Category Archives: Deathcare

Chaplain Harold’s June Newsletter is Ready to Read and Download!

Click the link below to read/download the June Newsletter (June 2018 Newsletter Vol 1 No. 2 ).

Click here to read/download the May Newsletter.

 

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Chaplain p.r.n. May-June Newsletter

Dear Friends:

I’m very pleased to announce that my May-June 2018 Chaplain p.r.n. Newsletter has been uploaded and published.

The current newsletter includes interesting notes on my revised Descriptive Price List, enhanced services for funeral homes, an obituary writing service, and an aftercare program.

All of the articles are actually summaries of articles that appear in unabridged versions on one or more of my blogs but despite the concise format they do provide some interesting insights.

You can read the Newsletter online or view it and download it for later reading by simply clicking this link: Chaplain p.r.n. May-June Newsletter.

As always, I would very much appreciate your feedback, comments and recommendations.

Thanks for your continuing interest and support!
Peace and blessings!
Rev. Ch. Harold

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)

Why the Chaplain Should Write the Obituary

Over the years I have paid rigorous attention to developments in the lifecare and deathcare professions both locally and on the regional, national and international scenes. I take the time and make the effort to do this because I truly believe that lifecare and deathcare are, like life and death, intimately connected transitions that require not only compassion and sensitivity in the acute phases of bereavement but also awareness of what remains traditional and important and what changes are affecting the funeral homes and families I serve.

One of my roles as a psychospiritual care provider and as an interfaith bereavement chaplain is to stay abreast of these trends and to share and teach colleagues and clients about them and their influence on how we serve in our respective vocations. We are after all not only service providers but educators and teachers, ministers to the suffering.

Flexibility and responsiveness are key to the psychospiritual care and chaplaincy vocation just as much as they are to the deathcare services professions. We are, after all, in the ranks of the healthcare professions just as any physician, nurse, psychologist, or administrator is; the difference is that in contrast with the physician, nurse, psychologist or administrator, the chaplain and the funeral director are called to care for both the living and the dead. That’s an important distinction and has important implications for how we do what we do and the quality of what we do.

We each have our specific professional training and we must not overstep our competencies.

As I have written elsewhere, we each have our roles and we have to recognize boundaries, fixed and flexible ones. I frequently use the example that I don’t do embalming and I don’t expect the funeral director to do the spiritual funeral rites. While our roles and engagement with the bereaved do sometimes overlap such as in providing grief support, we each have our specific professional training and we must not overstep our competencies.

That having been said, there are some things that have been conventionally — I say “conventionally” and not “traditionally” because they are done by tacit acquiescence between and among the parties involved in the funeralization processes —, one of which is the creation of the obituary for the deceased.

Conventionally the creation of the obituary has been left to the newspaper obit editor or to the funeral director or one of the funeral home staff. The result is that the obituary, unless it is the obituary of a prominent or eminent personality, has been little more than an enhanced death notice, and there are significant differences between the purposes and composition of a death notice compared to an obituary.

In brief, an obituary is an announcement of a person’s death along with a biography of the person. The obituary generally includes information about the about the deceased, birth and death dates and places, information about the deceased’s life, survivors and predeceased close relatives, the deceased’s life accomplishments, funeral or memorial arrangements, floral tributes and donations, and a frequently a picture of the deceased. The information provided in the obituary should provide the reader with a credible impression of who the deceased was as a person. A death notice is a brief  announcement of a person’s death and the funeral or memorial services. A death notice may or may not include a picture. It is not uncommon for the death notice to be the only print notice of a death; the actual obituary may appear only on the funeral home website or an online obituary site. Content is not the only way the two differ; they not only differ in length and content but also in cost, but that’s a topic for another article.

Regrettably, because of (1) the urgency of the situation: the death notice or obituary or both must be created and published within a narrow window of time to provide the public with details relating to the death and to the funeral arrangements. The personal interactions and relationships: The bereaved are in the acute phase of grief with all of the associated emotions, the funeral staff are under pressure to manage not only the legal and official obligations connected with a death and disposition of a dead human being but also with the business aspects of providing funeral services to the family as well as providing short-term grief support. So it’s not uncommon for the obituary to become just another laundry list item that the funeral director must do before getting to bed.

The current options are not all that rosy: either the funeral director makes an honorable but exhausted effort at composing an obituary from the few facts and bits of information he has been able to garner in his contacts with the family OR the task is left to the professional obit writer with the local newspaper who faces the same problems as the funeral director. The solutions are just as grim: Cookie-cutter obituaries. Either the FD or the obit editor/writer uses a form or template or information is plugged into a computer program and then tweaked. Worse still, a family member is stuck with writing something about which they have no clue much less any writing skills.

The current “conventional” practice is not only inefficient it’s downright unfair.

So what’s the alternative? Well, I’ve given the matter some thought and have come to the obvious conclusion that there’s a lot of duplication or triplication of effort involved and that the current “conventional” practice is not only inefficient it’s downright unfair not only to the deathcare professionals involved but also to the bereaved, and not insignificantly to the deceased him or herself. who deserve a much better treatment at least in their obit.

So, while I was going through notes on past services, articles published in the scientific, scholarly, and professional journals, my own writings, and after having reviewed a considerable number of published obits, it dawned on me that none of these obit writers had access to the quality, amount, and type of information that I have as the chaplain to the family. While it’s true the FD or the obit editor/writer ask certain standard questions, the result is a standard dry obit. The intimate sharing that goes on during the Chaplain-Family Conference results in an enormous richness of information about the deceased, his or her life and activities, accomplishments, anecdotes, legacy, meaning to those close to him or her and to the community. In fact, a whole living narrative is collected in the course of that sharing experience.

While some of the information shared by the family must be held respectfully confidential and never published, my motto being “Tell me your secrets and I’ll forget them.” Other information shared by the family and close friends become part of the memorialization process, part of the coping process, form the basis of the necessary continuing bond with the deceased. As a skilled writer, speaker, presenter, ritual leader, I use much of that information as part of the psychospiritual care I provide both before and during the funeralization rites and rituals I create. One of those rituals is most conspicuously the homily or the so-called Words of Comfort or my trademark Litany of Thanksgiving and Remembrance. So what happens with all of that incredibly healing information after the homily is delivered and the Litany is read? Not much.

So, my question was: “Why aren’t I called upon to create the obituary?” After all, I actually have more information than anyone involved, even more than some family members, which is obvious during the Chaplain-Family Conference when one family member describes an event and another looks surprised and says, “I didn’t know that? S/he never mentioned that.” What a beautiful moment of epiphany for some.

But if the chapel service and the homily and the Litany of Thanksgiving and Remembrance are not recorded, much of this evaporates into the abyss of forgotten memories. That really should not happen and it doesn’t have to happen.

In my view, the obituary is more, much more than a simple death notice. It should be a cheat sheet for remembering who and what the dead loved one was and their meaning and legacy. It should be something that is preserved and enshrined as a source of information about a forebear that can be shared with future generations. It should be cherished as a lasting and enduring portrait of the dead loved one that can serve as a support in establishing the important continuing bond with the dead loved one. To achieve this holy purpose, it must be written with intimacy, sensitivity, reverence, and skill; care must be taken to select and to include the most salient and essential elements that are most important to the family and closest friends. Only then will it be worth the effort.

In order to achieve this noble purpose, I have conceived of several types of obituary: (i) the conventional, which incorporates essential bits and pieces into a coherent whole, and  (ii) several custom obits, each focusing on a specific aspect of the deceased’s life:

  1. Biohistorical – Describes the deceased’s life in an historical, biographical style.
  2. Social – Describes the deceased’s life emphasizing social aspects such as community, organizational, political, sports, etc. activities and involvement.
  3. Legacy – Emphasizes the deceased’s accomplishments that will be remembered by those close to him/her and by the community at large.
  4. Lifestyle – Focuses on what the deceased liked to do in terms of hobbies, travel, leisure, community, etc. Lifestyle differs from Social themes in that Lifestyle focuses more on the individual than on his contributions to the community.
  5. Custom – By arrangement with the family. This “obit” may take the form of a personal narrative, a story, in other words. Or it might take the form of a lesson. By drawing on the concepts and material of the conventional and the custom obits (1-4, above) a novel and unique narrative of the live of the deceased can be created.

So why not take advantage of the skills of the bereavement chaplain and turn over the obit writing to him? Sound like a plan?

Whether the obituary is to be published in the print media, in an online public obituary space, on the funeral home tributes page, on Facebook, on an online obit platform like Legacy.com, or in any combination of these, I as the chaplain serving the funeral home and the family am in the best position to provide a quality product. The obit should be between 250 and 500 words in length, depending on the available information and what the family want to emphasize. The question of whether a photo should be included always comes up. I answer with an affirmative “Why not?” but I do qualify that by saying that the photo should be compatible with the content of the obit. For example, if the family is emphasizing the early years, the photo should not be of the deceased late life. If the obit emphasizes the deceased’s community activities, it would be effective if a photo of the deceased in his or her Lions Club or other social or community regalia were shown.

It should be kept in mind that the chaplain is writing the obit, not publishing it. The chaplain can provide some ballpark figures on what, say, print publication of the final obit as approved by the family might cost but the final approved obit should be submitted to the newspaper obit editor for a final pricing quote. Some papers will publish a death notice for free, others will charge a classified ad rate. Obituaries are longer and might include a picture, all of which affect the price, usually calculated on the basis of the column inch (one column inch of newsprint is approximately 35 words).

The funeral home can usually offer space on their Tributes pages which generally includes an Obituary section. The funeral home should provide this opportunity at no charge.

There are many online options and opportunities for publishing an obituary. Some of these online options include social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and similar platforms.  There are also the established online obituary sites. I have researched some of the sites and have compiled a list of ten top sites (Click here to view Top 10 Sites.)

So the decision is really a no-brainer. If you’re a funeral director, save yourself the time and stress of writing an obituary. If you are a consumer, hand the job over to the professional who can do the best for you and your loved one, the skilled professional chaplain.

 

The 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.

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.