The Obituary: Repackaging History
Why the Chaplain is Best Qualified to Compose the Obituary.
Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney BA, [MA], MDiv.
An obituary is a public announcement of a person’s death and is the traditional and conventional way of providing the public notice of the death, and to provide information on the person who has died. The obituary is usually placed in a local newspaper and many funeral homes include a tribute or obituary on the funeral home website. It is a way to let people know of the death.
If the deceased person has lived in several places during his or her life, it is a good idea to publish the obituary in the newspaper serving the locales where he or she lived. This is a generous courtesy to those who may have known the deceased and would be interested in grieving the loss.
While there is no standard length or content for an obituary, the current trend is to publish shorter obituaries in the form of the deceased’s life and some significant accomplishments. Naturally, when publishing an obituary in a newspaper, cost becomes a consideration; the longer the obituary, the higher the cost. It is my personal practice to provide a mini biography in the funeral or memorial service program, if one is used. If the funeral home offers the option of an online obituary, a shorter announcement can be placed in the newspaper with a referral to the longer obituary on the funeral home’s website.
Every family member will have different memories of the deceased and a differnt perception of his or her life and milestones. I personally recommend that the information received from several persons during the family planning meeting be used to compose the obituary and then to have the draft obituary reviewed by family members to ensure that it is as complete as possible, given the preferences of the family, and finally to have the family approve it for publication.
Let’s face the facts: The vast majority of people, including most professionals, simply couldn’t write a good essay if their life depended on it. Most professionals were not trained in the skills necessary for obtaining relevant facts, selecting those most consonant with the purpose. Most have difficulty with reframing perceptions, emotional crafting, repackaging the past to include present historical meanings and social relations. This requires sophisticated inquiry and listening skills, sensitive creativity, the ability to navigate a conversation, persuade and curate emotions, and writing and presentation gifts. I argue in this article that the bereavement chaplain is a key resource for the funeral home and the bereaved family for creating the obituary.
Most professionals focus on method and technique; most people today look for a numbered list of how-to steps. This simply doesn’t work in the lifecare and especially in the deathcare vocations, where an obituary requires compassion and creativity.
The problem, the obstacle of method and technique is nothing new, it’s just so commonplace that we tend to overlook it. In fact, a whole generation, maybe three generations, has been born into and have grown up and matured in a culture of materialism, consumerism, disposalism, [a]social media, all of which nurture a sense of quick fixes, worthlessness, instant gratification, urgency, and anxiety. Quite obviously, none of these is conducive to the authenticity and relationship necessary for the helping professions, whether healthcare, psychospiritual care, or deathcare. Regrettably, this broad statement applies to most every level of education today: the focus is on method and technique; not on creativity and vision, and so individuals find themselves on the slippery slope right from the start.
If this broad statement can obviously be applied to everyone from the mechanic to the physician, from the priest to the nurse, how much more does it apply to the funeral director, whose training may be limited to two years in mortuary science school and one year of residency in a funeral home? These men and women, some of them not even physically much less mentally or emotionally mature – most of them have never experienced the death of a close relative or friend –, yet they find themselves sitting opposite a grieving family, “advising them” on how to cope with the death and what needs to be done. Or, in the even worse scenario, the family succumbs to the smiling ghoul-like CEO of a funeral corporation, literally a disposal factory operation, who preaches lowest price for dignified services; just sign here and get on the conveyor belt. Dignity and compassion, friends, are not mass produced goods and factory funeral homes cannot produce artisan goods.
I recommend a family meeting to include as many generations as possible who knew the deceased. No more than 5 persons should be included in order to ensure manageability and to allow everyone to make a contribution. Set the ground rules in advance so that no single person dominates the conversation. It’s useful to record the session. The venue should be warm, inviting, and relatively free of unnecessary interruptions. I frequently get the family to come to the funeral home where it’s quiet and there’s usually a meeting room available. Meeting in the funeral home has several advantages: the family will become acclimated to the environment and more familiar with the rooms, if there are any questions about the service, a quick walk-thru is always possible. I also like to include the funeral director in the meeting so that he is aware of what’s taking place and to answer any questions that may come up. Light refreshments should be available, since food is life-affirming and empty stomachs are not conducive to the rich sharing experience we are looking for in the family meeting. After the family meeting a Q&A is always helpful.
Even more concerning is the fact that most of our funeral and memorial writing is delegated to either the family or to a family member who, obviously are in the grieving process and really are not in the position to do any really meaningful writing despite their best intentions. My advice to such persons who may volunteer to write grandma’s obituary is that they participate in the service or do the eulogy instead. Truth is, most family members don’t know enough of their family history or social relations to write an obituary, much less the author skills required for such a special type of writing.
Alternatively, the obituary, as the most common form of funeralization literature is composed by the funeral director based on what few historical facts he can glean from the family during the arrangements meeting. The result is a rather paltry bit of bare bones, sometimes inaccurate or fabricated, script posted on a so-called “Tributes” page on the funeral home’s website.
What Most Clergy Lack In Public Speaking And Writing Skills They Attempt To Make Up For With Sentimentalism And Endurance.
Most clergy lack even the necessary skills for liturgical preaching, let alone memorializing a stranger ad hoc. Those of us who have experienced any funeralization presentation by a member of the mainstream clergy – or clergy on the funeral home’s clergy list, what I call “stock clergy” — can speak only of abject disappointment and must commiserate with the unfortunate family who has to hear the pabulum and scripted doctrinally correct, often narcotic, presentation at a wake service, funeral service, or funeral liturgy. What most clergy lack in public speaking and writing skills they attempt to make up for with sentimentalism and endurance. That’s not memorialization, it’s not communications skill, and it’s not a gift; it’s an abuse, and the bereaved should not have to put up with it, much less pay for it.
The Funeral Home Chaplain May Be The Best Resource Available
Then it frequently comes down to the funeral director to compose the obituary. All things considered, we really can’t fault the funeral director for not being an expert public speaker or writer, much less for not obtaining intricate details about the deceased. There is only so much a human being can do in the average three days from the first call to the closing of the grave. In those three days, the time available to the funeral director that can physically, emotionally, or intellectually be devoted to writing an effective and commemorative obituary is close to null.
The alternative is just as dehumanizing and degrading as a poorly written product. That alternative is the obituary template application. Just ask the key questions and fill in the blanks and Voilà! you have yourself what some would call an obituary. NOT! What it is, in fact, is a collection of words, some of which might have some vague or arbitrary resemblance to the life that is purportedly being commemorated, but not mot else. It’s what I disparage above: technique and method versus creativity and vision.
What Is Left Besides The Usual Mainstream Cookie-Cutter Clergy 15-Minute “Ashes To Ashes” Performance?
So, you might ask yourself, what is left besides the usual mainstream cookie-cutter clergy 15-minute “ashes to ashes” performance or the rushed, expensive, and questionable funeral home obituary product? Well, those funeral homes who have the good business sense to have a resident or a regular on-call chaplain, may just have an untapped resource for an important funeralization service. Yes, the funeral home chaplain may be the best resource available in the funeral home or anywhere else for creating the top-shelf obituary. Here’s why:
- The professional bereavement chaplain is a specialist lifecare and deathcare provider, educated and trained as a psychospiritual care provider; a thanatologist, in fact.
- He understands how to approach the dying and the bereaved in a sacred safe place, to meet them where they’re at.
- The chaplain leaves the ego and judgment at the door, and practices a ministry of intentional presence, listening and talking little; deep listening deep learning.
- The professional chaplain has clergy training plus extensive academic training in several disciplines: humanities, philosophy, psychology, pastoral care, theology, religions.
- His broad learning base and life experience endow him with a certain wisdom and authority found in few other professions, including denominational clergy.
- As specialist clergy or as a member of the “para-clergy”, the chaplain has the same training as any minister or priest. Because of his station in life, he has certain authority and an air of authenticity that nurtures trust; he can and does ask questions and talks about subjects that even the funeral director might find uncomfortable to address.
- As a lifecare and deathcare professional the chaplain is intimately familiar with the healthcare and deathcare professions. He’s been on the front lines in the ER, the ICU, the morgue. He’s familiar with death in all of its guises, and also with the mortuary arts. Because he’s familiar and may have studied the back-room operations of the hospital and the funeral home, cemetery, crematory, he can confidently address sensitive issues and concerns with a gentle and compassionate honesty.
- The chaplain who lives the vocation of lifecare and deathcare lives in a different concept of time; the chaplain’s time is cyclical rather than linear. Rather than counting cases, the chaplain moves effortlessly through the cycles of birth, life, death, and treats each cycle, each case, as the first case, each unique, each its own narrative.
- Because the mature chaplain has an unusual familiarity, a unique relationship with the cycles of life, with transfiguration, with the teachings of many faith and belief traditions, he likely has a very unique way of viewing life’s transitions. He will seem more at ease, more comfortable, more accepting of others in their most difficult moments.
- While others may avoid giving expression to the language of grief or abandon themselves to emotions, the chaplain can give meaningful expression to the silent pain of grief and loss; he is articulate in the language of the past to give meaning and hope to the future.
- The chaplain does psychospiritual care and nothing else. The chaplain provides lifecare and deathcare and nothing else. Unlike career clergy or the funeral director, the central concern, the focus is only the bereaved and nothing else.
While most of what the chaplain might talk about or what the family might reveal is highly confidential and remains with the chaplain, never to be disclosed, much of what he learns is for the purpose of crafting his homily or “words of comfort” to be presented during the funeralization rituals. In other words, it’s publishable.
It’s not about the chaplain, so self-disclosure is rare. It’s all about the family and the family’s history, the dead loved one and his or her meaning and legacy, personal and social relationships with the deceased; in other words, much of the bereavement chaplain’s work is with the past, with history, and reframing it so that it has positive meaning for the future. So, too, the chaplain is the best-qualified team member to re-present this entire composite picture in the form of an obituary.
When meeting with the family to discuss details of the funeral or memorial service, the chaplain mines deep into the family’s history and selectively homes in on what is most meaningful to the various participants, teasing out of the intricate weave of the family tapestry the gold threads that are in the weave. Like any tapestry, the visible side is impeccable, perfect but the hidden back is full of loose ends and knots, just like families. It’s the chaplain’s expertise and people skills that allows him to relate the loose ends and the knots to the beauty and meaning of the idyllic front side.
The Chaplain Is Thus A Psychospiritual Art Historian
When interpreting a tapestry the interpreter has to be attentive to style, interrelationships of elements and symbol, and to the characteristics of the audience. The interpretation of the tapestry has to be packaged in a way that is acceptable to the audience, remaining true to the meaning of the historical style, technique, symbol, while still relating it to the reality of the audience’s world and perceptions of reality. In other words, the tapestry had its meaning and relevance in the past, when it was created, but it has to be re-presented in the present in new contexts that make it relevant now, and tomorrow. In many ways, the chaplain is thus a psychospiritual art historian, taking the past, re-packaging it in the contexts of the present, making it relevant to the future. These are important considerations in crafting an obituary.
With this understanding of what the bereavement chaplain is and what he does, it becomes clear how he can be an invaluable asset to both the funeral home and to the customer.
The funeral director has 1001 things on his plate with each case. He may be a skilled salesperson, a knowledgeable marketer, an expert embalmer, a gifted reconstructionist, a veteran listener. During the short moments between the first call, the removal, and the final disposition, he has little time to conduct an in-depth interview of the family and to do a family history, then to condense it into a commemorative obituary that doesn’t read like a cookie recipe.
If the funeral director is fully aware of the interdisciplinary resources at his disposal, he will get the legal and financial details he needs to proceed with the funeralization business and then turn the family over to the capable hands of the bereavement chaplain, who will then do the in-depth interview he would normally do for the service but also obtain detailed information for an obituary, much of which comes with the details necessary for designing the funeral or memorial service.
The chaplain teaches and preaches. He’s a skilled writer, speaker and presenter. He has highly developed writing skills that he uses every time he prepares a talk or a homily. He has the time and the expertise to create not only an inspiring homily but also a moving obituary.
While it’s true the chaplain will invest an average of 10 hours in preparing for a typical customized funeral or memorial service, once all the details are obtained, a stellar obituary can be created in record time, using much of the same information used in the Words of Comfort or the homily, but differently.
How differently? Well, that depends on what the chaplain discovers during the family conference. You see, during the family conference the chaplain will guide the participants through a series of questions posed in the form of statements, statements that cannot be answered with a Yes or a No, but need actual responses requiring disclosure. By inviting each participant to join the conversation, each will disclose a different, a personal perception. While such a conversation is intended to do several things, not the least of which is naturally to gather family historical information, it serves a therapeutic purpose by getting the family participants to talk, to feel, to realize, to share. Such a conversation in the safe, non-judgemental, trusted presence of the chaplain usually develops into an amazingly open and candid sharing session. You’ll hear things like: “I didn’t know that.” “Dad never talked about that before.” “Mom sure was fierce, wasn’t she?” “Yeah. Those were good times.” “Remember the salad?” And the chaplain is very sensitive to the body language and quiet moments that signal “We don’t want to talk about that.” And realizes that they do and that they will but only when they’re ready. They know that, too. So the chaplain moves on, but gently.
The Tone May Be Upbeat, Intellectual, Reverent, Dignified, Humorous, Or Cooly Distant.
It’s what’s said as much as what’s not said — the nonverbal communication — that goes into the tone of the service, the tone of the homily and consequently sets the tone of the obituary, and that kind of stuff can be accessed only by someone who is intrinsically trusted, the chaplain. The tone may be upbeat, intellectual, reverent, dignified, humorous, or cooly distant; the tone should, if possible, be reproduced in the obituary.
This Is The Point To Which They Have Been Navigating.
What is it that John would like most to be remembered for? What would John say his greatest contribution to the world would be? What would John say he valued most. What will your best memories of John be from this point on? What will you tell your children, your grandchildren about John? Sitting here now, what it something you remember about John that will make you smile? Those are some of the final questions I ask at the end of the family conference. How can you get a grieving family, a family who might have just lost the most significant person in their lives, to answer questions like that? Well, because they want to. Because throughout the entire conversation, this is the point to which they have been navigating. These questions form the basis of the continuing bond with the deceased. These questions give the survivors, now in the depths of grief and grappling for some sort of understanding of What? Why? How?, permission to continue the bond with their dead loved one, while playing an active role in internalizing this new relationship, transfiguring the deceased loved one into a living symbol of someone no longer physically present but eternally inwardly present.
An Obituary Is Like A Sacred Narrative And Should Read And Be Read With All The Reverence And Reflection Of A Gospel
The obituary is a tangible keepsake to whichany family member can turn at those special moments, to read and recall, and to recall and to remember the loved one. The obituary loses all of its morbidness and becomes an essay about the dead loved one and his or her relationships, his or her meaning. Even more than an heirloom ring or brooch, the obituary is personal, a living account of a real person. In a sense, an obituary is like a family Gospel and should read and be read with all the reverence and reflection of a Gospel.
So far I have written about the obituary as a concept, almost an ideal. Well, it’s not an ideal, it’s a reality, and an incredibly important one at that. I briefly touched upon the obituary as a tangible family record, as a family Gospel. Well that’s one role it can play but we need now to turn to the physicalness of the obituary, since the obituary is something that has to be drafted, written, refined, and finally published in some medium whether newsprint, an order of service, a website, a social media platform, or as a permanent memorial on a platform devoted specifically to memorialization and commemoration.
I shall devote a separate essay to the media used for publishing obituaries and say a few words about each in terms of how I feel they serve the survivors in facilitating continuing the bond with their loved one, coping with bereavement grief, transfiguring the dead loved one and internalizing the memory, serving as a chapter in a family’s living history, repackaging the past to be a lodestone for drawing a family together, a guide for the present and for the future.
 This review and approval step is extremely important in order to avoid offending or hurting feelings. Special attention should be given to spellings of names, degrees of kinship and names of any spouses, living and predeceased relatives, special friends, special organizations, etc. A clean draft should be provided to the family for review and approval within 24 hours.
 Simply asking an arranger for the family’s religious preference and if they would like clergy participation in the funeral or memorial service is a bad start. Many families do not regularly practice and most are unfamiliar with the traditions and rites involved in funerals. This is one reason why I recommend always to have the on-call chaplain available at the arrangements meeting; he can best discuss any religious or spiritual matters with the arranger or the family and avoid any inconvenient incidents and possible problems caused by “religious” insensitivity of “stock clergy” who are unfamiliar with the family, its history, dynamics, and social relationships.
 We can thank Western industrial culture for the three-day rule for funerals. Most employed persons are allowed three days in the event of the death of a close relative; it’s called Bereavement Leave. An employee is entitled to up to 3 workdays of paid funeral leave to make arrangements for or to attend the funeral of an immediate relative who died; after the 3 days, the employee can either take personal vacation time or unpaid time off. In the United States The Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not require payment for time not worked, including attending a funeral. This type of benefit is generally a matter of agreement between an employer and an employee (or the employee’s representative). After three days, everything has to be wrapped up and the employee is expected to have disposed of his dead and finished his grieving. After three days it’s back to work. Thus the dehumanizing of humankind in the industrialized West.
 These various media for publishing obituaries will be discussed in the next article, and will include print as well as digital obituaries, their characteristics, their strengths and their weaknesses.