When asked what I think a funeral director’s most underappreciated duty is to a family, I answer: “To listen.”
At the arrangement table we create a solemn trust with those we serve in their time of need. To be the guiding force, the preparer of rites, the wisdom bearer, and the unburdening ear.
As funeral directors, we spend a lot of our time talking. We could learn so much about why we are called to this profession if we would retain experiences from our families as plentifully as we gave them in return.
Death forms a vacuum around the bereaved. Life as they’ve known it up until that point will never be the same. The realization that an integral part of themselves has come to an end can be a shock to the nervous system.
What a funeral director is encountering at a family conference is the rawest form a person may assume. Those who normally have a strong filter may let something crass slip from their lips. Dark feelings about the deceased or surviving relatives have a way of floating to the surface during the planning process.
I have a handful of experiences that come to mind when discussing what we are taught by those we serve. I remember meeting with the son of a woman who had passed away rather suddenly. He had chosen cremation with a memorial service for his mother and when asked if he had any siblings he exclaimed, “My brother is NOT to have a part in this!”
I took a deep breath and began explaining our funeral home’s policy regarding cremation and our need for all next of kin to be in agreement. He turned red in the face and took on a scowl that you could have molded into a horrific Halloween mask.
“My brother is a (expletive filled rant)… and he is actively suing me.”
The son went on to explain that his mother, brother, and he ran the family business until his brother was removed from his duties. I felt dreadfully unrehearsed at handling the situation at the time. The anger the son exuded was palpable, and he was clearly terrified of what his brother might do. After several dialogues, the son agreed to let me act as a liaison with his brother.
His brother seemed quite agreeable to what his sibling had arranged and was willing to compromise to the terms. At the memorial service, they sat in their own reserved sections on opposite sides of the center aisle in the chapel.
The memorial lovingly honored the magnificence of their mother’s spirit. At the end of the service, the two weeping siblings shuffled through their pews towards one another. I winced in anticipation of a full-out brawl and was pleasantly shocked to see the men embrace in a hug. However temporary a ceasefire, I witnessed the power of a funeral to fuse a broken bond.
Observing the true feelings of those surrounding a family during a death may be critical to understanding the consumer’s perception of funeral directors.
A recent social media post which garnered national attention has sparked plenty of controversy from outside and within the funeral profession.
A funeral home reportedly refused to place a veteran in a casket for his visitation in a dispute over insurance funds. At least that is what the public was being led to believe by an erroneous Facebook post from someone near the family.
He was photographed while lying in state on a dressing table, with a head block, and an American Flag draped over his legs.
The photos went viral overnight and news outlets from all over the country began to run the story with headlines such as, “Funeral Home Disgraces Veteran”. Hysteria was quickly flowing through the fingertips of the public.
Without a clear assessment of the facts, message boards across the nation exploded into pandemonium. Each comment section receiving multiple calls for the funeral home to be shuttered, shunned, and shamed for putting a veteran and his family through such trauma.
In all fairness, few facts are presented in the one-sided story leaving the reader unaware of what truly transpired between the family and the funeral home. What we can determine from several of the more vehement and venomous responses is that some within our communities see us as the “dismal traders” as which we were once described by Jessica Mitford in her book “The American Way of Death”.
“Vultures!” one commentator noted.
“The funeral home should lose its license and be closed down!” wrote another.
The exclamation points were piling up as I read through hundreds and hundreds of comments. The words rang with loathing for our profession. A profession that is synonymous with the subject of death. A subject which is deeply taboo and of which nary a layman wishes to discuss.
Yet, here they were, spelling out their deepest darkest fears about their ultimate fate in the care of a funeral director. No survey could be this precise. No focus group would give us the kind of unfettered access we have to what was being written about us.
As a funeral director, my heart was crushed by every biting phrase, but I decided to decipher their messages instead of confronting their criticisms.
Be the funeral home that creates the uplifting counter-story to one such as this. Use what we can establish from a family’s apprehensions to sooth their skepticism.
Our calling appears to have an uphill climb in earning society’s trust. However, if you can digest all the negative, hurtful, and misunderstood moments from your experiences in this field and channel them into positive progress, you will exceed your families’ highest expectations.
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.