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 immanent 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.
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 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!.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
I 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.