Category Archives: Emotional and Spiritual Support

The Fallacy of Facebook Deathcare Marketing

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


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

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

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


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

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

Facebook is Inherently Evil m a veritable Public Health Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue

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


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

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

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

 

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

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Is Funeral Home Use of Social Media Moral?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serve rather than Disrupt!

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

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

Ryan Thogmartin.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Aside: Discerning Morality, Amorality, Moral Neutrality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alan continues:

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

My response to Alan was quite clear:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rediscovering Spirituality. With or without religion.

Some General Information About
The Companions of St Silouan Athonite

First of all and from the outset: This is not a religious group nor a denominational outreach. It is not a cult-in-the-making.


One nagging question that I have frequently posed is this: Why do most people think of spiritual care at the last minute, when someone is at Death’s door or when you are facing the dying process of a loved one? It’s like exercising and eating a healthy diet after the heart attack, isn’t it? Why not get started now.


This is an ecumenical, interfaith, non-denominations, judgement-free community of persons who are solely interested in companioning each other on their spiritual pilgrimages.

The inspiration for forming a wider group of spiritual companions came from my association with a Russian Orthodox Monastery in Northeast New York. The monks decided to resurrect a concept of a group of lay persons who would live some of the monastic values while in the secular world. These so-called companions of the monastery would apply, be considered as aspirants and then admitted to the so-called companions. They would subscribe to a rule of life, establish for themselves a prayer discipline, support the monastery in time and treasure, and make regular pilgrimages, either to the parent monastery or to some other monastery or retreat venue. It was a great idea but poorly organized. It was open to all faiths and, while it had an insignia identifying the companions, a small stylized cross, it still had the flavor of a very distinct Christian denomination. I couldn’t imagine a Buddhist, a Jew or a Moslem wanting to become a companion and having a cross as their insignia.

My patron saint is St Silouan of Mount Athos, St Silouan Athonite for short. I chose Silouan because of his humility and simplicity, his dedication to love and forgiveness, his compassion. Although Silouan was highly advanced in monastic ascetic spirituality and reached the height of monastic hierarchy as a Staretz or elder, a schemamonk, his humility and simplicity were legendary. Silouan, a Russian Orthodox Christian elder monk, who lived on the exclusive Greek peninsula known as Hagios Oros, the “Holy Mountain”, or Mount Athos, he lived values that transcended the Christian model and are the common threads of all the great world spiritual traditions.

As a professional theologian and thanatologist, a scholar of religion and psychospiritual care, I find that the vast majority of persons who call themselves members of a particular faith or belief community don’t have a clue about what their denomination teaches. Most ministers have no clue about what’s going on in interreligious dialogue, much less about their particulars. Most institutionalized religion has been caught with their pants around their ankles when it comes to credibility.

In recent decades we have all too often heard the ambiguous and practically meaningless phrase, “I’m spiritual, not religious.” Even the “spiritual” professional literature from the healthcare, deathcare and spiritual care disciplines can’t even agree on an across-the-board commonly held definition of what spirituality is! In fact, one publication did a review of the literature and found more than 90 different “definitions” of  spirituality!

In my professional practice I deal with end-of-life, death, dying, and survivors. I know the value of religion and I know the value of spirituality; I think I know where the one stops and where the other starts. Every time I think I’m sure, a situation arises that sets me back to square one.

One thing is certain: every human being is spiritual. There’s no doubt about it. Once you can admit you recognize that there’s something greater than yourself, that transcends your understanding, you have become spiritual. Now how you use that evolutionary revelation to best advantage and how you ease into it to make meaning of difficult moments, suffering, challenges is another story. To get the most out of your spirituality, you need companioning, guidance, others willing to talk about their spirituality and to share their insights.

That’s what this group, the Companions of St Silouan Athonite, is all about.

It’s an open group meaning that anyone inclined to explore the group can freely do so. What you receive from the group and what you give to the group is purely a matter of what you have at any given time in your journey. The pilgrimmage is self-paced. The requirements are your own.

The only formal hierarchy is me, the self-styled “Principal Companion,” actually the monitor of the group and the main person doing most of the work on this site.

In the near future, once the group shows signs of stability and growth, I will offer two levels of formal membership: Aspirant and Companion. The Aspirant is a candidate who has identified a sincere calling to companion others in developing their spirituality. The Companion is the person who has achieved a certain level of competence in companioning through personal discipline and involvement.

Initially, there is no commitment other than the personal commitment you make to yourself and to those with whom you have a relationship to follow the Simple Rule of the Companions of St Silouan Athonite. As the Companion community matures, we may ask for volunteer support or offer specific products for generating funds. Those products will be subject to the Community’s approval, basically all full Companions will have a say in what is offered and what is done.

At some point in time, again as the Community grows and matures, it would be great if we could have a Companions retreat once a year at locations offering retreat accommodations and meeting facilities.

The organization will be very loosely structured: Most of the site will be public access. That means that announcements, reflections, etc. will be public access.

Anyone interested in more intense involvement will be asked to “Follow” the site by signing up with their real name and their email. This means only that the moderator, I, will see who you are and know our email. You will receive an email automatically notifying you whenever a new item is posted. You can do the same for comments.

At some time in the near future, I will post an application form on this site. If anyone wishes to become an Aspirant they will fill out the form and email it to me.

To become a full Companion, you will fill out the same form but only after 6 months of Aspirancy, include an essay about your spirituality and the importance of being a Companion, and you will document your spiritual activities, retreats, spiritual direction, etc.

A full Companion will receive a letter of good standing and a Certificate of Companionship, both of which will have only sentimental value.

Very soon I will create a suitable “habit” for Companions. The habit will be a small item identifying the wearer as a Companion. It will likely be a lapel pin or similar item. Cost will be kept low, since the value of the habit is to be kept intrinsic and the habit itself is to be kept very humble.

Since most everything will be done digitally and the material for reflections etc. will come directly from my own resources or from material I’m reviewing at the time and find suitable for the Companions, no real overheads will be generated. As for the habit, the Companion will purchase that directly from the manufacturer.

I may from time to time suggest certain devotional items such as prayer ropes and the like or items to enhance sensual aspects of the spiritual practice. If I do so, I will also provide links to suppliers of such items. I do not have any financial interest in any of these suppliers but if one were to come about, I would announce that fact publicly to the Community.

Aspirants and Companions are accountable to themselves. If you misrepresent something you do your conscience is your judge, no one else.

Finally, all I ask is if you are seriously interested in becoming a participating member of the group that you contribute to the reflections or to the feedback about reflections. The only requirements are that you remain on topic, leave egos outside, and don’t bring any personal baggage on board. No proselytizing and not judgmentalism.

In closing, I do sincerely welcome your comments, recommendations, suggestions, even criticisms of me and only me. Comments should be made using the comments form on each post; they will be moderated and then published. If you don’t want what you write to be public please email me your thoughts to st.silouan.companions@gmail.com. Your email communications will be confidential and I now notify anyone concerned that I invoke clergy privilege should any law enforcement agency request insight into the emails. When I say confidential, I mean confidential.

As always, I am available at st.silouan.companions@gmail.com should you have any questions or concerns.

To view the Simple Rule of the Companions of St Silouan click here.

Looking forward to exploring the beauty and mystery of spirituality with you,

Peace and joy!
Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney BA, [MA], MDiv.
Principal Companion

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.


Dropping the Ball…

Whether they deserve the criticism or not, funeral directors and funeral homes sometimes get some very bad press or we read some devastating review of a funeral service written by persons who expected, needed more than what they got on the price list. Why is that, you might ask yourselves, when you feel you covered very base in the funeralization services the family asked for and you provided.

Are you dropping the ball?

Did it ever occur to you that perhaps you might have exceeded your skill set? That what you may have started wasn’t really finished? That you left the bereaved at the end of a long pier with nowhere to go but off the deep end

I’m not just picking on the funeral director or the funeral home staff. I’m also talking about poorly trained clergy or clergy who accept a gig with a funeral home but who have no clue how to provide what the bereaved need. For any professional or paraprofessional to attempt to provide services for which they are not fully trained, competent, and experienced is almost criminal, and can have tragic circumstance in the short term and certainly over the longer term, particularly in the bereavement situation? But we still have funeral directors and funeral home staff who try to be spiritual guides and psychospiritual facilitators, bereavement support providers, and they are not trained to do that. Worse still, we have clergy or ministers who have their eye on the honorarium and attempt to perform effective and complex funeralization rituals but have neither the training, the requisite knowledge, nor do they have the communications skills necessary to the task, and end up simply provided a lackluster service and a meaningless ceremony. Sometimes one really has to ask one’s self, don’t you have any self-awareness? Are you that arrogant or greedy to think you have the skills to do everything?

Is this where you’re leaving the bereaved?

Well that can happen when you attempt to do more than that for which you have been trained.

I’m writing from the vantage point of having witnessed some pretty awful and uninspiring attempts at memorialization and bereavement services that have sent me home almost sick to my stomach, wondering what in the world did that funeral director think when engaging that clown. Or doesn’t that funeral director realize how shallow his prayer delivery is? Don’t they have any sensitivity for the lack of depth they are exhibiting to persons in existential crisis? Obviously no one has bothered to point out their shortcomings to them. Doe they even care? Would they care?

Not only do many funeral homes simply ask if the family belongs to a faith community, and if they do, simply make a phone call to coordinate a funeral service with a minister who probably never even met the deceased or couldn’t pick out the family in a lineup. Some funeral directors simply hand the bereaved a clergy list at some time during the arrangements conference and leave it at that. Others couldn’t even care that much and simply offer to lead a graveside prayer, intoning a bland “Lord’s Prayer” or, if you’re really lucky, might even read a staid “The Lord is My Shepherd”, before flatly dismissing the family. And you wonder that you don’t have customer loyalty? Wake up!

Thanks! But where now….

“Would you like some time with our chaplain?” That might well be one of the most important and meaningful questions you might ask of the bereaved. It shows several things: First, it shows that you have an appreciation for the various levels of the bereavement experience. Secondly, it gives the bereaved permission to acknowledge that they are also experiencing a spiritual component to their bereavement. Thirdly, it gives permission for the bereaved to open up a discussion about a religious or spiritual component to the funeralization services you are offering. It also demonstrates that you offer complete care and are not only interested in selling tangible products and services. It all adds up to a statement that you actually care about the holistic wellbeing of the bereaved. But do you ask that simple question? Have you ever event thought of asking it? Or do you expect the bereaved to come in with a laundry list of services they expect you to provide?

Falling apart and no one to help!

It is a simple expression that shows you care. It’s a simple expression that shows you appreciate the complexity of bereavement. It’s a simple expression that shows you know your business.

One of the most satisfying things that I have heard recently is when, at the conclusion of the graveside service, the funeral director addressed the family and thanked me on behalf of the family. The funeral director, addressing the rather large group of mourners, said: “We’d like to thank Chaplain Harold for this beautiful service he created for S. I sat in on the family conference he had with M. & H., and I know he really cares.” The beautiful note I received from the family several days later was all the encouragement I ever needed to continue what some feel is a very difficult ministry. It is difficult, and draining at times. But it builds relationships and it brings healing. Sometimes it is incredibly uplifting when you know you really made a difference.

One of the universal characteristics of bereavement, loss of any kind, is suffering. Suffering may be physical or mental or spiritual or all of these. Suffering has been referred to in the professional literature as an illness that benefits from treatment on the path to healing. I’ve often referred to mortuary science as being an extension of medical science; they have so much in common. There’s suffering, illness, and the hope of healing, if not cure. If you think about the parallels for a moment and you’ll be awestruck.

So why is it that funeral homes and funeral directors don’t ask that very important question? Is it that their training doesn’t emphasize the fact of psychospiritual suffering and dumps it all into a big bucket called grief? Is it because funeral directors don’t have a complete understanding of the psychospiritual aspects of deathcare and the importance of spirituality in providing deathcare? Is it because they simply brush it off as the responsibility of the family to find spiritual support? Or is it because they feel, like most healthcare providers, that if it’s not physical, let the clergy have it (regardless of competence)? Or can it be that funeral directors simply don’t want to get involved in anything more than just a disposal service? Could be a little of all of the above, don’t you think so? (Those same questions could be asked of the healthcare professions, too, with similar outcomes!)

Caregivers at all stages in the dying, death and after-death experience should be providing this support up to and and at hand-off to the next caregiver team, including hand-off of the deceased and the bereaved to the funeralization professionals who will be providing deathcare services. The care should be seamless. But far from being seamless it all to frequently is simply non-existent.

In reality, you can’t do it all; if you try, you run the risk of mistake or even offending, and that can have disastrous repercussions. Professional wisdom and humility would require that you do what you do best and are best equipped to do, and leave the rest to those with the requisite expertise. Why should the psychospiritual care of your families be any different? After all, you don’t entrust embalming or reconstruction to the florist or the hearse driver, do you?

This is the whole purpose of what we do and why we do it.

As a professional interfaith bereavement chaplain, I have spent years studying spirituality. I have covered the literature across cultures and belief traditions. I have established networks of colleagues through retreats, conferences, and continuing education. But more than that, I have assisted hundreds of families in getting through the grief and mourning associated with bereavement, and have helped in the closure and healing through well orchestrated, compassionate, and personalized funeral rituals.

Does your organization offer a holistic funeralization team that provide your families that expertise, and can you provide the whole range of psychospiritual facilitation services either on an on-call or p.r.n. basis, or on a part-time basis on site, at your location. The cost is very reasonable and the benefits to your organization and to your families are immeasurably enduring.

Why not take steps to discuss with a trained bereavement chaplain how you can collaborate and how you can provide professional spiritual care to both your staff and to the families you serve? Why not do that today, now?

If have any questions, please don’t wait another minute before contacting me or a bereavement chaplain near you for ideas on how to establish a partnership to provide your families with the best deathcare and follow-up care possible.

Author Contact:
Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney B.A., [MA], MDiv
Interfaith Chaplain / Thanatologist
pastoral.care.harold @ gmail.com
Telephone: (518) 810-2700

 

Internet Pundits and Their Mixed Messages Cause Psychospiritual Stress

The Internet is literally crawling with people who have reinvented themselves from pitiful loners to supreme gurus of life, death and everything in and around those two great mysteries. On the one hand you have to admire them for their capacity to make real their fantasies and virtual lifestyles but on the other hand you have to take two steps back to get the whole pitiful picture. These maladjusted spirits are out there posing as leaders and innovators — fabricators would be a more accurate description — and many readers are so naïve as to accept the rubbish they publish as Gospel truth.

It's not about revenues or stats, it's about bereavement and grief!

It’s not about revenues or stats, it’s about bereavement and grief!


Their readers are unable to separate truth from fiction, originality from plagiarism, or fact from flatulence.

What’s worse, those readers actually fuel the smoldering information-dump fire these pseudo-pundits have ignited, actually giving them unearned credibility. Most of this is due to their attractive web presences with sophisticated websites all shiny and colorful but even more is due to the inability of readers to separate truth from fiction, originality from plagiarism, and fact from flatulence.

We have such entities as the Funeral Commander (Death with a military macho twist complete with camouflage fatigues and cigar! A real comedy flair.), Death and the Maiden (bringing sexism, feminism to death; we doubt that the author is anything close to a “maiden”), Natural Death Center (provides funeral advice from of all places the UK!), Funeralwise (a fairly worthwhile site, general information), Funeral Insider (touts itself as “the nation’s No. 1 newsletter for funeral service professionals”), Final Passages (“the first organization in the United States with the mission to inform and educate the public about their rights to care for their own dead.” How to bury your own dead? as if bereavement weren’t confusing enough), Everplans (a complete archive of everything your loved ones will need should something happen to you, that is, if you should die), and the list could go on ad nauseum. While some of these entities are there just to indoctrinate and to infect the reader with misinformation or information that is self-serving or simply to titillate the reading public’s fascination with the great denial, death, others do, in a good moment, provide some reliable information. But those moments are few and far between. You have to have some basis for assessing the information as reliable; that’s the hitch. It’s not reliable just because it’s on a colorful Internet website or blog.

The Gordian Knot of Grief

The Gordian Knot of Grief

Then there are the (psycho)spiritual guides, the ones who know all you need to know and more about the mystery of death and dying. They’ve discovered the Rosetta stone for unraveling the Gordian knot of the great crossing over. What most of these people are doing is broadcasting their own doubts, fears, speculations in the vain hope of having them validated by a following, which is what happens. So you have small communities forming around these very human and very vulnerable seekers. Very frequently I have to ask myself when surveying these sites, “Have they ever reached in to themselves? Is the problem that they have always been looking outside of themselves for the answers and, not finding them in their immediate space, now they are looking in cyberspace. How sad that they are reaching out ever farther from the real answer within themselves!

One of the most visible, not necessarily the biggest nor the most widely read violators of Internet trust is ConnectingDirectors, an online publication that touts itself as being God’s unique gift to the the funeral industry, and the one source for all the information a funeral director needs in order to crush the competition. Well, it’s like the story of the coconut-eating rats:

coconut-eating-rats

“Once upon a time there was an island on which the islanders depended for their very existence their coconuts. Then, somewhere out at sea, a ship was wrecked and its wreckage floated onto the island’s shores with a very special manifest of passengers: rats. Well the rats loved the island and loved its coconuts even more, and soon their population grew and grew and grew, until it threatened the very survival of the islanders. One very wise elder came forward with an idea: Let’s capture a number of these creatures, place them in a pit with some coconuts, when they devour the coconuts and become hungry again, they’ll start devouring each other. And so it happened. Once the rats had consumed the coconuts in the pit, they started devouring each other. Once the captive rats were released on the island, the islanders no longer had a problem with coconut-eating rats…because now they had rat-eating rats. The rat population soon disappeared once the last rat-eating rat starved to death for lack of rats.”

There’s little or no originality to these myriad sites sharing their instabilities and vulnerability cloaked in illusory intelligence; they are beta-testing their own speculations or are literally re-publishing information, frequently not vetted, from other sources, acting like a sort of unauthorized information clearing house with no authentic credentials.

oracleTrue sages never give a clear answer. The great Oracles always left the seeker wondering what the answer meant. Any parable worth the telling never provided true peace of mind. What they all do was make the recipient of the message think. Think!
Whether the sage’s metaphors were vague or the Oracle’s message cryptic or the parable disruptive of one’s world view, the one thing they all do is make one think, reflect, contemplate. You see, the problem today is that we no longer know how to think, to reflect, to contemplate. We have lost touch with the depth and all of its healing power and its risks, its paradox of opportunity and risk.

Thogmartin is using a shotgun technique

So, then, taking the Internet entrepreneur ConnectingDirectors as an example of what confronts us, what amounts to outright attempts to disabuse us of our natural answer-finding capabilities, one operator in the cyberuniverse of virtual consultants, let’s take a closer look at what ConnectingDirectors is actually providing. Sometimes, when reading CD, we get the impression Thogmartin is using a shotgun technique to hit everything on the target: out of the one side of his mouth he’s touting how to pay “thousands less for a funeral” while out of the other side of his mouth he’s telling funeral service professionals how to sell top-of-the-line products and maximize their revenues. While addressing the interests of the small to medium funeral home or funeral home group, he’s glorifying the factory-funeral providers and all their clever machinations to gobble up the small to medium funeral home operators to provide “personalized” cookie-cutter funeral products! We have to ask which team Thogmartin is playing on because his messages are very, very mixed.

What Mr Thogmartin and the funeral corporations seem to have missed is that it’s not about merchandising, or selling services, or about statistics or revenues; it’s about a respected and honorable profession compassionately caring for human beings in death and their survivors in coping with death. That’s why it’s called deathCARE. It’s about providing competent care to human beings faced with loss and existential crisis, human beings who desperately need companioning and real warmth, support, and a guide for the arduous trek towards healing and transformation. Something ConnectingDirectors, the funeral corporations and social media do not and cannot provide; they, in fact, have the potential to do more damage than good.

Quiz: What does this man need? Compassion or a cheap funeral?

Quiz: What does this man need? Compassion or a cheap funeral?

First of all, CD is the invention of one Ryan Thogmartin, who describes his two cyberprogeny, Connecting Directors and Disrupt Media, both LLCs, as “the premier progressive online publication for funeral professionals…is a thriving global publication with a reader base of over 15,000 of the most elite and forward-thinking professionals in the industry,” fairly read that’s a pretty hyperbolic claim and one Mr Thogmartin might have trouble substantiating, if called upon to do so. And there’s Thogmartin’s social media marketing solutions firm, Disrupt MG, which according to Mr T., “focuses on proficiently assisting small businesses in creating engaging social media marketing strategies,” but according to what standards of performance is our question. What Thogmartin is doing, actually, is inventing an online persona to sell his skills as a virtual person and his attempt to infect a vulnerable minority of funeral service professionals with the suicidal idea that social media is the only way to survive. What Thogmartin seems to have lost is his humanity and his sensitivity to the real essential element of funeralization: compassion and ritual.

Ever feel like you've been baited, trapped and ... ?

Ever feel like you’ve been
baited, trapped and … ?

What Thogmartin is in effect preaching — for his own interests, ego and profit — is that funeral professionals should (1) become rat-eating rats, and (2) distance themselves even further from the real needs of the bereaved. It’s a perversion offered by the factory funeral industries, a $15 billion industry like Service Corporation International a huge corporation providing burial and cremation services, which reported more than $533 million in revenues in one quarter alone! Then there’s the Dignity funeral network of more than 2000 funeral homes, or even the factory-funeral provider Newcomer Funeral Homes where you can get the latest in cookie-cutter, nickle-and-dime-me funerals. Those are just a couple of examples.

For an interesting survey of the 10 corporations that control the funeral service sector, see the Wall Street Journal article, “The Ten Companies That Control The Death Industry”  and think to yourself: How much is it worth to you to sell your peace of mind, your humanity to save a couple of dollars, the cost of a flat-screen TV that will be obsolete as soon as you cart it out of the store. Your peace of mind, your humanity has to last you a lifetime; so does your guilt if you don’t do things right the first time, because you can’t redo the funeral or fix the unfuneral. Question: Are you going to become, like the funeral service industry is trending, one of the rat-eating rats?

In 2014, Forbes published an article “Death Of The Death Care Industry And Eternal Life Online.” It’s another eye-opener if you have a moment to read it.  While the article is a bit dated in its information, and poorly written — but if you’ve visited any of the sites above, you’ll find poor writing the new standard —, and although the information in the Forbes article is not 100% reliable — we hope that the author’s references to Jessica Mitford’s American Way of Death are tongue in cheek—, it will provide you, the reader, with some different perspectives to consider. After all, you do need an awareness base in order to evaluate what you find.

technology-has-exceeded-humanity

Few of our readers are old enough to remember when people were not walking around talking to themselves, or if you do remember you also remember that people doing that usually ended up in a padded cell. Or old enough to remember when people actually conversed over a meal rather than fondling something on their laps, or if you do remember when someone was fondling something on their laps during a meal, they got a slap across the back of the head. Or old enough to remember when we read out of a thick object filled with word-filled pieces of paper that you had to use your fingers to turn, some can remember the fragrance of the paper and the ink, some will remember how the object made your hands and sometimes your heart warm, it was heavy and you knew you had something substantial in your hand; it was called a book. Now you hold a piece of back-lighted or LED illuminated plastic in your hand and can use a head or eye movement to change screens. How human do you feel now? You may feel fascinated, asking yourself, “How does it know that?” But deep inside you must feel threatened? Just like the mouse who’s fascinated by the tasty morsel in the trap, and can’t help itself, until SNAP! Can’t undo that bad decision! It’s no wonder that people are frantically searching for meaning but they’re searching in all the wrong places.

Thogmartin and Co-conspirators at work.

The Great Search for Meaning:
Thogmartin (center, of course)  and his Minions.

Their purpose is apparently to advance dehumanization in the most human of professions …

We’re not picking on Ryan Thogmartin and his ilk. Thogmartin and his creations are just a product of a culture of control, a symptom of an epidemic cultural illness, and the people that follow him are like lemmings; they follow into oblivion. The Thogmartins of the world are narcissistic opportunists who need an audience with as little substance and humanity as the Internet medium they use to spread their messages; their purpose is apparently to advance dehumanization in the most human of professions, not the physician’s realm of healthcare — that’s already irretrievably gone down the tubes —, but the funeral director and competent deathcare. The funeral, the ritual, the human element of compassion and companioning that we get only through community, is the only way we can navigate the stormy dips and swells of the work of grief, and come out of it psychologically and spiritually healed. We mustn’t lose sight of that truth or we’re doomed to become what we apparently are so awed by and so love, those dehumanized, soulless, virtual social media creatures called avatars. Remember, an avatar has no mind or spirit of its own; it’s an icon controlled by something outside of itself, a controller.

Take back your humanity!

Recover Your Humanity! The Editor

Recover Your Humanity!
The Editor

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