Category Archives: Death Education

Spirtual Care Providers Must Discern Human Service vs Customer Service

As a provider of psychospiritual care to the bereaved, as a professional bereavement chaplain, theologian and thanatologist, I firmly believe that some things just have to be delivered locally and face-to-face; these include sex, making friends, spiritual care, funeralization services. Not necessarily in that order or priority ranking.


Grief work is not achieved in three days nor with an online consult. That’s purely and simply idiotic.

The deathbed is the start of the last great mystery confronting us.

The saying goes thus: “Death is the great equalizer.” We are all equal in death. Presidents, kings, supreme court justices, movie stars, athletes all die, all decay, all go the same way as the homeless man on the corner. But would you think of direct burial or direct cremation for a president, a queen, Mohammed Ali? So why skimp on grandpa? We celebrate the deceased’s achievements in life, not the fact of his or her being dead. And we do it with pomp, ceremony, rites, ritual, tradition, dignity and respect. Virtual mourning is none of the above and the grief work is not achieved in three days nor with an online consult. That’s purely and simply idiotic.

As the soul leaves the body at death, so too the soul leaves the narcissist professional.

 

Furthermore, a death is a social, political and community event. The emotions involved in the acute grief experience are far too complex and idiosyncratic to be amenable to one method, one technology, one dose. As a social, political and community service death care requires real community involvement, hands on, and that means a local group understanding the local cultures, a “neighborhood,” if you prefer. This is a physical community, complex, deep, involved, alive; not a virtual make-believe, conjured up community.

One more thing: We have to stop giving Jessica Mitford and her estate post-mortem kudos for a book and a sequel book that was not only self-serving and conflicted in its interests, but a masterpiece of biased muckraking appealing to the titillation lust of the masses and their denial of death anxieties. Mitford couldn’t attack Death itself nor could or would she attempt to attack institutionalized religion, so she went after the next best thing, the funeral services professions, not yet having become the funeral service industry. I’ve cited Mitford several times on my various blogs so I won’t waste bytes on her here.

I place Mitford in the same category as Kübler-Ross in that neither of them can claim any objective or scientific credibility but their main contribution to Western, particularly American society, was to get people talking about death and deathcare services. That, my friends, was a big step in a society frozen in preadolescent fascinations, psychosocial pathological denial, anxiety and narcissism, steeped in materialist humanism and addicted to corporate-fed consumerism.

It’s progressively gotten worse with the public health problem of Internet Addiction Disorder and the pathological subset, Facebook Addiction Disorder, and the emergence of the multistate funeral services groups like Newcomer Funeral Services Group, Service Corporation International and their alter ego Dignity Memorial, and StoneMor, who have all added greed and indifference to the corporate mix of tastelessness and deception of the consumer public. and their dead Again, I’ve commented extensively on these ghouls of the funeral services niche so I won’t waste time or words on them here.

Newcomer, SCI/Dignity Memorial, StoneMor
Ghouls of Corporate Death Services

They want your money not your brains!

Like it or not, death is inevitable for every mortal creature from cockroaches to presidents and kings. No matter how you define or think about it, you will have to some day deal with death so get a grip. How you deal with the death of a significant other in your life, whether that loved one is a pet or a parent or a child–or your own death is a matter of what I will term befriending death. No, I don’t mean the superficial, make believe, virtual “befriending” most of you are addicted to on Facebook and other social media. I mean the kind of be-friending that involves learning about, nurturing an intimacy with, even trusting, welcoming into your world, and frequent contact. Being at ease with, acknowledging, being aware of death is key. That may sound a bit bizarre so let me explain.

Technology has evolved faster than we as human beings have done. We lag far behind technology in our understanding of it and our ability to wisely and prudently steward it. In fact, technology has overrun us and has taken over our lives; this can’t be denied. This fact has been used to the level of Dr Strangelove proportions by corporations and big business, and even by individuals with pathological ambitions like Donald Trump on Twitter and Mark Zuckerberg with the Facebook phenomenon. The medical, psychological and ethics journals are full of reports on the so-called Internet Addiction Disorder, which was described back in the 90’s, and now there’s a subset of that disorder termed the Facebook Addiction Disorder and the Internet Gaming Disorder, which all share the same symptoms as alcoholism and street drug addiction like heroin or the like. Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it, just go to Pubmed and plug in a couple search terms and you’ll get all the proof you’ll ever need of this fact.


Editor’s note: For those of you who are not familiar with Pubmed, it is the database and search engine maintained by the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM) at the National Institutes of Health; it provides access primarily to the MEDLINE database of references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics. (Access Pubmed here. )


You have to admit you have a problem when you need Facebook to help you grieve!

The stimulus for this editorial, however, is not Newcomers or SCI. Nor is it Twitter or Facebook. The funeral service corporations and the social media and networking evils do figure in the theme of this communication, however.
If presidents and perverts have discovered social networking and social media, neither of which are social in the benevolent meaning of the word but serve a more sinister, asocial purpose of getting people hooked and then controlling them, just as the word “service” is used deceptively when used in conjunction with such greed mills as Newcomers or Service Corporation International.
The stimulus for this commentary is, in fact, an article that appeared in Forbes online, “Customer Service In Deathcare: How The Funeral Home Industry Cares For The Living” (contributed by Micah Solomon, MAY 26, 2017).—

Mr Solomon describes himself as a “customer service consultant” and “consumer trends expert,” — he doesn’t say how he got those credentials, though — catchy phrases but a bit too catchy to inspire any confidence or credibility. I’m a bit at a loss not at the What? but at the How? when Mr Solomon then goes on to say:

While some of my own work with the death care industry as a customer service consultant and consumer trends expert has been on innovation in the deathcare customer experience (methods for serving today’s far-flung bereaved customers by using connectivity, videoconferencing, and recording technologies to allow them to take part in memorial/celebration of life service) most of the work I do in this industry and that matters the most, in my opinion, is simply aimed at improving the customer experience, which, of course, is for the living.

Likewise unclear is Solomon’s terminology “far-flung bereaved customers” and “connectivity, videoconferencing, and recording technologies” to involve them in the “memorial/celebration of life service“. Maybe it’s Mr Solomon’s sense of compassion that is represented by his use of the term “far-flung” to describe the unfortunate mourners who are separated by distance from the event. Describing the bereaved as “customers” further chills the atmosphere he’s creating. Technical jargon like “connectivity, videoconferencing, and recording technologies” somehow put a damper on my sense that this guy has any clue about the nature of bereavement, acute grief, mourning, tradition, spirituality, cultural sensitivity, or even the characteristics of the vocation of funeral director. I’m therefore at something of a loss how he, with his frigid and disconnected technospeak, can improve the customer experience! This he leaves to the funeral directors he’s interviewing. Wisely so.

But even more poignant are the three phrases that caught my attention in that unimaginitive and deceptive title: “customer service,” “deathcare,” “funeral home industry.”

We alone, as moral agents and social actors, are responsible for what we do and how we do it

Inserting a bit of Kantian deontology that I’d like you to keep in the back of your mind while reading this, I’d like to say that we are not measured by what the other guy or gal does, but by what we do; we alone, as moral agents and social actors, are responsible for what we do and how we do it. It’s the quality of our values, morals and ethics that govern our behavior. As moral free agents we alone are responsible for what standards are used to guide our conduct.This applies not only to our inner forum, our conscience and how it guides us, but to the external forum, the community in which we live, work, and may disinterestedly interact.

Human service becomes “customer” service when an goods or services transaction forms the basis of the interaction

Customer service is at its most basic human service, service to human beings, human interaction, relationship building. By human services, I mean a broad range of interdisciplinary services whose commitment is jointly and individually to improve the overall quality of life in diverse populations through guidance in meeting basic human needs and support remediating real or perceived social challenges.  Human service becomes “customer” service when a goods or services transaction forms the basis of the interaction but it is still a subset of human services. Accordingly, customer service cannot separate itself from the humane aspect, the relationship aspect of its nature. The problem I have with the Forbes article is that, true to the materialist consumerist interests of Forbes, the article defines customer service purely in terms of selling and purchasing relationships but in the context of the so-called, malapropism, funeral service industry. Customer service must be human service, especially in the funeral services professions. Human service and hence customer service in this framework is near impossible on a corporate or industrial scale for reasons I’d be happy to substantiate in another article, if required.

Try doing this on Facebook or in cyberspace!

The second term that raised my suspicions is “deathcare.” We can defined death care as the care given to the dead or as post-mortem care. This would involve respectful and dignified custodianship and preparation of the dead body for whatever funeralization rites and rituals are appropriate as defined by the deceased individual during his or her life or as requested by the survivors. We must not oversimplify deathcare with the deathcare services businesses and industries that commonly provide services related to the dead body and death traditions, that is, preparation of the dead body (removal, embalming, cosmetology, etc.), funeral rituals, disposal (burial, cremation, etc.), and memorialization. The deathcare business includes for example funeral homes and their operations, including transporation services; containers like caskets, coffins, urns; accelerated decomposition services such as alkaline hydrolysis, cremation, etc.; cemeteries and burial plots, and headstones, markers, etc. What we most neglect in the discussion of deathcare services is psychospiritual care, and here we must include the professional bereavement chaplain and some but not most clergy.

Try duplicating the emotions evoked during military honors. Do you think you can do it on Facebook or Twitter?

The phrase that most raised my hackles is “funeral home industry.” First of all, the funeral home is not an industry. It may operate like a business but it is a professional operation requiring very specific training and licensure in most places. Most states require a trained and licensed funeral director to at least oversee the operations of a funeral home. The term “funeral home industry” is grossly misleading and deceptive because it conflates an image of the traditional funeral home with all of its warmth and amenities together with the dignified and compassionate professional funeral director at its helm with the sterile production methods of the factory assembly line. Nothing could be farther from the truth if one looks at the funeral services industry, the more correct designation for the funeral services groups and corporations such as Newcomer Funeral Services Group, Service Corporation International (Dignity Memorial) or StoneMor, who operate more like waste disposal business than funeral homes. Remember corporations operate according to policies, procedures, protocols and most of all the bottom line and shareholder satisfaction—not necessarily customer satisfaction.  No room here for stuff like compassion, empathy, much less “human service” in the corporate policy manuals.

Their focus is twofold: dignified care of the dead and compassionate care of the living.

The traditional, community funeral home is a hub of interdisciplinary teamwork.

The role of the funeral services provider, more accurately the funeral services team, is just that: to provide human services. Those human services are provided by a team of specialists that range from the funeral home cleaning and maintenance person(s), to the housekeeper, the groundskeeper, the funeral home assistants, the behind the scenes professionals (the cosmetologist, the hair stylist, the embalmer, the cemetery or crematory personnel), to the front of house staff (the assistants, the funeral director(s)), to the psychospiritual care provider (the funeral home chaplain or associated clergyperson). Their focus is twofold: dignified care of the dead and compassionate care of the living. The human services aspect persists far beyond the care provided with the first call, the removal, the arrangements conference, the chaplain visit and consultation, the visitation or the funeral; what happens at any of these milestones significantly affects the survivors during, immediately after the services, and well into the future, perhaps for years. That’s what the funeral services industry, the large groups, the corporations can’t provide but what the local family-owned funeral home pride themselves in: the human side of funeral services. So be clear on this point: once you start talking “industry” you are not talking “human”. Period.

So far I’ve taken issue only with three phrases that occur in the title of the article alone. But what about the remainder of the so-called article at issue? Well, there’s not much to say about it because the bulk of it is made up of questions put to three selected funeral directors and their responses. Their responses are totally acceptable in terms of the language, and to be honest I can’t find much with which I’d tend to disagree. The funeral directors seem to have their acts in order and say the right things. They are in a highly competitive business and have to be realistic, not necessarily traditional. Read into that what you like.

It should be clear by this point that I do not advocate virtual or technological or corporate solutions to anything as profound as the death experience or any occurrence of acute traumatic bereavement. Electronic signals, bits and bytes, virtual compassion just do not and cannot replace the warmth of human spirit, the compassionate embrace of a friend or loved one, the immediacy of the death experience, the real-ization of the death and its sequellae. The funeral home and its resident and on-call team members are the experts in offering compassion and comfort and no social networking scheme, no corporate disposal package, no virtual event and no DVD can replace the authenticity and true empathic response of face-to-face, human-to-human, verbal and non-verbal communications, the symbols and rituals that give meaning to this most mysterious of life events, death.

… some things just have to be delivered locally and face-to-face; these include sex, making friends, spiritual care, funeralization services.

This is what we do.

The Editor

 


Editor’s Note: Solomon’s self-description reads line a narcissist’s mini-bio: “I’m best known as an author, keynote speaker, consultant, and thought leader in customer service, customer experience, company culture, leadership, hospitality, innovation, entrepreneurship and consumer trends. I travel nationally and worldwide, and home base is metro Seattle. Reach me at 484-343-5881 or micah@micahsolomon.com or http://www.micahsolomon.com” We’ve contacted him for a comment on this editorial.


Acknowledgement: I’d like to extend my special thanks to my colleagues on LinkedIn, Ms Linda Williams M. Ed., M. Th., who describes herself as an Entrepreneur, Virtual Event Planner and Facilitator, Instructional Designer, Educator, Inspirational Speaker”.” Ms Williams describes her business, In-Person Away Virtual Events, as an operation that provides “our clients, their families, and friends with a virtual alternative to come together in an engaging, realistic and meaningful way, as well as host and attend social events, without breaking the bank on travel expenses.” Ms Williams does not advocate virtual resources as a substitute for real presence but only as a valuable alternative affording an opportunity to share where no other viable options are available. I agree.


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Death Bereavement and Be-ing

Republished with permission from Spirituality and Griefcare.


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

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

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

Shells of former selves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Penzabene Crash Site.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Download the final article from Spirituality & GriefcareNo Empty Chair

Read a related article at Tragedy or Failure?

Peace and blessings,
Rev.  Ch. Harold

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

Funeralization and Chaplain Services. A New Essential Blog.


Funeralization & Chaplain Services


You are invited to visit, follow and participate in this new specialist blog dedicated to funeral and memorial services, the important but frequently overlooked role of the interfaith bereavement chaplain,  and many other funeralization and deathcare topics.


This new blog will share with its readers a plethora of information on the funeral services niche, what to ask for, what to avoid, who to avoid, and what services you should ask for, if you are a consumer, or offer, if you are a funeral director, both during pre-arrangement meetings and when making immediate need arrangements.

Visit Funeralization & Chaplain Services blog here.
Join the Interfaith Chaplain group on Facebook here.
Learn about Chaplain Services available to you here.

We feel it is extremely important that consumers be offered the opportunity to consult and to talk to a professional interfaith bereavement chaplain, and that consumers should request such a conference; on the other hand, funeral homes should provide such an opportunity to all persons making funeral or memorial arrangements.

We are staunch supporters of the traditional funeral for all of its important psychological, spiritual, and cultural benefits. We are also strongly in support of locally owned and operated funeral homes as opposed to the corporate funeral groups and the factory-funeral service providers. Having said that, we do not believe that the traditional funeral should be outrageously extravagant or expensive but that it should be simple and dignified, personalized to reflect the family culture and the life of the deceased.

Welcome to this blog. Contribute to this blog. Make this blog a place of sharing.

Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Chaplain Harold at funeralization@gmail.com or, if you are in immediate need of chaplain services or bereavement support, please call Chaplain Harold at (518) 810-2700.

Visit us also on Facebook and become a friend!

A New Blog: Funeralization and Chaplain Services


Funeralization & Chaplain Services


You are invited to visit, follow and participate in this new specialist blog dedicated to funeral and memorial services, the important but frequently overlooked role of the interfaith bereavement chaplain,  and many other funeralization and deathcare topics.


This new blog will share with its readers a plethora of information on the funeral services niche, what to ask for, what to avoid, who to avoid, and what services you should ask for, if you are a consumer, or offer, if you are a funeral director, both during pre-arrangement meetings and when making immediate need arrangements.

Visit Funeralization & Chaplain Services blog here.
Join the Interfaith Chaplain group on Facebook here.
Learn about Chaplain Services available to you here.

We feel it is extremely important that consumers be offered the opportunity to consult and to talk to a professional interfaith bereavement chaplain, and that consumers should request such a conference; on the other hand, funeral homes should provide such an opportunity to all persons making funeral or memorial arrangements.

We are staunch supporters of the traditional funeral for all of its important psychological, spiritual, and cultural benefits. We are also strongly in support of locally owned and operated funeral homes as opposed to the corporate funeral groups and the factory-funeral service providers. Having said that, we do not believe that the traditional funeral should be outrageously extravagant or expensive but that it should be simple and dignified, personalized to reflect the family culture and the life of the deceased.

Welcome to this blog. Contribute to this blog. Make this blog a place of sharing.

Should you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact Chaplain Harold at funeralization@gmail.com or, if you are in immediate need of chaplain services or bereavement support, please call Chaplain Harold at (518) 810-2700.

Visit us also on Facebook and become a friend!

Check the “Experts” — Giving Incorrect Advice

Summary: The deluge of information that floods us today from myriad “providers” on the Internet is the source of enormous confusion and misinformation. This misinformation affects not only the lay person but the professional as well. The most nefarious of these sources of confusion and misinformation affect those suffering at life’s transitions, points of existential crisis, health, life and death. Some of these websites and blogs claim to be written by persons with extensive knowledge to share; others, regrettably, are written by self – appointed pundits whose ignorance is conspicuous only to the trained professional. This means that much that the narcissistic charlatans publish makes it under the radar and is accepted by many unwary information consumers as being good, reliable information when, in fact, it’s not worth the bandwidth its transmitting on. This article reviews one such site, funeralOne, that alleges to support the funeral services industry. Sites such as funeralOne must be vetted by responsible professionals.

sheeple-eating-up-liesThe glut of information both reliable and questionable, and the possibility of instant answers, and hence instant gratification, have contributed to the general population’s low standards for quality in much of what it consumes, including the information and education they receive. This comment applies not only to the millenials whose extreme lows apply to just about everything in their generation from  the quality of their education, morals, self-esteem, tolerance of failure, etc., etc., etc. but also to many professions, including the pastoral care professions and other helping professions, most notably the funeral service profession. The problem is that ignorant Gen Ys and Gen Zs, millenials and centennials, are dominating the media and the less tech – savvy boomers and Xers are subject to the millennial penchant for laziness and ignorance, and instantaneous gratification even at the expense of accuracy and substance.

I subscribe to a number of professional information providers both in print and online, and in the process I have learned to become very critical, if not cynical, of what I receive in my mailbox or inbox. While, at least in some disciplines, the publishing industry continues to have some scruples about what gets ink — or bandwidth nowadays — and what does not, and many respectable journals continue to subject submissions to peer review, the online publishing is an abyss of garbage and misinformation.

This article is focusing on one such publishing activity that directs its attention to the funeral service industry and is a fine example of the kind of narcissism we are combating on almost a moment-by-moment basis. I’m talking about the online blog funeralOne, which provides the following self-description:

funeralOne is a personalization, technology, and consulting company for the funeral care profession. funeralOne’s core services include strategic funeral home web site design, personal funeral service consulting, and funeral tribute video software. Committed to delivering innovation, funeralOne collaborates with its clients to help them reach their full market potential. With deep industry expertise, broad resources and a proven track record, funeralOne can mobilize the right people, skills, and technologies to help clients reach their customers in new ways. (funeralOne, last accessed on November 26, 2016. Emphasis added)

Seems like they want to take over the roles of mortuary science education, board examination and licensing, and the function of the funeral service residency requirement because you can get all that at funeralOne. There’s only one problem with this utopia of [mis]information and consulting services for the “funeral care profession”, whatever that is, and that problem is that much of the information published by funeralOne is poorly edited, full of mistakes, loaded with factoids, and generally unreliable.

funeralOne's Chastain

funeralOne’s Chastain

I’m a firm believer that one swallow doesn’t make a summer, and so I look beyond one example to form an opinion. I’ve done this on the funeralOne site and found that there is a pattern. One example of the overall pattern presented by funeralOne is by one of its most prolific misinformation and disinformation specialists, one Rilee Chastain (Hi! I’m Rilee Chastain), who allegedly graduated “cum laude” from Columbia College (Chicago) with a degree in Guess what? journalism – doesn’t say a hell of a lot for Columbia’s journalism program, does it? We’ll use just one of her many poorly written articles providing the “funeral care industry” with unreliable “industry expertise”. The article is entitled “3 Things You Need to Know About Hispanic Funerals.” (last accessed on November 26, 2016).

When differentiating the use of Hispanic, Latino, Latin, Louis E. V. Nevaer of Hispanic Economics writes:

This all said, Hispanics, Latinos, and Latins are distinct individuals, who, at times, loathe one another, and, on occasion, seethe when grouped together. Say “Latino” to the wrong person, and an unintended insult results. Say “Hispanic” to the wrong person, and you will be dismissed as being “prejudiced.” It is important to remember that “Hispanic” and “Latino” can each be considered a pejorative, depending on the listener’s sensibilities. What can be said with certainty is that, intellectually, “Latino,” used when speaking in English, is the name given to the children of the Hispanic diaspora in the United States. (“Hispanic” versus “Latino” versus “Latin” (last accessed on November 27, 2016).

So, even giving Ms Chastain the benefit of doubt, she is writing about the Spanish-speaking ethnic community in the United States that embraces the vast culturally diverse geographical groups that include the Caribbeans, the Central Americans, South Americans, Mexicans, as well as the Spanish-speaking populations in the United States.  Chastain lumps them all together and yet insists that her readers be “culturally sensistive.” But since the 1990’s Latino has been used to describe those Hispanics born in the United States. (Meanwhile, Chicano and Mexican American have fallen out of popular usage.)

So it’s rather unclear which group is Ms Chastain’s subject, and it doesn’t become any clearer as we read her sometimes offensive article, which becomes the poster-article for all such wannabe pundits for the mortuary service professional

ConnectingDirectors' Thogmartin

ConnectingDirectors’ Thogmartin

I’d also include here the online publication Connecting Directors by Disrupt Media and its founder Ryan Thogmartin, which at least publishes excerpts and borrowings from more authoritative sources, sparing one the ordeal of being exposed only to Disrupt’s and Mr Thogmartin’s marketing videos and silly interviews.. ConnectingDirectors also describes itself as:

ConnectingDirectors.com is the premier progressive online publication for funeral professionals. ConnectingDirectors.com 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.

Every narcissist can find a home on the Internet as Thogmartin’s self-description proves:

Ryan Thogmartin is a death care entrepreneur and the CEO of DISRUPT Media and creator of ConnectingDirectors.com. | Follower of Christ | Husband | Father | Entrepreneur | Host of #DISRUPTu! and #FUNERALnationtv | Lover of Skittles

ConnectingDirectors also has the dubious distinction of republishing many of funeralOne’s substandard information posts.

dia-de-los-muertosBack to funeralOne. We must note that Ms Chastain does select a traditional Mexican Día de los Muertos image of an ornate skull, which tends to focus one on a more Mexican ethnic version of the “Hispanic” in the title, in which case, Ms Chastain’s article falls even farther from the mark. This is where we get the strong impression that funeralOne and Ms Chastain have no clue about what they’re writing. If this is how funeralOne expects to provide their clients with “deep industry expertise” they should find another job; what’s true, though, is funeralOne’s claim that it is “delivering innovation,” the factoids in Ms Chastain’s article are certainly innovative, even fictional.

In her opening paragraph Ms Chastain affirms, even if only in the broadest general strokes, that her intended audience is “in the business of giving people meaningful funeral and memorial services…no matter what their background may be.” I don’t think the funeral homes, with whom I have the privilege of working, are in the business of “giving” anyone anything, their goal is to provide a service within a price range affordable by the customer; if that service happens to be meaningful or memorable certainly depends on the customer’s preferences and how the service is orchestrated. Many funeral service providers offer direct cremation and burial services because that’s what the customer wants; I fail to see how direct services are meaningful. But detail doesn’t seem to be Chastain’s forté.

Moving on. Ms Chastain writes the truism that “every culture has their own unique traditions” and includes in that statement that this includes “even the length of the celebration process” I’ve been providing interfaith officiation services for some years now and I’ve not come across the phrase “celebration process” in practice nor in the literature. Wonder where that neologism came from and what it actually means? (Editor’s Note: “Celebration process” is a neologism that belongs in the same class as the funeral innovator’s creations like “experience economy,” “competitive reality,” and other inventions that serve only to make a provider’s intentions more cryptic.)

Ms Chastain first becomes mildly offensive when she arrogantly announces that she knows the right way we should be doing things and she’s going to tell us all about it: “So it’s important that you know the right way to do that for families of different backgrounds and traditions.” Gee, Mr Funeral Director of 10, 20, 30, 40 years! Why didn’t you ever think of that? And you directors of mortuary science programs, Why didn’t you ever think of that? And seminaries and CPE programs, where’d you drop the ball? Aren’t we lucky to have the Rilee Chastains and funeralOnes of the world there to get us on track with new concepts, new ethnicities, new vocabulary, and new ways of doing things?

And so, again, Ms Chastain writes that the “Hispanic community” and “Hispanic Americans” (Wotz that?) are a “massive part of the United States’ population…1 of 6 residents [sic] nationwide”; by our math that’s about 16.6%. (For ethic group statistics for Population of the United States by Race and Hispanic/Latino Origin, Census 2000 and 2010,  last accessed on November 27, 2016). According to Ms Chastain, the “Hispanic” population will be “one third of citizens” in the US in the US. Are we comparing apple with oranges, “residents” with “citizens”? According to Ms Chastain it appears that Hispanics are Latinos and “residents” are “citizens”. But then, we have to remember, funeralOne through Ms Chastain, is “providing deep industry expertise” and “delivering innovation.” (See “What’s the difference between Hispanic and Latino?“) Our guess is that Ms Chastain graduated from a non-English journalism program.

so-called journalismMs Chastain writes that a “large percentage of Hispanic families are Catholic”, that this fact influences many aspects of Hispanic culture””–Hold on! Isn’t religion an element of culture? OK. We’re splitting hairs, you say. But Ms Chastain confuses just about everything making religion equivalent to spirituality, “prayer and worship” into “rituals surrounding death” and making the casket “a sacred shrine of sorts”– and here’s where Ms Chastain’s real ignorance is glaringly conspicuous — including images or statues of religious idols. Yes, dear reader, Chastain writes that these religious images and statues are “religious idols”!!! Does any Catholic or Christian have anything to say about Ms Chastain’s religious, cultural, “deep industry” expertise, or the quality of her facts?

Chastain mentions the Virgin Mary several times in the article, once as “a popular representative of the religion in Hispanic funerals”, and again as being “strongly represented in these family-oriented traditions”, again mentioning that the mourners “often gather to adorn the casket with statues or prayer cards and rosaries of the blessed mother.” What’s particularly ignorant in this statement is the “rosaries of the blessed mother”: I’m not sure what a “rosary of the blessed mother” and the fact that “blessed mother” is in lower case and not capitalized makes it unclear what Chastain means.

Another neologism is “overnight wakes”. My initial guess would be that Chastain means overnight or all-night vigils as are practiced in a number of denominations. Chastain obviously does not have an education in the field to know the correct terminology but then she and funeralOne are only “delivering deep industry expertise.” But we’re not convinced it’s deep funeral industry expertise. Maybe it’s deep fertilizer industry expertise. Who knows?

The third thing we professionals need to know about, according to Ms Chastain and funeralOne, is that “Hispanic funerals are a traditionally social event” a “Celebration of Life. Chastain goes on to say that food and drinks are often served at wakes. Somehow Ms Chastain hasn’t heard about some states’ health laws that prohibit food and beverages in funeral homes. All of the “Hispanic” funerals at which I have officiated were pretty somber, serious affairs. All were in funeral homes. An food and beverages were never served during the wake or vigil. Certainly no jokes or games were evident, and maybe I am going to the wrong parties or at least not the kind of parties funeralOne or Ms Chastain throw, because none of the “Hispanic” funerals I have done were like any party I’ve been to. I could go on about funeralOne and this article by Chastain but I think I’ve made my point. Truth be told, the article continues in this same fashion and only continues to illustrate my points already made. Any real death-care professional should be incensed by these phonies and imposters offering their ignorance and stupidity as “deep industry expertise.” Any journalist worthy of her keyboard should be expected to be thorough, factual, and accurate, and to have done her homework.

Got 'shrooms?

Got ‘shrooms?

The funeralOne blog, its posts, and its contributors should serve as a warning and as an example of the ignorance and half-baked misinformation and narcissists offering their ignorance as expertise. The problem is endemic and is only getting worse. As a thanatologist and professional, I urge all of my readers to get their information from authoritative, documented, reliable sources and to forget about these toadstools that pop up when it gets dark and, which when consumed, are hallucinogenic at best, and intellectually and economically in their general effects.

What is particularly unsettling is the fact that this article, to my knowledge, is the first to call these charlatans and those of their ilk out and to make them accountable for their propagation of ignorance. Why is that? Do the rest of the profession read this stuff and just let it pass through their rectums unnoticed? We are all accountable, and it’s high time we realized that.

As professionals, we have a responsibility to ourselves to ensure that we are aware of what’s out there; a responsibility to each other to ensure that we police the information that’s out there and ensure that only quality information is available; a responsibility to those who seek our care and to ensure that they are treated fairly and with compassion. This includes ensuring that the self – proclaimed experts providing substandard information anywhere, are put on notice and purged from the public view. Short of government censorship, we have to assume the responsibility for the health of our profession and this starts with good information and effective education of ourselves, our colleagues, and the people we serve.

Don't be their puppets! Cut the strings of disinformation!

Don’t be their puppets! Cut the strings of disinformation!

Like a Wounded Beast…

beast

The Bereaved can be Serenely Grateful or Vicious as a Wounded Beast.

The vast majority of bereaved persons and families, whom I have been blessed and privileged to serve over the years, are serenely grateful for the authenticity, openness, genuine compassion, and care that go into the personalized services I create for them. I consider my professional activities to be more of a vocation, a special calling, than simply a way to make money. A living would be impossible given the time and resources that must go into an effective funeral or memorial service.

Now there’s the new fad, so-called board certification; If all else fails, a certificate will fix it!

I am a professional caregiver. As a professional, I figure that a professional chaplain would have at least a bachelor’s degree, preferably a master’s degree, in a subject like psychology, comparative religion, sociology. The coursework alone for a four-year degree today would probably run something like $40-60,000 at an “average” 4-year college. Unless the chaplain has done studies in religion, comparative religion, psychology of religion, or some theology studies, s/he would be well advised to find a program in religious studies, pastoral studies or theology. Ideally, a master’s degree in one of the study tracks mentioned above would be followed by a couple of units of clinical pastoral education (CPE) in a healthcare facility. Even more ideally, a degree in psychology or sociology plus a degree in theology or divinity would be desirable. Then there’s the continuing professional education in the form of courses, seminars, workshops, webinars, and conferences. None of this comes cheaply; it all costs money. (The final tab for my 3-year graduate studies for the M.Div. was $60,000! And I commuted from home!) Of course, American’s can create a demand ex nihilo: now there’s the new fad, so-called board certification. If all else fails, a certificate will fix it! It’s something the agenda-organizations have cooked up that appeal to the ego of some practitioners, and impresses small minds, like those of human resources departments and the like. My opinion is that if you feel you need to have some organization certify your skills, you’re probably not made of the stuff to be an effective chaplain; you’re too full of yourself and lack self-confidence. You simply don’t have the ‘right stuff.’

A chaplain… is obviously not in it for the money.

But I don’t want to distract you from the point of this article: A chaplain, no matter what his or her speciality, is obviously not in it for the money. And if you’re after kudos and compliments, forget it. Administrators couldn’t care less whether you’re there or you’re not, and would rather just refer you to the “volunteers coordinator” of the facility. Your “best” client may drop you like a hot potato if keeping you means standing up for ethics or principle.

Most of the institutions who really should have a professional chaplain on board don’t. I’m talking about healthcare facilities, nursing homes, rehabilitation facilities, first-responders, even government departments; you’ll likely find persons who would benefit from the presence and availability of a professional chaplain in most any organization. This is especially true of the funeral home and the funeral service business.

buy-the-bookThe biggest obstacle that the professional chaplain has to overcome when approaching any organization is, of course, ignorance and indifference. Even those institutions in which one would clearly expect to find a professional chaplain — not one of those pablum-puking, whispering, sad-faced, constantly half-grinning, hovering, sorrowful types –, and I don’t mean a social worker (God save us!) but a trained person who has a clear understanding of suffering and does not conflate compassion, empathy and understanding, one who has not been trained in the discipline of so-called “detached concern.” Any chaplain or wannabe chaplain reading this who is not competent in the subject matter of suffering or who cannot distinguish compassion from empathy from detached concern, STOP READING! this article and find a training course!

Ask if the funeral home is still family owned or run by a group.

If you’re looking for an ego boost, don’t look for it in a healthcare or nursing facility. Funeral homes are not much better. Most funeral directors will probably size you up for what you can afford and sell you a tad more. Beware of the corporate funeral homes, those funeral corporations that buy up once family-owned traditional funeral homes, keep the name but run the show. These corporate operations may include 5 or ten funeral homes in a local area, or may be interstate or even international. If your family’s been using a particular local family-owned funeral home,  my best advice is to ask if it’s still family owned or run by a group. Another unfortunate result of the American denial-of-death culture is the funeral factories, large operations with very low prices and running on volume of bodies they can process in a year. If it’s dignity you’re looking for, avoid these places like the plague.

All you have to do is die and they’ll do the rest.

Most of these operations will pick up, process, package, and plant or burn on a budget basis, all credit cards accepted, they’ll to the paperwork. All you have to do is die and they’ll do the rest. That’s how far much of the American funeral service has declined in the United States; the rest of the industrialized world isn’t far behind, either, though they’ve kept some of their self-respect and tradition for the most part.

We discard our sick, our old, and our dead…

But the American way of death hasn’t happened in a vacuum. Funeralization and memorialization of our dead kin has not descended to the present level of discarding dead human bodies as if they were household or hazardous waste. No, indeed. Our pitiable emphasis on the individual, “me” and to hell with you, our fascination with our toys and our aversion to anything that distracts us from our toys, especially death, our own or anyone else’s, has become our new morality. We discard our sick, our old, and our dead with the ease and care with which we discard an old phone or a melon past its prime. It’s a sad but true fact.

The majority of funeral service consumers are simply so deprived of any notion of reality or of tradition…

Who’s to blame for this deplorable state of affairs? Well, to be honest: You are! This is not an accusation intended to offend or to wound but it is true that the majority of funeral service consumers are simply so deprived of any notion of reality or of tradition, that they’ll do anything just to avoid the unpleasant business of facing reality, death, and making it disappear as quickly and cleanly as possible. If the pleasant things in life are to be done without thought or concern as dictated by the popular slogan, “Just do it!” Most bereaved today have their own slogan, “Just make it go away!”

Enter cremation, direct burial, and direct cremation. No fuss, no messy wakes, no distraction from the things you really want to be doing. After all, why be a human being today when you can have the memorial party tomorrow, or the next day, or whenever. No self-respect. How can we expect respect or reverence for the dead when there’s none for the living?

He discusses every detail with the family members and requests a maximum in family participation…

With that prologue, I’d like to launch into a contribution by a veteran bereavement chaplain, who is rather well known for his “beautiful” personalized services. This chaplain really goes over the top in establishing a relationship with the family of the person who has died, putting together a unique service for every case, carefully selecting music and readings, even designing a program or creating a memory token, such as a lapel ribbon, for the grieving family members. He discusses every detail with the family members and requests a maximum in family participation such as by reading, participation in ritual actions, etc. His credentials are outstanding. His motto is, “It’s not about me; it’s about you, the family.” So, you’d think this guy would be in such demand he’d be worn out. You’d think that the families and funeral homes he serves would swoon with gratitude. Well, think again.

Getting back to the featured topic…

I chose the title of this article for a very specific reason. The chaplain I described above recently did a rather exceptional job for an unusual family. The chaplain bent over backwards and went to almost extreme lengths to create a memorable service. He did even did this at extremely short notice, having just returned from a conference, because a very dear funeral director friend had recommended him so highly, and the family was in a very unusual situation. I’m going to give the lite version below using initials instead of names, in order to protect the innocent as well as the guilty.

I limit my practice to bereavement chaplaincy and came highly recommended to the family by the funeral director of a local funeral home client, with whom I have been working for several years. Because of the circumstances, which I’ll outline briefly below, the funeral director couldn’t give many details since the death had occurred suddenly on a Thursday, and, because of medicolegal/forensic formalities associated with the nature of the death, the funeral director would not be able to hold the arrangements conference with the family until that Saturday, but had already informed the family that I would be calling. This meant that the first opportunity for me to physically meet or talk to the family would be late on Saturday. It was really tight because the actual service was to take place on the Monday afternoon. This was further complicated by the fact that I was at a grief and loss conference in Boston when I received the request, and would be returning only on that Friday. Nevertheless, the situation was manageable, given the circumstances.

All things considered, the earliest I could interview the family would be on Sunday, after the arrangements conference. I called the family late on Saturday but the telephone interview wasn’t going very well so I offered to make a housecall that Sunday afternoon, and I met with the family. The young widow, MW, the deceased’s father GW, his aunt CW, and his uncle SM, as well as his young son were all present at the family conference. I asked permission to record the meeting so that I could capture all details without having to take distracting notes. The family agreed and for more almost two hours I collected memories, anecdotes, shared photos, and was able to form a reasonably accurate composite image of the deceased. I was very satisfied with the rapport established with the family and the outcome of the meeting.

Immediately upon returning to my office I set to work designing the program, selecting readings and music, etc. In the process, I provided the family contact person with ongoing inputs and copies of what was designed or selected. In other words, the family was kept very informed and updated throughout the process and was completely aware of what was going on. I received the family’s approvals for everything.

At the family meeting, the aunt, CM, a retired physician, and apparently the one running things, mentioned that the service was under time constraints because some persons had to “catch international flights”. I suggested 45-55 minutes for the entire memorial service, and CM thought that was reasonable and approved.

On the day of the service, I met with the family just before the service briefly describe what was going to be done, to answer any questions, and to give some short instructions to the family members participating in the service. Everything was on track, and the service itself went flawlessly. Even the music was on cue!

After the service, the father of the deceased, who, throughout the entire process was understandably emotional at the loss of his only son, approached me saying, “That was over the top. I want you to have this.” A bit taken by surprise, I didn’t really know what to think about the father’s words, “over the top”, and initially didn’t notice that the father was holding out his hand to me. The father continued, “That was over the top. It was very beautiful. Please take this.” The father was attempting to hand I something, apparently several bills, but I gently refused saying that I ‘had been paid by the funeral home,” and “that wasn’t necessary.” After several polite refusals, it was apparent the father really wanted to express his appreciation, and so I accepted the gift–and later shared it with the funeral home staff.

While preparing to leave, the uncle SM, approached I and handed me a check. Again I attempted to politely refuse the apparent “gift”, and — now with the funeral director at my side — saying that I had been paid by the funeral director, who nodded in agreement. Nevertheless, the uncle pressed the check into my hand saying, “Take this little extra, you must have spent a bundle on the food yesterday.” (On the way to the family’s home, I had stopped to pick up Danish and bagels as a gift for the family!). Again, I accepted the gift and was astonished at the uncle’s generosity — or so I thought — and again shared the gift with the funeral home staff.

The funeral home staff felt that I had earned the signs of appreciation, given the circumstances and short notice and the work that went into the service, but I felt that the success and the family’s satisfaction was the result of the “team’s” efforts, not just my contributions.

Leaving the funeral home, I was approached by several of the mourners who thanked me and complimented me on the service. The deceased’s best friend approached with hand extended and the words, “That was a brilliant service.”

I was overwhelmed by the response and exhausted by the effort but I was grateful that everything had gone so smoothly, and that the family and the funeral home were both very pleased.

That was the serenely grateful chapter of the story.

What happened next was the wounded beast chapter: The next day, I received a call from the uncle, SM, who started out by saying that the family was having some money problems. SM then launched into a diatribe saying “I can’t believe you accepted my check and cashed it! You took money from GW, too!” SM then accused I of “causing his wife, CW, hurt” and of having “left out important details from the service.” Dumbfounded and aghast, I explained that I had included everything requested by the family in the service and still kept it within the agreed time. I also noted that it was not my practice to accept gifts in addition to the honorarium paid by the funeral home but did so only because both the deceased’s father, GW, and he, SM, had pressed me to accept, and even recalled to SM the details of the moment. The conversation deteriorated into abuse by SM and I gently terminated the conversation, saying I would gladly return the gift made by SM.

Because of the bizarre and extraordinary nature of the call, I immediately called the funeral director to advise him of SM’s call. The funeral director was almost speechless and very, very apologetic. He was very supportive and told me that he had not heard from the family, and thought everything had gone excellently. The funeral director apologized profusely for the experience repeated that he had heard nothing from the family.

A day or two later I contacted the funeral director to follow up on SM’s call, and the funeral director confirmed that he had received a call from SM on the day after I reported the call from SM, and that SM was still rather unhappy.

I noted that the deceased’s next of kin was the father, GW, and the father’s sister, CW, apparently took control of the arrangements to take the burden off of the father. SM was aunt’s husband, an uncle by marriage to the deceased, and really had no standing whatsoever to get involved, since his relationship to the deceased was somewhat remote in kinship and legal terms. I and the funeral director had not heard from the widow, the father or even the aunt! I wondered if SM had gotten into trouble with his wife for being generous, and needed an excuse. Certainly, if he was having financial difficulties and had been honest and said so, the entire incident would have taken a different turn, but was he being dishonest and seeking a scapegoat? Whatever! It didn’t matter at this point.

The funeral director and I agreed that I would write a letter regretting SM’s reaction and offering to discuss the concerns privately. In addition, I requested the funeral director to respond to SM in a letter, and to return SM’s gift to him on my behalf. I expressly asked the funeral director not to mention the incident to the rest of the staff, with whom I had shared the gifts, in order not to embarrass them. For me, at least, it wasn’t a matter of money.

Some time later it was revealed that I had self-disclosed by way of simple conversation during one of the breaks in the family meeting that I, too, was involved in an earlier career in similar fields as the aunt, CM, a physician, and the father, GW, a medical device developer. The uncle, SM, was a non – medical department head in a hospital laboratory; all were retired. One of these had done a sort of background check on me and couldn’t verify my disclosures, scant and vague as they were, not to mention the fact that the events went back more than 25 years! SM even went so far as to impugn my religious affiliations (it was actually at this point the I had heard enough and had respectfully terminated the conversation). Enough was enough. The service was flawless and our conclusion was that SM, or his wife, CW, had reconsidered their “generosity” and needed some way to get their money back. Apparently, the best way to do that was to go after the service and me. So what if the grounds were insubstantial and had nothing to do with the service? They alleged having some “cash difficulties” and reconsidered their generosity. Had they simply said they couldn’t afford the gift and would appreciate it if I had returned it, there would have been no problem whatsoever. I did so even without having been asked.

So why all the pretense? Why, after having been so impressed and happy with the service did this family member make a 180 degree turnaround and attack me 24 hours later? Why was it so important to cook up something just to get $150 back that was initially apparently given in gratitude, despite my several refusals, and even when the funeral director was present and confirmed my affirmation that I had been paid? And Why? when handing I the gift, did SM make the remark about the “food” I had brought. That made the story SM had concocted in the attempt to justify his conduct even more bizarre.

I did not have much to say about this except that I was incredibly hurt by the entire incident. I did what was necessary and more, the family and other mourners were clearly delighted, the family participated, the family had shown their appreciation. So Why? I asked, did they feel they had to go to such lengths concocting such a fiction just to recover their gift. What’s more — and in line with my character — I was more concerned for the impression and effect that SM’s conduct would have on the young widow and her impressions. Overall, I felt that SM’s conduct was spurious and inconsiderate; it was insensitive and devoid of any compassion for the immediate family.

I concluded that this was a manifestation of a grief reaction, and chose to reflect on it, journal it, and let it go. At this time the residual effects are not clear, and time will tell whether SM’s conduct will adversely affect my relationship with this or other client funeral homes. The lessons learned are complex and compound, as will be the ramifications of the incident. What I can say is that neither the funeral director nor I have received a response to our letters. Is that the end of the matter?”

Editor’s Commentary

Those of us in pastoral care, and who invest a big part of ourselves in relieving suffering, can commiserate with this chaplain and with the funeral director as well. We can appreciate the chaplain’s concern not for himself but for the funeral director, who also put his heart and soul into serving this family, and most of all for the young widow and her son, now suddenly without a life-partner and without a father! Fortunate indeed are those of us who have not been made to suffer unjustly like this chaplain. But all things considered, we can reflect on the chaplain’s response to our inquiry:

“It had to happen some day. You can’t serve as many families as I do over time and not expect one to really knock your socks off. You can’t do this work and have your head in the clouds and expect to shine in everyone’s eyes. You have the gentle grateful lambs and you have the wounded beasts who lash out at anyone. That’s grief; that’s how some people are. You have to live in hope, not expectation.”

Bravo, Chaplain!

Internet ambush is not uncommon these days…Enter

cybersniper

Those are heroic words now but what if SM’s conduct adversely affects the chaplain’s relationships with client funeral homes or his reputation overall? What if SM went beyond just calling the chaplain and then calling the funeral director? Internet ambush is not uncommon these days and can have a devastating effect on one’s life’s work. But how would the chaplain know? What would he be able to do?

This incident drives home the unfortunate fact that grief can make beasts of even the most refined people. According to our information, the principal characters in this vignette are all professional, well-educated persons. True, they are retired, but given their backgrounds certainly are not impoverished. On further inquiry we learned that they live in a rather upscale suburban neighborhood, travel frequently to Europe, Turkey, where the young man lived with his wife and son. The deceased and his wife and son were here for a reunion of friends, when he unexpectedly died. The aunt had already allegedly announced we are “spiritual but not religious; we believe in God but not organized religion.” That’s a statement we often hear and it’s not a problem. What was important is that they wanted a spiritual service for the deceased. What we didn’t mention in the narrative above was that the wife is Turkish and culturally Muslim. There were, according to the chaplain, a variety of faith traditions in the assembly, including at lease one Orthodox Jew. According to the chaplain, he attempted to respect all faith traditions present, and even opened the service with a Muslim reading accompanied by traditional Turkish flute music. Noting the presence of the Orthodox Jew in the assembly, the chaplain remarked that he on-the-fly edited out of his prayers and homily any direct reference to Jesus Christ or the Trinity, and substituted “Lord” or “God” to keep it within acceptable parameters and inclusive.

We also agree that SM’s conduct was the ultimate in bad taste and totally insensitive. There were apparently a number of family system background issues that could have incited this unusual and unfortunate behavior, and we should all be on alert for any such red flags during the family meeting. Let’s not forget our training in human development and let’s keep in mind that what happens in childhood may have ramifications in adulthood. The chaplain mentioned SM’s childhood experiences in the RC tradition, and his wife, CW, actually referred to him as a “recovering Catholic.” Was there an element of anticlericalism at work? Let’s also not forget that some of our clients have lived a life in the culture of Cartesian dualities, like this family, and we, as helpers, have to recognize their limitations, while responding with biopsychocultural sensitivity and deep spirituality.

Given the information we have on the family system and the background of this family, we cannot discount the possibility of a fractured assumptive worldview, which may have arisen painfully to the conscious level simply in virtue of the narratives that were shared in the course of the family conference. That fractured assumptive worldview may have been aggravated by the composition of the memorial service and its liturgical elements, as well as by the content of the homily, which revisited some of the narratives of the family conference. The fractured assumptive world view compounded by the tangible and intangible (symbolic) losses may have taken SM over the edge, so to speak.

We are sometimes the authors of our own misfortune. This may be the case with the chaplain. First of all, self-disclosure is appropriate only when and if it is for the good of the client. Unless I missed something in the telling, the chaplain self-disclosed inappropriately. His past career had nothing to do with his role as chaplain to this family. In all fairness, though, and emphasizing that the chaplain’s past careers or history had nothing to do with his role as chaplain, the question does arise as to the truth or the motivation of the family in doing what is tantamount to a background check. That sort of behavior under the circumstances is plainly bizarre and certainly raises questions regarding the family’s priorities. If they were so bereaved under the circumstances and given the time constraints in this case, who on earth would have the time or the energy to do any checking? Why? What would be the motivation? How on earth did the focus move so acutely from the deceased to the chaplain? Such behavior is strange to say the least. But, again, the chaplain should have known better not to have self-disclosed. Period.

The chaplain played by the book in most of the encounter.

play_by_the_rulesAnother point I’d like to make regards the axiom that even otherwise rational people can behave irrationally in an irrational situation. We can all agree that the sudden loss of an only son in the prime of his life is traumatic and tragic in human terms. SM, the deceased’s uncle by marriage to  CM, the deceased’s paternal aunt, were childless and according to information provided by the chaplain, had doted on the deceased. With the death of their nephew, and under such conditions we are clearly dealing with an irrational situation and with a family that may not be playing with a full deck. We are constantly teaching that no big decisions should be made in an acute grief situation. Some people should even avoid making small decisions that may run counter to their day-to-day character. Obviously, the chaplain played by the book in most of the encounter. And it’s not uncommon for a family to offer a “little extra” to the officiant when they feel that the job was well done. Under the circumstances, I can’t fault the chaplain because he did refuse the gifts, until it likely became embarrassing to continue to do so. But it wasn’t out of greed, since he proceeded to share the gift with the other staff! While I am not one prone to making excuses, and the chaplain did handle the situation appropriately, whether he felt that the family was genuinely appreciative [and could afford it], that he had put in such an effort he appreciated the recognition, or he was simply too exhausted to put up a bigger fight all can play into the discussion. The bottom line is this: both the father GW and the uncle, SM, felt that the service was well done, even “over the top,” as the father said. The response of the mourners was also very positive. Accordingly, there is no reason whatsoever to believe that the chaplain’s performance or the service was unsatisfactory in any way whatsoever. Given the facts, the comments allegedly made by SM that the service failed in some way is, at best, a ruse.

Bereavement… is irrational and those affected by the death behave irrationally

shizoid1Again, bereavement, especially in an event of untimely death, is irrational and those affected by the death behave irrationally, that’s why our role as level-headed professionals is so important. But if we forget that the bereaved may be irrational in both their thinking and their actions, we are asking for trouble. If we don’t keep in mind that the bereaved can be thinking or acting one way now and do a complete 180 in a New York minute, we are asking for trouble. If we stop expecting the unexpected, we are asking for trouble. Again, the chaplain handled the situation appropriately prima faciae. He could have played tit-for-tat and the situation would have likely become inflammatory, even explosive. Everyone would have suffered. The chaplain responded appropriately. If SM chooses not to acknowledge that or to respond, that’s SM’s choice to burn bridges. If SM hasn’t yet responded it would be unfair to fault him; he may yet respond more sensitively when the time is right.

When a family member attempts to hand me a cash gift after a service…I will usually thank them very graciously for their generosity but decline it.

I personally feel very uncomfortable when a family member attempts to hand me a cash gift after a service. I do realize that they can be very insistent to the point of being embarrassing but I also recognize that it’s their only real way of expressing their gratitude. When it gets to that point I will usually thank them very graciously for their generosity but decline it; instead and in order not to appear arrogant or ungrateful, I tell them that I would really appreciate a card when things simmer down or a letter of appreciation to the funeral home for the service. That usually works, although sometimes the card or the letter never comes. But that’s all right, too. I’ll likely follow up with a card or a letter in a month’s time or at the holidays, anyway.

business-ethics-code-of-conductWe all should adopt a professional code of ethics…and stick to it.

Finally, we all should adopt a professional code of ethics. I use the ADEC code of conduct. As to self-disclosure, I use the APA guidelines. I also recommend that if you are providing services like the chaplain, that you have a personal policy regarding gratuities and either address that during the family conference or ensure that the funeral director mentions that you do not accept gratuities. And if you have a policy, stick to it.

We have to have the awareness and wherewithal to recognize the red flags

No matter how well or how badly the mourners behave, we are not there to judge. If we can’t handle the situation perhaps we shouldn’t be in it. Realistically, we find ourselves in infinitely complex situations, every one of which is unique, and we have to have the skills to cope with each and every one of them if we are to avoid doing ourselves and our clients a disservice. We have to have the awareness and wherewithal to recognize the red flags and to adjust our approach accordingly. We have to be constantly vigilant at all stages of the relationship; we need to identify and respond to very subtle verbal and non-verbal communications. We need to read the symbolic language accurately. My rule of thumb is to hear the question behind every statement and the statement being made with every question. But most of all, be authentic, sincere, gentle, and sensitively compassionate. Whatever you may be or have been in the past, you are in this moment the chaplain. That’s all. So in your chaplaincy be in the moment and make sure it’s all about the family and no one else.

May you all be passed by unnoticed and unwounded by the SM’s of the world; if you happen to cross the path of an SM, follow the example of our chaplain above. Your character will be your best response; SM will likely not be swayed by your wisdom; like a wounded beast he will strike out at the most vulnerable.

Good work, Chaplain, you did well. Learn from the experience and drive on.

Peace and blessings!
Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney
Interfaith Chaplain/Thanatologist

Post scriptum:
The chaplain wrote back to let us know that the funeral director was a true champion in the face of this crisis, and was very supportive of the chaplain. In fact, as a sign of solidarity, the funeral director sent the chaplain this short prayer, which we would like to share with our readers (with the chaplain’s consent):roys-prayer

 

 

 

 

New Blog Feature: Articles and Essays

Death Awareness & Education

Death Awareness & Education

Check out the new feature called Articles & Essays. I’m posting my articles and essays for readers who want to read them online or download them.

Try it out and let me know what you think!

Peace and blessings!
Rev. Ch. Harold