Over the years I have experienced loss within my family. Since joining the funeral industry in 2010 I have lost my three remaining grandparents and most recently an uncle.
Uncle Bill was somewhat reclusive. I never really had an opportunity to know my mom’s older brother. Honestly, I don’t ever remember meeting him. Towards the end of his life, major health complications such as diabetes all but immobilized him. With Bill’s body failing, my mother helped arrange for his care at a nursing facility near her farm.
I’m sure my uncle was appreciative to have his big sister so close in his time of need. She would visit him often and keep us updated as to his health and about his current mood.
It was several weeks ago when my mother called to tell me that her brother was entering hospice care and expected he would not have long to live. He requested to be cremated as so were his parents. My mother had previously made the cremation arrangements for my grandmother. I had given my professional advice about the process to assist her at the time.
The approach for her brother would be much the same. I’d help find a local funeral home to perform the cremation and filing of death certificates, and we would have a family conducted memorial service and inurnment at a later date.
I informed her that, unlike her mother’s arrangements, she was not necessarily her brother’s next-of-kin even with Power of Attorney. My Uncle had adult children to whom he was estranged.
Bill had not spoken with his kids in over 30 years. Which means my mom had not spoken with them in as long or longer. I explained that if her brother was to pass away, she would have no legal authority to choose cremation for him without either:
- His children’s consent
- Jumping through legal hoops and red-tape
- A pre-arranged funeral contract that clearly states Bill’s own intention of being cremated (still may not be enough for some funeral homes)
- A signed and notarized State of Texas “Appointment of Agent to Control Disposition of Remains” form
I forwarded her the latter from my cell phone and told her that this would allow Bill to choose who controls his disposition instead of letting the State decide. She was grateful for the preparation and to have potentially avoided being stuck in a situation in which she could not have fully helped her brother.
To further assist, I called some local funeral homes to get the lay of the land. I did not personally know any of the mortuaries in her town but I knew what questions to ask.
I was upfront with each funeral home as I explained that I was a funeral director from North Texas, this was my uncle that was on Hospice, and I was gathering information to help my mother plan a direct cremation.
It was not about price as much as comfort and communication. Neither funeral home owned their own crematory, but I knew that was not a common luxury. Though one of them did have a kin relationship with the crematory that they used. For what is the next best thing to owning your own crematory? Being related to the person who owns a crematory of course!
I told my mom which funeral home I thought would serve our family best. She wrote down their information and was prepared to give it hospice the next time she spoke with them.
The day came that my uncle breathed his last breath on this Earth. He passed as peacefully as one in pain can pass, and my mother was as prepared as one who is grieving can be prepared. Hospice called the funeral home, who arrived promptly and greeted my mom and step-father in the awkward dance known in the industry as the removal.
First impressions are EVERYTHING! As a licensed funeral director and embalmer, I’ve been on many removals and know that it can be tough for anyone in that environment to act comfortably. Families may still be in shock, or at the very least be sleep deprived, and the courtesy of a simple handshake from a funeral director can be a very comforting gesture.
The director that came to the nursing facility that day was in business mode and quite ready to get on with his job. He greeted my mom in a cold yet professional manner. He let them know that they would need to meet soon to make decisions and excused himself with my uncle in tow.
I called to check on my mother a few days after she had finished making the arrangements. She said everything seemed to go well. The director they met with was not a glimmering personality but he was efficient. My mom was prepared with her disposition form, which the director looked over with a glance. He apparently told her that she would have to fill out their forms “instead”, which she was a little annoyed about but did so anyway.
She of course reminded him that her son was a funeral director and he kindly listened to my mom do what moms do best: brag on their children. I figured that telling a professional that your son is “one of them” would cause them to either straighten their tie or roll their eyes to the back of their skull.
My mind was at ease believing that all was well…
…Until my mother called me about a week later. I could tell that she was upset when she said, “I’m a little mad at this funeral home. They’ve not followed through with anything they told me they would.”
My immediate thoughts were that I was going to have to call the Commission on a fellow undertaker. I voiced my concern, “I’m so sorry Mom. What did they do?”
She answered, “Well, they were supposed to call me when Bill’s ashes were back and they didn’t. I had to call them to make sure he was there and the office lady said, ‘Oh yeah… you can come pick him up anytime you want.’ On top of that, the death certificates weren’t ready. They told me they were waiting on me to approve some information before it could be sent to the doctor to sign. I can’t believe it’s taking so long.”
I didn’t say anything out of professional empathy. I’ve heard this from families before, just never my own.
My mother continued, “Also, the director said that it came with an urn but what we got was a plastic box that says temporary storage on it.”
I tried to clarify, “Did you pick out an urn and add it to your contract?”
Mom, “Well no, he said that it was included.”
I realized then that having a funeral director for a son does not automatically make you an expert on certain daily details of the funeral profession. As much initial groundwork as I had done, I was not in the conference room to explain exactly what my family should expect from the services they requested.
Most of my mom’s concerns were about day to day items dealt with by many families who make funeral arrangements. While failing to call a family who is waiting on their loved one’s cremated remains was pretty careless, I don’t believe it was their intention to be cruel… they’re just disorganized.
I didn’t initially mention to my mom that the disposition form was always meant to be used in conjunction with the funeral home’s own cremation authorization forms. The fact that the director allowed her, the sister, to arrange her brother’s cremation proved that he knew the clout offered to the agent to control disposition. Either way, he still needed her explicit approval on his own forms to cremate. He simply did not tell her what the additional forms were for.
Death certificates deserve their own blog post, but the differences from State to State, and the nuances between county offices and the quirky local clerks make it difficult to be too specific. Bottom line: Death certificates take time. Setting expectations as to this window of time is all it takes to sate a family’s eagerness for the all-important documents.
Urn is a term used in our industry to describe a vessel that houses cremated remains. It can be made of many different materials and take on an infinite amount of shapes and designs. A temporary urn is a misnomer in my book, as that hard plastic will probably last thousands of years longer than any wood urn ever could. Once again, setting expectations for families will make this a non-issue. It may even lead to a family choosing to upgrade their urn with you.
What this funeral home did NOT do was clearly communicate with their customer. Taking the time to explain simple procedures like the cremation paperwork, the filing of death certificates, and what type of urn comes with your direct cremation, will leave no room for families to feel sour towards your firm.
All of these “little things” became much larger issues because of a lack of communication. My mom will most certainly not be recommending that funeral home to anyone she knows. And when you live in an “everyone knows everyone” type of small town, bad press can really hurt your business.
It’s the daily minutiae of administration where the least of your accolades and most of your jeers will be generated. Don’t allow such mundane tasks to become your undoing. Be the envoy of tidings to your families regularly, and slip in updates about the “tiny” details that are all too significant to them. They’ll praise you for it.
Written by: Matthew Morian
Matt is a licensed funeral director & embalmer in the State of Texas and is a founding member of Millennial Directors. He is also a contributor to Texas Director Magazine.