Category Archives: Interfaith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Inclusivism = Universalism = Sentimentalism

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

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

We have all became amoral meandering idiots!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They’ve pirated the word but killed the concept.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agape Meal

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

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

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

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

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

Epilogue

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

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

Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney MDiv
Bereavement Chaplain/Thanatologist

 


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Discerning Chickens from Ducks. A taxonomy.

Republished with permission from the Companions of St Silouan Athonite


Those of us in the vocation of teaching or preaching sometimes find that no matter how we attempt to describe something, we fall short of the mark, that is, we just don’t have the wherewithal to communicate complex situations in terms our audience can fully embrace.


As I lay in bed one early morning unable to sleep, and immersed in reflection, I began musing and imagined the various Christian faith communities as chicken farms, and I created a taxonomy of about 4 categories of chickens. I reached for my journal and jotted down some key thoughts in order not to lose them. Once I found peace having jotted down the necessary mnemonics, I was able to doze off. I rose early that morning to reconstruct my dozy thoughts. Here they are:

There are Ducks among the Chickens

On the one hand we have the factory farms where the chickens are confined in large coops and fed a prescribed diet doped with various enhancers. These are the Roman or Western Rite Christians. They are kept in parochial coops, fed a diet of dogma, doctrine, catechesis, and Canon rules and regulations; they are under the chief keeper, the bishop, whose minions, the priests are the farm hands. The corporation headquarters calls all of the important shots for these chickens. It’s “systematic.” The lights in the coop go on timer-controlled, stay on for a set period of time, and then go off. Feeding is done automatically, mechanically by the hopper method — homiletics or liturgical preaching —, in the process of delivering  a premixed formula — a so-called liturgy —, which the clucks devour at set times, and then go on with their lackluster, routine lives until it’s time to make the trip to the processing plant. That’s category 1.

Factory farmed, raised systematically, kept in line by protocol.

Category 2, took shape when I turned my thoughts then turned to the chicken-metaphorical Eastern Orthodox Rites. Here I have free-range, cageless chickens, who roam about within a perimeter of dogma and doctrine. These chickens have relative freedom and autonomy, although the head farmer makes all of the major decisions affecting their lives and his farmhands live among the chickens, ensuring that they stay healthy, and keep the foxes and weasels at their distance. These chickens rise with the sun and roost when the sun sets. They have relative variety and color in their diets and it’s natural, no artificial additives; organic. These clucks are out there digging around and experience the mystery that is their life and the beauty that is their world. They live their live with relatively few rules and regulations, and finish their lives plump and clean.

Wandering and feeding in the beauty and mystery of creation.

There’s a third category of chicken in the chicken world I’ve conjured up. It’s the chicken kept by the guy down the road who wants his eggs fresh and his Sunday dinner just outside his door. Nice and convenient. This chicken is kept in a rather pedestrian, vulgar way, allowed to roam about, kept in a makeshift hutch or in a coop. Their keeper is not particularly well educated in chicken-care nor in what chickens need out of life so their diet and care is a bit haphazard and generally subject to their keeper’s idiosyncrasies and whims. Their keeper gets his chicken knowledge out of a popular magazine or off the Internet. No real plan, no real structure, each chicken has a personal relationship with its owner. Neighbors see these chickens and refer to them by the owner’s name: “There’s Joe’s chickens in the road again. “ “Or Amy’s chickens are in our backyard again.” With little or no supervision or protection, these chickens sometimes become road-kill or are taken by a fox or a dog. But they can also be happy chickens because they don’t know anything else, and they can be healthy chickens, but they’re good only for soup because they’re very lean and underfed; a bit tough at times. These are the non-mainstreamerspopular religious movements, sects, cults and storefront “churches.”

Backyard chickens.

Getting near completion of our taxonomy of religious chickens, of course, we have some chickens who fall somewhere in between these three groups, or chickens who get “rescued” by one or the other categories. They’re still chickens but a bit confused.

Finally, we have the un-chickens. These are creatures that think they’re chickens, look like chickens, act like chickens but are definitely not chickens. Fortunately, these bizarre items are rare and they do make the tabloids or National Geographic. They even manage to attract vulnerable followers, who think that these un-chickens are the real thing. Most of these un-chickens are charlatans, some may actually believe they are chickens, but they are easy to identify and can’t easily hide their deception from the discerning observer.

The Un-chicken. They look like chickens, act like chickens, but don’t know they’re un-chickens.

I would be remiss if I didn’t include the un-chicken category. These are not chickens at all but ducks who want to be chickens. These ducks leave their aquatic environment for dry land among the chickens. These ducks have lost track of their special gift: mythologically they inhabited and belonged to three worlds: the world of water, the world of dry land, and the world of the ether. Some would say that these ducks, if they were aware and awake, would realize that they mediated between the sky, the earth and the water. They are special. They think they’re chickens but they still sound like ducks and walk like ducks. Some of the chickens don’t even know there are ducks among them; some of the ducks don’t know they’re ducks. But in reality, you can’t mistake the ducks among the chickens but no one seems to mention the fact and no one makes a peep…or a cluck.

Moving freely between worlds.

And then there are the ducks. Wild and free. Diving into the depths or flying invisible paths. No words or texts are needed to guide them. They find their food along their journey’s course. They quench their thirst in fresh, living water. They live in all three spheres but belong to none in particular. Unlike the chickens who are earthbound and know only a circumscribed tract, the ducks share three worlds; they know the world under the reflective surface of the pond in which they dive, they know the dry land where they walk, and they know the heights, which they share with eagles. We might call the ducks among us the mystics or the contemplatives, those among us whose keeper is the Spirit.

The Spirit is in our midst!

Br Silouan …
A chicken in discernment to be a duck!

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

Lessons from the Plague; What Monty Python Can Teach us as Helpers…

Republished with Permission from Thanatology Café.

There is a great deal to be said about our healthcare and deathcare industries in the US, they are similar in many respects and exhibit similar functional flaws in a general sense. In the humanectomized materialist consumerism driven culture in which we live, the corporations have reduced most of us to human means to a corporate end. Most of US humanity has been dehumanized to the level of mere consumers. This is not a new development, however, and can be read in many quasi-prophetic sources.

In a recent conversation with a licensed funeral director and funeral home operator, who read our article on Nicholas Facci and Newcomer Funerals and Cremations (March 26, 2017), we discussed among other things the funeral chains’ exploitation of the demise of our traditions. We continue that discussion here together with some and some interesting anecdotes about the Albany County Coroner’s office.

After that discussion, I couldn’t help but think about one of the many hysterical scenes in the Monty Python film, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” or of the grim portrayal by Dr John B. Huber of the Manchurian Plague (20th c.) and the Black Plague (14th c.).

Monty Python’s “Holy Grail”

The scene takes place during the Black Plague in medieval somewhere, and opens with the sounds of strange medieval music. Discordant and sparse images. Wailings and groanings. Close up of contorted face upside down. A leg falls across it. Creaking noise. The bodies lurch away from and scene pans out to reveal they are amongst a huge pile of bodies on a swaying cart that is lumbering away from the viewer. It is pulled by a couple of ragged, dirty emaciated wretches, the cart drivers. Behind the cart walks another large man, a slightly more prosperous Porter, wearing a black hood and looking rather sinister. The Porter is carrying an emaciated old man over his shoulder who is still moving, and protests “I’m not dead!” The dialogue goes something like this:

The scene: (The Porter carrying an old man slung over his shoulder, approaches the cart and the cart driver…)
Cart Driver: Bring out your dead!
Porter: Here’s one!
Cart Driver: Ninepence.
Old man: I’m not dead!
Card Driver: What?
Porter: Nothing…Here’s your ninepence.
Cart Driver: Er…He says he’s not dead!
Porter: Yes he is.
Old Man: I’m not.
Cart Driver: He isn’t.
Porter: Well he will be soon. He’s very ill.
Old Man: I’m getting better!
Porter: No you’re not. You’ll be stone-dead in a moment.
Cart Driver: I can’t take him like that; it’s against regulations!
Old Man: I don’t want to go on the cart!
Porter: Oh don’t be such a baby.
Cart Driver: I can’t take him like that!
Old Man: I feel fine!
Porter: Oh, do us a favor…
Cart Driver: I can’t.
Porter: Well, can you hang around a couple of minutes? He won’t be long…
Cart Driver: I promised I’d be at the Robinson’s. They’ve lost nine today.
Porter: Well, when’s your next round?
Cart Driver: Thursday.
Old Man: I think I’ll go for a walk.
Porter: (To the Old Man) You’re not fooling anyone, you know! (to the Cart Driver) Look. Isn’t there something you can do?
Old Man: (Singing) I feel happy, I feel happy!
The Cart Driver looks at the Porter for a moment. Then they both do a quick furtive look up and down the street. The Cart Driver very swiftly brings up a club and hits the Old Man on the head. (Out of shot but the singing stops after a loud bonk noise.)
Porter: Ah! Thanks very much! (Handing over the ninepence) See you on Thursday!
(Tossing old man onto the bodies on the cart)
Cart Driver: That’s all right! See you on Thursday.

(View the clip on YouTube)

While transcribing the dialogue I thought to myself how prophetic this 1975 spoof was.  More than 40 years later we can watch this clip and it sends cold shivers down your spine. Back then what was morbidly hilarious has become stark reality for us today.

“Bring out your dead!” Newcomer Funerals and Cremations TV Ads.

Cryptkeeper Newcomer Ad

There you are, sitting enjoying a snack thinking “Life is good!” And Warren “Ren” Newcomer, the cadaver-like founder of the Newcomer Funeral Services Group based in Wichita, Kansas, appears on your television screen. He’s the 21st century version of the Cryptkeeper and plays the part really well. He looks like an embalming gone awry and oozes a false compassion and insincere expression that makes you want to choke on your chips. Here’s a guy who has made millions exploiting the deaths of loved ones and doing his part to destroy our death traditions while grinning like a corpse on the way to the bank.  Newcomer Funeral Services Group has two locations in the Albany, New York, area, and has a presence in some 10 states. There are other similar funeral chains, Walmart-type factory funeral companies that have bought up private funeral businesses, cemeteries and crematoriums across the country. They operate under names like Service Corporation International (SCI), Dignity Memorial™, StoneMor Partners, Precoa, and of course, Newcomer Funerals and Corpse Disposal. What their advertising and marketing messages say to us, despite the actors and the phony compassion, is what Monty Python is teaching: “Bring out your dead!” Toss them on the cart and we’ll see you on Thursday (and don’t forget your checkbook or credit card).

“I’m Not Dead!” The Office of the Albany County Coroner declares a woman dead but she revives in the morgue

In New York Times article “They Said She Was D.O.A., But Then the Body Bag Moved” (Robert D. McFadden, 11/18/94) The author reports that Albany County Coroner Philip Furie and  Paramedics allegedly “found no heartbeat, no pulse, no breath or other signs of life, and the coroner declared her officially dead.”  So they “ zipped Mildred C. Clarke,  into a body bag, took her to the morgue at the Albany Medical Center Hospital and left her in a room where corpses are kept at 40 degrees, pending autopsies or funerals. About 90 minutes later, the chief morgue attendant went in to transfer her to a funeral home. “ The attendant noticed some movement in the body bag, unzipped it and found that Mildred was still breathing. She was moved to intensive care and treated but the case has never been explained. The L.A. Times reports later that “Mildred Clark, the 86-year-old woman who spent 90 minutes in a morgue cooler last week after mistakenly being declared dead, died Wednesday of undisclosed ailments, a hospital spokesman said…. Albany Medical Center Hospital spokesman Richard Puff said Clark’s family had requested that the cause of death be withheld.” Any guesses as to the cause of death?

According to the article, “Albany is the only major city in New York State that does not have a medical examiner, an official who is trained in forensic pathology, and this would be a real advantage,”  The office of the coroner is  a relic still found  in many American cities. Albany elects four coroners to declare deaths and investigate their  causes. They have no medical training but are required to attend a “death investigation course.”  The coroners are expected to evaluate crime scenes and suspicious deaths, but they have no medical training.

We’re investigating some leads relating to the performance of the Albany County Coroners, and will report on our findings in a future article. We suspect that the Albany County Coroner isn’t very popular among local funeral directors. But Hey! this is Smalbany, isn’t it? There’s a job for every misfit in the Albany Democratic Machine, isn’t there?

“Look. Isn’t there something you can do? Ah! Thanks very much! See you on Thursday.” Inconvenience of the Dying Process.

We’re so very busy and so much in a rush. Why? Because our handlers tell us we are. We’ve lost our sense for distinguishing what is nice and what is necessary. We no longer have to think. Advertisers tell us what we need. Marketers tell us what to ask for. Government tells us how to live. Churches tell us how to die. Emails tell us we need to Hurry! and to Rush! because time is running out to buy a certain something. Hell! We don’t even die in peace. Hospitals transform us into cyborgs with tubes and electrodes at every available spot, and when all else fails, they still want to provide “billable services.” Only when you have had enough watching the technology fail do you scream STOP! Even when the so-called healthcare team has the good sense to admit that they can’t do anything more, they recommend shipping what’s left of mom or dad to hospice. And so at hospice the saga continues. When death finally occurs, whether it’s helped along or drags out to the end, we are still in a hurry, still have other things to do. But yet again, the materialist consumerism we are addicted to has the solution for immediate relief of any inconvenience, even death. There are customized death packages for every budget ranging from direct burial or direct cremation to the “traditional funeral.” Just ask for the Detailed Price List required by the FTC’s Funeral Rule and prepare to be nickel-and-dimed. You have abandoned the traditional funeral home with the family funeral director and have opted for the Walmart funeral chain, the factory funeral service provider. And you deserve everything you get. Sorry but it’s true.

We’ve all read about states like Oregon and Washington that have legislated physician-assisted suicide (PAS), euthanasia in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Switzerland. We all know about the hospice movement that has degenerated into another instance of corporate exploitation of death and the demise of the family. So it shouldn’t come as a big surprise that Monty Python prophesied the hastening of death movement. True, we no longer use a club to help the dying along; we’ve become much more refined in the 21st century. We now use chemicals and drugs. Or, if we’ve made mom or dad into an ICU cyborg, we simply remove the respirator, inject some morphine and “Ah! Thanks very much. See you on Thursday” at the viewing. We’ve come a long way into our degeneration!

Get the shocking truth about Service Corporation International (SCI) here.

We really have to chuckle when we read such crapola like “Service Corporation International is dedicated to compassionately supporting families at difficult times, celebrating the significance of lives that have been lived, and preserving memories that transcend generations, with dignity and honor. (SCI site at , last accessed on April 6, 2017). If you’re ready to believe that operations like SCI or Newcomer, corporations with their eyes on the bottom line, with their programmed funeral directors and staff operating on a corporate agenda, are there to do what the family funeral home once did, you’re already brain dead. SCI is constantly being sued, settling, or paying out huge judgments resulting from their mistakes. But when you’re making billions, who cares. The living keep dying; sky’s the limit! Get on the cart.


A bit of history: In 1962, Robert L. Waltrip, a licensed funeral director who grew up in his family’s funeral business, founded Service Corpration International. SCI started out as a small network of funeral homes and cemeteries in the Houston, Texas, area.

SCI gradually increased its offshore presence, and it continued to acquire business interests in North America. Since the late 1990s the US and Canadian marketplaces a  saturated battleground of competing companies intent on buying up and exploiting the deathcare business sector. SCI, In the course of the melee, Alderwoods Group and Stewart Enterprises emerged as the three principal companies in the resulting funeral corporation industry. As of December 31, 1999, SCI owned and operated 3,823 funeral service locations, 525 cemeteries, 198 crematoria and two insurance operations located in 20 countries on five continents. In 1999, SCI introduced Dignity Memorial, the first transcontinental brand offering deathcare goods and services in North America. By consolidating its network of funeral homes and cemeteries under a single brand, SCI expected that they could create a recognizable and marketable brand image. In 2000, poor market conditions forced SCI to reevaluate operations. While foreign operations had once shown promise, nearly 70 percent of SCI’s revenue was generated by operations in the United States and Canada. The company decided to divest many of its offshore businesses, in addition to many North American funeral homes and cemeteries. The UK arm now operates as Dignity PLC.


“I don’t want to go on the cart!” How we treat our dying; how we treat ourselves.

Monty Python presents an interesting scenario at a time when Jessica Mitford was enjoying the fruits of her muckraking book, “American Way of Death,” (1963), and the funeral home chains and funeral service factory corporations were reaching their peak of exploitation when Mitford’s “American Way of Death Revisited” was poshumously published (1998). Monty Python had it right. But we all laughed our way straight to hell.

 

J.B. Huber MD: “Psychology of Grave Epidemics”
(Med. Times, 1911)

Moving from a 1975 comedy spoof we can cite a remarkable article that appeared in the December 1911 journal, Medical Times, by John B. Huber MD. Dr Huber writes about the great Manchurian Plague (1910-1900), and compares it to the Black Plague (1347-1351). I’d like to quote some passages from that 1911 medical journal article. See if you can draw any parallels with our 21st century society.

Yet business was conducted as ordinarily—by those still alive; and the stroller “viewing the manners of the town,” would hardly realize from the superficial aspect of things, that a dreadful scourge was gradually but surely destroying its people. Yet the plague had, from November last up to this New Year’s Day, done for one-fourth of the twenty thousand inhabitants of that community; and it was then expected that more than half the remainder would be doomed before the plague would expend its energies.

On this festive New Year’s Day in that Manchurian town, the mounted policeman’s horse had its tail brightly decorated with green and red streamers; a shop keeper burst merrily out upon a group in the street, scaring them with a bunch of firecrackers which he flung up into the air. A green house was decorated with bright red, gilt lettered posters, festive banners and green paper flags, all by way of celebration. Next door the yellow poster of the Sanitary Bureau was in evidence, sealing up that house, and marking it unclean; “eight dead, two dying,” are the tally with which it began the New Year. (Huber p. 353)

Sounds like our modern lifestyle: death looms around us but we just continue partying, ignoring it, until we have to go down that dark alley and have no choice but to confront the darkness, the gloom. Manchuria in the early 20th century doesn’t seem much different from Troy or Albany in the early 21st century.

“Eight dead, two dying.” Sound’s like Monty Python’s Cart Driver, “They’ve lost nine today.” Or like the handoff report in an ICU. Whether you’re tallying plague victims or scheduling body collections, or handing off your charges to the next shift, the language used tells it all: We’ve all become mere garbage bags laying about until we get collected, transported, disposed of. Don’t you think there should be more to the final chapter of a life lived, and the received legacy?

Plague: carting the dead, by Moynet
A cart with the dead.

“The carters that loaded the dead on the wagons and took them away would not walk, but sat companionably beside the corpses.”  (Huber p. 353)

And so do we in the 21st century. The 21st century carters load up the dead and take them away; the bereft sit complacently beside the corpses. One would hope that we have advanced a bit farther along than our ancestors, that we would observe the traditions handed down to us, perform the grief and mourning rituals so important to psychospiritual healing. Some of us do. Most haven’t a clue, and rely on the bean counters to guide them.

Direct Burial: Coffinless in Pits

“Nine hundred were buried coffinless in pits; above two thousand frozen corpses, in a most desolate stillness, awaited burial near the town, in a heap a quarter-mile long. Some coffins were in evidence, standing upright, without covers, the bodies erect in them; here an arm stuck upright out of its receptacle; there a naked leg protruded. Near the pile of which he was soon to become a member, was seen an outcast kneeling, worshipping, half falling in his weakness, as he bowed his head and rose again, before the grave of an ancestor.´ (Huber p. 353)

On the one hand we get a glimpse of the behind-the-scenes at one of the funeral home chains or factory-funeral homes as described by a young licensed funeral director now employed by Newcomer Funerals and Cremations. On the other hand, we are presented with a feeble suffering wretch who, despite his own suffering, has not forgotten his obligations in continuing his bonds with the dead, one of whom he shall soon be. It’s a rich, telling image; in a sense very real but very metaphorical. Once you create that image in your mind, you’ll not soon forget it.

“[T]he plague was coming to its most dreadful stage, for it was now destroying the family affections…Thus, most gruesomely, does the twentieth century repeat the fourteenth.”  (Huber p. 354)

While Dr Huber is describing a real epidemic, the Manchurian Plague of 1910-11, and describes the Black Death of the 14th century that swept away a substantial part of medieval Europe’s population, we are faced with a more insidious plague that is robbing us of our core values to family and kin, both living and dead. Huber, a medical man, calls this the “most dreadful stage” because it was destroying the core of the culture, the bonds of family. I’d guess he’d probably go further to say that the 21st century repeats both the 14th and the 20th, but that our plague is materialist consumerism promoted by greed and the catastrophe of so-called individual choice.

“Next to the fear of death was the fear of desertion.” (Huber p. 354)

Early 20th century China had very strong family ties, ties of responsibility, filial piety. This sense of duty was the basis of the veneration of ancestors, a form of continuing bond with the dead, similar to the West’s veneration of its sacred dead, the saints. Huber is describing a fear of abandonment, of “desertion” to be on a par with the fear of death. In clinical practice, whether in the nursing home or the hospital setting, or hospice, we find persons who are ready to confront death but fear doing it alone; they have a fear of desertion. We might extend that fear of desertion to the bereaved, as well, but their desertion is far more subtle than committing the dying to some remote corner of the medical ICU or to a hospice facility. The bereaved are not only saddled with their loss but also with the daunting confrontation with the corporate funeral director with his endless list of goods and services with their respective prices. All is done with the sensitivity of an embalming trocar. What ever happened to the compassionate family funeral home and its director, frequently assisted by his family.

Black-Death-Plague-Doctor-Clothing

“Who, then, would be so foolhardy as to throw good life after bad, by nursing a dying friend, when the Black Death lay per chance in his last sign, in the farewell pressure of his hand. So the nearest and dearest ties were dissolved, the calls of kindred and humanity neglected; the sick left to die and to be carted to the grave by hirelings…” (Huber p. 354)

Indeed, who today would be so traditional as to give up his or her self-time to care for a dying relative or friend, especially one who is in the disturbing phases of life’s end. Most persons are ambivalent about the whole process: On the one hand they look to the death as something unbearable in its finality; on the other hand they just want to get it over with. The death occurs and the bereaved are fed the 20th century psychological pablum that their connection with the dead person has ended, that they have to get on with a productive life. That was Freud’s teaching: You had to cut your ties with the dead. Quite the opposite of that in the East or in traditional societies, and quite a contrast to what we now teach in the 21st century. We now teach continuing bonds with the dead, a transcendence phenomenon, meaning-making, that the living’s relationship with the deceased is not only normal and healthy, it’s encouraged! We do it in the rituals of the support group or in ways like the AIDS quilt. We may do it differently than the poor wretch venerating his ancestors described by Huber but we nonetheless do it. We do it because it’s the human thing we do. But it’s also so very inconvenient for the chains and the corporations; they don’t encourage humanity, they encourage production and consumerism. Take three days and get over your grief. Back to work with you. See you on Thursday.

“Boccaccio attests vividly how the human organism in all its phases—physical, spiritual, moral, intellectual—deteriorated in stamina and in co-ordination. Compassion, courage and the nobler feelings were found in but few; whilst cowardice, selfishness and ill-will, with the baser passions in their train asserted their supremacy. In place of virtue, which had been driven from the earth, wickedness everywhere reared its rebellious standard and succeeding generations were consigned to her baneful tyranny.”  (Huber p. 354)

Boccaccio here is describing the pitiful demise of humanity in the Middle Ages. We could describe the present state of affairs without changing a word, couldn’t we? Take a moment and go to the Newcomer Funeral Service Group or their Albany/Latham websites for Newcomer Funerals and Cremations and read their ridiculous claims of what they offer the bereaved. Go to the Service Corporation International site and read about their “compassion”, their caring, their sensitivity to the needs of the bereaved. That’s worse than General Motors telling you they care about your lower back pain. Yet how many consumers actually swallow that sordid brew. These factory-funeral corporations aren’t making billions because no one’s falling for the marketing hype, the sales pitches pressuring the bereaved in their most difficult moments to sign and buy. We say look at the lawsuits and how much they’re paying out for failing the bereaved, for causing the bereaved more suffering than they had ever bargained for.

“[t]he Black Death “seemed to arise the worst passions of the human heart, and to dull the spiritual sense of the soul.” Who would think, declared Papon, “that in the midst of horrors so suitable (it would seem) for extinguishing the passions, there were two—libertinism and greed—which should be carried to so high a degree!” (Huber p. 354)

Indeed! Who ever thought that liberties, individualism, choice could lead to the present situation we find ourselves in. How is it that human beings in their worst possible moments should be exposed to the worst possible motivations and motives of modern mankind: libertarianism and greed. Those very libertarians preaching choice and liberty are deeply rooted in the horrible hypocrisy that such choice and liberty give life to. The plague that is upon us now in the 21st century is not a plague that is carried by fleas, and it’s not a plague that kills in five days. Our 21st century plague is called materialist consumerism, market economy, capitalism and it’s carried by fellow human beings, and it kills insidiously but totally in mind, body and spirit. There’s no way to discern with any certainty the extent of the infection but one thing is certain, there’s no effective vaccine, and most people would not want to undergo the cure.

One woman was married five times in one day—four of the bridegrooms having been buriers of the dead, dressed in the clothes they had stripped from the bodies of the deceased.” (Huber p. 354)

Huber describes the total depravity of the people who now have lost all sense of morality and values, and who now in a devil-may-care attitude of let’s be merry because we’re dead anyway. He describes a woman who marries five men in succession who are carried away just as quickly. She describes those who profit from the belongings and property of the dead, whom they have stripped. For all of Jessica Mitford’s muckraking, she would have had a picnic with this line, somehow drawing a connection between these “buriers of the dead” and those “dressed in clothes they had stripped from the bodies of the deceased.”

Like horrors disgraced many other communities. He: is furnished another example—such as are so deplorably frequent in history of how fanatical frenzy, associated with hatred and the play of the baser passions, will work powerfully upon nations and peoples to the utter exclusion of the restraints of reason, of law, or of any other wholesome factor. And the greater part of those who, by their education and rank, might have been assumed to raise the deterrent voice of reason, themselves led on the savage mob to murder and to plunder the Jews. (Huber p. 355)

Throughout history, Satan has always been the “other”; humankind has never really been able to see its true self, it’s never been able to accept its shadow side. Huber is describing the desperate search for a cause of the plague and, then as now, hatred and baser passions take control, and the necessary scapegoat is found. Whatever doesn’t support the new agenda has to be demonized and sent packing. The dead are not producers, the bereaved are not efficient workers. The dead are distracting the living from their production or consumption. Make the dead and dying disappear, marginalize the traditions, deny grief, exploit the bereaved, then send them back to work. The voice of reason is muted. Our institutions teaching and training the healthcare and deathcare professionals teach technology and business law, not ethics and humanities. The mortuary science programs wouldn’t want to whisper a word against the multinational funeral chains and factory funeral homes, after all they pay the bills and hire the graduates. Why cut your own throat? Why bite the hands that pad your pockets? Of course they won’t hire anyone teaching real deathcare, psychospiritual support, tradition, ritual, healing. The bereaved are, after all, consumers. And you wouldn’t want to keep them from their producing activity for any longer than necessary. Besides, there’s always another body and we have to keep turning over the visitation rooms and chapel. Headquarters wants to see numbers, you know.

That the emotions played a part regarding the plague was observed by many. Those who were terrified were more prone to contract the disease. Those who feared not and were of a cheerful, equable mind were, to the extent at least of that benign influence upon the organism, the more likely to escape. Boccaccio, in writing the Decameron, recognized that pleasant thoughts were the best preventive….Those who despaired threw away their one chance of life; those of sanguine temperament resisted well. (Huber p. 355)

It’s really ironic that I should close with this passage from Huber’s article. Not really. What Huber is saying here is that if you despair you’re lost already. If you become complacent, you’re dead in the water. Those who step up, ask the questions like: Are you part of a funeral home chain? Are you owned by a funeral service corporation? Are you still family owned? will likely come out on top. It’s not necessarily the pleasant thoughts that get you through any plague, it’s the positive, affirmative thoughts that will prevent you from being taken for a ride. It’s really very true what Huber and Boccaccio are preaching here: You have to have the courage to ask the questions, to look beyond the bells and whistles, to see through the smoke screens, and to assert what you feel you need in your bereavement, not what’s on the corporate menu. The more you do your own thinking and planning the more likely you’ll escape the snares set by the corporate funeral directors. The article may have been written in 1911, over a hundred years ago, but it still has substantial relevance today. I hope to have shown that in my analysis.

Thus are all phases of individual existence mutually and inextricably interrelated: extensive and prolonged deterioration in any one aspect is bound in time to affect perniciously the others in time; such hideous psychic phenomena as are here stated do not obtain in the beginning of any such calamity as the Black Death. But it is the circumstance (and a most pathetic one) that the exercise of the heroic virtues for any lengthy period is contingent upon the maintenance of normal living conditions in general; otherwise the psychic stamina deteriorates, manners become dissolute, morals depraved and consciences debased. (Huber p. 355)

What Dr Huber is saying in this paragraph is that life events are intimately interrelated — I understand these life events to be the basis of our traditions and rituals — and that if we allow any of those events to be exploited or to lapse into irrelevance, all others will suffer as the result. Huber’s phrase “heroic virtues” equates with human values and ethical conduct, which logically rely on “normal” living in our society. When “psychic stamina deteriorates” we have a disturbance in coping and resilience, we forget the ritual and become lost, we forget our obligations, and our whole mindset, our worldview, deteriorates. This, in the 21st century, is what happens when we fall victim to the materialist consumerism of our age and become slave consumers of the corporations and their perverse messages.

And so you have it: From none other than Monty Python’s 1975 depiction of the Black Death, and from a physician writing in 1911 about the pneumonic plague in Manchuria, China, do we have the evidence that really nothing has changed; we have learned nothing. What more can one say?

Support Your Local Funeral Home

(And don’t forget to ask for some time with
the interfaith bereavement chaplain!
(518) 479-0525 or compassionate.care.associates@gmail.com)

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

 

Like a Wounded Beast…

beast

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting back to the featured topic…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was the serenely grateful chapter of the story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor’s Commentary

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

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

Bravo, Chaplain!

Internet ambush is not uncommon these days…Enter

cybersniper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

New Blog Feature: Articles and Essays

Death Awareness & Education

Death Awareness & Education

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

Try it out and let me know what you think!

Peace and blessings!
Rev. Ch. Harold