As we approach the Winter holiday season, we, especially those of us in the helping professions, become even more acutely aware of the value of our profession to our brothers and sisters, both at the end of their lives, during the active dying process, and to those bereaved and mourning the loss of someone special. This is a time for reflection, to look back on the past year, and on past years, to assess where we are and how we managed to get here. it can be a startling, an alarming epiphany!
We’re here. Now What?
Our attention is drawn even more acutely to the importance of support, compassion, presence and skilled companionship during some of the most difficult hours, days, weeks and months a human being may ever experience in his or her life, both individually and in community. We become even more aware of the importance and indispensability of our knowledge, skills, and services to those suffering among us.
It is a recognized fact in the deathcare professions that total care to the bereaved, and without a doubt even to those who prefer to make advance plans for their funeralization rites, the professional expertise of the funeral director and the bereavement chaplain are indispensible.
Would you like to speak to the chaplain?”
In fact, some of the most important words spoken by the healthcare provider or by the funeral services professional may very well be, “Would you like to speak to the chaplain?” You might well ask yourself if, or when you ask a planner or a family that question, you realize what an important question that is.
“Would you like the chaplain to be present during the arrangements?” is another question that takes the sting out of talking about disposition or selecting merchandise. Somehow the presence of the chaplain mitigates the confusion and the sense of vulnerability; it softens edge of the formalities, the business, the paperwork, and brings everyone a bit closer.
The winter months bring with the snow and the frigid temperatures shorter days, less sunshine, more depression, and higher death rates. The winter holidays and the transition to the New Year trigger reflection, recollection, and frequently resurgence of grief and mourning of past losses. These triggers can intensify and complicate the grief reactions and responses accompanying a death; it’s at times like these that the presence and support of the bereavement chaplain assumes even greater importance to all concerned, funeral home staff and bereaved alike.
Over the years I have accumulated a considerable stock of observations, knowledge, experience, and competencies all of which, taken together, represent an invaluable resource for the funeral home business, its staff, and most importantly for the families who depend on you, on us, as deathcare professionals.
Based on my professional relationships and experiences with a number of funeral homes, funeral directors, cemetery administrators, and the bereaved, I have found that a personalized approach — including the process of information gathering, the planning and design of the service, the format and content of the service, the execution of the service — whether it be an end of life visitation at the home, the care facility, the hospital or even the ER, the family conference or the arrangements conference, and, very importantly, the quality of the aftercare, make a big difference not only in the immediate funeralization rites and rituals, but in the presentation of your operations and performances as deathcare professionals as well.
The impression you make, starting with the first call and your response sets the stage for all subsequent interactions, and are the basis of the message taken home by the family. It’s only natural that human beings in the acute enthrallment of the grief and besieged by the myriad emotions accompanying acute bereavement are not only extraordinarily stressed, they are confused, uncertain, vulnerable, hypersensitive, and, thanks to the incredible quantity and accessibility of both good and bad information, well informed and proportionally suspicious. Yes, nowadays, suspicion is part of the grief reaction, and has been since the first appearance of Jessica Mitford’s “The American Way of Death,” (1963) and her sequel, “The American Way of Death Revisited,” (1998), which updated her almost libelous attacks, the attention that the deathcare industry has received at the hands of those specializing in the muckraking, which was and continues to be her legacy, has to a large degree misinformed the public. Add to that information glut the appearance on the scene of the funeral services groups, the funeral corporations, the acquisition of hallowed and sacred places of repose by cemetery real-estate corporations, the failure of mainstream religion to meet the needs of the faithful, the perversion of the notion of individuality, the ascendance of so-called social media, the disintegration of tradition and traditional values, the collapse of materialism and consumerism, the elevation of the idolatry of control have all contributed to the elevation of denial of death to an unprecedented apogee, the result of which is the movement towards disposition rather than memorialization, celebration or even funeralization. Consequently, the depersonalization and sanitization of human being has not only signaled the demise of community and the support resources and system it provided, further isolating the individual and the group; these developments have actually and literally driven a wedge between groups, a wedge that over time has become an abyss, and in a society that touts itself to be multicultural, multiethnic, raising diversity to the status of “idolatry” has actually fostered and nurtured discrimination, prejudice, bias, segregation, isolation, and suspicion among and even within communities living in close association with one another. Add to this the great leveler, the great common thread of all living creatures, even those only half-alive, death, and complicate this by, on the one hand, the denial of death by one element and, on the other hand, the awareness and acceptance of death by various other elements, and we have a veritable existential and cultural tohu-wa-bohu, total confusion.
Given the avalanche of marketing efforts by the professions since the 80’s touting everything from pharmaceuticals, to healthcare choices, to funeral services by small enterprises locally to multistate and even multinational funeral corporations and deathcare corporations selling their products ranging from direct disposition services to cut rate cremation or funeral packages in almost dishonest cutthroat campaigns, it’s no wonder the family funeral home is experiencing a crisis at the hands of the corporate agenda. The once family funeral home, like so many community service providers, has either been eliminated completely or has been devoured by some corporation employing the deception of keeping the name of the family funeral home but including a “member of some corporation moniker” somewhere on the shingle or the letterhead. Say goodbye to tradition, compassion, integrity, community and Welcome! policies, procedures, agendas, shareholders, bottom line and stuffed shirts. It’s all become, like so much else in life in the modern industrialized, dehumanized society, lifeless. They’ve even rendered the Grim Reaper lifeless, empty, and profane. Even the language has been perverted when we read words like service, compassion, sensitivity in their marketing collaterals, and are forced to see their cadaver-like grinning and fake compassion in their expensive choreographed video and television advertisements. The grinning death’s head has been replaced by the grinning cadaver Ren Newcomer with his comparison shopping graphs and promises, until you experience the horrors of the corporate factory funeral home and the nickel-and-diming of the bereaved in their most vulnerable moments.
Cut costs, increase revenues and profits, hire the neophyte, the recently churned-out graduate for next to nothing, the bereaved won’t notice their faltering efforts at feigning compassion and concern. Dedication to the community, professional pride and dignity, respect and compassion have all been replaced by sprawling funeral complexes complete with immaculate meeting rooms for arrangements, fully appointed merchandize rooms that look like death malls (you can now even purchase your casket at Walmart!), fully rehearsed “compassionate” funeral directors in immaculate attire, elegant parlors and chapels, a complete pool of multicolored funeral vehicles to choose from, an infinity of categories of services, and a very, very detailed pricelist with convenient check-boxes that tend to add up to a small fortune in a very short time. Someone’s got to pay for all of the glitz and guess who that is?
But then you have the option of keeping your savings and your inheritance and choosing direct burial or cremation, or you can do the newest thing, you can simply dissolve dad in the process known in the industry as alkaline hydrolysis, misleadingly advertised by the manufacturers and those funeral homes offering it as “liquid cremation,” in which the body is dissolved in a Draino®-like solution at high temperature in a pressure cooker system; the remaining slurry is then flushed into the sewer system and the remaining bone and other hard materials (teeth, plastic and metal implants, etc.) are separated and processed (the bone is dried and pulverized, the metal and plastic implants are recycled). Does it get any more disgusting? Are we proud of ourselves? Have we given dad the dignified send-off he deserves? Well, you gotta do what you gotta do in the three days your company allows for bereavement, so-called bereavement leave. American materialist capitalism at its best.
Where has all the humanity gone? How has the human spirit managed to get so lost in the fray of digital relationships, electronic devices, the self-driving car culture? Even a national chaplaincy organization touting the moniker, “Caring for the Human Spirit,” has gone digital, even offering online bereavement counseling! Rubbish!
What’s even worse is that with the demise of institutional religion, there are no reliable tools to guide the majority of people towards a transcendent, healing, meaningful, nurturing, and growth enhancing spirituality. Values have become so perverted that spirituality has transmutated into an idolatry: the idolatries of narcissism, materialism, consumerism, money.
Our lives are no longer peaceful and tranquil; we can no longer enjoy simple quiet. Everywhere we turn we are accosted with “Hurry!” “Don’t miss…!” “Give!” “Do you have these symptoms…” “Limited time!” Let’s simply acknowledge that we are all living in limited time, and those imperatives that are driving us to distraction are distracting us from what is essential to our fully enjoying and living our limited time. Our only response should be, “Shut up!” “Unsubscribe!” “Don’t call again!” And stop telling me I’m the best part of Verizon while you are emptying my pockets with lousy services and fees! Deception ad nauseum!
The funeral service profession has not been immune to these wicked developments. What was once a dignified and compassionate, family-oriented, local icon has now become just another ticker symbol, just another corporate revenue generator for the materiealists, the capitalists, the consumerists. Every death and every bereaved family is distilled down to a consolidated ledger figure. The once dignified funeral director whose father and whose father’s father operated the family funeral home, and who knows everyone by their first name, has become the agenda-led, production-driven, sanitized, hair-gelled, twenty or thirty-something, recent grad from his two-year associate’s degree mortuary science program, and now a new-hire at the local factory funeral home. He’s probably never experienced the death of a loved one, has no idea of compassion for another physical person — all his friends are digital and he’s the product of the materialist, individualist, disposable society —, and is a corporate slave. He makes the first call, arranges for the removal, schedules and arrangements meeting, and greets you armed with a detailed price list, a merchandise room as big as a Walmart and fully stocked with every sort of container imaginable. He’s memorized his scripted pitch, and you, in the bewilderment of acute, crushing grief, sign on the dotted line! Consumerist corporate death services. The funeral professional has become the epitome of the disposal professional.
That can we do in our positions as thanatologists, as psychospiritual support providers, as deathcare professionals? Well, we have to establish clear boundaries as to what we want and can do. We have to establish clear ethical principles as to what we are qualified to provide and how. We have to stop striving for numbers and start caring for people.
The boundaries part is very simple: do what you have been trained to do, and let others do what they are trained to do. If you are a business man take care of the business end. If you are a cosmetician, do the cosmetics. If you are a chaplain, do the psychospiritual work. Set the boundaries, know which are flexible and which are rigid. Ensure everyone on the multidisciplinary team is aware of their boundaries and remind them if necessary. If something is working but you don’t understand it, don’t interfere; if it ain’t broke don’t break it.
The ethical principles are something that need clear statement and uncompromised commitment. Decide what your objectives are and achieve them in a right way. If you are simply selling merchandise and service, don’t try to be falsely compassionate; it will betray you and worse still, you’ll hurt vulnerable people who don’t deserve to be hurt. If you need to sell them something, and you do as a funeral service professional, turn them over to someone who can provide psychospiritual support with true presence and compassion, and wait until that expert turns them over to you. The chaplain will know when that time is right and will ensure that they will be in a proper mindset to respond to your ministrations appropriately. It is horribly callous to spend 10 minutes posing with a sad face, at T=11, you produce the pricelist and contract paperwork and launch into a sales script, only then to invite the dazed bereaved to make a selection in the merchandise room for dad’s final packaging. You may do everything quite legally, but in terms of right approach and moral conduct, you have violated every precept imaginable. Talk to the chaplain about ethical and moral conduct, he’s trained in the subject matter, you are not.
Better still, have the chaplain sit in on the arrangements meeting. His mere presence adds a note of trust and authenticity to an otherwise icey transaction.
The third item, caring for people, not the bottom line, is a bit more difficult because it redirects everything the mortuary science program has taught you, and focuses everything you have learned in your mortuary science program and your residency to a ministry of caring for the human spirit. Mortuary science curriculum taught you the principles of the funeral service business; it did not teach you how to be a funeral service professional, nor about ethics apart from business ethics and staying out of jail, and even less about spirituality. Don’t kid yourself.
Believe it or not, you can make a living as a funeral service professional without gouging every family that comes to you for support. Keep in mind that they are not calling you because they want to; they need you, in some states the law requires that they involve you. To take advantage of them at this time is abominable.
The situation is considerably different in the factory funeral home or the corporate funeral home. In those situations such as at Newcomer Funeral Service Group’s facilities, or Service Corporation International (Dignity Memorial), or any of the other multi-state or multi-national disposal corporations. In the corporate factory funeral home numbers rule. Statistics rule. How many bodies were removed from how many locations in how much time by how many removal persons using how many vehicles, and how many bodies were transported in one vehicle in one trip. How many cases did FD1 receive for processing and how long did it take for him to close the deal; how was he rated by the customer, and how does his performance compare with FD2, FD3…FDn? In the back of FD’s mind is the statistics, as well. FD is thinking how much can they afford? Can spend the time with them and can I upsell them? Do they look like they can spend some money or do I have to give them the quickie script and get them out of here, so I can move on to the next case. Have I complied with corporate procedure? Am I up to snuff on corporate policy? Have I read the latest facility production and revenues report? Am I on the bonus list? Can I afford the new Cadillac SUV? It’s the embalmer’s fault if the head’s turned too far to the right. It’s the hairdresser’s fault if the hair isn’t teased like in the picture. It’s the cosmetologists fault if there’s caked pancake makeup at the hairline. Oops? The lighting’s off and the liner’s too blue. Just lost 6 points on the aftersale survey. Too bad; no bonus this month.
Sound familiar? Sure, to the corporate FD but not to the traditional family-owned funeral home. Things are much, much different there. So what’s the logical choice if you have any self-respect or any respect for the treatment of your loved one?
Seems today everyone has deserted us for the job and has forgotten the profession. Take a step back and look at what has happened to what was once the family doctor. He’s now a corporate employee, working for a healthcare group or a hospital satellite clinic, or is a hospitalist. Numbers, production, rush. You call his “office” and you get a menu only to get his “secretary,” actually a central answering service, who “sees if she can contact the doctor,” only to return to say he’s with another patient but suggests you go to the emergency room or to an urgent care facility and have them call him. You’re half dead but you have to get in the car, drive 20 miles, answer a million questions, show you can pay, and then wait hours to be seen. Well, if you survive you’re one of the lucky ones. If you don’t, let’s hope they don’t call a corporate disposal service.
Two of our most essential services in life, healthcare and deathcare, have seriously dropped the ball and have left us high and dry. It’s no wonder our society, our culture has turned sociopathic, apathetic, callous, paranoid, digital.
It tragic but true that so many people today have become so sociopathic and so misguided that they accept digital algorithms as friends, and are incapable of engaging a flesh-and-blood human being as a friend and confidant; people are, after all, too complicated and it takes too long to develop a trusting relationship. Hell, on Facebook, I can make a “friend” in a mouse-click and pour out my heart to 50,000 listeners at once. Beat that in a real person relationship. Well, guess what, I can.
It’s tragic but true that we are so busy doing nothing that we can’t take proper care of our dead and we need to dispose of the mortal remains as quickly and as neatly as possible; we can hold the funeral or memorial service on a date to be announced. Funeral homes will now bury or burn the body immediately. You’ll save time and money. But your time is still limited and you will some day have to leave all your money and stuff behind when your kids decide that they don’t have the time or the spare cash to treat your mortal remains with dignity and respect. By the way: Who’s getting the house? Let the battles begin!
We live in a world with some very real problems, and many of those problems have their causes at the personal level, that is, they originate in how theindividual human being relates to his or her world, and how they interact with others in the reality they literally create for themselves.
When the individual human being is accosted at every turn, in every moment with a command to rush, hurry, and not to miss something, they miss everything. When the individual is inundated with commands, offers, warnings, alerts, the individual becomes anxious and fearful; that vulnerability is a key to controlling the individual and then the group. When an individual is made dependent and even subordinate to recorded messages, online menus, digital services, and the human element and human contact, especially touch, is removed from the interaction, the individual is dehumanized; they then react and respond as if programmed or as if the program has gone awry. Some will react like sheep, others will react like enraged beasts. No one will take responsibility, everyone will point fingers.
Many of those who are in positions in which they can inaugurate change if they wanted to just sit back and watch the spectacle unfold; our society has become as degenerate and uncaring as the crowds watching gladiators kill each other or wild beasts attack and maim defenseless prisoners. We look back at the Crusades, the massacres of the Native American peoples, the atrocities of the French Revolution, the Cheka purges in Bolshevik Russia, Stalin’s purges, the Turks and the Armenian genocide, the 20th century holocausts in Nazi Germany and in Serbia and the Balkans. We have not changed. Our genocides today are more sterile, more subtle, closer to home; the tyranny and the methods of control are literally our own and at our fingertips; the controllers are not the secret police knocking at our doors in the middle of the night, they are our Facebook friends, they are on Twitter, they are watching on Google. The persecutors don’t have to come to us, we go to them; willingly.
While some of you sit back and watch the spectacle unfold, watching your own destruction and annihilation orchestrate before your very eyes, some of us are observing, watching, questioning, writing, wondering why you don’t see what we see.
While they exterminate the soaring eagles, the cockroaches will survive.