and authentic sincere personal compassion.”

Alan works in funeral home marketing strategies and provides ideas to help funeral homes generate higher quality “at need calls”. I’m not quite sure what exactly all that means but he does tend to agree with Thogmartin; so I guess that puts us at odds to some degree.

Another participant, Matt, who is business development manager at a popular funeral information site writes:

“Whilst I agree that Facebook is a great tool for awareness of your brand, I think too many funeral directors set up a business Facebook page, post a few things every now and then and assume they have the whole digital marketing thing covered. The reality is people don’t use Facebook to find funeral directors, or any business for that matter – so you really need a balanced approach with the ultimate aim to get them on your website – that’s when they will pick up the phone.”

Alan, you are missing my point. I differ substantially from the points both you and Thogmartin are making. I advocate recognizing and exploiting in a compassionate way the opportunities available to every funeral director and funeral operation that has espoused and maintains human values in their operations. Deathcare is human care.

Alan continues:

“Here is where the disconnect is. No one has said digital offerings is replacing the human care profession. You say we don’t need to reach out, but must wait. The way you see the world doesn’t mean it’s the only way. It’s simply your opinion. At any given time there are thousands of families facing an end of life situation, sometime quality information can come to these families that will help them make better or more educated choices during a very difficult time. Quality Digital offerings whether researched or provided to a suffering family can be of great help and relief to a family. No one is saying it should be a replacement to human care and authentic sincere personal compassion.”

My response to Alan was quite clear:

“I’m not saying that my view is the only view. I am saying that my view is a hell of a lot more circumspect than the view aimed at capturing a market, creating “brand” recognition, or exploiting an opportunity. A funeral home does not need social media to provide a top-shelf and profitable human service to their community and even beyond. A funeral home does need open eyes and ears to read and hear their community. And I would further emphasize that death, even death in a digital age, is still a community experience, a community engagement, a community interaction. While institutionalized religion has lost a great deal of credibility and ground in recent decades in the industrialized West, it is because they have neglected or fogotten the notion of koinoia or in the East, sobornost, a term meaning fellowship, community. The same applies to medicine and healthcare, and education, too.

“All have neglected or outright forgotten community, humanity in favor of branding, marketing, profit. How have so many of our colleagues missed that important point, that insidious development, and yet, continue on the slippery slope. I know of no family of the hundreds that I have served, who went to Facebook in the initial hours of their bereavement to find anything. While it is true, some less affected family members or friends, more remote from the immediate loss do “spread the word” about the event, but they certainly do not look for goods or services on Facebook. Granted they may search for services by googling but that’s quite a different kettle of fish. Perhaps, and only perhaps, they may look for “Quality Digital Offerings” during less demanding times but I question whether they look for a funeral home on such occasions, much less on social media like Facebook.

“The bottom line, Alan, and others of that way of thinking is that during an extended dying process, in the event of traumatic, sudden or unexpected death, even in the event of anticipated and planned death, most clients seek the inputs and insights of community leaders: the nursing staff, the social worker, the chaplain, relatives, friends, the phone book (if these still exist), or a local internet search. Or they simply drop in at the closest funeral home and seek help. That’s the way it’s done in communities.”

I returned to Matt, and I explained that that’s where Thogmartin’s niche is: to get funeral directors, by their very nature a local presence and local service, to buy into his Facebook business, either through his service offerings or through his consultancy services. Matt is quite correct when he writes that people don’t use Facebook to find a funeral home, certainly not at an at-need time, or even for pre-arrangements. Nevertheless, some funeral homes, even some of the more or less traditional pre-millenial directors, and, of course their millenial and post-millenial progeny, are naïvely enthralled by technology, and think that social media is the be-all-end-all. But it isn’t as Matt correctly observes two points: First, funeral directors don’t understand what Facebook (and other social media, including LinkedIn) can and cannot do for them, and secondly, that most people don’t use Facebook to find a product or service. That’s the reality despite the Zuckerbergs and the Thogmartins of the world. Let’s stop trying to reinvent the wheel, and let’s stop trying to fit round pegs into square holes. In the first instance it is simply unnecessary, and in the second instance it’s a fool’s game.

At one point in the discussion, Ryan Thogmarting himself, labeling himself as Owner/CEO at DISRUPT Media – Social Media Marketing, chimes in:

“My entire approach to social media for funeral homes focuses on the funeral home building trust, transparency and relationships through the content they share. The focus should absolutely be about building an engaged ‘community’. You are correct Rev, families aren’t necessarily going to Facebook for at-need. The point is to be able to engage the family through social media and establish a relationship prior to at-need.

I responded that “[m]ost people, with whom I work, do not go to social media to build trust, transparency, and relationships through content. That’s a load of rubbish, if you’ll permit me. Trust is a relationship that requires interpersonal engagement and sharing; it requires self-awareness, the ability to admit vulnerability, and knowledge of the other. Transparency is not built but is provided through authenticity and accountability. All of this is done by interpersonal physical engagement and interaction, especially at times of suffering, when the physical senses are paramount, the sense of touch being of essence. While I will grant you that you can build an engaged community on social, ideological or even moral issues, to do so online relies wholly on the ability of community members to communicate verbally; at times nonverbal communication is possible through images, but it is not the embodied community most suffering persons seek in their times of need.”

I continue, “I have to wonder where you have been and just how much you know about the role of the funeral director as a helping professional; apparently very little. I say this because almost every funeral director I have ever known has created and nurtured an embodied presence with their clients, a presence that is possible only by human presence, human relationship, shared vulnerability, compassionate engagement, authenticity, and, yes, trust.”

“That sort of content cannot be shared on Facebook, I’m terribly sorry to have to be the one to inform you of that fact. Anyone can share almost anything on Facebook; the platform provides no assurance of trustworthiness or even of reality. And I’m afraid that your choice of monikers like “Disrupt” does nothing to inspire trust or security. Grief is disruptive enough without involving Disrupt Media or Facebook content or Marketing Strategies.”

In conclusion, Mr. Thogmartin returned with a rather illogical, apparent attempt to save himself and writes:

“We have, just through this conversation, built a relationship – the very thing you are saying can’t be don’t through social media. So, you have contradicted your entire argument. Now, this relationship we’ve built also comes with implied thoughts and perceptions about each other. Based on this now established relationship I can fully say if I were ever in need of palliative care I would absolutely go to someone else. This is an easy example of how funeral professions can build OR destroy community relationships through their engagement on social media.”

Mr. Thogmartin’s response is emblematic of his poor understanding of relationship and the fact that he is a charlatan bellows. I made short work of him in my final response:

“Your pseudologic and feeble attempt to redeem your position is pitiable, at best childish. Your double-talk is really quite annoying. I’m not quite certain where you are going with the palliative care thing but that doesn’t surprise me in the least, given the incoherent and irrationality of your arguments and responses up to this point in the conversation. Moreover, you have quite the perverse notion of relationship, Mr Thogmartin, perhaps you lack the life experience and accordingly any nuance of wisdom that might come from life experience. Again, that is to your discredit and buttresses my position substantially. To be very honest, I find that if that is the best response you have to offer, I have no further expectations of this discussion.”

And so it is and there it remains. I necessarily have to conclude that there are several camps in the funeralization campaign. One espouses a digital, created content, social media presence that purports to create trust, transparency and relationship of some diaphanous sort. I call that the dehumanizing techolology camp. Then there are those who offer human outreach, engagement, awareness, acceptance of vulnerability and compassion in the community group. I call this the engaged empathetic camp, the only camp truly involved in lifecare/deathcare. Then there are those who are sitting on the fence, undecided, tentatively testing the waters in both camps, unable to take any decisive, committed steps. I call that the loser camp.

The question all of us in the lifecare/deathcare vocations and professions must ask ourselves is this: In which camp do we find ourselves and Why? It’s that Why? question that will ultimately identify us as human beings.

[This article was published by Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney in abridged form on LinkedIn on March 29, 2018 entitled “Let Us Recognize BS for What it Is.”]

[1] ConnectingDirectors.com is an online information platform, which describes itself in typical marketing hype as, “[t]he premier progressive online publication for funeral professionals. Connecting Directors is now a thriving global publication with a reader base of over 15,000 of the most elite and forward-thinking professionals in the industry. Founder and CEO Ryan Thogmartin has a vision for where the funeral profession is headed, and has used that vision to successfully position the site as the leading online resource for funeral professionals.”

[2] Spoiler Alert. According to a U.K. poll, the “majority of parents believe social media harms their children’s moral development.”

According to the survey, “Just over half, 55 percent, of people with children ages 11-17, “strongly agreed” that social media hinders or undermines moral development.” The survey, which came from the Jubilee Center for Character and Virtues at Birmingham University, revealed some surprising findings:

“Not least [of these is] the low level of agreement that social media can enhance or support a young person’s character or moral development […] While parents acknowledged that positive character strengths, including moral virtues such as love, courage and kindness, are promoted through social networking sites, they were reluctant to agree that these sites could have a positive impact on their child’s character.”

In fact, the observing parents had this to say about their child’s habits and attitudes on social media:

“60 percent said they had seen anger or hostility.”
“51 percent said they had seen arrogance.”
“41 percent said they saw bad judgment.”
“36 percent said they had seen hatred.”

The vast majority reported a huge absence of humility, self-control, forgiveness, honesty and fairness on social platforms.

[Source: Social media harms moral development, parents say, BBC News, http://www.bbc.com/news/education-36824176, last accessed on March 29, 2018.]

[3] Theories on optimal design of cities, city traffic flows, neighborhoods, and demographics were in vogue after World War I. These conjectures were expanded in 1929 by Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy, who published a volume of short stories titled Everything is Different. One of these pieces was titled “Chains,” or “Chain-Links.” The story investigated – in abstract, conceptual, and fictional terms – many of the problems that would captivate future generations of mathematicians, sociologists, and physicists within the field of network theory. Due to technological advances in communications and travel, friendship networks could grow larger and span greater distances. Karinthy believed that the modern world was ‘shrinking’ due to this ever-increasing connectedness of human beings. He posited that despite great physical distances between the globe’s individuals, the growing density of human networks made the actual social distance far smaller. [Source: Wikipedia, Six Degrees of Separation, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Six_degrees_of_separation last accessed on March 29, 2018.]

The first social media site that was actually “social media” was a website called Six Degrees. It was named after the ‘six degrees of separation’ theory and lasted from 1997 to 2001.

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Groupthink! The risk of paralysis inherent in every group.

“As members of interdisciplinary care teams, we are frequently exposed to and have to cope with what is known as groupthink, a phenomenon that may seriously compromise our efficacy as care providers, and may also compromise our duty of authenticity and autonomy. And yet, groupthink is precisely what underlies much of our training in Clinical Pastoral Education and in the so-called Board Certification programs and our professional organizations, and is pandemic in most of the institutions in which we work. Agendizing, brainwashing, programming.”

Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney B.A., [M.A.], M.Div.

We, as psychospiritual care providers, as chaplains, thanatologists, end-of-life and deathcare providers have an inherent authority in most organizations to speak freely and openly about sensitive subjects without the stigma that might apply to a colleague working in a different field. People tend to listen to us and give credibility to what we have to say; consequently, we can and should play an important and proactive role in making the organizations and leaders with whom we work aware of the groupthink phenomenon, its dangers and risks, and ways of avoiding the phenomenon in our environments. Once people are made aware of the phenomenon and ways to identify it and prevent it, we are on the path to reclaiming the efficacy and authenticity we once enjoyed but lost in the wake of the development of corporate control of our institutions and the chilling of interpersonal relations by online social media.

Groupthink.[1] It’s everywhere and it’s toxic! It’s dehumanizing. It perpetuates lies and factoids. Yet you love it! It makes things so much easier when you don’t have to use your own brain and you allow yourself to be programmed to think, speak, act, perform according to the in-group’s agenda.

Irving Janus mainstreamed the term in 1982. [2] According to Janis, groupthink

“[h]appens when in-group pressures lead to deterioration in mental efficiency, poor testing of reality, and lax moral judgment. It tends to occur in highly cohesive groups in which the group members’ desire for consensus becomes more important than evaluating problems and solutions realistically. An example would be the top executive cabinet (the president and vice presidents) of a firm, who have worked together for many years. They know each other well and think as a cohesive unit rather than as a collection of individuals.” [my italics]

We can find groupthink in our workplaces, churches, schools, social media, government, and Yes! even in our homes.

Janis identified eight symptoms of groupthink, which are noteworthy and which I will briefly describe below.[3] Persons affected by groupthink may exhibit any of these symptoms:

  1. An experience of the illusion of invulnerability. This illusion produces an unreal sense of optimism and the sense of empowerment to take risks, sometimes extreme, which the individual would not otherwise take.
  2. Acceptance of a collective rationalization. The individual ignores the red flags and warnings and refuse to reassess their biases, prejudices and assumptions regarding reality.
  3. Belief in the inherent morality of the group. The individual and members of the group are convinced of the righteousness of their beliefs and become indifferent to the ethical or moral effects and consequences of the group’s decisions and actions.
  4. Establishment and adoption of stereotypes of out-groups. Stereotypes are a facile way of dealing with the “others” and do not require thinking or decision-making. De rigueur negative presumptions and characterizations of the “enemy” render rational and effective responses to conflict unnecessary. Cookie-cutter responses are the result.
  5. The imposition of direct pressure on dissenters. Any deviation from the presumptions and dictates of the group results in sanctions. Individuals, group members are discouraged from expressing alternative views, or representing positions conflicting any of the group’s views.
  6. Requirement of self-censorship. The individual and members of the group are required to ensure that any questions, doubts and deviations from the group’s “consensus,” program, or agenda are not expressed. The individual must “watch his/her mouth” or be sanctioned.
  7. The illusion of unanimity. The views and judgments, decisions and actions of the “group” or of the group’s statutory and declared leader(s) and majority are assumed to be unanimous, justified and reliable.
  8. The presence of self-appointed ‘mindguards’. Certain members isolate and “protect” the group and its leader(s) from information that is problematic or contradictory to the group’s cohesiveness, view, and/or decisions. These are the “thought police” who ensure that any information that can potentially threaten the group or its leaders is filtered out and neutralized.

In other words, the phenomenon of groupthink seems to have grown out of and fits perfectly into the framework of George Orwell’s dystopian novel, “Nineteen-Eighty-Four,” with its implications of superpower invulnerability, collective processing of curated data and information, a sense of moral superiority of the group’s decisions and actions, the facile handling of non-members by the application of stereotypes, direct suppression and sanctioning of any opposing thought or expression — the individual “watches his mouth” to avoid attracting attention to himself and possible sanctioning —, all communications and indicators seem to indicate that “everyone is on the same page” and “stands united.”  Finally, the self-appointed “mindguards,” the Orwellian “thought police,” ensure that everyone toes the mark, knows his place, and follows the “party line.”

The Thought Police or Mindguards ensure that you don’t think out of the box.

As I mentioned above, groupthink is easily observed in our schools, churches, public servants, social groups, the workplace, etc.

Here’s an example that comes from my college days when I worked as an encyclopedia salesperson. We were trained to ask potential purchasers questions that they could not disagree with, such as, for example: “You do care about your children’s education, don’t you?” or “You want your children to have the best available information for school, don’t you?” Once they answered in the affirmative, they were cooked. It was sort of like asking a veteran the question, “You do love your country, don’t you?” Or a clergyperson asking a dissenter, “You do believe in God, don’t you?” Ask those sorts of questions and you get a commitment to groupthink; the rest follows once the individual is on the slippery slope to group membership, willingly or not.

It’s certainly easy enough to self-test yourself by asking yourself if any of the above symptoms could possibly apply to you…but be aware of the sneaky symptom of “self-censorship” because you might actually be unaware that you are self-censoring; you may actually believe that what you say you believe is in fact what you believe. (Please go back and reread that last part. It’s important and you didn’t understand it!)

Everyone connected to the same “brain”, the core-group’s!

Here’s a real example: I was at my fitness center and struck up a conversation with a guy who was working on a neighboring piece of equipment. The conversation started out on muscle groups and doping, use of anabolic steroids, doping scandals, and how natural fitness was desirable over and against taking performance enhancers. The conversation drifted to the inquiry, “What do you do?” The guy was intelligent, apparently well-read in the subject of performance enhancers in athletes, and was no dummy. He responded by telling me he was a “personal income tax auditor” for the state of New York. What followed was a textbook example of groupthink. He commenced by telling me how interesting his job was because he was making sure everyone stayed honest. Everyone should pay taxes. Not everyone was honest, some people were honest but ignorant. The tax department and auditors were there to protect the public. He was happy doing what he was doing, and he liked his work. He was protecting honest citizens from the crooks and the parasites. New York state took care of its people unlike those states with no personal income tax, states that provided sanctuary to people who want to keep their fortunes but not share by paying personal income taxes. Basically, you can’t argue with this guy because what he is saying is superficially true, ethical and moral. But, and there’s the clincher, his thinking from one subject to the other was schizoid! He was very individualized, independent, even liberal when discussing the social and personal impact of performance enhancers on non-professional vs. professional athletes, and the use of performance enhancers in the guy-next-door who works out to stay healthy or attractive. His lock-step “tax department” jargon and speech, almost soapbox preaching, was groupspeak, the product of groupthink. Can you identify the symptoms?

Here are two more examples I found on a professional networking site, LinkedIn, which is slowly morphing into a Facebook-type social media space. Whereas LinkedIn was originally intended to be a forum facilitating networking among professionals, the parasites slowly infiltrated and started their social justice preaching and religious proselytizing.

One characteristic of social justice and religion is that both are fertile ground for a bumper crop of groupthinkers. Example 1: Social Justice. This example is remarkable because it is so homogeneous in the majority responses and because of the sheer number of responses: 5,013 Likes, 321 comments! Synopsis: A young woman with Down’s syndrome appears in what is obviously a staged video, in which she receives a call from a fast-food chain, Chik-Fil-A, in which she is offered a job paying $11.50/h. It is her first real job and she is elated at the offer and accepts.

The groupthink: Actual comments: “Awesome!” “Wonderful!””Isn’t Chik-Fil-A a great company!””The story brought tears to my eyes!” “It made my day! We need more stories like this!” But many of the comments were condescending: They mentioned “learning disability” and how remarkable it was that this young woman had “won,” how employment “is a right,” and other misguided slogans associated with what we know as PC but was described by Janis as groupthink. The censorship/sanction/thought police action: A commenter posted some reasonable, dissenting, conflicting thoughts about the reality of the situation in terms of stereotyping highly functional Down’s syndrome  persons as having “learning disabilities,” a bucket term that stereotyped them unfairly. That she was hired on her merits and if she didn’t have what Chick-Fil-A needed and wanted, she would not have gotten the call. That Down’s syndrome persons are highly desirable in service jobs with customer contact because of their personality characteristics, as was pioneered by McDonald’s some time ago, and that these corporations are exploiting vulnerable persons with Down’s syndrome because they are perfect for these low-paying jobs, and it creates a very positive social image for the corporation, so-called “organizational health.” (See the McKinsey report below.)

Needless to say, the “mindguards” were quick to respond, and butchered the commentor for being “a Grinch,” for not “caring” and for his “dripping sarcasm.” Not a single comment out of more than 300 comments and replies accepted the truth of what the commenter wrote; almost all condemned him for not sharing the majority’s groupthink. (Click here to read the actual comments made by the commenter and some of the replies.)[4]

The value of hiring persons with Down syndrome is not lost on the corporations![5]

The economic benefits of hiring persons with intellectual challenges is not lost on the corporations, as is demonstrated by the McKinsey report[6], but we’re not supposed to talk about the dark side of Julia’s hiring because the group think won’t allow anyone to pop their bubble of denial or distract them from their happy, be nice, love fest by suggesting reality. That’s groupthink.

One of the most recent dum-dee-dull-dull-DUH! comments came from one Richard Martire (Southern Star Events) who touts himself as “Improving Customer Relations & Boosting Revenue through Transparent Communication. Mr Martire writes: “Pardon my confusion, but how does a video showing a woman with disability getting a job offer lead to “didactic methods of devil’s advocate” or groupthink? Are you implying that people shouldn’t echo their support to this video, or are you just pushing your article?” Apparently Mr Martire has no idea of what devil’s advocacy or dialectic inquiry, or the elenchic method might be. The concepts are just as transparent to him as his “transparent communication” is to me. Transparent is a nice word but wouldn’t it be clearer if Mr Martire read my comments and this article before  making a fool of himself with his driveling his sarcasm? Why “transparent communication” when we can have “clear communication.” Big words don’t help the communication, Dicky.

Here’s another from the same site, LinkedIn. This time it was a religious fanatic known popularly as a “Jesus-freak,” someone who posts an inflammatory statement about how Jesus is the truth and everything else is a lie. First of all, such posts are more Facebook quality and have nothing to do with professional networking, so it shouldn’t have been on LinkedIn in the first place. So the original post by one David Wood, who describes himself as the “Executive Producer Resurrection of Jesus Christ, Resurrection of Jesus Christ LLC, School Of Hard Knocks,” and his project as:

“The Resurrection Project unites the Body of Christ, to launch a global love movement, a feature length movie, and a video game, and tell the story of Jesus’ Christ resurrection and the 40 days that followed. “The Resurrection of Jesus Christ” is the greatest love story ever told.” www.theresurrectionofjesuschrist.com [Author’s note: My italics; I have not undertaken any editing of Mr. Wood’s English.]

His post was simply:

That was it. My first reaction was that Islam never claimed that Muhammad was God. Nor does Buddhism teach that Buddha was a god. The name applied to God in Arabic, and hence in Islam is Allah, which is merely an equivalent of the English, God, so that point is really moot. And the fact that Wood claims that his Jesus is the “only one God” reveals a bit of tunnel vision, even religious and theological ignorance. This is groupthink at one of its worst moments!

My point is this: Approach that post as I did, with the above reasoning, and you will obtain a clear lesson in groupthink.  The post received 51 Likes and 15 Comments but was seen be hundreds, perhaps thousands who didn’t want to “offend” by responding. (Or perhaps because religion is not as popular as Down’s syndrome? Or because the message was so bizarre? Who can say for sure?)

Those three examples should suffice to convince even the hardcore groupthinkers of their affliction.

The kinds of groups that are particularly at risk for the groupthink phenomenon are, of course, groups that we could characterize as cliques, whether consisting of 3 or 3000 persons. Cliques don’t need to be small and a whole company or department may become a clique. The group or clique should be cohesive for groupthink to develop; cohesive factors may include ethnicity, similar interest, and physical appearance. Members of a clique often isolate themselves as a group and tend to view the clique as superior to anyone outside the clique.

Cliques can form in any age group but they are most associated with groups whose members have gotten stuck in an adolescent or late childhood developmental stage, the stage when individuals normally form and become members of such groups. Accordingly, groupthink is characteristic of individuals who may have gotten stuck in a pre-adult developmental stage.

Facebook is a well known huge groupthink-tank in which groupthink can be diagnosed at various levels in the interactions from the very top, where the Facebook Standards and the thought police are active censoring deviant thinkers, that is, anyone who may not agree with Facebook or its policies, to the smaller yet equally repulsive “groups,” which may be “open,” “closed” or “secret”. The problem and real danger associated with Facebook and other social media that functions by exploiting the groupthink phenomenon is the sheer numbers of people who can be and actually are affected by the clique(s).

Another problem is what I would call the “Room 101” factor[7]:  the fact that in terms of groupthink, when Facebook decides to deactivate an account for one reason or another, whether for a period of time certain (days, weeks, etc.) or permanently, this “punishment” practice has a psychospiritual effect on the affected individual, similar to being shunned or banned froma group or a clique. It is a powerful motivator to keep people under their thumb, a control strategy, that works extremely well once Facebook has hooked a person, and the person is sufficiently invested in Facebook in terms of time spent and digital friends collected, such that the now addicted subscriber will feel the psychosocial pain of being “deactivated.,” in a sense placed in isolation by Facebook without the benefit of due process. Yes, it’s the beginning of the end of open communication, autonomy, and due process. Similar, in fact, to “vaporizing” a dissenter in Orwell’s “1984” where the dissenter is simply made to disappear, as if he never existed. [8]


The same “vaporizing” occurs when someone “unfriends” or “blocks” another subscriber who may have violated the group-leader’s or the group’s groupthink policies. Have you been Facebook vaporized recently? You wouldn’t know if you had been because Facebook keeps it a secret; only the vaporizer and Facebook knows it. Same applies when someone has a grudge against you on Facebook: they simply report you for such-and-such, and you find yourself deactivated. Groupthink à la Facebook!

The groupthink phenomenon can be avoided but only if the clique or the group is willing to acknowledge the phenomenon, to recognize it in their group, and sees the benefits of avoiding the phenomenon.

Fred Lunenburg (2012) proposes a number of possible ways to avoid groupthink in a group, including[9]:

  • Encouraging group members to state and air objections, doubts, and questions,
  • Promoting impartiality rather than stating preferences and expectations of the group at the outset,
  • The group leaders should periodically discuss the group’s policies and practices and report their transactions back to the group, inviting feedback,
  • Members should be invited to challenge the views of core members (and leaders),
  • At least one member should play the role of devil’s advocate, expressing objections or critiquing group policies and practices, and beliefs,
  • Where there is devil’s advocacy, members should spend time and effort evaluating the warning signals of developing groupthink inherent in adverse responses,
  • Alternative scenarios should be constructed by group leaders in evaluating any rivaling intentions,
  • In the case of a member who appears to consistently rival the group’s polices or practices (Red flag! Think groupthink!), the member should be asked to express as vividly as he can all his residual doubts,
  • Group leaders or core members should present the entire issue to the group to elicit feedback and insights before making any definitive choices or decisions.

Group coherence and decision making has clear benefits over individual decision making. This is especially true when a decision must be made under conditions of uncertainty.[10] Some of the benefits described by Bonito (2011) include[11]:

  • Improved decision quality
  • Higher level of creativity and creative thinking
  • Improved decision acceptance and organizational learning
  • Increased decision understanding
  • Enhanced effectiveness in establishing objectives, identifying alternatives
  • Greater decision accuracy and avoidance of errors and glitches

Admittedly, these benefits may be less related to the actual outcomes of decisions than they are to group morale and satisfaction; we can agree that groups should and probably do perform better when

  • Group members present a variety of relevant skills that differ sufficiently but do not create constraints or conflicts;
  • There is a division of labor or effort, input;
  • Individual inputs can be “averaged” in such a way as to arrive at a group “position.”

By now you might be asking yourself the question: “That having been said, and while applicable to business decisions or to Facebook and other moderated social media, how does that apply to spiritual care or to chaplaincy practice?” Well, in order to answer that question, I have to ask you to step out of the spiritual care or chaplaincy box, and think about the environment in which we practice.

Most of us will find ourselves practicing as psychospiritual care providers or thanatologists in a hospital, palliative care, hospice, or skilled nursing facility. Some of us will practice in any or all of those environments plus provide services to the deathcare sector. The most complex environment, of course, would be the modern hospital or trauma center. The most intimate would be the deathcare sector (funeral home). Each of these environments is at high risk of the groupthink phenomenon.

We frequently say that “emotions are contagious,” but we don’t frequently admit that not only emotions but the environment created by the attitudes and thinking of leaders and core members in a group are just as contagious in the form of groupthink.

Those of us with hospital experience will admit that each floor or service has its own culture, and if we are to work effectively with the staff and efficaciously serve the patients on that floor or service, we have to be aware of the groupthink phenomenon as it most certainly exists on that floor. Take for example, the service where the nursing leadership is more technically oriented than spiritually, and their attitude towards the “necessary evil” of chaplain intervention must be tolerated rather than facilitated. That attitude extends to all the staff on that service and the symptoms of groupthink are explicit. How do we deal with that situation armed with the awareness of the probable existence of groupthink?

Organizations like hospice are hotbeds for the groupthink phenomenon because they are founded on very clear principles of operation and program. The objectives and goals of hospice are clearly defined and the team is guided by specific tasks and protocols. The agenda is clearly defined. You simply don’t dissent or rock the hospice boat. Groupthink.

Institutional Agendas Define the Group.

Palliative care situations are probably somewhere in between the hospital/trauma center and the hospice situation. Depending on how tightly management controls operations, groupthink may be more or less obvious, but clearly the palliative care environment can be fertile ground for groupthink.

Depending on whether the funeral home is a traditional “family” operation or if it is a member of a deathcare service “group” or is a multinational corporation providing a range of deathcare products and services, groupthink may range from “tradition” to “corporate policy.”

As “tradition” the groupthink may have developed as a response to the local culture, whether it be socioeconomic, ethnic, religious, etc. In this case, it is a response to the exigencies of doing business with that demographic mix, and is almost a requirement for survival. Is this “positive” groupthink? Perhaps, but it goes without saying that unless the establishment leaves the door open to open discussion, sharing of insights, correct interpretations of warning signs and red flags, it can quickly transmute into “negative” groupthink.

As the organization leaves the traditional, local, “family” orientation or organization and moves towards the group or the corporate systems, groupthink becomes more of a high risk than a positive stabilizing factor. This is where the culture of the group or corporation overshadows the individuals that move it as well as those who consume its products and services. Rather than being an evolving, “living” organism, it is a monolith.

A number of large multinational corporations like IBM, 3M, Anheuser-Busch have recognized the threat posed by groupthink and have implemented and developed processes to prevent or at least to mitigate its deleterious and prejudicial effects within the components of the organization and on the organization as a whole. Lunenburg (2012) discusses some of the ways they have approached prevention of groupthink by way of methods like devil’s advocacy and dialectical inquiry. McDougel and Baum (1997) discuss the application of devil’s advocacy to stimulate discussion and avoid groupthink in focus groups.[12] McAvoy et al. discuss how devil’s advocacy and the principles of sensemaking can be used in a method they call the “agitation workshop” as a method of challenging the false consensus created by the groupthink phenomenon.[13]

Do frequent meetings and evaluations work to avoid groupthink? More likely than not, they may actually promote groupthink when leadership reiterate at each meeting the same expectations at the outset, setting the stage for a more limited and controlled conversation that does not allow for alternative discussion. But such meetings and evaluations and be highly productive if, at the outset, the leaders or facilitators are aware of the symptoms of groupthink and some of the methods to directly avoid it, as well as the quasi-paedagogical methods of enhancing creative thinking, even improving performance by institutionalizing dissent!

We, as psychospiritual care providers, as chaplains, have an inherent authority in most organizations to speak freely and openly about sensitive subjects without the stigma that might apply to a colleague working in a different field. People tend to listen to us and give credibility to what we have to say; consequently, we can and should play an important and proactive role in making the organizations and leaders with whom we work aware of the groupthink phenomenon, its dangers and risks, and ways of avoiding the phenomenon in our environments. Once people are made aware of the phenomenon and ways to identify it and prevent it, we are on the path to reclaiming the efficacy and authenticity we once enjoyed but lost in the wake of the development of corporate control of our institutions and the chilling of interpersonal relations by online social media.

Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney
January 2018


Notes

[1] Irving Janis originally coined the term groupthink in 1972. (Janis, Irving L.  (1972).  Victims of Groupthink.  New York: Houghton Mifflin.)

[2] Janis, I. L. (1982). Groupthink: Psychological studies of policy decisions and fiascos (2nd ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton-Mifflin.

[3] For a more comprehensive discussion of the eight symptoms please refer to Janis’ Groupthink, Psychological Studies, above. A brief and very helpful overview of groupthink is provided in What is Groupthink? (http://www.psysr.org/about/pubs_resources/groupthink%20overview.htm, last accessed on January 8, 2018, 2018).

[4] The “Julia got a job!” obviously scripted video is synopsized on YouTube in the following words: “A heartwarming video shows the moment a teenage girl with Down syndrome receives her first job offer. A girl named Julia gets a phone call from a Chick-fil-A employee in Rancho Murieta, California. ‘I was just calling to offer you a position here,’ the woman says on speaker phone. ‘Your pay rate would be 11.50 per hour, would you like to accept?’ ‘I do,’ Julia says, her face overcome with emotion. As the woman tells her that she will start in December, Julia breaks down in tears of happiness. ‘Oh my gosh,’ she can be heard saying as she thanks the woman profusely. Julia’s family then encircles her and gives her a massive hug while chanting ‘Chick-Fil-A’. “ (AutoNews- Source:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-5101331/Teen-girl-syndrome-cries-s-given-job.html?ITO=1490&ns_mchannel=rss&ns_campaign=1490)

[5] According to McKinsey & Company, a global management consulting firm that serves private, public and social sector institutions, in a report entitled, “The value that employees with Down syndrome can add to organizations,” we read “[H]owever, some companies have chosen to tackle the far more complex challenge of hiring people with intellectual disabilities. Those that have done so have found that these people can add value to organizational health (an organization’s ability to align, execute, and renew itself faster than competitors so that it can sustain exceptional performance over time). Employees with Down syndrome are a particularly interesting topic of research, as they have a number of characteristics that both increase the challenges associated with inclusion and bring added benefits.” [my italics] (McKinsey & Company (2014) “The value that employees with Down Syndrome can add to organizations” (Vicente Assis, Marcus Frank, Guilherme Bcheche, and Bruno Kuboiama), last accessed on January 9, 2018.)

[6] Ibid.

[7] I’m referring to the notorious Room 101 described in Orwell’s novel “Nineteen-Eighty-Four,” the room in the Ministry of Truth (MiniTru in Newspeak), where dissenters were taken for “processing,” most never to be heard from again. “You asked me once,” said O’Brien, “what was in Room 101. I told you that you knew the answer already. Everyone knows it. The thing that is in Room 101 is the worst thing in the world.”  (“1984” Part 3, Ch. 5)  In “1984” the Inner Party persecutes individualism and independent thinking known as “thoughtcrimes” and is enforced by the “Thought Police.” The Ministry of Love (Miniluv), the ministry in charge of torturing dissidents.  The protagonist Smith is subjected to many forms of torture and is forced into the horror chamber known only as Room 101.

[8] Mind Control – George Orwell BBC 101 Documentary last accessed on January 9, 2018.

[9] Lunenburg, F. (2012).” Devil’s Advocacy and Dialectical Inquiry: Antidote to Groupthink”. International Journal of

Scholarly and Academic Intellectual Diversity, Vol 14, No. 1, pp 1-9.

[10] Nikolaidis (2012) defines uncertainty as “the condition under which an individual [or group] does not have the necessary information to assign probabilities to the outcomes of alternative solutions. (Nikolaidis, E. (2012).  Design decisions under uncertainty with limited information. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.)

[11] Bonito, J. (2011). Interaction and influence in small group decision making. New York, NY: Routledge.

[12] McDougal, C., F. Baum, (1997) “The Devil’s Advocate: A Strategy to Avoid Groupthink and Stimulate Discussion in Focus Groups,” Qualitative Health Research, Volume 7, Number 4, pp 532-541.

[13] John McAvoy, Tadhg Nagle and David Sammon, (2013) “A novel approach to challenging consensus in evaluations: The Agitation Workshop,” The Electronic Journal Information Systems Evaluation, Volume 16 Issue 1,  pp 45-55.

Death Bereavement and Be-ing

Republished with permission from Spirituality and Griefcare.


Death does not respect age; any death is a loss whether it be an 18-month old infant, an 18-year old youth, or an 81 year old matron. They are all significant losses to someone and each instance has its own pattern of grief responses and challenges to overcome. Regardless of age, gender, socioeconomic status or any other feature, each death is unique and special, like no other death ever or anywhere, because with each death we lose an entire world, an entire package of experiences that may have just been in the process of unwrapping.

We hardly ever speak of a beforelife but tend to be overly concerned with the afterlife. It may be comforting for some of us to reflect on who and where we were before we became who we are when we were born. It’s interesting to ponder that question because we can either trust that we were in fact somewhere, existing, before we were physically conceived. But where was that? The alternative is to believe that once a random sperm entered a waiting egg, a cascade of events was triggered that became the infant you and developed into the you you are today. Quite honestly, neither of the two hypotheses can really be resolved, because we have no real idea what constitutes “you.” Perhaps that’s why we prefer to occupy ourselves with an afterlife, since in that discussion we at least have a tangible quantity to work with: a physical person with all sorts of attributes has died, and we ask the many questions associated with a death, most often Why? and Where?

We are terribly uncomfortable with being so vulnerably human and can’t bear to think that we will someday, somewhere, somehow die. We will physically stop working and some rather disgusting changes will take place in our physical bodies. Like the proverbial ostrich, most of us wander aimlessly and with minimum purpose along the myriad possible paths through the time and space we call life. We greedily seek one diversion or entertainment after the other, never getting enough, and yet demanding and getting more and more distraction from the reality of ourselves and the world around us. We become a shell of what we potentially can be.

Shells of former selves.

When death finally arrives to claim a loved one or a friend, we are shocked, confused, angry, and demanding. How could this have happened? Why did it have to happen? If only…! Reality is really hard to take and when you are so arrogant that you think you can handle all the answers or can control what happens, reality gets even harder on you. You attempt to quench your anxiety with denial but it doesn’t seem to work for you – or anyone else. Death visits and seldom knocks. Death rarely makes an appointment to come around when it’s convenient. Death just drops by and takes what is his.

When a death occurs it almost always ushers in a psychospiritual process we commonly refer to as grief, and a psychosocial process we generally refer to as mourning. Both grief and mourning have their sociocultural patterns we call ritual on the “micro” level and ceremony on the “macro” or public arena. Within these we have social norms, including how grief is politicized, acknowledged, and cultural dictates, bundled together into what we call practice or on a more substantial scale, tradition. Religion / spirituality of one form or another, or one of the philosophies seeking religion, frequently provide a foundation upon which these behaviors can establish and legitimize themselves. The psychospiritual and the psychosocial environments provide the contexts in which the bereaved engage in their grief work, find meaning in their loss, incorporate the transformed deceased into their lives, continue their bonds with the deceased, and transcend the bereavement experience as transfigured persons. It’s a complex process that requires time and permission to proceed. Although the social / public process of mourning may have temporal waypoints and a particular culture may set an end time for the public display of bereavement, grief does not have such an amenity. In fact, grief may be experienced for many years after a loss even without being classified as “pathological,” or complicated, and grief is unique to each griever, it’s a personal experience and must be accommodated by each griever in his or her own way. Grief cannot be rushed nor can it be stereotyped.

Today, in the early 21st century, we are deluged with information and stimuli of indescribable variety and in asphyxiating volumes. Some of the deluge tends to shape our very physiology and repattern our nervous systems, especially our brains and the way we think. The information and stimuli enveloping us at every instant of every day is insidiously evil in that it is directed at transforming human beings endowed with free will into means to unhealthy ends. The media bombarding every single human being today is dehumanizing us and transforming our very existence from beings to doers. We are no longer mindful of the gift of the moment we are living in and we are unable to enjoy the moment in silent reflection We have no peace. Television, radio, emails invade every moment of our lives with commands to “Hurry!” “Don’t wait!” “Do it now!” “Last Chance.” Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging have all replaced real personal relationships with virtual personal relationships. The once sentient being we called human has become a mere reflection in a smartphone screen. We don’t even take the opportunity to speeddial a significant other and would rather spend the time texting rather than  talking. Even “chatting” which was once a form of informal oral communication and stimulus sharing has become realtime texting and responding but there’s nothing real about it.

All of these intrusions and incursions into our humanity and their tragic effects on who and what we are can be seen in our death practices. Digital death is a term that once described online practices centering on death-related communications; today, digital death is the counterpart of a person’s physical death. Our dehumanization is almost complete now because we have moved away from metaphysical, spiritual trust in an afterlife and are now even concerned about what happens to our Facebook page or our Twitter account after we physically die; we are now concerned with a digital afterlife! How pitiful can it get?

Materialist consumerism has decided that your death-related experience, your bereavement, your grief should be limited to three days and then you need to get back to work, get over your loss, and become productive again. It’s called bereavement leave. But it’s not leave to grieve; it’s merely time to get the necessary paperwork done to dispose of whoever it was who died. Three days, people! You’ve lived with an individual for decades, sharing almost every moment and you have three days to get over his death. You’ve raised a child to young man or womanhood, watched a helpless infant become a strapping happy young adult and you have 3 days to get over the car crash that killed him. What have we become?

On April 25, 2017, at 9:20 a.m. two young men, Logan Penzabene and Matthew Hamilton, each 18 years old, were traveling down a main road near their homes, a road they had probably traveled dozens if not hundreds of times on their way to school or once they qualified for their drivers licenses. But today was going to be different, very different. Today was going to be so different that at about 9:20, one would be dead and the other, Matthew Hamilton, in a coma, and hundreds of lives would be forever changed. One would be dead, Logan Penzabene, and the other in a coma. Two families would be plunged into the darkness of despairing grief; a whole community would be plunged into disbelief. An entire school district would be offered grief counseling. Why?

Well, on that fateful morning, the two young men were driving along and for some reason we may never know – perhaps they were texting, perhaps making a call, perhaps responding to some electronic notification – the driver crossed into the oncoming lane of traffic and hit a flatbed tractor trailer head-on, killing the young driver and causing critical head injuries to his passenger. Were they texting, making a call, responding to an electronic notification? Does it really matter? Yes, it does matter! One young man is DEAD, another is in a COMA, a whole community is thrown into disarray. Yes! It does matter!

The appalling part of the story is not that the event was preventable – I cannot support the belief that anything is truly preventable and must dispose of that notion of preventability as just more arrogance believing that we can control events. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is one of those arrogant, self-important political figures who believes that if he announces to a so-called program, “No Empty Chair”,  Teen Safe Driving Campaign, which is heralded on the Campaign website as: “Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today launched the “No Empty Chair” teen driving safety education and enforcement campaign to raise awareness of highway dangers during prom and graduation season.” Apparently, Cuomo believes that if he announces a campaign the problem is solved.  Cuomo’s campaign  was announced on April 15, 2017, the fatal accident occurred on April 25, 2017.

What we have to come to understand is that inflated programs and bombastic political rhetoric or police efforts during a so-called “campaign” do little or nothing to fundamentally change what government and corporations have worked so hard to create: producers to produce goods and services, consumers to consume goods and services, and sheeple to hear and obey (and to consume). The hypocrisy is conspicuous, it’s glaring, but if you’re constantly gazing into your smartphone screen, constantly receiving the indoctrination (in the past called “brainwashing”) and loving every digital minute of it, you won’t notice.

The churches and deathcare providers are elated. The churches because you may never have set foot in church for Sunday worship but they’ll wheel you in one last time and the church and pastor can get 30 minutes of exposure and a check. The deathcare industry doesn’t care one way or the other; the funeral director will get each and every one of us sooner or later, but sooner is better for the bottom line, and even better if it’s a sensational death that will attract multitudes of mourners! Visibility for both. Revenues for both. Rescue and paramedical personnel get to flaunt themselves and their equipment, which is good stuff for budget negotiations. Local political hacks, including everyone from the coroner / medical examiner, to law enforcement responders, to local elected stumpers ever eager for that special moment to appear and look devastated and share “Our prayers are with you today” canned expressions for the cameras. Even the public mourners and their makeshift shrines erected at the accident site. Everyone wants to be seen meditatively and reflectively, even prayerfully standing at the roadside memorial, “paying their respects,” showing solidarity for the momentary grief of a community. It’s really difficult to tell the real from the virtual.

The Penzabene Crash Site.

But the bottom-line, naked reality is that one young man is dead; another is critically injured. The bottom-line, naked reality is that one family is grieving the loss of a vibrant and vital part of that unit called family; a limb has been amputated and just like in the case of amputation of a physical limb, it is acutely painful, and there will be phantom pain even when the limb is no longer there.

Three days of bereavement leave is not going to work. Empty political actions like “No Empty Chair” or whatever they’re calling that stupidity is not going to work. Law enforcement “efforts” – as yet ineffectual and unrevealed – don’t seem to be doing very much. People are still killing each other, and people are getting dead regardless of whether the killing is intentional or unintentional. Sorry but dead is dead.

We can’t change what has happened and there’s no way we can justify any attempt to rationalize what has happened. That’s what makes Gov. Cuomo’s “No Empty Chair” campaign so political and so scurrilous. That’s what makes Bethlehem Police Commander Hornick’s statements like “it’s a tragic loss”  and “our feelings to out to the families” so pro forma and empty. Incidents like this one are not “tragic” and they’re probably not “preventable” by inaugurating campaigns with political undertones like “No Empty Chair.” Most people would probably disagree with what I just wrote. Not tragic!?! How heartless! Not, preventable? How fatalistic, how pessimistic! But those people would be wrong and misguided, victims of their own delusions, denial, and despair.

What I will say is that incidents like these, while not tragic and not preventable, are important teaching moments. Are important opportunities for everyone concerned to re-evaluate themselves and decide what they have become. It’s a time to become reflective and for self-examination. It’s a time to honestly admit that we are all contributing to our own psychospiritual demise, some of you willingly others inadvertently, but the vast majority are all part of the “preventable tragedies” of our post-modern, post-Christian, dehumanized world.

So what’s the final take-home message? Dead is dead. Loss is loss. Grief is unavoidable. The living will bury their dead and go on living. But is it that simple? Not really.

In my thinking, grief is a unique opportunity for personal and community growth. What you can’t change you have to take good advantage of. We do this by extending ourselves in compassion and love. We have to allow ourselves to stop for a moment so that we can catch up with ourselves. In other words, we have to take a moment and sit on a rock and become lost in time watching the brook flow around the obstacles. We need to shut out the white noise in our lives, and listen to the music of the brook and the birds. We need to raise our eyes from the illuminated screen and allow our souls to be illuminated by the sunlight playing off the ripples and the leaves. We need to stop feeling guilty about caring for ourselves and for others. We need to take time off from being busy to being just be-ing. This is essential to reclaiming our humanness, our spirituality.

I recall as a child the silent dying of a favorite apple tree. Of course, as a child I had the time for be-ing and for listening, for seeing; where there is no time for be-ing there’s no time for seeing or for listening. If we slow down we can hear what the Spirit is telling us about the dying of trees, the planet, of people, and what these deaths mean to us as beings capable of creating meaning and reflecting on love and how all of these things came into being, how a Spirit of love brought us into being.

The questions that we ask about death and dying are basically questions about the meaning of being, of be-ing. These are the questions that go into the stories once told around tribal campfires, and which now become part of the narratives that are told about our dead. These stories were the subject matter of the drawings on cave walls long ago, of the poetry of love and loss, and the emotions associated with the death of green in autumn. The Spirit is very generous in using any opportunity or event to make a point to us arrogant, uncertain, hesitant creatures.

We as educators, spiritual care providers, thanatologists, human beings, need to get back to basics and enter the world of the deep soul.

No condolences, no campaigns, no law enforcement efforts, no roadside memorials, no funeralization service will every have the desired, the needed effect unless we learn to appreciate silence. Our institutions from the family to church to government have taken a wrong turn. We live in an “increasingly mechanistic, fragmented, decontextualized world, marked by unwarranted optimism mixed with paranoia and a feeling of emptiness…” [McGilchrist, p. 6]

Our institutions cannot help but have a stake in blunting our maturity even if it means they must destroy the original versions and insights on which those very institutions were founded. We can easily identify that fragmentation in our education system, our government, our churches, and even in our families. [Aside: Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov is a fascinating work of literature in many ways, but the story about the Grand Inquisitor is probably the best illustration of the perverse change in institution over time. Here’s a link to a brilliant portrayal by Sir John Gielgud. The Grand Inquisitor ]

I’ll close with a quote taken from Maggie Ross’ fascinating book, Silence: A User’s Guide, in which she cites a passage from Richard Holloway’s Leaving Alexandria, noting that Holloway’s use of “religion” should be thought of in broad terms, in the sense of any pursuit or interest to which someone ascribes supreme importance

Hear the flow. See the light. Enter the silence.

“All institutions overclaim for themselves and end up believing more in their own existence than in the vision that propelled them into existence in the first place. This is particularly true of religions. Religions may begin as vehicles of longing for mysteries beyond description, but they end up claiming exclusive descriptive rights in them. They seque from the ardour and uncertainty of seeking to the confidence and complacence of possession. They shift from poetry to packaging.” [italics mine]

Download the final article from Spirituality & GriefcareNo Empty Chair

Read a related article at Tragedy or Failure?

Peace and blessings,
Rev.  Ch. Harold

Further reading:
Holloway, Richard. Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt.   Edinburgh: Canongate, 2013. Print.
L’Engle, Madeleine. Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith & Art,  2016. Print.
Ross, Maggie. Silence: A User’s Guide, 2014. Print.

Thanatology Café: Where Presence and Empathy Meet Death.

Church and clergy have fallen flat on their faces when it comes to supporting the bereaved in their difficult moments of loss.  Whether it’s ego or complaisance, pastors are failing their flocks! Scripted, cookie-cutter rituals and services, bland remarks, formulaic prayers all serve to leave the bereaved high-and-dry at a time when they need empathy and presence. A new opportunity for bereavement ministry is being offered in a unique program called Thanatology Café.

Thanatology Café: Where the conversation is about death, is being launched in Ravena, at the RCS Community library, 95 Main Street, Ravena, New York.

Be sure to mark the date: Saturday, April 9, 2016, 2-4 p.m. The program starts promptly at 2:00 p.m. so don’t be late. There will be light refreshments.

The organizers do ask that you sign up at the RCS Community Library using the sign-up sheets available there. You can also sign up at thanatology.cafe@gmail.com. When you sign up via email, you’ll receive an initial registration form that you should fill out and bring with you to the program on April 9.

What is Thanatology Café?

We thought you’d never ask!

joke's over


Thanatology: [than-uh-tol-uh-jee] the study of death and dying, and bereavement, especially the study of ways to understand the coping mechanisms, meaning-making, transcendence and transformation to support the bereaved and mourners, and to lessen suffering and address the needs of the dying and their survivors.


It’s a  totally unique program and it’s called

Thanatology Café.

It’s a place where anyone can come in and talk about their thoughts, concerns, and interests centering on death and dying, bereavement, grief, society and death, spirituality and death, the death industry, our responsibilities as human beings who will die some day.

Thanatology Café is a safe place to talk about the ultimate mystery and to share thoughts and concerns about death and dying. It’s a place where you won’t be judged, no agenda will try to convert you or attempt to sell you something. It’s neutral ground, a sacred space where you can open your heart and mind to benefit everyone.

Thanatology Café will also be a source of valuable information from professionals who work in the field of death and dying. The program will include speakers, presenters, or even a film for discussion. But most of the time it will simply be a place to freely express ideas and thoughts, to share with the entire group or in smaller groups working off their own energies, monitored by a facilitator.

Thanatology Café is going to be offered in at least four counties: Albany, Schenectady, Rensselaer, Greene to start. Since community libraries are centers for education and information and are central to most communities, the organizers will be holding the regular monthly sessions in community libraries throughout the area. There will also be other sessions for special interests or to organize special events like tours etc. to historic sites. One such site is Oakwood Cemetery in Troy, where Uncle Sam is buried along with a slew of other historic figures. But the crematorium chapel is a must see and TC is working on a tour for sometime in May or June 2016.

Thanatology Café is an important resource for first responders, church bereavement groups, bereavement ministries, and even funeral directors (TC will host several presentations by funeral directors with Q&A sessions).

Thanatology Café is for everyone and the invitation is open to anyone who needs or wants to talk about death, dying, grief, mourning, spirituality, traditions and superstitions, the funeral business. The field and conversation is wide open. Only the participants will decide.

Click the link to visit the Thanatology Café blog.

Don't be one. Join us at Thanatology Café on April 9th, RCS Community Library. The Editor

Don’t be one. Join us at Thanatology Café on April 9th, RCS Community Library.

The Editor

Forming a Church-based Bereavement Group

A couple of days ago a reader, Kathy T., wrote to me asking for recommendations on starting a church bereavement program. After having reflected on Kathy’s request and her plan, I responded with the following counsel. I hope it’s helpful to those of you contemplating a response to such a calling or who are already involved in such a program. Please share your thoughts and insights on what I wrote.

Bereavement_Ministry

“A place to listen, yet be heard.”—”A place to cry, yet also laugh.”—”A place to find peace, yet never be over your loss.”—”A place to create lifelong friendships.” 

A bereavement ministry seeks to provide a safe place where the bereaved can gain an understanding of the grief process, have the opportunity to talk through their experiences, and explore their thoughts and feelings with others who are also grieving the loss of a loved one. Doing so will assist the bereaved in working through their grief on their journey to healing so that they, once again, will be able to enjoy a happy and productive life with memories of their loved one.


Good evening, Kathy:

Once again, thank you for your inquiry. It’s my pleasure to provide some assistance to you for your plan to create a bereavement ministry in your church community.

A church community is a very appropriate place to create such a ministry, and in most traditions it is a no-brainer to have one, at least in past generations. Today, it seems, even church communities avoid supporting the dying and the bereaved, and those that do continue that tradition have a very myopic view of how it is to be done.

Research done over the past 20 or so years has shed quite a bit of light on the real needs of the dying and of the bereaved, and healthcare research has shown hands down that a holistic approach is required when dealing effectively and sensitively with the dying person and his or her survivors. In fact, back in the 90s, Charles Corr published an eye-opening article (see details below) on a task-based approach to coping with dying, which was a very novel notion and gained quite a good deal of acceptance in the field of thanatology.

What-Does-our-Church-BelieveBut back to your plan for a church-based bereavement program. One point that is extremely important for anyone starting a bereavement ministry in any faith or belief community is that the persons practicing that ministry must be absolutely familiar with their faith or belief tradition’s teachings on life, dying, death, and any afterlife. While a bereavement ministry is not the place for evangelizing or catechizing, it is a place where the focus is on hope and hope, in contrast to wishing, is reality oriented. Far too many faith community bereavement groups focus too much on past sins, an afterlife, and a promised resurrection. While the past sins part is OK, the last thing a dying person needs is an 11th-hour guilt trip or an anxiety attack! As for the other two, well, they’re still to be proven. Faith goes a long way but it has to be administered with compassion and good sense.

bereavement support hopeIf a bereavement ministry is to companion the person actively dying that person even while dying is still a living person and not dead yet. As a living person, he or she still has meaning, purpose, a legacy, hope. And yes, the dying person is also a bereaved person, since she or he has lost a great deal that was once valued by him or her, and may also be grieving! The bereavement minister can help the dying person find her or his hope, meaning, and assist in a good death and that should, in my opinion, be your focus.

Then there are the survivors, who are bereaved because they are anticipating losing or have already lost a loved one. While it would be naïve to try to persuade you that everyone who dies is a “loved” one we have to frequently admit that not everyone who dies is especially loved, or if loved, perhaps not very liked. This happens and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a lot of unfinished business and you’ll have to deal with it effectively.

While I’m not trying to dissuade or discourage you from responding to a calling, I do want to impress upon you that dying, death, grief, bereavement, mourning can be very, very complicated and you’ll have to do a lot of work learning about the subject matter. Dying, death, grief and bereavement may be as old as humankind itself and one of the most natural things that there is but it’s incredibly complex. Because of the complexity it can be intimidating, which is why it’s so easy to avoid thinking or talking about and so easy to deny.

The saying, “The path to hell is paved with good intentions” applies very precisely to many persons, with the best intentions, embark on a course of action for which they are ill-prepared, and consequently do a lot of damage. This is no place for doing damage and all the good intentions in the world cannot substitute for an ounce of good planning. As a bereavement minister you’ll have to learn all about yourself and your intentions before you step up to the plate, and attempt to provide support to others in crisis. You need to give some thought to what is motivating you to provide bereavement support and if that motivation is really more for you or for your helpees. It’s not uncommon for people to think they are responding to an altruistic calling, when in fact they are the unconscious focus of their efforts. That’s not to say that they don’t do a hell of a lot of good work despite that fact, but some can really cause problems. That’s why it’s so important to be honest with yourself and seek a couple hours of counseling, psychological or competent pastoral counseling, avoiding any sectarian or denominational emphasis, to ensure that you can be authentic and not self-serving.

So, for starters, I’d recommend you get your hands on a very helpful book published by the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC), Handbook of Thanatology: The Essential Body of Knowledge for the Study of Death, Dying, and Bereavement (link: Handbook), by David K. Meagher (Editor), David E. Balk (Editor). The book is a superb overview of death, dying and bereavement and should be on every bereavement minister’s desk. It covers just about all the essentials and has an extensive bibliography. Once you dive into the Handbook, you’ll initially have a sense of being overwhelmed with the scope of bereavement and its myriad manifestations and complications but as you acquire some experience, you’ll find it’s all quite natural.

In Clinical Pastoral Education we teach that the intentional ministry of presence is the essential activity of the bereavement minister. Just being present to hold a hand, give a hug, silent but there. That’s harder than you might think because most of us go through every phase of our lives making some sort of commotion, talking, not listening. But as a bereavement minister, silence, listening will be your greatest challenge.

Boundaries are something you need to explore and I can send you a good bibliography on boundaries in bereavement and crisis facilitation. One of the essential boundaries is that unless you have the credentials, you are not a therapist or a counselor, and as a bereavement minister you are not there to “fix” anything but rather to be an authentic and compassionate companion to the person doing the dying and the survivors.

Again, I’d refer you to ADEC’s professional Code of Ethics (link: Code of Ethics) for some idea of how to manage your conduct in various situations.

You are going to have to invest some time in taking some courses and one place I’d start is with the National Center for Death Education or NCDE (link: NCDE), which is located at Mt Ida College in Newton, MA. The NCDE offers a number of online courses, as well as a Certificate in Thanatology (death studies), which, if you do not have some sort of ministry or pastoral credential or qualifications in phychology, social work, counseling, etc., would almost be essential as a credential for your bereavement ministry. The NCDE also hosts an annual Summer Institute, which is a week-long event that brings in death specialists from practically all over the hemisphere, and features renowned experts in the field of dying, death, grief, and bereavement. You should contact Diane Moran, NCDE director, at dmoran@mountida.edu. You can mention my name when you contact her and let her know I recommended you. She’s a wonderful person and very, very helpful and knowledgeable. She’ll put you on the right path as far as initial credentials are concerned.

As I mentioned, the field is immense, and the learning is a challenge. Once you get the Handbook of Thanatology, you’ll understand what I mean. But please, don’t buy the book outright; it’s very expensive. Have your community library request it on interlibrary loan for you. Take it out for a couple of weeks and just peruse the chapters to get a feel for the field. It’s the kind of book that you can just pick a chapter and read it rather than one that you have to drag thru every chapter to have some continuity. Then, if it’s your cup of tea, purchase it as your desk reference.

In addition to Charles Corr’s article on A Task-based Approach to Coping with Dying (see below for details), I would recommend another of Corr’s articles articles, Dying and Its Interpreters (see below for details). I find the article is very informative and synopsizes much of the important work that has been done on dying over the past couple of decades. Pay close attention to the end of the article in the “Some Lessons to Draw from the Review”, which I find to be very helpful to students.

If you would find it useful, I can send you a short description of the Intentional Ministry of Presence, which describes being present to the dying and by extension to the survivors.

At this very early stage in your journey, it would be very difficult to provide anything more specific, since the field is incredibly wide and complex, and I’m not sure where you stand in terms of background, education, experience, etc. It all makes a difference.

You see, some faith or belief communities have very systematized doctrines on dying and death, while others treat it merely as a transition to something that follows temporal life. Christian and non-Christian traditions can have very complicated death practices, while others simplify the process to an embarrassing degree.


When life brings terrible storms our direction, we may react with anger, fear, depression, sadness, disappointment, and or disbelief. We may vacillate between these feelings until we come to terms with a solution or acceptance of our grief. The object of our grief maybe the loss of a love one, of a job, of a relationship or loss of security. Also, failure, crisis, divorce or any life changes may be substantial for grief. Remember this, healthy grief comes to a solution or acceptance, unhealthy grief is unresolved and may appear either as a psychological or physical illness.
“We walk in faith not by sight.” 2 Corinthians 5:7


I guess the best way to proceed is to have an open-door policy, that is, once you have a look at some of the material and look at some of the literature, you’ll be better able to articulate what you want to do. I can’t stress enough that you must also be very well read in your own faith or belief tradition to competently apply it to offering hope and meaning to your brothers and sisters in your church community. One caveat: the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are fine as guidelines but to take them literally may cause problems; they must be read and interpreted in the light of the times and in the context in which they are applied. At the risk of seeming areligious or insensitive, the deathbed, the vigil, the funeral, the memorial is no place to start Bible-thumping or pushing Jesus on the bereaved; what they are looking for is meaning and hope in their faith both for themselves and for the dead loved one. Once they are dead, everything else we do is for the living.

So there you have some ‘random’ thoughts to digest. Please feel free to contact me any time if you have any questions or need any information.

Prayer is good only if it is invited; we can always pray silently even when not requested to do so. So let’s now close with a little prayer of faith, hope and love:

Let me know be firm in my faith as my end draws ever nearer.  When my time comes, let me depart this life peacefully, and join my family and friends, waiting for me on the other side, now more of them gone than remaining here below.  The sands of my time are running out…I am yours, Lord, now and forever, in faith, in hope, in love!  Please, please, hold me ever in Your heart.  Let their souls rise blazingly bright once more, and please receive them Jesus into shining and eternal glory with You! All this I pray to You My good Redeemer, in hope and confidence and burning ardent love. Amen.

Peace and blessings!
Chaplain Harold

Resources:

  • Corr, C.A. (1991). “A task-based approach to coping with dying”. Omega: Journal of Death and Dying, 24,81-94.
  • Corr, C.A., Doka, K.J., & Kastenbaum, R. (1999). “Dying and its interpreters: A review of selected literature and some comments on the state of the filed”. Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying, 39, 239-259.

As interfaith chaplains, it is becoming increasingly necessary to acknowledge the failures of institutionalized religions as regards the real and existential spiritual needs of their adherents and their conspicuous success in alienating them either by dismissing revered doctrines to court political correctness and decadence, or populating key leadership positions with careerists in lieu or pastors. The role of the interfaith chaplain/spiritual care provider is becoming more and more in demand as and educated public seeks and develops hybrid spiritualities from a plethora of faith and belief systems, making it necessary for the interfaith chaplain to become an interfaith scholar in order to competently and professionally serve the faith-unbound faithful. We are providing in this article an account of the plight of a Brooklyn family trying to find an interfaith chaplain who could competently and compassionately serve them.

It seems that it’s very difficult to find a competent, experienced, professional interfaith officiant in the New York Metropolitan Area. Even the historic Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn reports that they frequently cannot fill the need for officiants at funerals and memorials.

The beautiful historic chapel at Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY

The interior of the Green-Wood Cemetery Chapel. A beautiful venue for a beautiful service.

The family of a victim of violent death was searching in vain for an officiant for the memorial service and ennichement of their loved one and finally found Chaplain Harold Vadney, who initially deviated from protocol to compassionately provide a memorial service program for the family. The family was so impressed with the program and with the service and support they received from Chaplain Harold that they insisted he travel to Brooklyn’s historic Greenwood Cemetery to officiate the memorial service and the ennichement.

Chaplain Harold initially encouraged the family to take some time to think about their request and to consider the cost involved to bring him from Albany, New York, to Brooklyn. The family made their decision: they wanted Chaplain Harold.

Although the family insisted on the chaplain’s comfort when traveling and wanted to bring him in by train, the chaplain suggested rather that he travel by bus at less than a third of the cost of a train ticket and, noting Amtrak’s reputation for unreliability, suggested its was the most reliable mode of transport. Chaplain Harold’s slogan is: “I don’t waste my resources and I won’t waste yours.

Chaplain Harold made the trip and had the privilege of celebrating the memorial service,a special Christian-Muslim hybrid ceremony, and ennichement rites in the beautiful and historic Green-Wood Chapel to the family’s complete satisfaction.

For more information on the beautiful national historic site, Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York, please click this link: Green-Wood

“The administrative and support staff at Green-Wood couldn’t have done more to accommodate the family and the celebration; they were some of the most compassionate and helpful cemetery staff I have ever experienced!”, says Chaplain Harold.

Chaplain Harold Vadney is a professional bereavement chaplain and provides interfaith, non-denominational, and humanistic (non-religious) pastoral care services and funeral/memorial services in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy-Greene county region in central New York state, and travels to other areas to provide services to families in need. Chaplain Harold can be reached at compassionate.care.associates@gmail.com or through your comment on this blog.

Another Beautiful Service! Thank you! Chaplain Harold

Another Beautiful Service!
Thank you! Chaplain Harold

An essential asset to the mortuary services provider and to the consumer

New Article

Unity SymboldThe professional interfaith bereavement chaplain: an essential asset to the mortuary services provider and to the consumer

A straight – from – the – hip discussion of the state of affairs, solutions and recommendations by an experienced provider of professional interfaith bereavement services.

Abstract. This article presents an uncosmetized impression of the deterioration in quality of death services, and based on firsthand observations makes practical recommendations for improving the services provided to and requested by the bereaved and supportive of mourners. This article makes recommendations to the consumer as well as to the mortuary services provider, that include among other things: sensitivity to the spiritual needs of the mourner, addressing those needs with appropriate sensitivity, providing for those needs through the services of a competent professional bereavement chaplain. This article highlights not only the human-spirit aspects of dignified and personalized funeral and memorial services but also points out the considerable economies to be realized by both the consumer and the service provider by enlisting the support of an on – call professional interfaith bereavement chaplain. With the holistic interdisciplinary team approach advocated in this article, the insidious deterioration in care and support services can be deterred if not prevented by the mortuary services provider partnered with the on – call professional interfaith bereavement chaplain, and the necessary grief work, healing and transformation effectively nurtured.

While this article focuses in specific terms on providers and consumers of mortuary services, its principles and applications, and recommendations can be extended and generalized to any of the helping professions.

While this article attempts to address a number of points, which are high in priority to both the consumer and service provider, many points must necessarily remain unmentioned. With that in mind, we do encourage feedback and comment from our readers, and we invite you to provide your thoughts either by private e – mail to compassionate.care.associates@gmail.com or by using the comment feature on this blog.


Keywords: Funeral, memorial, mortuary services, funeral director, funeral home, grief, mourning, chaplain, pastoral care, spiritual care, officiant, helping profession


“Death is psychologically as important as birth. Shrinking away from it is both unhealthy and abnormal … because it robs the second half of life of its meaning and purpose.”
Ernest Becker

CONCLUSION

The professional interfaith bereavement chaplain is an important but frequently overlooked professional support person available to the funeral home as well as to mourners. As a professional member of the funeral home team the on-call or p.r.n. chaplain assumes the responsibility for the funeral and memorial service design, organization, coordination, execution, and follow-up, freeing the funeral home staff to concern itself with other important matters. As a highly trained, empathetic, authentic, facilitator and support person, the professional interfaith chaplain provides essential and necessary support to the bereaved and mourners, and forms a de facto therapeutic alliance with them, facilitating the grief work necessary to the healing and transformation process.

The on-call or p.r.n. chaplain virtually eliminates personnel, equipment and logistics overheads

On the more mundane side, the professional interfaith bereavement chaplain represents a cost-saving model for both the mortuary services provider and for the consumer of mortuary services. The on-call or p.r.n. chaplain virtually eliminates personnel, equipment and logistics overheads by being available for effective liturgical, spiritual, religious or humanistic services on site at the funeral home or mortuary services facility, practically eliminating the need for organizing and coordinating resources for complicated and costly movements of staff, equipment, remains, and mourners. The funeral liturgical service, the memorial service or other rites are done right at the funeral home. The chaplain processes then with the cortège directly to the cemetery or crematorium for the graveside, cremation, or columbarium rites.

The Funeral Home Staff Should Bear In Mind The Importance Of Spiritual And Religious Or Pastoral Care Support

In the context of the 21st century death and bereavement culture, the professional interfaith chaplain plays an enormously important role both to the funeral home or mortuary services provider and to the bereaved and mourners. Wherever possible, the funeral home staff should bear in mind the importance of spiritual and religious or pastoral care support to the bereaved and should impress the importance of such support to families when making funeral arrangements. Even if the bereaved do not list a religious or faith preference, even if they do not belong to or actively participate with a faith or belief community, they may have a significant religious commitment without even realizing it, and will benefit from the meaning-making and closure effects of a well-designed funeral or memorial service. It would be a disservice if funeral home staff and mortuary service providers were to ignore this important element of mortuary services.

RECOMMENDATIONS

Empirical observation supports the medical, psychiatric, psychological, pastoral care literature and the growing consensus that spiritual care, whether religious or non – religious, plays a significant role in the health and well-being of all sufferers, including the bereaved. Spiritual care supports the mourner in myriad ways both in the acute grief period into the grief work and mourning stages and well beyond. Spiritual care as offered by the professional interfaith bereavement chaplain represents a significant added value to the funeral home’s product offerings and further represents substantial tangible and intangible benefits to the insightful funeral services manager and his or her establishment.

Corresponding author
Chaplain Harold W. Vadney BA, [MA], MDiv
Interfaith Bereavement Chaplain
P.O. 422
New Baltimore, New York 12124 – 0422
e-Mail: compassionate.care.associates@gmail.com

Click here to view or to download the entire article: Interfaith Bereavement