Click the link below to read/download the June Newsletter (June 2018 Newsletter Vol 1 No. 2 ).
I urge my clients not to think of an obituary as something morbid or as a necessary evil, an abhorrent task thrust upon them when a loved one dies; I teach them to reframe the obituary as not only the conventional way to announce a death publicly but most importantly as a way to share with the world the attributes, achievements, and meaning of a person whose life was filled with awe and interaction, and one who left a valuable legacy for us all. Despite developments in technology and the influence — for better or for worse — of social media on how we live our lives and cope with our deaths, the local newspaper, whether print or digital format, is still the most accessible and relied upon medium for communicating to the public any important events ranging from the can’t miss sales to deaths. The written newspaper obituary still reigns supreme whether in newsprint or as an online memorial.
Writing an obituary[i] (“obit”) or a tribute[ii] to a deceased loved one is more than just a skill, it’s an art. As in all genres of writing, there are conventions that should be followed and liberties that can be taken. I hope to clarify some of the speed bumps both professionals and amateurs might encounter when undertaking to create an appropriate written tribute to the life and meaning of a person who has died, whether that person is a close family member and loved one or a notable or pubic figure.
Briefly, an obituary is the written public notification or announcement of a person’s death. The obit may be published in one or more print media (e.g., newspaper), on the funeral home’s website, on an online platform specifically designed for placing obituaries, or in the funeral service program. An obit should be distinguished from the much shorter death notice, which has the same function of the obituary, that is, to notify the public and announce a person’s death, but contains only essential information on the death. More on that later.[iii]
In today’s world of mobility and multiple residencies, it has become common, if not desirable, to publish a death notice in several local newspapers or in newspapers serving the locales where the deceased has lived in the past for some part of his or her life. The reason I say a “death notice” is because of the expense involved in publishing a full obituary. The death notice provides the essential information about the person’s death but not the details about the person’s life. I generally recommend that the full obituary be placed in the newspaper serving the place where the deceased spent the most significant part of his or her life. For example, if for health and care reasons a person had to be transported to a skilled nursing facility 75 miles away from his or her home, and resided there for 5 years, the obit would not be placed in the newspaper serving the area in which the nursing facility is located but in that serving the locale where the person lived much of his or her life.
A frequently asked question is “How long should an obit be?” and that’s like the undergrad asking the professor how long the paper has to be. As an educator my response is quite simple: “As long as it needs to be to make your point.” But too many people take that to mean that they have to include everything the person ever did, ate, drank and dreamt. There is no steadfast rule to the length of an obituary but we must consider our purpose, cost, and the fact that the newspaper obit editor may have his or her own rules. I do find that families have their own ideas of how they want the deceased to be remembered and prefer an abbreviated life history of the deceased, including the significant accomplishments of their life. I usually counsel families to simply share freely during the Chaplain-Family Conference (CFC) and leave the writing either to me or the funeral home staff. I then propose that we include the mini-biography in the funeral Order of Service brochure. The newspaper print version can then be kept with the brochure as a keepsake and all bases are covered, while keeping costs within reason.
To read or to download the complete article click this link: How to approach creating an obituary.
[i] By definition an obituary or “obit” is a notice of a person’s death published in a printed newspaper or an associated or independent online memorial site. An obituary usually contains biographical details and information about funeral or memorial services; if the funeral home has a website, the obituaries can frequently also be found there. In practical terms, A death notice is a paid notice (like a classified advertisement) that families can write and submit to the newspapers and publications of their choosing. Death notices announce that the person has died, and offers information on funeral services, where donations can be made in the name of the person who died, and minimal, if any biographical information. An obituary is an editorial article announcing a person’s death and providing detailed biographical information. Unlike death notices, which are considered “classified advertisements” and charged as such by most newspapers, obituaries are usually written by the newspaper obituary editor — if the deceased was a notable or a public figure — or in other cases a trained funeral home staff member. Families can create and submit a paid obituary or have an obituary written about the deceased by a professional obituary writer, and the newspaper will calculate a fee for publishing the obituary. The main differences between the death notice and the obituary are: length, degree of detail, and publication fees.
[ii] When I refer to a “tribute” I mean an act, statement, or gift that is intended to show gratitude, respect, or admiration. When referring to “tribute” in reference to funeral rites a tribute can be a speech, a floral arrangement, a donation, etc. In the reference to an obit as a tribute, it is a dignified commemoration of the life of the deceased.
[iii] A death notice is a paid notice (like a classified advertisement) that families can write and submit to the newspapers and publications of their choosing. Death notices announce that the person has died, and offer information on funeral services, where donations can be made in the name of the person who died, and minimal biographical information. An obituary is an editorial article announcing a person’s death and providing detailed biographical information. Unlike death notices, which are considered “classified advertisements” and charged as such by most newspapers, obituaries are usually written by the newspaper obituary editor or a trained funeral home staff member. Families can create and submit a paid obituary or have an obituary written about the deceased by a professional obituary writer, and the newspaper will calculate a fee for publishing the obituary. The main differences between the death notice and the obituary are: length, degree of detail, and publication fees.
I’m very pleased to announce that my May-June 2018 Chaplain p.r.n. Newsletter has been uploaded and published.
The current newsletter includes interesting notes on my revised Descriptive Price List, enhanced services for funeral homes, an obituary writing service, and an aftercare program.
All of the articles are actually summaries of articles that appear in unabridged versions on one or more of my blogs but despite the concise format they do provide some interesting insights.
You can read the Newsletter online or view it and download it for later reading by simply clicking this link: Chaplain p.r.n. May-June Newsletter.
As always, I would very much appreciate your feedback, comments and recommendations.
Thanks for your continuing interest and support!
Peace and blessings!
Rev. Ch. Harold
This page provides access to a number of forms designed especially with the needs of the Funeral Services Provider in mind.
Listed below are the forms and the instructions for use of the forms that include everything from requesting Chaplain Services to Creating the Perfect Obituary. Some forms are intended to streamline funeral director – chaplain communications and to avoid misunderstandings or repeat telephone calls or texts to clarify an issue. Others are for the use of chaplains and other officiants in their work serving the bereaved.
If you don’t see a form, please be patient because we may be working on it as we speak or we may not have thought about it. Please, if you have any special requests, cannot find what you are looking for, or simply want to make some recommendations on how to improve what you find here, email me at Rev. Ch. Harold, and I’ll do everything possible to expedite the issue.
New! Updated Descriptive Price List for Chaplain Services. In response to the current local needs of bereaved families and to enhance the options that can be offered by my client funeral homes, I have revised, improved and expanded my professional offerings. View/Download the Funerals & Memorials Descriptive Price List.
New! Basic Service Order Information. To be completed by the Funeral Home or the Crematory Operator. Click here to view a Chaplain Service Order Form (MET)_Specimen. Download the MS Word Macro-enabled Template at View/Download (Dropbox)
New! Basic Service Order Information Form. Same as the Chaplain Service Order Form but in PDF Interactive Form format. If you prefer working with a PDF form, this is your choice. Download the PDF Interactive Form here.
New! Instructions for Using the New Basic Chaplain Service Order Information Forms (Macro-enabled Template Fillable Form & Adobe Interactive Form). Brief and clear instructions on how to use the convenient Chaplain Service Order Form (MET) ) (CSOF-MET) (macro-enabled template for use with MS Word ) and the Basic Service Order Information Form (BSOI-C) with notes. Download here.
(Note: To download the Dropbox files: On the Dropbox file page, please go to the right margin and click the three dots; when viewing a document go to the upper right corner of the page and click the three dots, then click download.)
Over the years I have paid rigorous attention to developments in the lifecare and deathcare professions both locally and on the regional, national and international scenes. I take the time and make the effort to do this because I truly believe that lifecare and deathcare are, like life and death, intimately connected transitions that require not only compassion and sensitivity in the acute phases of bereavement but also awareness of what remains traditional and important and what changes are affecting the funeral homes and families I serve.
One of my roles as a psychospiritual care provider and as an interfaith bereavement chaplain is to stay abreast of these trends and to share and teach colleagues and clients about them and their influence on how we serve in our respective vocations. We are after all not only service providers but educators and teachers, ministers to the suffering.
Flexibility and responsiveness are key to the psychospiritual care and chaplaincy vocation just as much as they are to the deathcare services professions. We are, after all, in the ranks of the healthcare professions just as any physician, nurse, psychologist, or administrator is; the difference is that in contrast with the physician, nurse, psychologist or administrator, the chaplain and the funeral director are called to care for both the living and the dead. That’s an important distinction and has important implications for how we do what we do and the quality of what we do.
As I have written elsewhere, we each have our roles and we have to recognize boundaries, fixed and flexible ones. I frequently use the example that I don’t do embalming and I don’t expect the funeral director to do the spiritual funeral rites. While our roles and engagement with the bereaved do sometimes overlap such as in providing grief support, we each have our specific professional training and we must not overstep our competencies.
That having been said, there are some things that have been conventionally — I say “conventionally” and not “traditionally” because they are done by tacit acquiescence between and among the parties involved in the funeralization processes —, one of which is the creation of the obituary for the deceased.
Conventionally the creation of the obituary has been left to the newspaper obit editor or to the funeral director or one of the funeral home staff. The result is that the obituary, unless it is the obituary of a prominent or eminent personality, has been little more than an enhanced death notice, and there are significant differences between the purposes and composition of a death notice compared to an obituary.
In brief, an obituary is an announcement of a person’s death along with a biography of the person. The obituary generally includes information about the about the deceased, birth and death dates and places, information about the deceased’s life, survivors and predeceased close relatives, the deceased’s life accomplishments, funeral or memorial arrangements, floral tributes and donations, and a frequently a picture of the deceased. The information provided in the obituary should provide the reader with a credible impression of who the deceased was as a person. A death notice is a brief announcement of a person’s death and the funeral or memorial services. A death notice may or may not include a picture. It is not uncommon for the death notice to be the only print notice of a death; the actual obituary may appear only on the funeral home website or an online obituary site. Content is not the only way the two differ; they not only differ in length and content but also in cost, but that’s a topic for another article.
Regrettably, because of (1) the urgency of the situation: the death notice or obituary or both must be created and published within a narrow window of time to provide the public with details relating to the death and to the funeral arrangements. The personal interactions and relationships: The bereaved are in the acute phase of grief with all of the associated emotions, the funeral staff are under pressure to manage not only the legal and official obligations connected with a death and disposition of a dead human being but also with the business aspects of providing funeral services to the family as well as providing short-term grief support. So it’s not uncommon for the obituary to become just another laundry list item that the funeral director must do before getting to bed.
The current options are not all that rosy: either the funeral director makes an honorable but exhausted effort at composing an obituary from the few facts and bits of information he has been able to garner in his contacts with the family OR the task is left to the professional obit writer with the local newspaper who faces the same problems as the funeral director. The solutions are just as grim: Cookie-cutter obituaries. Either the FD or the obit editor/writer uses a form or template or information is plugged into a computer program and then tweaked. Worse still, a family member is stuck with writing something about which they have no clue much less any writing skills.
So what’s the alternative? Well, I’ve given the matter some thought and have come to the obvious conclusion that there’s a lot of duplication or triplication of effort involved and that the current “conventional” practice is not only inefficient it’s downright unfair not only to the deathcare professionals involved but also to the bereaved, and not insignificantly to the deceased him or herself. who deserve a much better treatment at least in their obit.
So, while I was going through notes on past services, articles published in the scientific, scholarly, and professional journals, my own writings, and after having reviewed a considerable number of published obits, it dawned on me that none of these obit writers had access to the quality, amount, and type of information that I have as the chaplain to the family. While it’s true the FD or the obit editor/writer ask certain standard questions, the result is a standard dry obit. The intimate sharing that goes on during the Chaplain-Family Conference results in an enormous richness of information about the deceased, his or her life and activities, accomplishments, anecdotes, legacy, meaning to those close to him or her and to the community. In fact, a whole living narrative is collected in the course of that sharing experience.
While some of the information shared by the family must be held respectfully confidential and never published, my motto being “Tell me your secrets and I’ll forget them.” Other information shared by the family and close friends become part of the memorialization process, part of the coping process, form the basis of the necessary continuing bond with the deceased. As a skilled writer, speaker, presenter, ritual leader, I use much of that information as part of the psychospiritual care I provide both before and during the funeralization rites and rituals I create. One of those rituals is most conspicuously the homily or the so-called Words of Comfort or my trademark Litany of Thanksgiving and Remembrance. So what happens with all of that incredibly healing information after the homily is delivered and the Litany is read? Not much.
So, my question was: “Why aren’t I called upon to create the obituary?” After all, I actually have more information than anyone involved, even more than some family members, which is obvious during the Chaplain-Family Conference when one family member describes an event and another looks surprised and says, “I didn’t know that? S/he never mentioned that.” What a beautiful moment of epiphany for some.
But if the chapel service and the homily and the Litany of Thanksgiving and Remembrance are not recorded, much of this evaporates into the abyss of forgotten memories. That really should not happen and it doesn’t have to happen.
In my view, the obituary is more, much more than a simple death notice. It should be a cheat sheet for remembering who and what the dead loved one was and their meaning and legacy. It should be something that is preserved and enshrined as a source of information about a forebear that can be shared with future generations. It should be cherished as a lasting and enduring portrait of the dead loved one that can serve as a support in establishing the important continuing bond with the dead loved one. To achieve this holy purpose, it must be written with intimacy, sensitivity, reverence, and skill; care must be taken to select and to include the most salient and essential elements that are most important to the family and closest friends. Only then will it be worth the effort.
In order to achieve this noble purpose, I have conceived of several types of obituary: (i) the conventional, which incorporates essential bits and pieces into a coherent whole, and (ii) several custom obits, each focusing on a specific aspect of the deceased’s life:
So why not take advantage of the skills of the bereavement chaplain and turn over the obit writing to him? Sound like a plan?
Whether the obituary is to be published in the print media, in an online public obituary space, on the funeral home tributes page, on Facebook, on an online obit platform like Legacy.com, or in any combination of these, I as the chaplain serving the funeral home and the family am in the best position to provide a quality product. The obit should be between 250 and 500 words in length, depending on the available information and what the family want to emphasize. The question of whether a photo should be included always comes up. I answer with an affirmative “Why not?” but I do qualify that by saying that the photo should be compatible with the content of the obit. For example, if the family is emphasizing the early years, the photo should not be of the deceased late life. If the obit emphasizes the deceased’s community activities, it would be effective if a photo of the deceased in his or her Lions Club or other social or community regalia were shown.
It should be kept in mind that the chaplain is writing the obit, not publishing it. The chaplain can provide some ballpark figures on what, say, print publication of the final obit as approved by the family might cost but the final approved obit should be submitted to the newspaper obit editor for a final pricing quote. Some papers will publish a death notice for free, others will charge a classified ad rate. Obituaries are longer and might include a picture, all of which affect the price, usually calculated on the basis of the column inch (one column inch of newsprint is approximately 35 words).
The funeral home can usually offer space on their Tributes pages which generally includes an Obituary section. The funeral home should provide this opportunity at no charge.
There are many online options and opportunities for publishing an obituary. Some of these online options include social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and similar platforms. There are also the established online obituary sites. I have researched some of the sites and have compiled a list of ten top sites (Click here to view Top 10 Sites.)
So the decision is really a no-brainer. If you’re a funeral director, save yourself the time and stress of writing an obituary. If you are a consumer, hand the job over to the professional who can do the best for you and your loved one, the skilled professional chaplain.
Sometimes I just have to shake my head in disbelief when I see some of the things that are going on in the deathcare sector. It’s really unbelievable the types that now claim to be gurus to the deathcare business and who tout themselves as being in the know about what and how funeral directors and funeral services providers should be doing with their businesses.
One such guru is Ryan Thogmartin, a self-proclaimed social media “expert” who runs Disrupt Media and publishes the online journal Connecting Directors. Actually, it’s Thogmartin who seems to be critically disrupted and the only directors he’s connecting have likely been drinking their own embalming chemicals.
For one thing the deathcare industry has taken a turn towards immorality and dehumanization in recent years. I say this because the growth of the funeral services corporations making death a commodity rather than a sacred mystery is doing inestimable damage to the human psyche, culture, tradition, and anything human worth preserving. I’m speaking of the Newcomers, the Service Corporation International, the Dignity Memorials, the StoneMors of the world and their greed and gouging practices.
Even more alarming are the products they are foisting on the bereaved: direct cremation, direct burial, alkaline hydrolysis (dissolving the dead human body in a draino-like solution and sending the remains down the sewer lines); the indignities heaped on the dead and the insensitive treatment of the surviving bereaved are appalling.
I’m no friend of Facebook and feel that it is one of the greatest evils to arrive on Earth since Nazi national socialist movements or Stalinist communism. It’s an insidious agenda of mind control fostering self-destructive addiction on millions of unwary subscribers who, if they had half a brain, are sacrificing it to the anti-Christ Mark Zuckerberg and his army of censoring mind-police minions.
But Thogmartin sees an opportunity here and tries like hell to sell it to Guess whom? Yes! Funeral directors and funeral homes, one of the most conservative groups you’ll find today. One of the groups we would hope would have superhuman gifts of compassion, sincerity, empathy, humanity. Thogmartin is trying to sell them the idea that they need to market their services on Facebook. But I’m completely at a loss Why? they should believe anything the sloppy, uncredible, inarticulate Thogmartin has to say!
Here’s one of Thogmartin’s most recent pitches to the deathcare professionals whom he thinks he’s appealing to. Would you buy a used car from this guy?
Well, I’m not going to beat a dead horse (no pun intended). First of all, for those of us with any powers of discernment Thogmartin’s inarticulate double-talk is enough to turn us completely off. His presentation — I’m looking at his wardrobe, his set, his general appearance and personal hygiene, if I can abuse that concept when referring to Thogmartin — is simply grunge. Who on earth would want their families and clients to know that this is the man from whom your receiving your business advice?!?
Secondly, any funeral home’s business is largely local. Most established funeral homes are generations old and rely on a good reputation built over the decades and generations by providing top-shelf service. Their business comes from word of mouth, not from an idiotic platform calling itself social media, and catering to the lowest of the lowest of intellects. Sure, even the dumbest human being is looking at 100% mortality and someone’s going to have to dispose of those human remains, but seriously, when you receive that first call, it’s likely not to be from Facebook. It’s going to come from a local hospital, hospice, nursing home, or from a local family — unless of course your business is based substantially on repatriation of human remains and you do a lot of business after natural catastrophes but I can’t even say I’ve worked with such an operation in my entire career.
Moreover, most of Disrupt Media’s publications come to the subscriber as republished from other sources; most of it isn’t really of interest to the funeral director or his staff in his day-to-day operations. Besides, in the profession who has the time to sit and read poorly written commentaries hoping to find something worthwhile and of any value to a business that must be very attuned to local culture.
Maybe Thogmartin’s appeal is to the funeral corporations and their employees but on careful scrutiny and analysis, his whole operation is questionable and his advice serves only his interests, Disrupt Media.
Why Funeral Directors and Clergy Should Ally with the Chaplain.
Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney B.A., [M.A.], M.Div.
Bereavement Chaplain/Thanatologist/Psychospiritual Care Provider
In principle and practice, as a celebrant/officiant, the focus of my attention is the family, then the deceased, the assembly and finally the venue. As a bereavement chaplain my focus is correctly spelled “t-r-a-n-s-f-o-r-m-a-t-i-o-n” and its outcome is correctly called “growth.” It’s a vocation not a career; a specialist profession, not a job.
Today’s most communicable disease is called control. But as a chaplain, control is alien to me. True, when I appear people seem to quiet down, to be more in listening mode. They seem to be more receptive to hearing a message that might possibly ease the suffering, the acute pain they are experiencing. There’s a certain authority that I have to bear with self-effacing humility; while powerful it’s not power as such, and it’s much less control than it is co-being. It’s the aura of authenticity, of compassion; people trust me. I care for and about them.
I am in fact not in control, nor do I attempt to assume control of anything, not even the funeralization rites and ritual, the ceremonial, on which I may have worked for days to organize and to tweak right up to the point of greeting the assembly and pronouncing the words of dismissal, “Go in peace and love one another.” I am merely an instrument of comfort and healing; a mere master of ceremonies. A sometimes crisis manager. A paid consultant.
“This is about the family, your loved one; it’s not about me or anything else. I’m here to serve you.”
I receive the first call from the funeral director with gratitude and commitment; I contact the family and the arrangers with compassion and humility. My first words after introducing myself and expressing my condolences and assurances, are likely to be “This is about your family, your loved one; it’s not about me or anything else. I’m here to serve you.” Those words usually break the ice immediately, and the anxiety associated with the protocol of chatting with the chaplain about rites and ritual that might be as strange and mysterious as death itself, is dispelled, and we can talk about the deceased loved one and the service like family—or as close to being old friends as the situation will allow. Always in the back of my mind is that these are suffering people, each in his or her own way experiencing a loss and attempting to cope with the situation and to manage the bizarre, unfamiliar ball of emotions with whatever they might have at hand. It’s my job in this initial phase to sort through my armamentarium of training and experience, common sense and wisdom (my own and that received), listening skills and vocabulary, style and demeanor, to find the right salves, ointments and incantations to assuage the acute pain, to prepare them for the chronic aches, and to ease, not remove, their suffering; it’s the suffering that will nurture their healing and growth, after all, you can’t harvest a good crop without wounding the earth and planting the seed.
But even after breaking open the earth and planting the seed, aftercare is essential. You must water and weed the rows to ensure that the seedlings prosper and grow. It’s what I call a resurrection experience, similar to the seed parables of the Christian Gospels and so many other sacred texts that deal with death and rebirth. So, too, in our funeralization rites and rituals, we can describe the bereavement experiences as being broken open, the seeds of transformation planted, receiving the waters of life experience, wisdom, and then resurrecting as transformed beings. The final transformed being that emerges from the ante-mortem, pre-bereavement person becoming the post-mortem mourner doing his or her grief work, implementing coping and support resources, and finally healing and growing, differs with each unique situation, and it’s what makes my vocation that much more exciting and rewarding because each call presents its own unique set of challenges and opportunities.
I’ve often taught that Death is not an enemy; we just have to embrace it and befriend it. We often look at things we can’t control as the enemy; that’s a modern mistake in our relationship with everything from relatives to the line at the supermarket to the neighbor’s dog to the mysteries of life, including death. Death is not the enemy; our modern tendency is to think that everything, including creation, needs to be controlled, dominated, subdued. As soon as we find that we can’t do that we avoid or deny the situation until it can no longer be denied, and then we curse it. That’s unfortunate because we could enjoy life so much more if only we would accept the humility that brings peace to our lives. To do so would mean that we have to be silent and most of today’s humanity has been taught that silence is bad; movement, no matter how frenetic, noise, no matter how cacophonous, is a sign of life. That’s how we have lost touch with our innermost self, the core of our humanity, and we have become animate tools, an insidious but real violation of a basic moral principle: Human beings should never be used as means to an end.
I have found that most families whom I have served over the years have lived in denial of the inevitability of our 100% mortality rate. As the result, when Death ultimately pays a visit they are caught 100% unprepared, are shocked by the fact that a death has occurred, are devastated that so many decisions have to be made NOW, completely confused by the bureaucratic complexities of just getting the deceased moved, and once moved, bombarded by a bombastic but “compassionate” salesperson dressed up as a funeral director, and floored by the financial burdens of just one death. “We know you want to honor your loved one. Now that’s what we would suggest, but if you’d like to keep it simpler, we can also offer…” Sound familiar? As a bereavement chaplain trained in spiritual care and thanatology, I often have to recall one of the first things my deathcare instructors repeated: “The bereaved should never make a major decision in the first year following the loss.” But arranging for the final disposition of a dead human being, a loved one who has died, is a major decision, one of the most major decisions some of my clients will ever have to make, and that major decision — or perhaps more accurately stated, major decisions — have to be made within mere hours of the major loss and in the 2-3 days following the major loss. So now what do we do?
“Would you like us to bring along our chaplain?”
Well, too few funeral homes, too few funeral directors and — to my personal knowledge and in my experience — no funeral service groups or corporations tend to involve a chaplain in the removal call, the initial family meeting or the arrangements conference. In fact, I know of none who involve a chaplain immediately after receiving the first call. Wouldn’t it be great if one of the questions asked during the first call conversation would be, “Would you like us to bring along our chaplain?” In the hours immediately following the death the family is most receptive to the idea of having a spiritual care provider in their midst — not necessarily to talk but just to be present, perhaps just to listen quietly, just to be there if needed — at least that’s been my experience in my hospital and nursing home chaplaincy work.
Too few funeral homes, too few funeral directors and — to my knowledge and in my experience — no funeral service groups or corporation arrangement meeting guidelines recommend that a chaplain be present at the arrangements conference. I’m usually called after the arrangements conference and have to put the family through the ordeal of repeating so much of what I could have gleaned from simply sitting next to the funeral director or the arranger during the arrangements conference. Quite frankly, it’s beyond me why this is so.
Worse still, too many amateurs are allowed to inject themselves into the incredibly complex mix of emotions, physical reactions, social intricacies, and spiritual questions, and amateurs tend to complicate things beyond anyone’s expectations. When I use the term “amateurs” I mean people who are only minimally trained in spirituality, in psychospiritual care, people who read a book or take a course and are miraculously transformed into a being with privileged and extraordinary knowledge. Worse still, we frequently find volunteers or CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) trainees — most egregiously in the acute care setting, the hospital — winging it through some of a family’s most difficult moments! Fact is, they’re amateurs. Fact is that they can cause a lot of damage, directly and collaterally, simply because they are well-intentioned people but dilettantes, amateurs.
Bereavement chaplaincy, psychospiritual care is a vocation and spans a wide range of interdisciplinary subject matter. Many of us have graduate degrees in at least two academic or scientific specialties. Most of us have degrees in pastoral care, theological studies, or even the gold standard, divinity. Many of us have degrees in psychology or/and the humanities. Many of us have either formally or informally studied mortuary science and understand and appreciate what the funeral director has been taught, how s/he has acquired his/her practical experience, and most importantly, their limitations; perhaps we are not licensed to embalm or to operate a funeral home but we have made every conceivable effort to know what goes no behind the scenes and what makes the funeral home staff tick. Many of us attend regular continuing professional education (CPE) —not to be confused with CPE as in “Clinical Pastoral Education,” the training offered by some healthcare institutions under the aegis of a national or international accreditation program — courses and conferences, and maintain programs of continuing awareness and currency. Many of us are members of professional associations. And many of us study, study, study to be able to provide the most comprehensive and efficacious care possible.
As an on-call chaplain or chaplain “in residence” I have also made special efforts at understanding the protocols of hospice and the role of spiritual care in hospice environments; the same is true regarding palliative care. Hospice, palliative care, hospital, nursing home pastoral care providers differ considerably in their protocols and practices; as a bereavement chaplain serving funeral homes and providing post-funeralization aftercare, I have to pick up where hospice, palliative care, hospital and nursing home staff — some of them ordained amateurs —, and funeral directors have left off or, in some cases, dropped the ball!
Some funeral service operators, whether independent funeral homes or corporate funeral service groups, need to learn that the chaplain is not the enemy. Mainstream clergy — those priests, ministers who run parishes and congregations as part of a mainstream institutionalized religious community (I’ll call these collectively “pastoral ministers”) do view the bereavement chaplain as an interloper cutting into their revenues. But a more compassionate view would be to accept the chaplain as an ally, someone with whom they should be collaborating instead of undermining and disparaging. Why? Well tackling the first proposition that the chaplain cuts into their revenues, I can say that most clergy will show up with Holy Scripture tucked under one arm and swinging a rosary in the other hand, machine gun a couple of verses or race through a couple decades of a rosary and then be off, tucking a hefty check into their pockets. Even funeral masses and church services are cookie-cutter and generally unconvincing. But they bring in the bucks. Consequently, if a chaplain is engaged to perform the funeralization rites and rituals, the pastoral minister will have to forfeit his or her stipend, and that can add up over the shorter or longer term.
Funeral directors are not stupid either. Most will get real cozy with a local congregation or the local priests and ministers, wining and dining them, ensuring that they have the local clergy in their pockets and then putting out the funeral-home sponsored annual free calendar promoting their funeral home in the vestibule of the church or temple. Pastor gets a call when a local family loses a loved one and recommends John Smith Funeral Home. Bingo! It’s a win-win for both the pastor and the funeral director. The only real loser is the consumer.
So, given the choice between the 15-minute Wham! Bam! Amen! cookie-cutter commendation-committal combo offered by the local pastor and the hour-long in-house commendation or memorial service with the 20 minute graveside or committal service offered by the chaplain/officiant, the funeral director will play his best, winning hand regardless of the quality of the service or the therapeutic effects — or lack thereof — on the bereaved and the mourning community. After all, for both the funeral director and the pastor the adage “Time is Money” applies with few exceptions.
But the difference between the chaplain and the parish priest or deacon or the congregation minister is that the chaplain is a specialist in psychospiritual care, especially end-of-life and deathcare, something few pastors can claim. Furthermore, the chaplain has the knowledge and experience to guide the bereaved through a complicated process, which may take the investment of hours of time, something that few if any pastors will do unless there’s a bequest or an estate to consider, or the deceased was a community leader. The chaplain is not concerned with what the faith tradition prescribes or what the faith community expects; the chaplain’s concern is directed and focused on the care of the bereaved, how they are coping, navigating them through the grief work, the mourning process, healing, transformation, and reintegration. Neither the funeral director nor the pastor is in a position to tackle such a situation. In fact, most funeral directors and pastors are really not interested in getting that involved in the process of grief work and forget aftercare altogether. The same applies to many pastoral ministers.
This means that the bereaved and the mourning community are short-changed; they’re cheated out of the full transformational experience of offered by the personalized funeral ritual that offers profound psychospiritual support and paves the way to healing and transformation, making grief less traumatic and life more promising.
When secular funeral professionals and pastoral ministers collude and conspire together under any pretense or for any reason whatsoever, they betray the trust traditionally conferred upon them by the community, they cheat the bereaved and the mourning community, and worse still, they set an fundamentally evil precedent! The resulting situation is not only regrettable, it’s reprehensible. Why? Because most persons who are in the traumatic throes of acute grief are in an altered psychospiritual state; they are not thinking right and see the world in a confused vision. They tend to grasp trustingly at any straw coming their way and think that it will save them. Regrettably, most funeral service providers and clergy take fullest advantage of that to spew their respective “pitches” whether it be merchandising or pabulum preaching. Both disguise a cookie cutter as a life preserver!
In reality, the funeral director, whether independent or corporate, is interested in getting the case processed and closed within the shortest time possible without traumatizing the bereaveds’ sense of decency — assuming that the bereaved have any such sense — and getting on with the next removal. The pastor has to prepare his sermon, supervise the bible study groups, plan the religious education curriculum, discuss Sunday’s worship music with the music director, meet with the parish council, look for a new car, check the obits, and make time to have dinner with the local funeral director(s). Tough life for both, right?
My message, if I may presume to state it in so many words, is that funeral directors and pastoral ministers or spiritual care providers must take their fiduciary duties and obligations ethically seriously, they must play fairly and remember their privileged role in the community. When I say they must play fairly and remember their privileged role in the community I mean that they must respect boundaries, admit their limitations, and practice true humility in compassion. Funeral directors and pastoral ministers must be ready to admit that they can’t do everything, that they don’t have the training or experience to do some things, and that they have to stop deceiving their respective publics by shamelessly representing or misrepresenting that that are masters of all trades.
While I would like to pass on some of the responsibility for this deplorable state of affairs, essentially caused and exploited by spurious funeralization practices and the greed of pastoral ministers in institutionalized religion, each at times illicitly operating both on the profane and the psychospiritual planes, on the shoulders of the consumer of funeralization and religious services, I can’t do that with very great confidence or credibility. The reason I can’t do that in the majority of cases is stated at the beginning of this essay, in a nutshell: They are simply so traumatized and confused by the complexity of circumstances surrounding a death that they have to legally, physically, practically and spiritually rely on others to help them through it all. It is here that the so-called professionals fail in their basic duties and obligations, and not only the bereaved, but all of society suffer the deleterious effects caused by these two professions, the funeral director and the clergy, alone.
Death is not just natural. Death is not just inevitable. Death is not just a loss. Death is a set of circumstances that sets into motion a vast array of complex responses and reactions in a process that can either be destructively or constructively transformational at the personal, community and societal levels. It is the vocation of the bereavement chaplain to provide the psychospiritual armamentarium to ensure that the transformation is constructive, healing, and nurtures positive growth and reintegration into life.
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