Category Archives: Withdrawal of Life Support

Why it’s so important to have a bereavement chaplain at your side

The subject of clergy involvement in the funeral or memorial service comes up again and again. Most people feel that spiritual or religious content is very important in the funeral or memorial service, and I agree. I can’t even start to count the number of families who start off the conversation with me with something like, “He used to go to church but stopped going” or “She wasn’t a churchgoer but she did believe in God and prayed.” My question, sometimes asked aloud, is “Why is that important?” I ask that question because I do not feel that a person’s spirituality or sense of a transcendent God is determined by how often one sees the inside of a church, or whether the individual wears his or her faith on their sleeve, or quotes chapter and verse with every breath. In fact, I’m sometimes very suspicious of such people and smell hypocrisy in much of that behavior. Your essential and core spirituality is how you live your life, and that’s what I as a professional bereavement chaplain explore in my meetings with the bereaved when planning the funeral or memorial service.

I frequently get involved because the bereaved do not want “clergy” involved because they’ve been wounded by their “clergy” or the faith tradition represented by their clergy. The ineffectualism of mainstream clergy is a whole discussion on its own, however, but let’s just say a few words about it. “Clergy” as used in the non-clergy community means anyone who provides some sort of pastoral service, or anyone who has some sort of leadership role in a religious congregation. “Ordination” is a canonical or legal term that means that the particular person is approved by a particular denomination to provide pastoral care to that specific denomination. Regrettably, adhering to the rules of that denomination may not provide much relief of the suffering experienced by the bereaved; it may have just the opposite effect, leaving them with a sense of emptiness and loneliness, and asking the question, What was that all about?!? But it doesn’t have to be that way and shouldn’t be that way. Spirituality and meaning-making is quite different from religion and religious doctrines and notions of popular piety.

Don’t Let This Happen To You! Get Personal!

In all honesty and fairness, and in my personal experience, clergy is not really what it’s hyped up to be. In fact, clergy tend to deliver the most boring, impersonal, and unsatisfying services imaginable. While there are good reasons for the deficient performance, a lot of the blame should be placed on the funeral home’s hands-off spirituality attitudes, and their failure to provide reliable recommendations to the bereaved. Simply handing the bereaved a clergy list at the arrangements conference is a bit irresponsible. What’s worse still is if a funeral director or funeral home staffer attempts to play chaplain and deliver some insincere “words of comfort” or preside over a prayer vigil. It’s generally like the plumber doing the catering.

Where was I? What’s his name? Where am I?

Even considering the ignorance of many funeral services professionals regarding the psychospirituality of funeralization rites and ritual, calling an individual a clergyperson can be very misleading. First of all, only the mainstream denominations really have an “educated” clergy; that means attending a seminary or seminary college, assuring that the “seminarian” is properly indoctrinated. Most other non-mainstream, storefront or megachurch, clergy may have attended a so-called Bible college or something like that. Basically all that is is a glorified Sunday school for adults. There are many problems associated with both mainstream and non-mainstream clergy. First of all, most are poorly trained in handling existential crises like death and its sequellae grieving, mourning, healing, transformation, and will turn to their denomination’s religious teachings, their doctrines, first, since that’s all they have. Secondly, they don’t have the necessary training or education in death, dying, grief and mourning. Thirdly, they lack interfaith, intercultural training to be able to understand the cultural dynamics that occur in the particular family system. Fourthly, they very rarely take the time to get to know the deceased, much less the key mourners and the family in general. Fifthly, most clergy do not understand the importance of continuing bonds of the living with the dead. In fact, most have a rather antiquated Freudian approach of the need to cut any continuing bond with the dead and replace the bond with something else. That’s a very psychospiritually unhealthy attitude indeed. And last but certainly not least, since I could go on with this list, most clergy have parishes or congregations to run and can’t really provide the kind of service or care required for funeralization and aftercare. The result is what I call the cookie-cutter service with all of its failures and insincerity. The clergyperson, a priest, minister, deacon, or layperson – sometimes, embarrassingly, even the funeral director – steps up at the appointed time, opens a book or recites a formulaic prayer, and it’s all done and over.

Let’s do a prayer now. OK. We’re done.

Sometimes there’s the de rigueur church service that’s all but meaningless to most attendees and represents only an additional expense (can approach more than $600 in some cases). Practically and theologically, the dead are in God’s hands, there’s little the living can do to change things, despite what the minister or priest may preach. Most of these characters are mere sock-puppets anyway, ventriloquist’s dummies.

For all of the reasons given in the above, the best choice for the spiritual or religious care of the bereaved is, believe it or not, the experienced bereavement chaplain. An experienced bereavement chaplain is a specialist in dying, death, psychospiritual care, and aftercare. The experienced bereavement chaplain is not only trained in the disciplines relating to interfaith practices, rite and rituals associated with death, psychology and spirituality of dying, death, and survivors, technology of deathcare, and much, much more that is of essential benefit to the dying and to survivors. No funeral director and no denominational clergy can offer the scope and depth of services that the interfaith bereavement chaplain can offer.

It’s the scope and depth of expertise of the interfaith bereavement chaplain that make him or her the go-to when a family is faced with the dying process, death and deathcare, grief and survivor care. It’s that expertise that makes the interfaith bereavement chaplain an essential member of the care team at all phases of the bereavement process. The professional interfaith bereavement chaplain does what neither the funeral director nor the cookie-cutter clergyperson can do: the chaplain makes death a meaningful and survivable experience.

When a family considers spending $2000 to more than $10000 on a casket alone, or when the family opts for an economical funeral package of say on average $3,000-5,000 does it really make sense to do without an essential service costing a mere $200-300, in most cases less than 5 % of the total cost of the funeral? When survivors consider spending up to $800 on embalming which won’t last more than a couple or days or a maximum of a couple of weeks before decomposition sets in, and embalming is not even required by law in the majority of situations, even when there’s a viewing planned. Why would any family not request the services of a professional interfaith bereavement chaplain with all of the long-term benefits to the survivors socially, psychologically, politically, spiritually that are associated with dignified funeral rites and rituals, and aftercare by a deathcare specialist? You’ll consider several hundreds of dollars for unnecessary embalming, several thousands for a casket, a couple of thousand for a vault, but will go cheapo when it comes to dignified, personalized, meaningful spiritual care? Go figure!

I personally serve the Albany-Rensselaer-Schenectady-Greene counties region in New York state, and have been requested by families in the New York City area for special services, but this blog is read internationally. Given that this blog attracts an international audience, I would like to provide some very general recommendations taken from my local practice, which can be applied to most North American and European regions with little or no adjustment for local conditions. Here is how I practice and what I recommend for families, survivors, and others involved in deathcare:

  • As soon as it becomes obvious that a death is about to occur, whether hours or days, contact a professional interfaith bereavement chaplain. Please note that denominational clergy have their place if the dying person has had a personal relationship with the clergyperson or was active in a faith community. Please note further that hospital chaplains are OK for certain interventions but their competencies are mostly restricted to the hospital setting. Hospice chaplains, too, have their place but are agenda and program driven, and have limited effectiveness outside of the hospice setting.
  • If the person is in the process of dying, you may want to ask for presence or companionship during the dying process. This presence/ companioning can be for those around the dying person as well as for the dying person. If this presence / companioning is to be provided in an institution such as a nursing home, hospital, or hospice, an institutional chaplain may be available, and the interfaith bereavement chaplain will coordinate care visits with the institutional chaplain(s). Nevertheless, when death is imminent, it may be helpful to have your interfaith bereavement chaplain present for the dying person and for the family. Consider the options carefully.
  • Make an appointment to meet with the interfaith bereavement chaplain to discuss your situation. The chaplain will listen attentively and will hear what you need even before you know it. It’s important that you hear what the chaplain has to say, and to share your interpretations with him or her. You should be doing most of the talking during this initial meeting; if the chaplain does most of the talking or interrupts, he or she may not be the ideal choice. Try again. Only after you have explained your situation and the chaplain has had an opportunity to ask some important, brief questions seeking a better understanding, should he or she start making any recommendations.
  • Once the person has died, you may want the chaplain to remain with the body until the funeral home sends a care to take charge of the body. I do this out of respect for the family and to ensure that they know the body will be watched over. This is very important in the initial hours following a death. The bereavement chaplain is also an advocate for the family if the family wants to spend more time with the body.
  • Once you have established a rapport and trust with the chaplain, and if you haven’t already given your funeral director the chaplain’s name, contact details, and the information that you have spoken to the chaplain, you should do that when you make the initial call to the funeral home for removal of the body. Inform your funeral director that you’d like the funeral director to contact the chaplain to discuss the arrangements made and any details if the chaplain is going to do the funeral for you. You may want to ask the chaplain to be present during the arrangements meeting with the funeral director. I find that families are less stressed if I am present.
  • Be sure to discuss aftercare with the chaplain. You should ask about regular contacts with the chaplain for at least the first year after the death. He or she should be available on what are called trigger dates (birthdays, holidays, special dates) when grief may be particularly noticeable, or if you find you need some help in getting through a particular day. The chaplain will likely have discussed grief and grieving with you so that you know what to expect. That discussion is standard practice during my initial meeting with the family.
  • Remember always, that the interfaith bereavement chaplain may be your independent choice or you may receive a recommendation from the funeral home you choose. Do not accept a mere list of clergypersons. You want an interfaith bereavement chaplain. If the funeral home does not have one on call or on staff, maybe it’s time to find another funeral home that can provide a complete range of services.
  • Beware of the funeral home chains and factory funeral homes. Their sole interest is in their bottom line and their shareholders; you are just a consumer to them. You’ll find chain funeral homes and factory funeral homes almost everywhere. I call them Walmart-funerals, because they are there to sell you everything because that’s what they do; they sell funeral goods and services. What you need is deathcare services not a sales pitch and a huge bill.
  • The worst time to do any of the above is when a death occurs. I usually counsel my clients not to make any major decisions for at least 6 months to 1 year after the death but now you have to make some major decisions within hours of the death. It’s an incredibly confusing and draining experience. That’s why I unconditionally recommend that you really should seriously make pre-arrangements so that when a death occurs, you can deal with the grief you will experience, and will have everything else under control. We highly recommend advance directives and pre-arrangements. We also recommend having an interfaith bereavement chaplain present when discussing and finalizing both advance directives and pre-arrangements. You many know what you want but it’s always good to have an impartial presence who can do some impartial thinking.

In upcoming articles I will be discussing the importance of revival of traditional funeral rituals and why they are so important to the living. As a sequel to the discussion about traditional funeral and memorial rituals, I’ll share with you why the family’s participation is so very important, and how we can personalize the rituals and ceremony so that they have lasting psychospiritual benefit for you. I’ll also be writing about continuing our bonds with the dead and why it’s normal and healthy to do that.

But in the meantime, if you have any specific questions or would like more information, please contact me directly at compassionate.care.associates@gmail.com. I’ll be pleased to help in whatever way I can.

Peace and blessings,
Rev. Ch. Harold Vadney

 

 

 

A Preview of the April 9th Thanatology Café Program

The April Thanatology Café Gathering is on
Saturday, April 9th, 2016, at the

The RCS Community Library

95 Main Street

Ravena, NY

Program starts at 2:00 p.m. and runs until about 4:00 p.m.

Visit and follow the Thanatology Café blog. Follow @thanatologycafe and on Facebook’s  Thanatology Café group.


death a personal understanding

Definitions of death have been debated for centuries, depending on culture, social conditions, and the role of the medical profession. In the Thanatology program, we will examine how ideas have changed historically and how our newest definitions, like “brain death,” may not yet be adequate for encompassing all of death’s meanings. Our group conversations will shed light on our personal understandings of death and dying in our families, communities, nation, and will shed light on our own attitudes towards personal death.

Our video  series on death and dying consists of 10 half-hour video programs, which will be shown over the course of 10 regular gatherings, and will allow Thanatology Café participants to acquire a deeper understanding of death and dying through case studies and moving personal stories of people facing their own death or the death of a loved one. This series explores a wide range of American cultural perspectives on death within the context of current issues, including AIDS, death by violence, suicide, assisted suicide, hospice care, end-of-life decision making, and how children react to death.

This will be the first in a series of ten short films on death and dying, and will be followed by group discussion about the film.

The Life of Death

The Life of Death is a touching handdrawn animation about the day Death fell in love with Life. That’s all I’ll say about it now because I want you to view it and share your own impressions with the group on April 9th. But I will share with you some comments by other viewers just to illustrate the range of impressions the clip made.

After having viewed the short film one person commented:

This is a ‘cute’ and beautifully made film, but its shortcoming is in its presentation of Death as some sort of entity that can choose to take Life away from the living. Life is a Gift that is proffered as a Great Mystery; a Gift that animates the living as long as the flow of Life continues towards and through an individual, and as long as the individual is capable of accepting, embracing and nurturing this flow of Life. When the flow is withdrawn, blocked or can no longer be embraced and nurtured, it ceases to enliven the individual and Death ensues as a departure of, or a disconnection from the flow of Life. Whether or not there is some entity from which this Great Mystery of Life is proffered is unknown, unknowable and irrelevant. It is the embrace and sustenance of the Gift of Life, as well as a respect for the flow of Life, that are of significance. An individual can choose to live Life, cling to Life, or release Life, or some sort of shock can forcefully cause one to release one’s embrace of Life. The flow of the Gift of Life is what unites all beings in Oneness.

Another viewer comments:

I needed to see this. It made me cry. I/we can go on for months and years so harshly, without stopping, without remembering and encountering the power of tenderness. May I never forget you.

Although most viewers simply said “Thank you!” or “Awesome, beautiful!”, one viewer took a different slant:

I do not like the story of death, there is no happiness in it at all, I’ll not share this video with anyone

What this range of impression tells us is that there are many, many impressions made by a single presentation of death, that each of us has a different personal take on it, while many share an impression. It will be interesting to hear from you about what you think of this short animation on April 9th.

Your Facilitator Ch. Harold

Your Facilitator
Ch. Harold

Register Now for the Thanatology Café at the RCS Community Library

Please Note: We have just been informed by the RCS Community library that the Thanatology Café sign-up sheets at the RCS Community Library are kept in a binder behind the check-out desk. You must ask a staff member for the book to sign up. 

register-nowWe recently announced an exciting new program coming to the RCS Community Library. The program, which plans to meet regularly monthly and will be supplemented by extraordinary meetings for smaller groups to discuss special topics focusing on death, dying, coping, grief, and death-related topics, has published its Initial Registration Form that can be completed before the Saturday, April 9, 2016, session at the RCS Community Library, from 2:00 – 4:00 p.m.

The organizers encourage interested participants to download and printout the form and to bring it the the April 9 session; that will save time and will leave more time for the conversations.

Sign-up sheets are also available at the RCS Community library, but interested persons can also R.S.V.P. their intention to attend by sending an e-mail to thanatology.cafe@gmail.com.

We are informed that local churches, fire and rescue departments, police departments, EMS, schools and local funeral directors have been contacted and urged to send representatives.

It’s an important program and will deal with a subject that really needs to be talked about more. It promises to be an outstanding opportunity for sharing, learning and information. Don’t miss it.

register now_red

Initial Registration Form

Of course, if you have any questions, please e-mail the organizers at thanatology.cafe@gmail.com. They will get right back to you with an answer.

Please click the Register Now image to display and download or print out the Initial Registration from, fill it out as completely as possible, and bring it with you to the Thanatology Cafe session on April 9, 2016, at the RCS Community Library, 95 Main Street, Ravena, New York. The session starts promptly at 2 p.m. so please be on time.

And in the meantime, visit the Thanatolgy Café blog.

Well be there and we hope you will be too; we are looking forward to meeting and chatting with you on April 9th!

The Editor

The Editor

 

Forming a Church-based Bereavement Group

A couple of days ago a reader, Kathy T., wrote to me asking for recommendations on starting a church bereavement program. After having reflected on Kathy’s request and her plan, I responded with the following counsel. I hope it’s helpful to those of you contemplating a response to such a calling or who are already involved in such a program. Please share your thoughts and insights on what I wrote.

Bereavement_Ministry

“A place to listen, yet be heard.”—”A place to cry, yet also laugh.”—”A place to find peace, yet never be over your loss.”—”A place to create lifelong friendships.” 

A bereavement ministry seeks to provide a safe place where the bereaved can gain an understanding of the grief process, have the opportunity to talk through their experiences, and explore their thoughts and feelings with others who are also grieving the loss of a loved one. Doing so will assist the bereaved in working through their grief on their journey to healing so that they, once again, will be able to enjoy a happy and productive life with memories of their loved one.


Good evening, Kathy:

Once again, thank you for your inquiry. It’s my pleasure to provide some assistance to you for your plan to create a bereavement ministry in your church community.

A church community is a very appropriate place to create such a ministry, and in most traditions it is a no-brainer to have one, at least in past generations. Today, it seems, even church communities avoid supporting the dying and the bereaved, and those that do continue that tradition have a very myopic view of how it is to be done.

Research done over the past 20 or so years has shed quite a bit of light on the real needs of the dying and of the bereaved, and healthcare research has shown hands down that a holistic approach is required when dealing effectively and sensitively with the dying person and his or her survivors. In fact, back in the 90s, Charles Corr published an eye-opening article (see details below) on a task-based approach to coping with dying, which was a very novel notion and gained quite a good deal of acceptance in the field of thanatology.

What-Does-our-Church-BelieveBut back to your plan for a church-based bereavement program. One point that is extremely important for anyone starting a bereavement ministry in any faith or belief community is that the persons practicing that ministry must be absolutely familiar with their faith or belief tradition’s teachings on life, dying, death, and any afterlife. While a bereavement ministry is not the place for evangelizing or catechizing, it is a place where the focus is on hope and hope, in contrast to wishing, is reality oriented. Far too many faith community bereavement groups focus too much on past sins, an afterlife, and a promised resurrection. While the past sins part is OK, the last thing a dying person needs is an 11th-hour guilt trip or an anxiety attack! As for the other two, well, they’re still to be proven. Faith goes a long way but it has to be administered with compassion and good sense.

bereavement support hopeIf a bereavement ministry is to companion the person actively dying that person even while dying is still a living person and not dead yet. As a living person, he or she still has meaning, purpose, a legacy, hope. And yes, the dying person is also a bereaved person, since she or he has lost a great deal that was once valued by him or her, and may also be grieving! The bereavement minister can help the dying person find her or his hope, meaning, and assist in a good death and that should, in my opinion, be your focus.

Then there are the survivors, who are bereaved because they are anticipating losing or have already lost a loved one. While it would be naïve to try to persuade you that everyone who dies is a “loved” one we have to frequently admit that not everyone who dies is especially loved, or if loved, perhaps not very liked. This happens and you’ll find yourself in the middle of a lot of unfinished business and you’ll have to deal with it effectively.

While I’m not trying to dissuade or discourage you from responding to a calling, I do want to impress upon you that dying, death, grief, bereavement, mourning can be very, very complicated and you’ll have to do a lot of work learning about the subject matter. Dying, death, grief and bereavement may be as old as humankind itself and one of the most natural things that there is but it’s incredibly complex. Because of the complexity it can be intimidating, which is why it’s so easy to avoid thinking or talking about and so easy to deny.

The saying, “The path to hell is paved with good intentions” applies very precisely to many persons, with the best intentions, embark on a course of action for which they are ill-prepared, and consequently do a lot of damage. This is no place for doing damage and all the good intentions in the world cannot substitute for an ounce of good planning. As a bereavement minister you’ll have to learn all about yourself and your intentions before you step up to the plate, and attempt to provide support to others in crisis. You need to give some thought to what is motivating you to provide bereavement support and if that motivation is really more for you or for your helpees. It’s not uncommon for people to think they are responding to an altruistic calling, when in fact they are the unconscious focus of their efforts. That’s not to say that they don’t do a hell of a lot of good work despite that fact, but some can really cause problems. That’s why it’s so important to be honest with yourself and seek a couple hours of counseling, psychological or competent pastoral counseling, avoiding any sectarian or denominational emphasis, to ensure that you can be authentic and not self-serving.

So, for starters, I’d recommend you get your hands on a very helpful book published by the Association for Death Education and Counseling (ADEC), Handbook of Thanatology: The Essential Body of Knowledge for the Study of Death, Dying, and Bereavement (link: Handbook), by David K. Meagher (Editor), David E. Balk (Editor). The book is a superb overview of death, dying and bereavement and should be on every bereavement minister’s desk. It covers just about all the essentials and has an extensive bibliography. Once you dive into the Handbook, you’ll initially have a sense of being overwhelmed with the scope of bereavement and its myriad manifestations and complications but as you acquire some experience, you’ll find it’s all quite natural.

In Clinical Pastoral Education we teach that the intentional ministry of presence is the essential activity of the bereavement minister. Just being present to hold a hand, give a hug, silent but there. That’s harder than you might think because most of us go through every phase of our lives making some sort of commotion, talking, not listening. But as a bereavement minister, silence, listening will be your greatest challenge.

Boundaries are something you need to explore and I can send you a good bibliography on boundaries in bereavement and crisis facilitation. One of the essential boundaries is that unless you have the credentials, you are not a therapist or a counselor, and as a bereavement minister you are not there to “fix” anything but rather to be an authentic and compassionate companion to the person doing the dying and the survivors.

Again, I’d refer you to ADEC’s professional Code of Ethics (link: Code of Ethics) for some idea of how to manage your conduct in various situations.

You are going to have to invest some time in taking some courses and one place I’d start is with the National Center for Death Education or NCDE (link: NCDE), which is located at Mt Ida College in Newton, MA. The NCDE offers a number of online courses, as well as a Certificate in Thanatology (death studies), which, if you do not have some sort of ministry or pastoral credential or qualifications in phychology, social work, counseling, etc., would almost be essential as a credential for your bereavement ministry. The NCDE also hosts an annual Summer Institute, which is a week-long event that brings in death specialists from practically all over the hemisphere, and features renowned experts in the field of dying, death, grief, and bereavement. You should contact Diane Moran, NCDE director, at dmoran@mountida.edu. You can mention my name when you contact her and let her know I recommended you. She’s a wonderful person and very, very helpful and knowledgeable. She’ll put you on the right path as far as initial credentials are concerned.

As I mentioned, the field is immense, and the learning is a challenge. Once you get the Handbook of Thanatology, you’ll understand what I mean. But please, don’t buy the book outright; it’s very expensive. Have your community library request it on interlibrary loan for you. Take it out for a couple of weeks and just peruse the chapters to get a feel for the field. It’s the kind of book that you can just pick a chapter and read it rather than one that you have to drag thru every chapter to have some continuity. Then, if it’s your cup of tea, purchase it as your desk reference.

In addition to Charles Corr’s article on A Task-based Approach to Coping with Dying (see below for details), I would recommend another of Corr’s articles articles, Dying and Its Interpreters (see below for details). I find the article is very informative and synopsizes much of the important work that has been done on dying over the past couple of decades. Pay close attention to the end of the article in the “Some Lessons to Draw from the Review”, which I find to be very helpful to students.

If you would find it useful, I can send you a short description of the Intentional Ministry of Presence, which describes being present to the dying and by extension to the survivors.

At this very early stage in your journey, it would be very difficult to provide anything more specific, since the field is incredibly wide and complex, and I’m not sure where you stand in terms of background, education, experience, etc. It all makes a difference.

You see, some faith or belief communities have very systematized doctrines on dying and death, while others treat it merely as a transition to something that follows temporal life. Christian and non-Christian traditions can have very complicated death practices, while others simplify the process to an embarrassing degree.


When life brings terrible storms our direction, we may react with anger, fear, depression, sadness, disappointment, and or disbelief. We may vacillate between these feelings until we come to terms with a solution or acceptance of our grief. The object of our grief maybe the loss of a love one, of a job, of a relationship or loss of security. Also, failure, crisis, divorce or any life changes may be substantial for grief. Remember this, healthy grief comes to a solution or acceptance, unhealthy grief is unresolved and may appear either as a psychological or physical illness.
“We walk in faith not by sight.” 2 Corinthians 5:7


I guess the best way to proceed is to have an open-door policy, that is, once you have a look at some of the material and look at some of the literature, you’ll be better able to articulate what you want to do. I can’t stress enough that you must also be very well read in your own faith or belief tradition to competently apply it to offering hope and meaning to your brothers and sisters in your church community. One caveat: the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament are fine as guidelines but to take them literally may cause problems; they must be read and interpreted in the light of the times and in the context in which they are applied. At the risk of seeming areligious or insensitive, the deathbed, the vigil, the funeral, the memorial is no place to start Bible-thumping or pushing Jesus on the bereaved; what they are looking for is meaning and hope in their faith both for themselves and for the dead loved one. Once they are dead, everything else we do is for the living.

So there you have some ‘random’ thoughts to digest. Please feel free to contact me any time if you have any questions or need any information.

Prayer is good only if it is invited; we can always pray silently even when not requested to do so. So let’s now close with a little prayer of faith, hope and love:

Let me know be firm in my faith as my end draws ever nearer.  When my time comes, let me depart this life peacefully, and join my family and friends, waiting for me on the other side, now more of them gone than remaining here below.  The sands of my time are running out…I am yours, Lord, now and forever, in faith, in hope, in love!  Please, please, hold me ever in Your heart.  Let their souls rise blazingly bright once more, and please receive them Jesus into shining and eternal glory with You! All this I pray to You My good Redeemer, in hope and confidence and burning ardent love. Amen.

Peace and blessings!
Chaplain Harold

Resources:

  • Corr, C.A. (1991). “A task-based approach to coping with dying”. Omega: Journal of Death and Dying, 24,81-94.
  • Corr, C.A., Doka, K.J., & Kastenbaum, R. (1999). “Dying and its interpreters: A review of selected literature and some comments on the state of the filed”. Omega: The Journal of Death and Dying, 39, 239-259.

Funeral Homes and Funeral Directors Need to Provide for Spiritual Care

It’s a recognized fact, one that’s been the subject of scientific research and innumerable articles in the professional journals for more than 20 years! That fact is that healthcare and deathcare providers must get with the program and provide holistic services to their clients, and that holistic care must include spiritual care. It’s a recognized fact today that no care, whether of the living or the dead (which is actually care of the living, the survivors), is complete without caring for mind, body and spirit. So why do so many providers chaff at the bit when we offer them the opportunity to provide a complete care package to their consumers?

It’s only natural, almost excusable, that many funeral directors, who have to face death and grieving on a daily basis, become a bit remote from their clients’ experience of the death of a loved one, an unique and transformational experience. That’s why we very strongly recommend spiritual care also for the funeral home staff; they have to reconnect with their human experiences, they have to work through their own experiences of grief, even the grief of others. They, too, are affected, even if they are not consciously aware of it.

Funeral Homes and their Directors Must Get With the Program!

caring for mind body and spirity

Current Awareness and Continuing Education

Current awareness is part of any professional’s ongoing education. That’s why I subscribe to a number of thanatopraxis (the practice of death care; mortuary science and practice) information sources like Connecting Directors, FuneralOne and NFDA, and a number of death, dying, bereavement, grief blog sites such as MaryMac and Everplans; I participate in several continuing education courses and events each year at the NCDE (National Center for Death Education Center) at Mt Ida College and HealthCare Chaplaincy Network and ; I am a member of ADEC (Association for Death Education and Counseling),   and am preparing for fellow certification in death education and counseling, and I share the wealth of knowledge and information I acquire through my blogs, Spirituality, Bereavement & Griefcare, Pastoral Care, and Homiletics and Spiritual Care, where I publish many of my funeral and memorial homilies.

Thanatology Café Events

I’m currently canvassing venues like public libraries, social and benevolent organizations, even churches to host my Thanatology Café events, regular gatherings, where people can hear about and talk about death and death–related subjects, with the collaboration of local funeral homes and funeral directors. This is atwitter grief mourning unique opportunity to learn about death planning, dying, the dying process, death, and after-death care and disposition of the remains. My planned Thanatology Café events will be eye- and mind-opening experiences for everyone involved. Please stay tuned for announcements on my blogs, Facebook and LinkedIn. Find me and my tweets on Twitter at @chaplainharold.

Why all of this in addition to my bereavement chaplaincy practice? Because I, like you, appreciate the fact that death care is really care of the living, and I want to persuade funeral services providers, funeral homes, and funeral directors and their staffs that while they are operating a business, they are practicing an important ministry both the the dead and to the living. It is a tragic and avoidable development in many funeral homes that their goal is to attract as many families as possible in their most difficult moments, to get as many bodies as possible, to move them out the door as fast as possible, to dispose of them as quickly as possible. They manage to do this by appealing to the idolatry of money—we can make grandpa disappear cheaper than the competition. And our death-denying, self-centered culture just eats all of this up. What they don’t understand is the incredible damage they, both the body-disposal services and their customers, are causing to the memory of the deceased, his or her meaning and legacy to the living, to the bereaved in terms of their spirituality and growth, and to the culture and society at large. We need to think outside of the box, people, and return to being human, beings created in the image of the divine. Not just some rubbish that has to be collected and disposed of as neatly and quickly as possible!

griefcareThis past week I spent some time visiting funeral home sites in the Albany, Schenectady, Rensselaer, Greene counties to survey their coverage of spiritual care. As you might guess, the coverage was very poor. While most sites had a Resources page, that page included almost exclusively restaurants and florists, some included hotels and other accommodations. About 5 % even hinted at spirituality or pastoral care services on the site, even fewer referred to spiritual services on the Resources page. This is a serious failure in terms of providing complete service to the bereaved; it’s an ominous development in the death care industry. But it can be fixed.

I have spent years of formal study and have been awarded several degrees, I regularly attend courses and continuing education events to remain on top of the field and as up to date as possible, I subscribe to numerous funeral industry and death, dying, bereavement, grief resources for current awareness, information, and much more. I surf and read funeral home websites to keep abreast of how current they are and what they are doing.

The end result of all of this effort is so that I can provide personalized, specialist interfaith and humanistic chaplaincy services to participating funeral homes and their families in the S.A.R.G. region (Schenectady, Albany, Rensselaer, Green counties in New York state; BTW, did you know Sarg is German for coffin?). I offer those services to funeral homes, hospitals, nursing homes because it’s a recognized essential service to those confronted with spiritual and existential crisis, like the dying and the bereaved.

Part of the problem is with the families themselves

But, regrettably, too many funeral homes, hospitals, nursing homes are either slow learners or just indifferent to the holistic care of their clients. Why is that? We seriously have to ask. Part of the problem is with the families themselves: They simply don’t ask the right question. They should be asking: What can you provide me in terms of spiritual care to get me through this spiritually, emotionally, in terms of how I can use this experience for growth? Yes, that’s quite a mouthful, but that’s why I’m providing the words.

griefcare-finalIn the past, I’ve offered funeral homes or funeral home groups this service through my mailings and many of them have accepted my offerings. But I’d like to invite you to take one further step: I’d like to see you, my readers, do your part to ensure that our funeral homes and funeral directors are aware of the need to provide spiritual care to the bereaved in the context of providing post-mortem services. I’d like you, my readers, including funeral home operators, funeral directors, and families to be the the leaders in listing on your Resources page sources of spiritual care to the bereaved before the death, during the dying process, at the time of death, and during the final rites for the dead. I’d like to encourage families both at the time of making pre-arrangements as well as when making urgent arrangements, to ask about what the funeral home provides in terms of spiritual care and personalized funeral and memorial services.

Spiritual care is an important aspect of care in the funeral arrangement package!

If you’re familiar with the research and publications over the past two decades, you’ll know that spiritual care is an important aspect of care in the funeral professions. So why are funeral homes and funeral directors so slow to react to this reality? The likely answer is this: Because they can! I’d like also to challenge funeral homes and funeral directors to take the necessary steps to explore spiritual care resources and providers in their service areas, and to make those resources available to their families. Listing those resources and services on your funeral home’s Resources page, and noting that your funeral home has an on-call chaplain is a valuable opportunity for your funeral home to confidently inform your families that you offer a complete spectrum of services with a trained, expert, on–call chaplain. Read the trade literature if you have any doubts about this fact.

Rev. Art Lillicropp performs a Blessing of the Hands Ceremony for Kaiser nurses, Thursday, May 9, 2013.

I’m attaching an example of an entry for your Resources page, and hope that you’ll agree to post it on your site. In return, you’ll be providing access to on-call pastoral and spiritual care for your families (arranged through your funeral home), and you’ll be adding an important and much appreciated service to your program.

Of course, I at all times extend the invitation to funeral homes and funeral directors to contact me if they want further information or if they’d like to meet face–to–face to discuss a collaboration, or if they’d like to have a chaplain present at the arrangements conference with the family. They or the family can contact me either by email or by telephone. I am always very happy to meet with the funeral home or with families to discuss how we can best work together to provide the bereaved and their families and friends with this essential service.

Once again, thank you so very much for taking the time to read my material. I hope you find my observations informed and useful. In the meantime, I’ll look forward to hearing from you when you leave a comment on this post.

Chaplain Harold

If you are a funeral home or funeral director and would like to have some sample texts for placement on your website Resources page, please click this link:
Resource Page Texts for Download or Copying.

Funeral Directors and Arrangers Need to Collaborate with the Chaplain!

Whether a family is pre–planning their funeral arrangements or the death is sudden and arrangements have to be made on–the-fly, or if death is imminent and the family needs to make arrangements with a funeral director, it is essential that the subject of grief support and spiritual or pastoral care be discussed and included in the conversation. Not to do so deprives everyone concerned of important healing and growth opportunities, including for funeral home staff.

NoMoreCookie-Cutter Funerals

But what do you do if your funeral director doesn’t provide or offer the services of a bereavement chaplain?

Clearly I believe that the effective funeral service should serve the bereaved in their wholeness, that is, the funeral service should provide a venue for farewells, for community support, for memorializing, for setting the stage for grief and healing. Regrettably, too many funeral service providers are deaf, dumb, and blind to the important opportunity that they offer and should be providing to the bereaved for holistic healing. After all, isn’t that the fundamental purpose of the profession; compassionate presence?

Why are so many funeral directors oblivious to the bereaved’s spiritual needs?

Why are so many funeral directors oblivious to the bereaved's spiritual needs?

Why has funeral direction been allowed to degenerate into a mere body disposal service? From an authentic ministry to a removal service? Well, it hasn’t really — yet. Not only has our culture degraded the intrinsic and inherent value of the human being to be a means to an end, this culture has devolved into one that deprives the individual of some of the most important experiences of transformation and growth, it has even gone further than that by devaluing the important role of grief and grief spirituality in bereavement and in the great mysteries of life, dying and death. In other words, it has dehumanized the human element of true living, gentle dying, good death, grief, meaning – making and healing. It has left most of those experiencing the loss of a loved one in a sterile wasteland, devalued, defiled by superficiality and commercialization. Let’s take the example of the so – called direct cremation or direct burial; it’s an inhuman abomination. The dead are treated like so much household waste simply to be carted away and disposed of by burning or burying. The deceased is simply picked up, carted away, disposed of. What does that say about reverence for the person that was? About his or her meaning and legacy? What does that say about the survivors’ character, humanity, self – esteem, expectations of healing and growth? The obvious answer to all of these questions: Not much!.

Cremation-vs-Burial

What does it say about the funeral service industry? What it says is that it has reached in many instances the level of the municipal waste disposal companies: “We’ll remove your garbage neatly and cleanly for a price.”. How far can this tragic development progress? Well, all we have to do is trace the development of the funeral rite just over the past couple of hundred years.

Before 1876 Cremation Was Unheard of In the United States

Before about the mid – 19th century, almost everyone in the West was buried; interment in the earth was the norm. Cremation was practically unkown except in the Orient and in times of plague and epidemic in the West. Then, in the late 19th century, in the United States around 1876 with the first public cremation in the United States with the incineration of Baron DePalm, was being done because it was “more sanitary.” Later, in the early 20th century, cremation was touted as being more environmentally friendly and saved land for the living—that is, for the corporations and developers, as it happened. Then, later, cremations generally followed the conventional wake / vigil, religious or spiritual service, then the cremation in lieu of interment of the body.

Human remains after a cremation cool down at Mount Auburn Cemetary February 21, 2002 in Watertown, MA. The cemetary has been performing cremations for 100 years and does about 900 per year.

This is what grandma looks like when she leaves the cremation retort, the cremation chamber.

And since the late 1960’s early 1970’s the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Catholic Church as well as Reform Judaism allow cremation in the USA, although it’s not ‘encouraged.’Today, funeral service providers offer removal of the dead and direct transportation to the crematorium with nothing in between. If there’s even a memorial service, that comes later. But to be fair, I have officiated at some very beautiful services that followed a direct cremation and also included a touching graveside service when the cremated remains were interred in the ground. But the point I’d like to make clear is that we’re losing touch with a very important part of living, of growth, and we have reached the point where we have to seriously reconsider what we have become and are becoming.

If Direct Cremation is Repugnant, Think About Liquid Cremation—Body Dissolving…

That’s not the worst of it. Some companies are now promoting what is called “resomation” or “liquid cremation”. Liquid cremation is a bit of a misleading name for this process because there’s no fire involved at all. What happens in this disposal method is that the body is placed in a chamber and exposed to a heated caustic chemical solution and over a period of several hours is literally dissolved and drained away. Nice, right. Sort of like put grandpa in the tub, fill it with some hot water add some Draino, wait a while, pull the plug and Grandpa goes gurgling down the drain. Real nice. How really bad can it get?

Danville-based Bio-Response Solutions makes this device to dispose of human remains with chemicals and high-temperatures as an alternative to flame cremation.

The image above shows a liquid cremation or resomation chamber. Danville-based Bio-Response Solutions makes this device to dispose of human remains with chemicals and high-temperatures as an alternative to flame cremation.

If I have made the impression that I am not 100 % in favor of direct cremation or direct burial, I need to clarify. There are situations in which direct disposal is not 110 % bad, in my opinion. If the family and friends are largely in geographical proximity to the death, and have had the opportunity to say goodbye, and the death occurs, direct cremation may be a solution, provided that a memorial or funeral service is held later. There are very good reasons for my saying this but they’re too involved to include here.

Just Take IT and Bury IT — So-called “Direct Burial”

Direct burial is a bit more problematic. Carting a body off directly to the cemetery to be buried deprives everyone of the opportunity for closure, unless, of course, the family and friends were able to accompany the deceased through the dying process and were able to say their goodbyes. Again, a memorial service should follow a direct burial for many of the same reasons that can be given for direct cremation.

Again, closure, taking care of the unfinished business, receiving the support of the community, validation of one’s grief and loss, celebration of a life lived, and meaning – making, healing and transformation are swept to the wayside without a proper funeral service that includes a spiritual element.

That’s why I feel it’s important for us all to be on board when assisting the bereaved and each other in all phases of the rite of passage we call death, a rite of passage for the deceased as well as for the bereaved.

Funeral professionals like any other profession cannot afford to think simplistically about what they do. Neither should they oversimplify what is a very complex part of life, dying and death. Certainly, there’s the business of death, the science of death, and the spirituality of death, each with its unique and special requirements, requisites, and responsibilities to those we serve. The question is, are we equipped to meet the challenge, or are our service providers simply doing as little as possible and just going through the motions absolutely necessary to satisfy a customer?

To deny the bereaved the spiritual growth aspect and the meaning – making aspect of the loss of a loved one is shortchanging them. Not to proactively offer the spiritual and pastoral care services of a professional bereavement chaplain is shortchanging the bereaved. Not to conscientiously promote and proactively offer the spiritual component of the funeral or memorial service is failure to provide a complete package, and to have failed in providing a holistic service.

think outside the coffin

The work starts with the pre–planning meeting, where not only the preliminary logistics but also the mode of disposition of the mortal remains is discussed along with other funeral home services but the subject of spiritual and pastoral care, the subject of grief and mourning, the availability of a professional bereavement chaplain, competent, qualified, with interfaith credentials should be emphasized as an integral component of the death rites.

Part of our work, our ministry, is educating the bereaved as to what is grief, how spirituality helps to inaugurate a healthy grieving process, how spirituality and a funeral liturgy assists in the necessary process of healing and meaning – making, realizing growth and transformation that must follow a loss.

Even when death occurs suddenly, traumatically, unexpectedly or when death is anticipated or even planned the family may be completely unprepared for the reality of the death and its rituals, and appear at the funeral home confused, dazed, stressed out to make urgent funeral arrangements. In chaplaincy and pastoral care, Yes! in grief facilitation the axiom is: “Don’t make any big decisions in the first year after the loss.” But what’s a funeral? Isn’t that a major life decision? It’s a one-time performance, my friends. It can’t be repeated so we’d better get it right the first time because it’s a lasting impression—good or bad— and like it or not, this is the big exception to our rule of thumb, simply because it’s so unavoidable.

bereavement support

Even when a family comes in to make arrangements for an expected death, wouldn’t it be a meaningful act of compassion and empathy if the funeral director were to say, “We have a professional chaplain on call here. Would you like to have him come by the hospital to be with you and the family when life support is withdrawn? It may help a lot.” The dividends paid on that modest honorarium (usually $100 – $ 150 for the entire process of accompanying thru the dying process) are incredible. And it will most likely be the same chaplain, already familiar with the family, who would do the vigil, the memorial, the funeral service. How good does it get?

Here’s a real–life example, in which I’d like to share an Aha! moment with you that I experienced just recently, thanks to an extraordinarily astute and compassionate funeral director, with whom I work on a regular basis:

I received call from this well–known funeral home to book a memorial service for a case that was still in hospital but in which life support was to be removed. While making arrangements in advance and somewhere in the conversation the subject of pastoral care or spirituality during the dying process must have come up because the actual call I initially received from the funeral home was to ask if I would attend the family at the hospital before, during, and after the withdrawal from life support protocol was implemented, that is, to be present and to accompany the patient and the family through the dying process and death experience. The family was a rather eclectic blend of faith traditions but obviously felt that a spiritual presence was important, and the funeral director picked up the signals.

The take–home point here is that the funeral director serving this family was listening and identified a need; he seized the moment and extended the hand of compassion.

funeral_celebrantI accepted the case and was present for the family during their most difficult moments of decision–making and witnessing, and later to celebrate their loved one’s life and meaning during my funeral service; it was a truly special experience for everyone involved. (It should be noted that hospital pastoral care associates [a.k.a. chaplain interns, trainees, volunteers] and most hospital chaplains would not be up to a task of this complexity; hospital rules would likely prevent them from engaging with the family with the required intimacy and in – depth dialogue. Most clergy lack the specialized training, which is why their services are such disappointing, cookie–cutter parodies of authentic chaplaincy.)

Needless to say, I was greatly impressed by the funeral director’s approach to the situation — and the family was incredibly grateful —, and I would urge all funeral professionals to keep such acts of compassion in mind when assisting a family in making arrangements.

Put yourself in that scenario and think of what it would mean to you, to your family. It’s a privileged, precious moment for everyone, and very satisfying for the funeral director to be able to do that.

lilly_small

The Great Unmasking, and More…

Complacency and croneyism is alive and well even in the hidden recesses of Pastoral Care departments.

We will be starting a series of threads discussing some of the nasty secrets of Clinical Pastoral Education a.k.a. CPE, in an attempt to awaken interest in cleaning things up, if only to do justice to those looking to so-called “chaplains” appearing at their bedsides but who are neophytes, and sometimes persons with very questionable credentials, not to mention any semblance of “supervision.”

Stay tuned and check back often. We’re preparing a formal written complaint for submission to the ACPE* relating to a so-called training program at a large Albany, New York hospital.

Better yet, join this blog and receive automatic updates as we post contributions.

Be sure also to join in the discussions.

* The American Clinical Association for Clinical Pastoral Education, Inc. Not to be confused with the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education, also ACPE.