Click the link below to read/download the June Newsletter (June 2018 Newsletter Vol 1 No. 2 ).
I’m very pleased to announce that my May-June 2018 Chaplain p.r.n. Newsletter has been uploaded and published.
The current newsletter includes interesting notes on my revised Descriptive Price List, enhanced services for funeral homes, an obituary writing service, and an aftercare program.
All of the articles are actually summaries of articles that appear in unabridged versions on one or more of my blogs but despite the concise format they do provide some interesting insights.
You can read the Newsletter online or view it and download it for later reading by simply clicking this link: Chaplain p.r.n. May-June Newsletter.
As always, I would very much appreciate your feedback, comments and recommendations.
Thanks for your continuing interest and support!
Peace and blessings!
Rev. Ch. Harold
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
If you have any questions regarding any of the above, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org 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.
“We are caregivers for life who also care for the dead.
We share with the living where our life’s calling has led.”
Rev. Chaplain Harold W. Vadney BA, [MA], MDiv
Lifecare and Deathcare Service Provider
Call or email me for services, referrals, and recommendations.
 From the poem “We are Caregivers for Life” by MSO (available at https://mysendoff.com/download/we-are-caregivers-for-life.pdf)
Over the years I have paid rigorous attention to developments in the lifecare and deathcare professions both locally and on the regional, national and international scenes. I take the time and make the effort to do this because I truly believe that lifecare and deathcare are, like life and death, intimately connected transitions that require not only compassion and sensitivity in the acute phases of bereavement but also awareness of what remains traditional and important and what changes are affecting the funeral homes and families I serve.
One of my roles as a psychospiritual care provider and as an interfaith bereavement chaplain is to stay abreast of these trends and to share and teach colleagues and clients about them and their influence on how we serve in our respective vocations. We are after all not only service providers but educators and teachers, ministers to the suffering.
Flexibility and responsiveness are key to the psychospiritual care and chaplaincy vocation just as much as they are to the deathcare services professions. We are, after all, in the ranks of the healthcare professions just as any physician, nurse, psychologist, or administrator is; the difference is that in contrast with the physician, nurse, psychologist or administrator, the chaplain and the funeral director are called to care for both the living and the dead. That’s an important distinction and has important implications for how we do what we do and the quality of what we do.
As I have written elsewhere, we each have our roles and we have to recognize boundaries, fixed and flexible ones. I frequently use the example that I don’t do embalming and I don’t expect the funeral director to do the spiritual funeral rites. While our roles and engagement with the bereaved do sometimes overlap such as in providing grief support, we each have our specific professional training and we must not overstep our competencies.
That having been said, there are some things that have been conventionally — I say “conventionally” and not “traditionally” because they are done by tacit acquiescence between and among the parties involved in the funeralization processes —, one of which is the creation of the obituary for the deceased.
Conventionally the creation of the obituary has been left to the newspaper obit editor or to the funeral director or one of the funeral home staff. The result is that the obituary, unless it is the obituary of a prominent or eminent personality, has been little more than an enhanced death notice, and there are significant differences between the purposes and composition of a death notice compared to an obituary.
In brief, an obituary is an announcement of a person’s death along with a biography of the person. The obituary generally includes information about the about the deceased, birth and death dates and places, information about the deceased’s life, survivors and predeceased close relatives, the deceased’s life accomplishments, funeral or memorial arrangements, floral tributes and donations, and a frequently a picture of the deceased. The information provided in the obituary should provide the reader with a credible impression of who the deceased was as a person. A death notice is a brief announcement of a person’s death and the funeral or memorial services. A death notice may or may not include a picture. It is not uncommon for the death notice to be the only print notice of a death; the actual obituary may appear only on the funeral home website or an online obituary site. Content is not the only way the two differ; they not only differ in length and content but also in cost, but that’s a topic for another article.
Regrettably, because of (1) the urgency of the situation: the death notice or obituary or both must be created and published within a narrow window of time to provide the public with details relating to the death and to the funeral arrangements. The personal interactions and relationships: The bereaved are in the acute phase of grief with all of the associated emotions, the funeral staff are under pressure to manage not only the legal and official obligations connected with a death and disposition of a dead human being but also with the business aspects of providing funeral services to the family as well as providing short-term grief support. So it’s not uncommon for the obituary to become just another laundry list item that the funeral director must do before getting to bed.
The current options are not all that rosy: either the funeral director makes an honorable but exhausted effort at composing an obituary from the few facts and bits of information he has been able to garner in his contacts with the family OR the task is left to the professional obit writer with the local newspaper who faces the same problems as the funeral director. The solutions are just as grim: Cookie-cutter obituaries. Either the FD or the obit editor/writer uses a form or template or information is plugged into a computer program and then tweaked. Worse still, a family member is stuck with writing something about which they have no clue much less any writing skills.
So what’s the alternative? Well, I’ve given the matter some thought and have come to the obvious conclusion that there’s a lot of duplication or triplication of effort involved and that the current “conventional” practice is not only inefficient it’s downright unfair not only to the deathcare professionals involved but also to the bereaved, and not insignificantly to the deceased him or herself. who deserve a much better treatment at least in their obit.
So, while I was going through notes on past services, articles published in the scientific, scholarly, and professional journals, my own writings, and after having reviewed a considerable number of published obits, it dawned on me that none of these obit writers had access to the quality, amount, and type of information that I have as the chaplain to the family. While it’s true the FD or the obit editor/writer ask certain standard questions, the result is a standard dry obit. The intimate sharing that goes on during the Chaplain-Family Conference results in an enormous richness of information about the deceased, his or her life and activities, accomplishments, anecdotes, legacy, meaning to those close to him or her and to the community. In fact, a whole living narrative is collected in the course of that sharing experience.
While some of the information shared by the family must be held respectfully confidential and never published, my motto being “Tell me your secrets and I’ll forget them.” Other information shared by the family and close friends become part of the memorialization process, part of the coping process, form the basis of the necessary continuing bond with the deceased. As a skilled writer, speaker, presenter, ritual leader, I use much of that information as part of the psychospiritual care I provide both before and during the funeralization rites and rituals I create. One of those rituals is most conspicuously the homily or the so-called Words of Comfort or my trademark Litany of Thanksgiving and Remembrance. So what happens with all of that incredibly healing information after the homily is delivered and the Litany is read? Not much.
So, my question was: “Why aren’t I called upon to create the obituary?” After all, I actually have more information than anyone involved, even more than some family members, which is obvious during the Chaplain-Family Conference when one family member describes an event and another looks surprised and says, “I didn’t know that? S/he never mentioned that.” What a beautiful moment of epiphany for some.
But if the chapel service and the homily and the Litany of Thanksgiving and Remembrance are not recorded, much of this evaporates into the abyss of forgotten memories. That really should not happen and it doesn’t have to happen.
In my view, the obituary is more, much more than a simple death notice. It should be a cheat sheet for remembering who and what the dead loved one was and their meaning and legacy. It should be something that is preserved and enshrined as a source of information about a forebear that can be shared with future generations. It should be cherished as a lasting and enduring portrait of the dead loved one that can serve as a support in establishing the important continuing bond with the dead loved one. To achieve this holy purpose, it must be written with intimacy, sensitivity, reverence, and skill; care must be taken to select and to include the most salient and essential elements that are most important to the family and closest friends. Only then will it be worth the effort.
In order to achieve this noble purpose, I have conceived of several types of obituary: (i) the conventional, which incorporates essential bits and pieces into a coherent whole, and (ii) several custom obits, each focusing on a specific aspect of the deceased’s life:
So why not take advantage of the skills of the bereavement chaplain and turn over the obit writing to him? Sound like a plan?
Whether the obituary is to be published in the print media, in an online public obituary space, on the funeral home tributes page, on Facebook, on an online obit platform like Legacy.com, or in any combination of these, I as the chaplain serving the funeral home and the family am in the best position to provide a quality product. The obit should be between 250 and 500 words in length, depending on the available information and what the family want to emphasize. The question of whether a photo should be included always comes up. I answer with an affirmative “Why not?” but I do qualify that by saying that the photo should be compatible with the content of the obit. For example, if the family is emphasizing the early years, the photo should not be of the deceased late life. If the obit emphasizes the deceased’s community activities, it would be effective if a photo of the deceased in his or her Lions Club or other social or community regalia were shown.
It should be kept in mind that the chaplain is writing the obit, not publishing it. The chaplain can provide some ballpark figures on what, say, print publication of the final obit as approved by the family might cost but the final approved obit should be submitted to the newspaper obit editor for a final pricing quote. Some papers will publish a death notice for free, others will charge a classified ad rate. Obituaries are longer and might include a picture, all of which affect the price, usually calculated on the basis of the column inch (one column inch of newsprint is approximately 35 words).
The funeral home can usually offer space on their Tributes pages which generally includes an Obituary section. The funeral home should provide this opportunity at no charge.
There are many online options and opportunities for publishing an obituary. Some of these online options include social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and similar platforms. There are also the established online obituary sites. I have researched some of the sites and have compiled a list of ten top sites (Click here to view Top 10 Sites.)
So the decision is really a no-brainer. If you’re a funeral director, save yourself the time and stress of writing an obituary. If you are a consumer, hand the job over to the professional who can do the best for you and your loved one, the skilled professional chaplain.
Sometimes I just have to shake my head in disbelief when I see some of the things that are going on in the deathcare sector. It’s really unbelievable the types that now claim to be gurus to the deathcare business and who tout themselves as being in the know about what and how funeral directors and funeral services providers should be doing with their businesses.
One such guru is Ryan Thogmartin, a self-proclaimed social media “expert” who runs Disrupt Media and publishes the online journal Connecting Directors. Actually, it’s Thogmartin who seems to be critically disrupted and the only directors he’s connecting have likely been drinking their own embalming chemicals.
For one thing the deathcare industry has taken a turn towards immorality and dehumanization in recent years. I say this because the growth of the funeral services corporations making death a commodity rather than a sacred mystery is doing inestimable damage to the human psyche, culture, tradition, and anything human worth preserving. I’m speaking of the Newcomers, the Service Corporation International, the Dignity Memorials, the StoneMors of the world and their greed and gouging practices.
Even more alarming are the products they are foisting on the bereaved: direct cremation, direct burial, alkaline hydrolysis (dissolving the dead human body in a draino-like solution and sending the remains down the sewer lines); the indignities heaped on the dead and the insensitive treatment of the surviving bereaved are appalling.
I’m no friend of Facebook and feel that it is one of the greatest evils to arrive on Earth since Nazi national socialist movements or Stalinist communism. It’s an insidious agenda of mind control fostering self-destructive addiction on millions of unwary subscribers who, if they had half a brain, are sacrificing it to the anti-Christ Mark Zuckerberg and his army of censoring mind-police minions.
But Thogmartin sees an opportunity here and tries like hell to sell it to Guess whom? Yes! Funeral directors and funeral homes, one of the most conservative groups you’ll find today. One of the groups we would hope would have superhuman gifts of compassion, sincerity, empathy, humanity. Thogmartin is trying to sell them the idea that they need to market their services on Facebook. But I’m completely at a loss Why? they should believe anything the sloppy, uncredible, inarticulate Thogmartin has to say!
Here’s one of Thogmartin’s most recent pitches to the deathcare professionals whom he thinks he’s appealing to. Would you buy a used car from this guy?
Well, I’m not going to beat a dead horse (no pun intended). First of all, for those of us with any powers of discernment Thogmartin’s inarticulate double-talk is enough to turn us completely off. His presentation — I’m looking at his wardrobe, his set, his general appearance and personal hygiene, if I can abuse that concept when referring to Thogmartin — is simply grunge. Who on earth would want their families and clients to know that this is the man from whom your receiving your business advice?!?
Secondly, any funeral home’s business is largely local. Most established funeral homes are generations old and rely on a good reputation built over the decades and generations by providing top-shelf service. Their business comes from word of mouth, not from an idiotic platform calling itself social media, and catering to the lowest of the lowest of intellects. Sure, even the dumbest human being is looking at 100% mortality and someone’s going to have to dispose of those human remains, but seriously, when you receive that first call, it’s likely not to be from Facebook. It’s going to come from a local hospital, hospice, nursing home, or from a local family — unless of course your business is based substantially on repatriation of human remains and you do a lot of business after natural catastrophes but I can’t even say I’ve worked with such an operation in my entire career.
Moreover, most of Disrupt Media’s publications come to the subscriber as republished from other sources; most of it isn’t really of interest to the funeral director or his staff in his day-to-day operations. Besides, in the profession who has the time to sit and read poorly written commentaries hoping to find something worthwhile and of any value to a business that must be very attuned to local culture.
Maybe Thogmartin’s appeal is to the funeral corporations and their employees but on careful scrutiny and analysis, his whole operation is questionable and his advice serves only his interests, Disrupt Media.
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.’
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?”
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.”
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.
Another 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.
Again, 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.
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.
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.
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
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):
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