Category Archives: Bereavement chaplain

The Fallacy of Facebook Deathcare Marketing

Reprinted with author’s permission from an article previously posted on the professional networking site LinkedIn “Why I Feel It’s Foolish to Advertise on Facebook.”


Anxiety seems to be the most salient message sent by everyone from self-help gurus to marketing. In-your-face Facebook addicts telling professionals with decades of experience that they don’t know what they’re doing and need to change. It seems that when you don’t have a credible tangible product to sell, create an anxiety scenario and sell a service that responds to the anxiety just created. Makes sense, doesn’t it?  It apparently works.

Given the nature of Facebook and its business model, I propose that it is not appropriate for marketing your funeral home or for advertising deathcare services.

While LinkedIn is a professional networking platform intended to provide a forum for professionals to exchange news, views, and ideas and it works quite well if you can get around the religious fanatics proselytizing. But social media such as Facebook was allegedly intended to nurture interpersonal communications and special interest group venues, not to bait suckers looking for a freebie and sharing everything from fake profile photos to personal details and even their genitals. But, defending the arcane and ambiguous “community standards”, Mr. Zuckerberg tells us, it’s all for our own protection. Here today, gone tomorrow, depending on the algorithm Mostly youngish people with a smattering of midlifes and seniors looking to kill some time FB has become a haven for misfits and sociopaths but some entrepreneurs seem to think that it is the most important marketing venue ever created. I strongly disagree. Given the nature of Facebook and its business model, I propose that it is not appropriate for marketing your funeral home or for advertising deathcare services.


The reality is that while the Internet and social media has made it possible to chat and to post images and texts that can be read by anyone with an Internet connection and a Facebook account, the platform falls pitifully short of being a venue for selling anything; people on Facebook just aren’t on Facebook to buy anything. That’s a fact.

Take one example that seems to be popping up more and more on LinkedIn: Ryan Thogmartin and his ConnectingDirectors (Disrupt Media). He appears almost on a daily basis in his signature grunge look and wildly proclaims that funeral homes are doing it all wrong if they’re not using his service and marketing on Facebook. Thogmartin’s message is that even if you are marketing on Facebook and not getting a mind-blowing response you are doing it all wrong, and Thogmartin can fix it for you.

Facebook is Inherently Evil m a veritable Public Health Problem

I am in the lifecare and deathcare vocation and because I recognize that Facebook is inherently evil and does nothing whatsoever to serve humanity. I regularly scan FB posts for material or inspiration and I do follow Thogmartin’s posts and messages, and I must admit he does leave me in a state of awe. Awe that he has the arrogance to make his appearances and in the most immature way attempt to convince mature professionals that he has the secret to their success: market funeral services on Facebook.

Apart from being a clown, his whole dog-and-pony act seems to attract some misguided individuals — most likely confederates enlisted to make the impression that anyone takes Thogmartin or his message seriously; after all, that’s marketing, isn’t it? Perception drives reality, right?

We serve a very local community; we offer very “personal” services.

So, let’s ask some very simple questions about our professional activities. You see, as a psychospiritual care provider, as a chaplain, a practicing thanatologist, my professional activities are very similar in their general aspects to those of the funeral director and funeral home: we serve a very local community, we offer very “personal” services, we are called by the local community in times of urgency, we have to respond within a very narrow window of time, we rely very heavily on local perceptions of ourselves and our services, we are available on an on-call, at need basis, our work is best done face-to-face.

So Mr. Thogmartin is telling funeral directors that they need Facebook marketing to drive their business. It’s a load of rubbish.

There’s no profession on earth that has a guaranteed local clientele, unless you consider the funeral director. Human beings have 100% mortality so everyone in the funeral director’s neighborhood and beyond is going to die at some point. Most states and federal laws impose restrictions on who may take custody of human remains and, whatever the provisions of state and federal law, the only professional who has 100% authority to take custody of human remains is the state-licensed funeral director. And the key to the success of this death-custodianship is this: LOCAL VISIBILITY and LOCAL PRESENCE.

Local visibility means that the funeral director is not hidden away amidst tens of thousands of others offering the same services under the same key words and search terms. Local visibility means that you can see the local funeral home each time you drive by. Local visibility means that you shake the funeral director’s hand each time you go to pay respects at a visitation. Local visibility means that you see his product every time you attend a funeral or memorial service. Local visibility means every time you pick up a church bulletin or look at a print calendar, his logo or the name of his funeral home is emblazoned somewhere in or on it. When you open your town or fraternal organization newsletter your local funeral director likely has a display ad somewhere in it. You know your local funeral director by sight and probably by name because you see him planting flowers around his facility, you see him at the car wash, in the local diner, or you worship in the same church, synagogue, mosque or temple. How much more local can it possibly get?

The funeral services profession, like chaplaincy and psychospiritual care, is local. We do not generally provide care to individuals or groups outside of a 25 or 50 mile radius of our main location. In fact, most of our calls come from within 25 miles.

That having been said, I have to admit that I do get calls and I do travel to locations beyond that 50 mile radius. I’ve had calls to provide services 250 miles away; beyond that, the cost and the time involved become prohibitive for both the client and for me. In those cases, I make a referral or I provide viable recommendations to the client. Here’s the key point, though: Those persons requesting services at such a distance probably (1) received a recommendation from a local client (a family or funeral director) or (2) found me online. Either way, as I have said, beyond the 25 or 50 mile radius, the cost becomes prohibitive so I can’t and don’t feel I can provide the support needed. I refer.

Professionalism and trustworthiness, two things you have to demonstrate on a case-by-case, face-to-face, local basis

The same would apply to funeral services. First, the smart funeral director makes every effort to become a visible and participating member of his local community. He’s active “on the block”, in religious institutions, educational institutions, community organizations, and fraternal organizations. He maintains very positive relations with local nursing homes and healthcare institutions. But most importantly, he provides sensitive and compassionate care to the families he serves on a day-to-day basis, he proves to his families that he’s competent, caring, honest, and a good listener. The key to his business success is not Facebook marketing, it’s professionalism and trustworthiness, two things you have to demonstrate on a case-by-case, face-to-face, local basis.

The funeral director’s range is similar to my own and he frequently does the same thing I must do when he receives a call beyond that range: he refers or makes helpful recommendations. Like most professions, he has a national directory of colleagues and may even have worked with many of them in the past. He knows his field and his colleagues and doesn’t need Ryan Thogmartin or Facebook to do his intimate professional boots-on-the-ground marketing and networking. He does that locally every day and, given the time and opportunity, does so at regional conferences and meetings. Hands-on, face-to-face.

I find it insulting to have some neophyte insinuating himself into the midst of an ancient profession that has been proven to be essential, local, and necessarily personal, and I find his arrogance an affront and akin to personal ignorance not only of the fundamental nature of the profession but also of its intimate demands and its history.

Thogmartin would not have attracted my attention if he were to have focused say on the repatriation business or mortuary supplies, or the stone quarry business, since these examples would likely benefit from global visibility. But quite frankly, no one needs Thogmartin or Facebook to find those services; they’re readily available through their ads in the professional journals or in the professional directories we all are familiar with. So even those examples wouldn’t require Thogmartin’s services or Facebook.

In fact, I really can’t think of any business that would require Thogmartin’s services or Facebook to succeed. If a business is so big that it’s entered the international vernacular it got that way without Thogmartin or Facebook; if a business is so specialized it will generate its clientele through the professional networking media or the professional journal media or by directly marketing its product to known users. If a business depends on local visibility and presence, Thogmartin and Facebook won’t do very much for the business.

How many times you have gone to Facebook to find a product or service you needed a.s.a.p.?

If any professional, especially a funeral director or deathcare services provider, does his or her homework and keeps abreast of the population that spends time on Facebook, it will become abundantly clear that (1) most of the Facebook denizens are way beyond his/her range, (2) a very small number of locals can be identified on Facebook, (3) the interests of the Facebook denizens are definitely not focused on deathcare, (4) a very large percentage of Facebook users are addicted to social media, literally sociopaths, and you can get enough of those right around the corner; you don’t need Thogmartin or Facebook to find them, (5) no-one, not Thogmartin or Facebook, can actually provide viable statistics by locale or region or even by country on how many Facebook users are looking for deathcare services. There are other points I could make here but I think the point is abundantly clear. Thogmartin is attempting to create a marketing opportunity where there is none.

Even better: Ask yourself how many times you have gone to Facebook to find a product or service you needed like a.s.a.p. Enough said.

It’s all about care: precare, compassionate care at need, and aftercare.

Moreover, given the choice of alternatives for my promotion and marketing activities, Why? would I choose to become associated with a suspect organization like Facebook? First of all, Facebook has been the subject of myriad investigations for their behind-the-scenes unethical and likely unlawful operations and business model. Secondly, Facebook’s dictatorial, even tyrannical and arcane and ambiguous “community standards” make anything insecure and risky — even if you are paying to use the service (which you don’t need in the first place). Thirdly, assuming you and your staff are operating efficiently and near capacity, and if you know your business and your community, Why? would you even consider global blanket marketing for a primarily local service? Given the nature of the funeral services profession, I think you’d be better off buying a couple of dozen aftercare cards and springing for the postage, and sending them to the families you’ve served in the past year or two. There are literally hundreds of excellent ways to show you care and to create a highly positive image of your funeral home, its staff, its services, and making it the first call a family in need makes. After all is said and done, the funeral director, like the bereavement chaplain, is all about care: precare, compassionate care at need, and aftercare.

You’d be better off buying a couple of dozen aftercare cards and sending them to the families you’ve served in the past year.

If you have any questions regarding any of the above, please contact me at pastoral.care.harold@gmail.com or message me here on LinkedIn. You may also find some very helpful information at Funerals, Memorials, and Chaplain Services (a WordPress blog). Sorry, you won’t find me on Facebook.

Epilogue

We are caregivers for life who also care for the dead.
We share with the living where our life’s calling has led
.”[1]


Rev. Chaplain Harold W. Vadney BA, [MA], MDiv
Lifecare and Deathcare Service Provider
(518) 810-2700
pastoral.care.harold@gmail.com

Call or email me for services, referrals, and recommendations.

Blogs Authored by Chaplain Harold
Funerals, Memorials, and Chaplain Services
Bereavement and Griefcare
Pastoral Care
Thanatology Café
Homiletics and Spiritual Care

 

[1] From the poem “We are Caregivers for Life” by MSO (available at https://mysendoff.com/download/we-are-caregivers-for-life.pdf)

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The Chaplain as a Professional Obituary Writer

The Obituary: Repackaging History

Why the Chaplain is Best Qualified to Compose the Obituary.

Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney BA, [MA], MDiv.


An obituary is a public announcement of a person’s death and is the traditional and conventional way of providing the public notice of the death, and to provide information on the person who has died. The obituary is usually placed in a local newspaper and many funeral homes include a tribute or obituary on the funeral home website.  It is a way to let people know of the death.

If the deceased person has lived in several places during his or her life, it is a good idea to publish the obituary in the newspaper serving the locales where he or she lived. This is a generous courtesy to those who may have known the deceased and would be interested in grieving the loss.

While there is no standard length or content for an obituary, the current trend is to publish shorter obituaries in the form of the deceased’s life and some significant accomplishments. Naturally, when publishing an obituary in a newspaper, cost becomes a consideration; the longer the obituary, the higher the cost. It is my personal practice to provide a mini biography in the funeral or memorial service program, if one is used. If the funeral home offers the option of an online obituary, a shorter announcement can be placed in the newspaper with a referral to the longer obituary on the funeral home’s website.

Every family member will have different memories of the deceased and a differnt perception of his or her life and milestones. I personally recommend that the information received from several persons during the family planning meeting be used to compose the obituary and then to have the draft obituary reviewed by family members to ensure that it is as complete as possible, given the preferences of the family, and finally to have the family approve it for publication.[1]



 Let’s face the facts: The vast majority of people, including most professionals, simply couldn’t write a good essay if their life depended on it. Most professionals were not trained in the skills necessary for obtaining relevant facts, selecting those most consonant with the purpose. Most have difficulty with reframing perceptions, emotional crafting, repackaging the past to include present historical meanings and social relations. This requires sophisticated inquiry and listening skills, sensitive creativity, the ability to navigate a conversation, persuade and curate emotions, and writing and presentation gifts. I argue in this article that the bereavement chaplain is a key resource for the funeral home and the bereaved family for creating the obituary.

Introduction

Most professionals focus on method and technique; most people today look for a numbered list of how-to steps. This simply doesn’t work in the lifecare and especially in the deathcare vocations, where an obituary requires compassion and creativity.

The problem, the obstacle of method and technique is nothing new, it’s just so commonplace that we tend to overlook it. In fact, a whole generation, maybe three generations, has been born into and have grown up and matured in a culture of materialism, consumerism, disposalism, [a]social media, all of which nurture a sense of quick fixes, worthlessness, instant gratification, urgency, and anxiety. Quite obviously, none of these is conducive to the authenticity and relationship necessary for the helping professions, whether healthcare, psychospiritual care, or deathcare. Regrettably, this broad statement applies to most every level of education today: the focus is on method and technique; not on creativity and vision, and so individuals find themselves on the slippery slope right from the start.

If this broad statement can obviously be applied to everyone from the mechanic to the physician, from the priest to the nurse, how much more does it apply to the funeral director, whose training may be limited to two years in mortuary science school and one year of residency in a funeral home? These men and women, some of them not even physically much less mentally or emotionally mature – most of them have never experienced the death of a close relative or friend –, yet they find themselves sitting opposite a grieving family, “advising them” on how to cope with the death and what needs to be done. Or, in the even worse scenario, the family succumbs to the smiling ghoul-like CEO of a funeral corporation, literally a disposal factory operation, who preaches lowest price for dignified services; just sign here and get on the conveyor belt. Dignity and compassion, friends, are not mass produced goods and factory funeral homes cannot produce artisan goods.


I recommend a family meeting to include as many generations as possible who knew the deceased. No more than 5 persons should be included in order to ensure manageability and to allow everyone to make a contribution. Set the ground rules in advance so that no single person dominates the conversation. It’s useful to record the session. The venue should be warm, inviting, and relatively free of unnecessary interruptions. I frequently get the family to come to the funeral home where it’s quiet and there’s usually a meeting room available. Meeting in the funeral home has several advantages: the family will become acclimated to the environment and more familiar with the rooms, if there are any questions about the service, a quick walk-thru is always possible. I also like to include the funeral director in the meeting so that he is aware of what’s taking place and to answer any questions that may come up. Light refreshments should be available, since food is life-affirming and empty stomachs are not conducive to the rich sharing experience we are looking for in the family meeting. After the family meeting a Q&A is always helpful.


Even more concerning is the fact that most of our funeral and memorial writing is delegated to either the family or to a family member who, obviously are in the grieving process and really are not in the position to do any really meaningful writing despite their best intentions. My advice to such persons who may volunteer to write grandma’s obituary is that they participate in the service or do the eulogy instead. Truth is, most family members don’t know enough of their family history or social relations to write an obituary, much less the author skills required for such a special type of writing.

Alternatively, the obituary, as the most common form of funeralization literature is composed by the funeral director based on what few historical facts he can glean from the family during the arrangements meeting. The result is a rather paltry bit of bare bones, sometimes inaccurate or fabricated, script posted on a so-called “Tributes” page on the funeral home’s website.

What Most Clergy Lack In Public Speaking And Writing Skills They Attempt To Make Up For With Sentimentalism And Endurance.

Most clergy lack even the necessary skills for liturgical preaching, let alone memorializing a stranger ad hoc.[2] Those of us who have experienced any funeralization presentation by a member of the mainstream clergy – or clergy on the funeral home’s clergy list, what I call “stock clergy” — can speak only of abject disappointment and must commiserate with the unfortunate family who has to hear the pabulum and scripted doctrinally correct, often narcotic, presentation at a wake service, funeral service, or funeral liturgy. What most clergy lack in public speaking and writing skills they attempt to make up for with sentimentalism and endurance. That’s not memorialization, it’s not communications skill, and it’s not a gift; it’s an abuse, and the bereaved should not have to put up with it, much less pay for it.

The Funeral Home Chaplain May Be The Best Resource Available

Then it frequently comes down to the funeral director to compose the obituary. All things considered, we really can’t fault the funeral director for not being an expert public speaker or writer, much less for not obtaining intricate details about the deceased. There is only so much a human being can do in the average three days from the first call to the closing of the grave.[3] In those three days, the time available to the funeral director that can physically, emotionally, or intellectually be devoted to writing an effective and commemorative obituary is close to null.

The alternative is just as dehumanizing and degrading as a poorly written product. That alternative is the obituary template application. Just ask the key questions and fill in the blanks and Voilà! you have yourself what some would call an obituary. NOT! What it is, in fact, is a collection of words, some of which might have some vague or arbitrary resemblance to the life that is purportedly being commemorated, but not mot else. It’s what I disparage above: technique and method versus creativity and vision.

What Is Left Besides The Usual Mainstream Cookie-Cutter Clergy 15-Minute “Ashes To Ashes” Performance?

So, you might ask yourself, what is left besides the usual mainstream cookie-cutter clergy 15-minute “ashes to ashes” performance or the rushed, expensive, and questionable funeral home obituary product? Well, those funeral homes who have the good business sense to have a resident or a regular on-call chaplain, may just have an untapped resource for an important funeralization service. Yes, the funeral home chaplain may be the best resource available in the funeral home or anywhere else for creating the top-shelf obituary. Here’s why:

  • The professional bereavement chaplain is a specialist lifecare and deathcare provider, educated and trained as a psychospiritual care provider; a thanatologist, in fact.
  • He understands how to approach the dying and the bereaved in a sacred safe place, to meet them where they’re at.
  • The chaplain leaves the ego and judgment at the door, and practices a ministry of intentional presence, listening and talking little; deep listening deep learning.
  • The professional chaplain has clergy training plus extensive academic training in several disciplines: humanities, philosophy, psychology, pastoral care, theology, religions.
  • His broad learning base and life experience endow him with a certain wisdom and authority found in few other professions, including denominational clergy.
  • As specialist clergy or as a member of the “para-clergy”, the chaplain has the same training as any minister or priest. Because of his station in life, he has certain authority and an air of authenticity that nurtures trust; he can and does ask questions and talks about subjects that even the funeral director might find uncomfortable to address.
  • As a lifecare and deathcare professional the chaplain is intimately familiar with the healthcare and deathcare professions. He’s been on the front lines in the ER, the ICU, the morgue. He’s familiar with death in all of its guises, and also with the mortuary arts. Because he’s familiar and may have studied the back-room operations of the hospital and the funeral home, cemetery, crematory, he can confidently address sensitive issues and concerns with a gentle and compassionate honesty.
  • The chaplain who lives the vocation of lifecare and deathcare lives in a different concept of time; the chaplain’s time is cyclical rather than linear. Rather than counting cases, the chaplain moves effortlessly through the cycles of birth, life, death, and treats each cycle, each case, as the first case, each unique, each its own narrative.
  • Because the mature chaplain has an unusual familiarity, a unique relationship with the cycles of life, with transfiguration, with the teachings of many faith and belief traditions, he likely has a very unique way of viewing life’s transitions. He will seem more at ease, more comfortable, more accepting of others in their most difficult moments.
  • While others may avoid giving expression to the language of grief or abandon themselves to emotions, the chaplain can give meaningful expression to the silent pain of grief and loss; he is articulate in the language of the past to give meaning and hope to the future.
  • The chaplain does psychospiritual care and nothing else. The chaplain provides lifecare and deathcare and nothing else. Unlike career clergy or the funeral director, the central concern, the focus is only the bereaved and nothing else.

While most of what the chaplain might talk about or what the family might reveal is highly confidential and remains with the chaplain, never to be disclosed, much of what he learns is for the purpose of crafting his homily or “words of comfort” to be presented during the funeralization rituals. In other words, it’s publishable.

It’s not about the chaplain, so self-disclosure is rare. It’s all about the family and the family’s history, the dead loved one and his or her meaning and legacy, personal and social relationships with the deceased; in other words, much of the bereavement chaplain’s work is with the past, with history, and reframing it so that it has positive meaning for the future. So, too, the chaplain is the best-qualified team member to re-present this entire composite picture in the form of an obituary.

When meeting with the family to discuss details of the funeral or memorial service, the chaplain mines deep into the family’s history and selectively homes in on what is most meaningful to the various participants, teasing out of the intricate weave of the family tapestry the gold threads that are in the weave. Like any tapestry, the visible side is impeccable, perfect but the hidden back is full of loose ends and knots, just like families. It’s the chaplain’s expertise and people skills that allows him to relate the loose ends and the knots to the beauty and meaning of the idyllic front side.

The Chaplain Is Thus A Psychospiritual Art Historian

When interpreting a tapestry the interpreter has to be attentive to style, interrelationships of elements and symbol, and to the characteristics of the audience. The interpretation of the tapestry has to be packaged in a way that is acceptable to the audience, remaining true to the meaning of the historical style, technique, symbol, while still relating it to the reality of the audience’s world and perceptions of reality. In other words, the tapestry had its meaning and relevance in the past, when it was created, but it has to be re-presented in the present in new contexts that make it relevant now, and tomorrow. In many ways, the chaplain is thus a psychospiritual art historian, taking the past, re-packaging it in the contexts of the present, making it relevant to the future. These are important considerations in crafting an obituary.

With this understanding of what the bereavement chaplain is and what he does, it becomes clear how he can be an invaluable asset to both the funeral home and to the customer.

The funeral director has 1001 things on his plate with each case. He may be a skilled salesperson, a knowledgeable marketer, an expert embalmer, a gifted reconstructionist, a veteran listener. During the short moments between the first call, the removal, and the final disposition, he has little time to conduct an in-depth interview of the family and to do a family history, then to condense it into a commemorative obituary that doesn’t read like a cookie recipe.

If the funeral director is fully aware of the interdisciplinary resources at his disposal, he will get the legal and financial details he needs to proceed with the funeralization business and then turn the family over to the capable hands of the bereavement chaplain, who will then do the in-depth interview he would normally do for the service but also obtain detailed information for an obituary, much of which comes with the details necessary for designing the funeral or memorial service.

The chaplain teaches and preaches. He’s a skilled writer, speaker and presenter. He has highly developed writing skills that he uses every time he prepares a talk or a homily. He has the time and the expertise to create not only an inspiring homily but also a moving obituary.

While it’s true the chaplain will invest an average of 10 hours in preparing for a typical customized funeral or memorial service, once all the details are obtained, a stellar obituary can be created in record time, using much of the same information used in the Words of Comfort or the homily, but differently.

How differently? Well, that depends on what the chaplain discovers during the family conference. You see, during the family conference the chaplain will guide the participants through a series of questions posed in the form of statements, statements that cannot be answered with a Yes or a No, but need actual responses requiring disclosure. By inviting each participant to join the conversation, each will disclose a different, a personal perception. While such a conversation is intended to do several things, not the least of which is naturally to gather family historical information, it serves a therapeutic purpose by getting the family participants to talk, to feel, to realize, to share. Such a conversation in the safe, non-judgemental, trusted presence of the chaplain usually develops into an amazingly open and candid sharing session. You’ll hear things like: “I didn’t know that.” “Dad never talked about that before.” “Mom sure was fierce, wasn’t she?” “Yeah. Those were good times.” “Remember the salad?” And the chaplain is very sensitive to the body language and quiet moments that signal “We don’t want to talk about that.” And realizes that they do and that they will but only when they’re ready. They know that, too. So the chaplain moves on, but gently.

The Tone May Be Upbeat, Intellectual, Reverent, Dignified, Humorous, Or Cooly Distant.

It’s what’s said as much as what’s not said — the nonverbal communication — that goes into the tone of the service, the tone of the homily and consequently sets the tone of the obituary, and that kind of stuff can be accessed only by someone who is intrinsically trusted, the chaplain. The tone may be upbeat, intellectual, reverent, dignified, humorous, or cooly distant; the tone should, if possible, be reproduced in the obituary.

This Is The Point To Which They Have Been Navigating.

What is it that John would like most to be remembered for? What would John say his greatest contribution to the world would be? What would John say he valued most. What will your best memories of John be from this point on? What will you tell your children, your grandchildren about John? Sitting here now, what it something you remember about John that will make you smile? Those are some of the final questions I ask at the end of the family conference. How can you get a grieving family, a family who might have just lost the most significant person in their lives, to answer questions like that? Well, because they want to. Because throughout the entire conversation, this is the point to which they have been navigating. These questions form the basis of the continuing bond with the deceased. These questions give the survivors, now in the depths of grief and grappling for some sort of understanding of What? Why? How?, permission to continue the bond with their dead loved one, while playing an active role in internalizing this new relationship, transfiguring the deceased loved one into a living symbol of someone no longer physically present but eternally inwardly present.

An Obituary Is Like A Sacred Narrative And Should Read And Be Read With All The Reverence And Reflection Of A Gospel

The obituary is a tangible keepsake to whichany family member can turn at those special moments, to read and recall, and to recall and to remember the loved one. The obituary loses all of its morbidness and becomes an essay about the dead loved one and his or her relationships, his or her meaning. Even more than an heirloom ring or brooch, the obituary is personal, a living account of a real person. In a sense, an obituary is like a family Gospel and should read and be read with all the reverence and reflection of a Gospel.

So far I have written about the obituary as a concept, almost an ideal. Well, it’s not an ideal, it’s a reality, and an incredibly important one at that. I briefly touched upon the obituary as a tangible family record, as a family Gospel. Well that’s one role it can play but we need now to turn to the physicalness of the obituary, since the obituary is something that has to be drafted, written, refined, and finally published in some medium whether newsprint, an order of service, a website, a social media platform, or as a permanent memorial on a platform devoted specifically to memorialization and commemoration.[4]

I shall devote a separate essay to the media used for publishing obituaries and say a few words about each in terms of how I feel they serve the survivors in facilitating continuing the bond with their loved one, coping with bereavement grief, transfiguring the dead loved one and internalizing the memory, serving as a chapter in a family’s living history, repackaging the past to be a lodestone for drawing a family together, a guide for the present and for the future.


NOTES

[1] This review and approval step is extremely important in order to avoid offending or hurting feelings. Special attention should be given to spellings of names, degrees of kinship and names of any spouses, living and predeceased relatives, special friends, special organizations, etc. A clean draft should be provided to the family for review and approval within 24 hours.

[2] Simply asking an arranger for the family’s religious preference and if they would like clergy participation in the funeral or memorial service is a bad start. Many families do not regularly practice and most are unfamiliar with the traditions and rites involved in funerals. This is one reason why I recommend always to have the on-call chaplain available at the arrangements meeting; he can best discuss any religious or spiritual matters with the arranger or the family and avoid any inconvenient incidents and possible problems caused by “religious” insensitivity of “stock clergy” who are unfamiliar with the family, its history, dynamics, and social relationships.

[3] We can thank Western industrial culture for the three-day rule for funerals. Most employed persons are allowed three days in the event of the death of a close relative; it’s called Bereavement Leave. An employee is entitled to up to 3 workdays of paid funeral leave to make arrangements for or to attend the funeral of an immediate relative who died; after the 3 days, the employee can either take personal vacation time or unpaid time off.  In the United States The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require payment for time not worked, including attending a funeral. This type of benefit is generally a matter of agreement between an employer and an employee (or the employee’s representative). After three days, everything has to be wrapped up and the employee is expected to have disposed of his dead and finished his grieving. After three days it’s back to work. Thus the dehumanizing of humankind in the industrialized West.

[4] These various media for publishing obituaries will be discussed in the next article, and will include print as well as digital obituaries, their characteristics, their strengths and their weaknesses.

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.

Connecting Directors, Ryan Thogmartin, and the Pitiful Direction of the Deathcare Niche

Sometimes I just have to shake my head in disbelief when I see some of the things that are going on in the deathcare sector. It’s really unbelievable the types that now claim to be gurus to the deathcare business and who tout themselves as being in the know about what and how funeral directors and funeral services providers should be doing with their businesses.


One such guru is Ryan Thogmartin, a self-proclaimed social media “expert” who runs Disrupt Media and publishes the online journal Connecting Directors. Actually, it’s Thogmartin who seems to be critically disrupted and the only directors he’s connecting have likely been drinking their own embalming chemicals.

Anybody want to do shots before watching Ryan Thogmartin’s Connecting Directors videos?

For one thing the deathcare industry has taken a turn towards immorality and dehumanization in recent years. I say this because the growth of the funeral services corporations making death a commodity rather than a sacred mystery is doing inestimable damage to the human psyche, culture, tradition, and anything human worth preserving. I’m speaking of the Newcomers, the Service Corporation International, the Dignity Memorials, the StoneMors of the world and their greed and gouging practices.

Even more alarming are the products they are foisting on the bereaved: direct cremation, direct burial, alkaline hydrolysis (dissolving the dead human body in a draino-like solution and sending the remains down the sewer lines); the indignities heaped on the dead and the insensitive treatment of the surviving bereaved are appalling.

I’m no friend of Facebook and feel that it is one of the greatest evils to arrive on Earth since Nazi national socialist movements or Stalinist communism. It’s an insidious agenda of mind control fostering self-destructive addiction on millions of unwary subscribers who, if they had half a brain, are sacrificing it to the anti-Christ Mark Zuckerberg and his army of censoring mind-police minions.

The Facebook Addiction

But Thogmartin sees an opportunity here and tries like hell to sell it to Guess whom? Yes! Funeral directors and funeral homes, one of the most conservative groups you’ll find today. One of the groups we would hope would have superhuman gifts of compassion, sincerity, empathy, humanity. Thogmartin is trying to sell them the idea that they need to market their services on Facebook. But I’m completely at a loss Why? they should believe anything the sloppy, uncredible, inarticulate Thogmartin has to say!

Here’s one of Thogmartin’s most recent pitches to the deathcare professionals whom he thinks he’s appealing to. Would you buy a used car from this guy?

Well, I’m not going to beat a dead horse (no pun intended). First of all, for those of us with any powers of discernment Thogmartin’s inarticulate double-talk is enough to turn us completely off. His presentation — I’m looking at his wardrobe, his set, his general appearance and personal hygiene, if I can abuse that concept when referring to Thogmartin — is simply grunge. Who on earth would want their families and clients to know that this is the man from whom your receiving your business advice?!?

Secondly, any funeral home’s business is largely local. Most established funeral homes are generations old and rely on a good reputation built over the decades and generations by providing top-shelf service. Their business comes from word of mouth, not from an idiotic platform calling itself social media, and catering to the lowest of the lowest of intellects. Sure, even the dumbest human being is looking at 100% mortality and someone’s going to have to dispose of those human remains, but seriously, when you receive that first call, it’s likely not to be from Facebook. It’s going to come from a local hospital, hospice, nursing home, or from a local family — unless of course your business is based substantially on repatriation of human remains and you do a lot of business after natural catastrophes but I can’t even say I’ve worked with such an operation in my entire career.

Moreover, most of Disrupt Media’s publications come to the subscriber as republished from other sources; most of it isn’t really of interest to the funeral director or his staff in his day-to-day operations. Besides, in the profession who has the time to sit and read poorly written commentaries hoping to find something worthwhile and of any value to a business that must be very attuned to local culture.

Maybe Thogmartin’s appeal is to the funeral corporations and their employees but on careful scrutiny and analysis, his whole operation is questionable and his advice serves only his interests, Disrupt Media.

Serve rather than Disrupt!

 

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.

Dissolve and Flush: An Analysis of a New Body Disposal Method, Alkaline Hydrolysis.

Dissolve and Flush: Funeralized Alkaline Hydrolysis.

The Newest Technology for Disposing of Dead Human Beings.

Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney, BA, [MA], MDiv
Interfaith Bereavement Chaplain/Thanatologist


“All humankind is dust and ashes.” Sirach 12:32

In the West, interment, inhumation, entombment have been the traditional methods of disposing of dead human bodies, that is, prior to the late 19th century with the revival of cremation as an alternative. Until about 1880, cremation was anathema, unless, occasionally, at times of extraordinarily large numbers or dead, such as during war time, during epidemics, or following natural disasters, mass graves or incineration of the corpses was preferred to avoid further catastrophe in terms of public health. Fire cremation was revived in the West as a quasi-pagan option attributed to non-Christian freethinkers and masons or simply to anti-social elements but then took a different tack by appealing to the public health and environmentally conscious elements in conventional society. Today, economic concerns both consumer and industrial take precedence. The dominant market economies in the industrialized West, particularly in the USA, UK, and some Western European countries, as well as the insatiable appetite of post-modern, post-Christian cultures for novelty and individualism, have left the door ajar for the entry into the funeralization professions of an industrialized process called alkaline hydrolysis (AH), an industrial process invented in the late 19th century as a way of dissolving in strong chemicals farm animal waste for use as fertilizer.


“Omnes homines terra et cinis” Sirach 12:32

In a particularly beautiful description of how the pre-Vatican II Church thought of the human being, and in poetry that was possible only in a more sensitive epoch of human history, one reads:

“The old Church holds on to her dead with eternal affection. The dead body is the body of her child. It is sacred flesh. It has been the temple of a regenerated soul. She blessed it in baptism, poured the saving waters on its head, anointed it with holy oil on breast and back, put the blessed salt on its lips, and touched its nose and ears in benediction when it was only the flesh of a babe; and then, in growing youth, reconsecrated it by confirmation; and, before its dissolution in death, she again blessed and sanctified its organs, its hands and its feet, as well as its more important members. Even after death she blesses it with holy water, and incenses it before her altar, amid the solemnity of the great sacrifice of the New Law, and surrounded by mourners who rejoice even in their tears, for they believe in the communion of saints, and are united in prayer with the dead happy in heaven, as well as with those who are temporarily suffering in purgatory. The old Church, the kind old mother of regenerated humanity, follows the dead body of her child into the very grave. She will not throw it into the common ditch, or into unhallowed ground; no, it is the flesh of her son. She sanctifies and jealously guards from desecration the spot where it is to rest until the final resurrection; and day by day, until the end of the world, she thinks of her dead, and prays for them at every Mass that is celebrated; for, even amid the joys of Easter and of Christmas, the memento for the dead is never omitted from the Canon. She even holds annually a solemn feast of the dead, the day after “All Saints,” in November, when the melancholy days are on the wane, the saddest of the year, and the fallen leaves and chilly blasts presage the season of nature’s death.”

The Church of bygone days frequently used prose poetically and quoted liberally from the Church Fathers and even from the ancient philosophers and historiographers like Plato, Seneca, Socrates, Cicero many of whom, though pre-Christian, did not eschew the notion of the immortal soul. St Augustine writes, “We should not despise nor reject the bodies of the dead; especially we should respect the corpses of the just and the faithful, which the Spirit hath piously used as instruments and vessels in the doing of good works…for those bodies are not mere ornaments but pertain to the very nature of humankind.”

Cremation made an occasional appearance in isolated periods of Western history or in outlier regions where Christianity had not yet attained dominance; cremation was largely associated with non-Christian, pagan cultures.

In the East, in places where Hinduism and Buddhism had a firm foothold, cremation was and continues to be the norm. In some geographical areas such as in parts of Tibet, where the ground is unfavorable to interment and wood is a scarce and valuable resource, exposure of the corpse or dismemberment of the corpse and consumption by carrion-eating birds, so-called sky-burial or, in its form where the dismembered corpse is cast into a fiver for consumption by fishes, water burial, is practiced.

A similar practice of exposure is found in Zoroastrian communities in Iran, in the so-called towers of silence or dakhma, where the dead are brought, exposed, and consumed by vultures; the skeletal remains are then later collected for disposal.

While isolated instances of cremation are reported both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, burial or entombment was conspicuously the norm. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, burning of a corpse was a final act of abomination, reserved for only the worst elements of society.

One of the common misapprehensions of the Church’s aversion to or discouragement of incineration of the human body as a routinely available option for final disposal is that it was associated with pagan or freethinker practice, or with attempts to dissuade believers from faith in a bodily resurrection. While this might have some historical substance and may be represented by some early writers, it is but a minor hypothesis.

Ancient Flame Cremation.

As Eusebius describes early Christian aversion to flame cremation in a statement that still holds plausible, “” they (the Pagans) did this (cremated) to show that they could conquer God and destroy the resurrection of the bodies, saying, now let us see if they will arise.” In other words, cremation was a challenge to the belief in bodily resurrection as taught and believed in the early Church.

Furthermore, no less a figure than Cicero advances the notion that incineration was of ancient practice in Rome, and suggests that inhumation was a practice that predated the Roman practice of cremation. In fact, some noble Roman families never permitted their bodies to be burned, and Sulla is said to have been the first Roman who ordered his body to be cremated after death, lest his bones should be scattered by his enemies. The pontiffs of pagan Rome would not acknowledge a funeral to be complete unless at least a single bone cut off from the corpse, or rescued from the flames, had been de posited in the earth.

Ancient Greece and Rome did practice cremation at various points in their histories but the ultimate disposal of the remains continued to be burial; either a part not consumed by the flames or the “bones” of the cremated corpse were ultimately buried in the earth. Cremation was by no means consistently the norm or the preferred method of disposal in Greece or in Rome.

Pope Boniface VIII forbade all violent modes of disposing of the dead as savoring of barbarism. “The respect due to the human body requires that it should be allowed to decay naturally, without having recourse to any violent system;” so says Grandclaude. A forcible argument against cremation is also found in the Catholic custom of preserving and honoring the relics of the Saints and putting their bodies or portions of them in the altar. It would be no longer possible to have the most important relics of future Saints if their flesh were to be consumed by fire.

That brief sampling of ancient teachings and beliefs regarding the question of incineration of human remains, arguably a “violent system” of disposing of human remains, should suffice to provide a background for the remainder of this discussion. For a more detailed discussion, I refer the reader to the Reverend Bann’s article cited above.

It was only in the late 19th century that a cremation movement came into being, and then only owing to the deplorable conditions in the cities which were rapidly outgrowing their boundaries due to immigration from rural areas, and the resulting encroachments on the previously outlying churchyards and, with population growth and densification, poor sanitation, and high mortality rates, consequent overfilling of existing cemeteries literally to the point of overflowing.

London Slum – Age of Instustiralization

Such were the conditions that gave rise to the public health concerns of reformers who claimed that the dead in the cemeteries were evil, that their miasmas leached out into the water and the spaces of the living, causing disease, suffering, and death. It was the evil dead rotting in the earth and their juices that were public health enemy No. 1. The open sewers and living conditions of the larger cities, and the putrid waters of the rivers flowing through them, of course, were not to blame.

And so, an alternative method of disposal of the dangerous and filthy dead had to be found, one that did not threaten to gobble up valuable real estate, and one that could be justified in the face of Church and religious objections. Cremation was the most obvious answer for purifying the unclean corpses. After all, since time immemorial fire was the great purifier.

In the beginning, therefore, the initial impetus was the miasma theory of pestilence, and corpses were to blame. Then, around 1880, the germ theory of disease was born. It debunked the established miasma theory of disease, and stated that disease was caused by specific organisms, germs. No problem for the cremationists, who were quite agile in dropping the miasma theory and accepting the germ theory but corpses were not yet off the hook, so to speak.

If germs were the cause of many of the diseases afflicting the population, wouldn’t the putrid rotting corpse be germ heaven? And if you have all those corpses lying about doing nothing but what corpses do, that is, rotting and defiling the air with the aromas of putrecine and cadaverine. Those same rotting corpses were breeding grounds for pestilence and a simple hole in the ground was not very likely to contain the little vermin. Cremation, the great sterilizer, would be the cremationists’ next slogan. But it didn’t last long.

The interests of the economic-minded would carry the day both in terms of the environment and the economy, and that campaign agenda is with us to this day. Basically, the dirge goes: “Why allocate so much valuable land to the dead when the living can profit by it?” Land for the living! After all, as corporations like StoneMor can confirm, cemetery real estate and the real estate occupied by the cemeteries represents a vast fortune. Someone has to tap into it.

The countries of Europe afflicted with the spirit of rationalism had no problem dealing with cemeteries; they just overruled the Church and legislated that the state had ultimate control of the citizen in life and in death. The Church could fall back on canon law but ultimately had to acquiesce to the state’s overwhelming power, and so the cemeteries were secularized. Once secularized they were emptied and their occupants relegated to ossuaries or catacombs en masse, and anonymous in their tens, even hundreds of thousands. In many instances, their eviction from the cemeteries and relocation to the quarries was done under cover of night, in order not to offend the living or present an obstacle to commerce.

In countries where the Church, Roman Catholic or mainstream Protestant dominated, the faithful were expected under established sanctions, to obey the doctrines of their faith. For most mainstream Christians, and for all Orthodox Jews and Muslims, cremation was an abomination, and burial in the earth or entombment were the only acceptable methods of sepulture. And so it remained until 1963, when the Roman Catholic Church relieved it’s ban on cremation and, while not encouraging cremation, did not censure those who opted for incineration as their preferred method of disposal. Upto then, those choosing cremation were pro forma classified as apostates, atheists, pagans, free-thinkers, or Masons.

The 1960’s was a decade of revolutionary reform in practically every aspect of life: politics, religion, morals, education, all of which ultimately found expression in attitudes towards life, death, dying and after-death.

Alkaline hydrolysis (AH) , aquamation , resomation , biocremation , call it whatever you like it all literally boils down [no pun intended] to taking a dead human body, placing it into a pressure cooker, adding water and chemicals, heating, cooking, draining, rinsing. The dissolved flesh and organic matter is then flushing into the sewer system. What is left is bones and any metallic or synthetic material in the body (artificial joints, pacemakers, sutures, etc.). The metal such as artificial joints etc. will be recycled or “repurposed.” The bones will be dried and ground up into a sandlike powder and returned to the family or otherwise disposed of.

The actual patented process, alkaline hydrolysis (AH) is a process developed for waste disposal. “Waste disposal” is the actual term used in the patents. AH was developed for disposal of infectious or hazardous waste by dissolving it into a “safe and sanitary” end-product. In fact, the actual wording of one of the patents is: “it is an object of this invention to provide a system and method for safely treating and disposing of waste matter containing undesirable elements, such as infectious, biohazardous, hazardous, or radioactive elements or agents.”

AH was developed for dissolving, liquefying organic matter into a disposable liquid that can be recycled as a fertilizer or simply flushed down the drain. It’s actually a technology that was developed in the late 19th century for disposing of animal waste, and which was developed in the mid-20th century for disposal of farm slaughter waste and for elimination of medical school cadavers, is now being promoted as the new eco-friendly take on cremation. Alkaline hydrolysis a.k.a. water cremation a.k.a. biocremation — in reality just using a Draino®-like chemical to dissolve the dead human body and flush the remaining human sludge down the drain into the public sewer system — is the new rage in technology. Some funeral homes in about 14 states, where the process is now legal in the United States are now offering it as an alternative to cremation. It’s disgusting and will be a hard sell, since it will be acceptable only to the really bizarre element out there. I hope to clarify some of the issues in this article.

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Ring out the New; Ring in the Old. Scrap the redefinitions of end-of-life care.

Interfaith Pastoral Care. Just what is it? Interfaith pastoral care is a hard nut to crack when a client actually is interested enough to ask the question., “What is interfaith?”

Is this reality? Even possible? Honestly.[1]

Some have suggested that we change, broaden our terminology to “interbelief” but I don’t really think that changes a thing; in fact, I think it complicates the conversation even more than “interfaith” does. It gets even worse when the innovators come up with a term like “interpath” care. It soon becomes so turbulent that it becomes obfuscating; it becomes an idiotic dialogue of nonsense.

The Office for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs of the Archdiocese of Chicago (RC) defines “the difference between ecumenical, interfaith, and interreligious relations”, as follows:

  • “Ecumenical” as “relations and prayer with other Christians”,
  • “Interfaith” as “relations with members of the ‘Abrahamic faiths’ (Jewish and Muslim traditions),” and
  • “Interreligious” as “relations with other religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism”.[2]

[Aside: Some proponents of interfaith whatever have adopted the name “interbelief,” “interpath”; how far do we stretch “interfaith” before it becomes “intercultural”?]

In such places like the Public Religion Research Institute[3], we can examples of the glaring misinformation and mixed messages concocted by “interfaith dialogue” proponents can be found in the short article, “How Religious Affiliation and Attendance Influence Likelihood of Divorce.” [4] Here’s an extract from that article:

“A new study released in the American Journal of Sociology finds that “conservative religious beliefs and the social institutions they create, on balance, decrease marital stability.” The study’s authors note that by discouraging pre-marital sex and cohabitation outside of marriage, conservative religious institutions inadvertently increase the likelihood of divorce. However, Professor Charles Stokes, in reviewing the research, notes that couples who are embedded in religious communities tend to have lower divorce rates regardless of their theology.”

Excuse me, but isn’t that a contradiction? Or a glaring error in the American Journal of Sociology when it reports a misinterpretation of the published data. Isn’t the Am Jour Soc a peer-reviewed journal or at least an edited journal? The same article reports:

“In an effort be more inclusive of atheists, the St. Paul Interfaith Network has changed the name of its monthly community meeting to “Inter-belief Conversation Café.” In the Midwest, 2 percent of people identify as atheists.” [my emphasis]

Inclusivism = Universalism = Sentimentalism

Why can’t we just be people of faith and let the atheists be people of unfaith? 

I think that’s pushing the notion of liberal secularism and sentimentalism a.k.a. “inclusivism” right over the edge into oblivion. Forgive me, for I have “ismed” again! In articles appearing on sites with catchy names like, “The Friendly Atheist“, we read lines like: “I’ve heard atheists say something like, Atheism isn’t a faith, so “interfaith” excludes us by definition.” in articles with equally catchy — at least for atheists — titles like, “Minnesota Interfaith Group Changes Its Name to Become More Inclusive of Atheists.” Nothing like letting words and definitions govern your ethics!.[5] Why can’t we just be people of faith and let the atheists be people of unfaith?

We have all became amoral meandering idiots!

So even the atheists are claiming a piece of “interfaith,” though on somewhat shakier grounds, and on condition that you change your group’s name. In articles appearing on sites with catchy names like, “The Friendly Atheist“, and where we read lines like: “I’ve heard atheists say something like, Atheism isn’t a faith, so “interfaith” excludes us by definition.”[6] So what? In articles with equally catchy — at least for atheists — titles like, “Minnesota Interfaith Group Changes Its Name to Become More Inclusive of Atheists“—all 2% of them. Nothing like letting words and definitions govern your ethics! Girls using boys’ toilets, boys using girls’ toilets, women clergy, girl boyscouts. Where does it all end? Segregation became diversity; diversity became indiviudalism; we have all became amoral meandering idiots!

And the  St Paul Pioneer Press  while other proponents have proposed the term interpath dialogue. It seems that these groups are making a radical departure from what we know as “faith” to honor impossible inclusiveness while losing all focus and credibility. These groups are making the attempt to include or at least to avoid excluding atheists, agnostics, humanists, and such with no religious faith in traditional terms but who espouse ethical or philosophical credos.

What we now call post-modern or post-Christian might as well be called post-mortem; we can dilute the doctrines and dogmas (Truth) of world faith and belief communities to the point of losing all tradition and with it all sense of identity; we have lost sight of the fact that unity implies otherness and otherness implies identity.

Another example of how the concept of interfaith can derail and alchemically transmutate into a bastard creature of so-called religion-turned-social-program is the  About Interfaith IMPACT of New York State. (We have no idea why the “IMPACT” is uppercase.) According to their website,

“IINYS consists of congregations, clergy and individuals from progressive Protestant, Reform Jewish, Unitarian Universalist and other faith traditions. Together we work for the common good through progressive religious advocacy.  The interfaith Impact of New York State Foundation, Inc. is a charitable organization. Its mission is to Inform and encourage progressive faith based participation in public dialogue.”[7]

One of IINYS’s stated missions is to ensure a separation of Church and state but a closer reading of what their activities include is a direct contradiction of any separation and has nothing to do with any faith with which I am familiar. Key to understanding what interfaith in the IINYS is the word “progressive.” What this means is “secularization,” social “justice” programming (socialism), and is deeply imbedded in “state” (= government) activity and operations. Of course, you won’t find any mainstream faith or belief traditions represented on the “Reform” and “Universalist” board membership, because mainstream faith or belief traditions have clear and unambiguous statutes and doctrines, not an agenda of political activity clothed in smoke and mirror deception, and a blurring of the black letter of the Separation Clause. And that’s just one example of how “interfaith” is being marketed.

IINYS succeeds not only in confusing any coherent impression that the term “interfaith” may have implied by conflating “moral values” with “social programs,” a gaffe that distracts significantly, among other things, from the organization’s alleged principles, which should not come as a surprise given the intimate, almost incestuous relationship IINYS has with the profane state government of New York, itself in a state of disinformation and secular humanist and liberal materialism. Interfaith is equated with unabashed sentimentalism.

IINYS’s case gets even worse: the IINYS actually uses a P.O. box at the New York State Capitol to receive mail! Now that’s what I call Church-state separation.

They’ve pirated the word but killed the concept.

Another example of the perversion of the faith part of “interfaith” would be the Interfaith Medical Center of Brooklyn, New York. The only faith at IMCB would be faith in the idolatry of medical capitalism and market economy. Unfortunately, at this writing IMCB’s mission statement was “under construction.” They’re probably having a real tough time justifying the interfaith part of what appears to be an enterprise healthcare facility attempting to cater to the needs of a multiethnic community. So why not just say so and leave “interfaith” out of the game? Because “interfaith” means nothing but looks really good. Smoke and mirrors. They’ve pirated the word but killed the concept.

One thing is very clear: there has been no peace between human beings since the Tower of Babel because we all are speaking different languages; even when we’re speaking the same language, we don’t understand one another. There’s no need to imagine the catastrophic confusion that comes about when we attempt to use language to define or to discuss the ineffable, the transcendent like the mysteries of life, death or faith or belief in a transcendent state or spirituality. Imagine that when we have such difficulty distinguishing between religion and spirituality at all!

While I personally reject the alleged definitions of “interfaith” anything, I do understand the thought behind it and the problems of rendering “inter-“ anything intelligible to the point of being useful or implementable. Here are a couple that may help us to get our arms around the notion of what really should have stayed under the rubric of “tolerance.”

As a psychospiritual care provider, I have to confront this problem on a regular basis when I have people telling me, “She wasn’t religious at all.” But then they go on to tell me how she believed in God and in an existence after death; where my conversation partner tells me that she, the deceased, is now in heaven with her beloved spouse. Or “We want a spiritual service, not a religious service.” What do you mean spiritual but not religious? Now the great silence starts and I recognize that my dialogue partner doesn’t know what the difference is; in fact, she’s embarrassed and I have to save her now.

This becomes a particularly acute situation when I am facilitating a family conference for arranging a funeral or memorial service. During this conference I have to chop through suspicion, confusion, defensiveness, family secrecies, and so much more to establish a relationship of trust and authenticity in just a few sentences. I have to learn enough about a person, his or her family relationships, community involvements, likes and dislikes, habits and idiosyncrasies, end-of-life circumstances, and I have to do this without traumatizing my conversation partners or offending sometimes unspoken sensitivities. They didn’t each this sort of thing at my seminary institute, and they didn’t help very much in my many hours of Clinical Pastoral Education in a major trauma center, or in the nursing home or in the parish where I did my pastoral formation. My guess is that most of my instructors and mentors didn’t have a clue outside of what they were able to find in somebody’s book on the subject and what we brought to the table ourselves. At this point in my career-vocation, I can see why it’s something that you can’t just each or get from any textbook, because the lessons to be learned are as diverse as the individuals and families we, as pastoral care providers and psychospiritual guides are called to serve.

In fact, having written the term “pastoral care” I even balk at using that term because not all of the sufferers I companion think of themselves as animals, sheep, who require a pastor, a shepherd. Since we are finding ourselves increasingly faced with practically unlettered clients, clients who don’t read and who never were taught reading and writing skills, who tend to communicated in a few syllables or in emoticons, we, too, have had to develop second language skills, so-to-speak, and I don’t mean only in our liturgical, ritual, and Scriptural language, but in the language we use in the professional milieu and that we use in the care-giving milieu. This distinction does not discriminate between the lower socioeconomic or socioethinic groups but applies equally well to the so-called “educated” and techosavvy groups, who are just as language-challenged as a newly arrived immigrant but less likely to admit the importance of learning the language.

Furthermore, in strict terms, I’m not a pastor at all because I don’t have a fixed parish or congregation, so I’m not providing “pastoral” care as such. In fact, there are very few pastors who are called to do what I do and have to do in my vocation. Normally, a pastor has a congregation with whom he, nowadays also she, is in theory expected to be intimately familiar on an individual basis.  But we all know that today, just about every faith and belief community has succumbed to the post-modern sentimental hypocrisy of the happy-clappy social club, insincere hugging orgies, and idiotic grinning clubs we today call congregations. Or, even worse, the entertainment events in the guise of worship now offered by the megachurches springing up all over the place. Well, they’re cheaper than a ticket to a country western concert and the cappuccino at the java bar is pretty good, too, and cheaper than Starbucks. Music’s pretty cool, too. Maybe God will even show up one of these Sundays! Meanwhile, the show of raised armpits, gibberish cries of ecstasy and the Guinness Book of Records breaker show of hairy armpits will go on…and on. Thank you, Vatican II! Thank you, Facebook! Thank you, Beelzebub!

In recent years, I have found that I am providing a form of psychotherapy as well as spiritual guidance, so I more often than not will use the term psychospiritual care provider. It seems to come closer to what I really do, and doesn’t get the discussion bogged down in a quagmire of denominations, faith communities, belief traditions or spiritual path distinctions. Once we get past the icebreaking and the initial disclosure process, we are in a better position to explore religion and spirituality without treading on eggs.

Meanwhile, back in the conference room, we are sitting with the husband, the three daughters and the two sons of a woman recently dead, and we need to put together a chapel service and a graveside interment service the Saturday morning, two days hence. The funeral director has the easy job of prepping and embalming the body, dressing her, and doing her cosmetics, so that she is Barbie-doll presentable in her lovely imitation mahogany eternity capsule. The FD has the easy part, the dead don’t get defensive; they’re good listeners and don’t talk much.

“So, tell me a little about your mom,” or so the conversation starts.  “Well, I don’t really know where to start. What do you think, dad?” Now dad’s in the hot seat and hasn’t got a clue what the question is. So we start over again, this time I’m trying to recall the scanty information that the FD provided during our initial conversation about the case. And so I move on, now in reverse mode: “What kind of service did you have in mind to celebrate your mom’s, your wife’s life?” Here’s where we get right down to the nitty-gritty: religious, spiritual, non-religious/secular, humanistic (no religion). Mr. FD tells me that your mom’s records show that she declared herself to be Roman Catholic. The daughter-in-charge looks a bit dazed, “She did? Was mom Catholic, dad?” Dad puts on a sheepish look, “Yeah. We

both were. We got married in church and we had you kids baptized, too.” One thought rolls over my mind: “OMG! Just let them talk this one out.” Once they are done doing their own interviews, I can interject with, “It seems your mom did have a religious preference and that she had a faith tradition. You may be surprised but I have had situations like this many times where a parent or a grandparent gets so involved with caring for their family, that there’s just no time on Sundays to pack everyone up and march to church, and so the “religion” moves from the church to the heart. That’s not a bad thing. So I’m not surprised that your mom was busy being a good mom and a loving wife, and managed to keep her religion in her heart and worship there. That’s a beautiful thing. Don’t you think?” In unison: “Yeah. You’re right!”

And so we move past that hurdle, and we have something to hold on to. I have a starting point and the family has a very viable option, the service will be a religious service, but not “too” Catholic, because we don’t go to church and the kids won’t sit still through a lot of prayers. The conversation and sharing goes on beautifully from that point on, once a “major” question has been negotiated.

But what about the non-religious, or the so-called “quilted family system,” in which you have a mix of non-believers, and believers including the odd Buddhist, the Jew, the Presbyterian, the Evangelicals, Baptists and the de rigueur generic “Christians?” Is this interfaith, interbelief, or interpath? My categorical answer is: Yes. But it’s likely to be non-religious if it’s any of these.

You see, it’s hypersimplistic to presume to take any collection of denominations or traditions and call it by any name, let alone be crazy enough to think that you can properly address and avoid offending any or all of the traditions in the assembly. To be very honest, there are today so many flavors of Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, Episcopalianism, etc.  Forgive me! for I have ismed.

The truth is that you can provide a service only along the lines of a single tradition – or no tradition — and, if you are not a listener or not well-trained, you run a risk of adoring adulation from some and condemnation as a heretic by others in the same group. The attempt to please all is doomed to please none.

This is because most institutionalized, mainstream denominations simply do not properly train or supervise their clergy – so as not to offend them or in order to allow the clergy to take the odd doctrinal or dogmatic detours to ensure that he or she keeps the pews filled and the collections abundant – so you can go to one service on one Sunday and hear one teaching and the next Sunday go to another worship service and get another take on the Gospel. Neither do the clergy properly and honestly form and educate their constituents; that’s why Christians are so diverse and so critical of and cruel to one another, while preaching some sort of love. Most tend to go where you have a preacher who says what they want to hear; once-a-week worship becomes a happy-clappy hypocritical quest for affirmation and acknowledgement. Orthodox doctrine is a thing of the past; institutionalized religion, the mainstream religions, like any institution are self-serving and self-preserving; it’s a market economy with hymns and incense. It’s ice-cream religion, vanilla or any flavor you’d like.

Meanwhile back at the funeral home, we’re just finishing up and have decided on a chapel service that will be based on the Rite of Christian Burial that will include Roman Catholic liturgical elements, even candles, holy water and incense, but will include some secular poetry readings, and a couple of “Protestant” hymns. The graveside service will be prayerful, moving and tearful. The family’s happy, the FD is over the moon, and I have my doubts.

On the way back to my office I’m pondering, “How am I going to pull this off, and still be able to have dinner with myself again?” That may have been a reason for considering self-harm years ago but today it’s just a pro forma start to “designing” a custom and personalized service we now call the “Celebration of Life,” rather than a funeral ritual.

It’s here that years of study, continuing education, lots of extradisciplinary study, interpersonal skills, creativity, and a lot of help from something I refer to as the Holy Spirit gets us all over the hump rather than in the dump.

In ministering to suffering in general and to those confronting an end-of-life process, death, and the rite of passage from ante-mortem to post-mortem life, we are forced to recognize the indisputable fact that suffering if anything,  while being a common thread running through all of humankind, is inextricably individual; the pain of bereavement is totally one’s own experience, each individual experiences it differently, and any attempt to provide an “inter-anything” type of psychospiritual care is a deplorable fake.

At some time after our birth we are presented to the community in a rite of passage ritual called “naming;” naming explicitly announces to the cosmos that here we have an individual, an “other,” who, for the purposes of distinction shall be called “Baby Doe.” Different cultures will ascribe different duties and responsibilities and different degrees of separateness of the new member but that new member is almost universally recognized as an “other.” Accordingly, the cookie-cutter funeralization rites and rituals of various faith and belief traditions, while they may at one point or another recognize the individual by mentioning his or her name, the overall presumption is that the departed one has indeed departed the community and, upon final disposition of the mortal remains, is no longer. Thank you, Dr Freud!

But this is as far from health reality as we can get. We have to reach back into our own history and bring back the family involvement, the maintenance of important connections with our dead; we have to learn from other traditions how to continue those bonds and how to grow with them.

A clergyperson who doesn’t hone the importance of acknowledging the “other,” the named one, the uniqueness of the deceased, and who doesn’t include the family to the maximum extent possible in the rites of funeralization, is shortchanging the deceased and the mourners! Continuing bonds with the dead is an intimate, personal necessity and not one in which church or community should be dominant; the annual memorial mass is one example of superficiality and ecclesial control. By far more effective is to light a candle at a holiday gathering or to light a candle on a special occasion, honoring the presence and memory of a dead loved one, or even the community of dead loved ones. Perhaps even observing a moment of silent reflection when the family gathers.

The Agape Meal

The early Church started in private homes in the family circle; for centuries it continued and evolved in the warmth and intimacy of private homes, the early house churches; this had less to do with persecution than with the Jewish Sabbath tradition and the primordial agapé meal! But then, the early organizers got together to set the rules and to enforce some control over the various “churches” as they were called in the different faith communities. Gradually, faith moved out of the family circle, out of the home, into the community assembly space, out of the core of the individual human being, until today, it has practically moved out completely. The lights are on but nobody’s home. We are the janitors of the soul, the concierges of the refuge; when we get the call, we prepare the place.

Faith, religious belief, spirituality still maintains an address in the human soul and still receives mail there; our job as clergy, ministers, chaplains, psychospiritual care providers have to keep that abode open, accessible and welcoming for the time when the prodigal has to return, open the mail, and pay the bills. All suffering, all grief, all healing, all transformation is addressed personally to the individual; all care has to do the same: it must be individual, or at least the individual must be provided with the tools so that they can do the DIY repair and maintenance.

Creating new labels for negligence or indifference or continuing cookie-cutter rituals is an affront to any concept of ministry, to any concept of community. We need to stop being narcissistically creative and start being humbly serving.

If we are going to allow any notion of “inter” to enter our lives, our praxis, our ministries, and from there into the lives of those who look to us for guidance, we are going to have to recognize and accept the fact that our churches, our faith and belief communities have become institutions and, like any profane or secular institution are governed by self-interest and self-preservation, all else playing a lesser role.  As a psychospiritual care provider it is my duty and obligation first to be tolerant and to recognize that it is arrogant to claim and impossible to be “interfaith,” “interreligious,” “interpath,” “interbelief,” and to claim to be any of these is to announce being nothing at all. Best to be wholly tolerant and wholly compliant with the explicit wishes of the deceased but even more so with those of the living, obviously, and to be guided by good and prudent discernment of the content of the sharing during the family conference.

The rites and rituals of funeralization should transform the dead into fonts of meaningful legacy and provide the living with psychospiritual nourishment and the opportunity for growth; this requires deep listening, sensitivity, creativity, humility, compassion, and patience. Ours is a vocation, not a job, that’s why the FD or some funeral home dilettante should not, must not be put in the position of providing psychospiritual care as a funeral or memorial officiant. Doing so simply makes the statement either that the funeral director or the funeral home does not know its limitations or boundaries, or that they simply are indifferent to the harm they can do by providing care outside of their competence, or both. Offering quick fixes like direct burial or direct cremation are careless and insensitive alternatives to providing the care and attention necessary for healing grief work and transformational mourning; even direct disposition services should offer, promote and encourage the services of a professional bereavement chaplain, even if it’s only to meet with the survivors in an informal environment and simply chat; the chaplain will know how to steer the sharing.

Epilogue

It’s astounding how few FDs actually make it a point to offer or even mention chaplain services. It’s even more disappointing to have to admit that most clergy never have a pre-funeral or pre-memorial meeting with the family to discuss the rites and rituals and why things are being done a certain way. Even fewer enlist the family’s participation in the actual service. This is a travesty of deathcare services both by the FD and by so called clergy. We owe the dead, the bereaved, mourners in general better treatment than this, especially if we are receiving a fee or a stipend to provide psychospiritual care!

In this article I have used the word sentimental and its derivatives but have not really defined it as I am using it. I owe you, my patient reader, the fairness of a definition. Sentimentality is fooling yourself into thinking there are easy answers. Sentimentality gives free rein to rank simplification, excessive feeling, particularly emotions, that have no place in actuality Sentimentality is a form of defense, a self-deception just like denial, and is used in order to avoid acknowledging more painful emotions, particularly anger, shame or guilt. So what would I propose to you as the opposite of sentimentality? My reasoned suggestion of an antonym for the term “sentimentality” would be “mature realism.” Mature realism Mature realism steering clear of cheap idealization just as we would steer clear of cheap grace; such realism requires the courage to examine the good and bad of everything, and further demands that we to search beyond the superficiality of our own emotions, motives and those of others that mislead us to think that there are easy answers to complex problems.[8]

Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney MDiv
Bereavement Chaplain/Thanatologist

 


[1]DAVOS-KLOSTERS/SWITZERLAND, 30JAN09 – Lord Carey of Clifton (VLTR), Archbishop of Canterbury (1991-2002), United Kingdom, Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, United Kingdom, Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti of Bosnia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jim Wallis, Editor-in-Chief and Chief Executive Officer, Sojournes, USA, , captured at the press conference ‘Religious leaders call for the peace in the middle east’ at the Annual Meeting 2009 of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 30, 2009. ©World Economic Forum. swiss-image.ch/Photo by Andy Mettler.
[2] Source: Archdiocese of Chicago (http://legacy.archchicago.org/departments/ecumenical/Relations.htm, last accessed on October 22, 2017)

[3] The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) describes itself as “”… a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to research at the intersection of religion, values, and public life…PRRI’s mission is to help journalists, opinion leaders, scholars, clergy, and the general public better understand debates on public policy issues and the role of religion and values in American public life by conducting high quality public opinion surveys and qualitative research”

[4] “How Religious Affiliation and Attendance Influence Likelihood of Divorce.” (https://web.archive.org/web/20160202185558/http://publicreligion.org/2014/07/the-morning-buzz-how-religious-affiliation-and-attendance-influence-likelihood-of-divorce/ last accessed on October 24, 2017)

[5] “Minnesota Interfaith Group Changes Its Name to Become More Inclusive of Atheists” (

[6] “St. Paul’s atheists are coming out of the closet” (http://legacy.archchicago.org/departments/ecumenical/Relations.htm, last accessed on October 24, 2017).

[7] Interfaith IMPACT of New York State (www.interfaithimpactnys.org, last accessed on October 24, 2017).

[8] I would strongly recommend the book Faking It by Digby Anderson. In that 1998 book Anderson and contributors present a scathing assessment of sentimentality in most of today’s institutions of modern culture. (Anderson, D., P. Mullen, Faking it:  (1998) The sentimentalization of modern society. London: St Edmundsbury Press.)