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I'm a sixth generation funeral director. I have a grad degree in Missional Theology and a Certification in Thanatology.
And I like to read and write.
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Posts by Caleb Wilde
Today’s guest post is written by Patricia Fitchett.
The funeral home that I work for is a big proponent of personalization. We even have the word “Options” right in our title. I have found from working in the funeral business for over 13 years that no funeral is exactly the same as another. Even if you use the same location, or the same officiant or the same prayers or readings, each person who is being honored/memorialized is a huge influence on the proceedings.
The best comment we get to hear is “It was exactly what he or she would have wanted!” (except of course in those situations where the LAST thing he or she would have wanted was to be dead.) It is a real pleasure to be able to help families make choices that make the service for their family member special and unique. That being said, we are often called upon to be the “bad taste police”; pointing out when an idea may not have the intended effect.
Let me give you an example. We’ve all heard Sarah McLachlan’s “In The Arms Of The Angels” song on the commercial where sad shelter dogs with their piteous eyes beg for a loving home. The song is beautiful and haunting and I have had people request it at funerals. From the snippet that you hear in the commercial, it sounds like it would be the perfect choice. But if you look a little farther into the lyrics you find phrases like this one: “everywhere you turn, there’s vultures and thieves at your back, and the storm keeps on twisting, you keep on building the lies that you make up for all that you lack”. Not really the heartwarming option that it seemed originally.
Another example is the song “Stairway To Heaven”. Although people of a certain age love this tune and it holds a special place in our hearts and minds, it is an exceedingly bad choice for a memorial service. Not only will your grandmother hate it, but she will hate it for about seven minutes (an eternity in “sitting in silence at a funeral while recorded music plays” time). The lyrics themselves do nothing to ameliorate the eternity spent listening to the uncut version and unless your loved one was actually killed by “finding a bustle in his or her hedgerow and becoming alarmed”, do not make this tune one of your options.
The funeral home that I work for is known for holding funeral services in places that are not a funeral home. For a lot of people it is their church. Some people don’t want a church at all, and we have been able to find several lovely options (most notably the KemperCenter) where people can be comfortable holding a memorable, elegant, personal service.
Some folks though are looking for an even more personal option. For some of these families, we have to think way outside the box. We have held services around a favorite tree in someone’s back yard. We have scattered cremated remains at Lake Michigan and on the 13th hole of a golf course where the deceased made a hole in one. (I will never tell which golf course though. I don’t think they really like that. Let’s just say that the sand trap may contain a cup of something that is not sand.)
As far as location “don’ts” go, I would tell people who want to hold services at a tavern to have the speaking part take place sooner rather than later in relation to the drinking part. Enough said…..
By far the most interesting location was chosen by a family we served last year. The gentleman had gone into the hospital while renovations were being made on the shed attached to the barn at his beloved farm. The man died before he could see the work finished. His family held his funeral (complete with casket) in the family’s barn.
The man’s family cleaned the barn and decorated it with all sort of wild flowers and plants from the property. Only his immediate family was in attendance. His children and grandchildren spoke and I sang his favorite hymns. It was a beautiful service and there was an unmistakable rightness to the location that I wouldn’t have thought was possible.
Options? Ask for them by name.
Patti Fitchett is an Apprentice Funeral Director with Casey Family Options Funerals and Cremations of Racine Wisconsin. Patti came to the funeral business as a lay minister and found an affinity for being of service to the families of Southeastern Wisconsin.
As is often the case, we tend to get house calls in the middle of snow storms. And this past week was no different. I plowed out the funeral home’s parking lot, pulled out the pick-up van and we were on our way. We arrived to a packed house where family and friends encircled the deceased in a garrison of grief.
“Direct cremation”, the family said. “That’s what she wanted.” As is our modus operandi we assured them, “Take as long as you need to say your good-byes.” And with that permission, six members of the family proceeded to pull out their cell phones, leaned down and took a photo with the deceased.
Funeral photography, funeral selfies and “corpsies” via mobile devices are becoming more and more normal at death beds AND funerals, despite the fact that they’re seen by many as pure sacrilege. Huffington Post stated that such images are “evidence the apocalypse can’t come soon enough.” And with the boneheaded cadaver selfie and this photo below (read more HERE) in the news lately, it’s no wonder the Huffington Post feels the way they do. And let me be clear, the cadaver selfie and this boneheaded photo below AREN’T cool and they AREN’T the funeral selfies that I’m defending.
I myself once felt uncomfortable with the idea of deathbed / funeral selfies, but as I’ve seen more and more people take these photos, I’ve slowly become more open. Here’s why:
One. There’s a long history of funeral photography. Heck, I think there’s a one million year old photo of a dead Homo erectus floating around the internet.
Two. Unlike the cadaver selfie or the photo above, funeral photography is usually motivated by some kind of love.
Intent is part of the issue when talking about funerals and photography, etc. Why do it? What’s the motivation? And although the motivation isn’t always clear, it IS clear most take these photos as a token of remembrance. A token of love.
Three. If you happen upon a dead Sasquatch, there’s no decorum … snuggle up to dead Bigfoot and TAKE THAT SELFIE!
Four: Selfies don’t equal narcissism.
The very term “narcissism” comes from the Greek myth of Narcissus. Narcissus was drawn to a pool of water, where he saw his reflection and fell in love with it. He was so fixated upon his beauty that he never left his reflection until his death.
At first glance, selfies would seem like the epitome of narcissism, and indeed many are self-serving. But many (most) are about belonging.
Five. Emerging culture cares more about belonging than decorum.
We’ve moved from the neatly defined groups/tribes of pluralism to the blending of fragmentation. We are like quilts. We’re like a mosaic.
With fragmentation, the social rules that come with the strictly defined boundaries of pluralism become less and less important. With fragmentation, belonging and identity become of prime importance. Belonging and identity is decorum.
Six. Deathbed / funeral selfies are often about belonging.
Social media is how many of us relate to the world. We communicate through texts, facebook messages and photos. The selfie is a way of saying “this is where I am at … this is what I’m doing … this is who I am.” And the funeral selfie is how we say, “This part of my community has died and I just wanted to let you know.” In the minds of many, taking a selfie with the deceased is right because it’s about expressing a connection to the deceased and wanting to share that connection with others. It’s about identity and belonging.
That’s the thing. If you want to take any form of funeral photography, ask first. While you may be a part of emerging culture, it’s likely your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles are NOT. They have a sense of decorum that you might lack, so ask their permission before you take your photos. And for god’s sake, don’t jump in the casket so you can get “a really good close up”. And, if the deceased has a Facebook or twitter account, it’s probably not good to tag them in your photo.
Eight. More permission.
Just because you have permission to take the photo doesn’t mean you have permission to share the photo on Facebook. Yeah, we love you and we love your grandmother, but when we’re sitting down to eat some meatloaf for dinner we’re not THAT interested in having your corpsie show up in our Instagram feed.
So, share it in a closed group … or with specific friends.
Nine. More professionalism.
People like a degree of professionalism around death. I think in the future, as deathbed / funeral photograph gains some ground, we’ll find more professional ways to photograph the dead … and maybe we’ll even hire death photographers.
Ten. Since social media is how the younger generation relates with the world, it will likely be how the younger generation relates with death.
So, a funeral selfie isn’t about stupid kids and their narcissistic attempts to express themselves. It’s about how they/we relate with a world that’s being defined more and more by globalization and fragmentation … it’s about belonging.
Good ahead. Get permission. And take those photos.
Last year The American Psychiatric Association (APA) published their Fifth Edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5); and it’s created no small stir among the psychiatrist community.
One of the main issues that psychiatrists are having with the DSM-5 is that it is lumping normal grief into Major Depressive Disorder. Here’s a quote from Dr. Allen Frances, professor emeritus of Duke’s School of Medicine:
(In the new DSM-5) Normal grief will become Major Depressive Disorder, thus medicalizing and trivializing our expectable and necessary emotional reactions to the loss of a loved one and substituting pills and superficial medical rituals for the deep consolations of family, friends, religion, and the resiliency that comes with time and the acceptance of the limitations of life.
There are many shared characteristics between grief and depression, but there’s also some distinct differences. Dr. Ginette G. Ferszt states this:
Although everyone grieves differently, grief and depression share several common characteristics. Both may include intense sadness, fatigue, sleep and appetite disturbances, low energy, loss of pleasure, and difficulty concentrating. The key difference is that a grieving person usually stays connected to others, periodically experiences pleasure, and continues functioning as he rebuilds his life. With depression, a connection with others and the ability to experience even brief periods of pleasure are generally missing. Sometimes people describe feeling as if they have fallen into a black hole and fear they may never climb out. Overwhelming emotions interfere with the ability to cope with everyday stressors.
Here is a chart that shows the similarities and differences between depression and grief.
Should we medicate grief?
Mostly “no”, but in some cases “yes”. Here is when grief may need some type of medication:
- If grief-related anxiety is so severe that it interferes with daily life, anti-anxiety medication may be helpful.
- If the person is experiencing sleep problems, short-term use of prescription sleep aids may be helpful.
- If symptoms last longer than two months after the loss and the diagnostic criteria are met, the person may be suffering from Major Depressive Disorder. In this case, antidepressants would be an appropriate therapy.
Here is are some criteria to determine if grief has transitioned to Major Depressive Disorder.
- Feelings of guilt not related to the loved one’s death
- Thoughts of death other than feelings he or she would be better off dead or should have died with the deceased person
- Morbid preoccupation with worthlessness
- Sluggishness or hesitant and confused speech
- Prolonged and marked difficulty in carrying out the activities of day-to-day living
- Hallucinations other than thinking he or she hears the voice of or sees the deceased person. (From Nancy Schimelpfening’s “Grief and Depression”).
Ultimately, grief is the response to loss. And no amount of medication is going to bring that loss back. We must learn to live with the loss of someone integral to our very being. If medication hurts that learning process, then it’s destructive. If it can help us learn to live in the “new normal”, then it becomes an aid to understanding life after loss.
I think the following quote sums up the core of why medicating grief is usually not healthy:
That’s what I wanted to say.
If you know me, you know that I tend to be blunt. Awkwardly so.
Being that blunt objects aren’t allowed at funerals, I’ve learned the art of professional speak.
Situation Number 1:
Blunt Caleb: “When we picked your dad up from the nursing home, he was looking all purple and reddish, but after we embalmed him, we were able to flush the discoloration out of his face.”
Professional speak, “Your dad looks great.”
Situation Number 2:
Blunt Caleb: “Do you want that beard shaved off your mom’s face?”
Professional speak Caleb ignores asking that question all together and just shaves mom’s face.
Americans — maybe even Westerns as a whole — are impatient. We rarely have quiet. The TV’s constantly on. Our smart phones are ever at our side. Ear buds in our ears. Meditation is a foreign concept. Prayer is avoidable at all costs. And the patience learned in the silence is never attained. And then comes death and the silence that comes with it. The meditation. The prayer. The lack of words. And when the results of grief work don’t come immediately, we become impatient and think, “Something is dreadfully wrong with me!” And we’re right. We usually conclude that we’re deeply depressed; the reality may simply be that we’re deeply and intrinsically impatient, unable to find the peace in the silence that comes from death. Maybe we’re just as afraid of the silence as we are of death.
Death brings its own pace of life … its own schedule. It’s never convenient. But we want it to be. We want to control it. We want to put it on an itinerary that fits our fast paced, purpose driven lifestyles.
Perhaps that battle for control is nowhere more apparent than at a viewing, especially when the viewing line mimics the slow moving, long lines we see at a popular amusement park ride.
This past Saturday night, I stood there behind the register book, striking up conversation with people as they enter the sanctuary. The viewing line snakes around the church, down the hall and into the basement as we try to extend it through the corridors of the church so as to keep the line from going out into the cold elements of a Pennsylvania winter. The family of the deceased is taking their time, talking to each and every person who has come out on this chilly night.
“Other funeral directors stand by the family’s receiving line and tell them to keep their conversations short and simply”, one person stated.
“We don’t do that”, I said politely.
Another couple comes through the line and complains that they’ve been standing in line for half-an-hour AND by the look of things, they’ll probably be in line for another half-an-hour. “Can’t you do anything?” they beg.
I try to make a joke … I tell them that, like Disney World, we are going to create an express line, where you can bypass the crowd for a fee. “That’s a great idea”, they say. “We’d pay $50 to skip this line.”
After having this conversation about 10 times over the next hour, I’m getting tired of my joke and I’m getting tired of people complaining.
I want to pull them close to my face and whisper, “This isn’t about you.” But that would be blunt Caleb speaking and that Caleb isn’t allowed around death.
Perhaps the greatest loss that comes with the drone of our busy lives is that in losing silence, we’ve lost patience, and in losing patience we’ve become so inherently selfish that when we go to a funeral we forget that it’s not about us.
Funeral directors can crack anytime of the year, but during the winter, it seems our mental state becomes much more vulnerable to suffering from the occupational hazards of burnout, compassion fatigue and depression. Sure, many of us who live in the colder climates of the world suffer through the winter blues; but for those in funeral service, winter often means more sickness, more death and more stress placed upon our shoulders.
Death runs strong before, during and after the holidays … and then somewhere before the start of spring, it seems he pulls a double shift. And as those who follow Death’s movements, we too start pulling the double shifts.
After a month or so of pulling long days, we reach a point and suddenly we feel like we have nothing left to give. So, we push through our exhaustion and it isn’t too long before we morph into stress induced monsters. Yes, monsters.
Death is wild. It has no desire to be tamed. And it’s a capricious boss. It doesn’t follow a schedule. It doesn’t listen to our cries for reprieve. It doesn’t stop when we’re exhausted. We have no control.
And this lack of control is the problem. Since death doesn’t hear our complaints, since it can’t be fought and subdued, we funeral directors will often displace our aggression onto ourselves and our families. And this is where the monster is made.
Pedersen, Gonzales, & Miller write that,
“Displaced aggression is thought to occur when a person who is initially provoked cannot retaliate directly against the source of that provocation and, instead, subsequently aggresses against a seemingly innocent target.”
This “seemingly innocent target” is usually those around us: our spouses, our children, our friends and ourselves.
It’s in these time of burnout that some of us start to drink more heavily; some of us will see our families fall apart before our eyes; and others (like me) will spiral down into deep dark places of depression. Those in the funeral industry can suffer burnout anytime of the year; but during this time of the year particularly, the road can become very difficult.
Often we don’t realize we’re burnt out until it’s too late. We’ve been working so hard trying to stay on top of the funerals we’re arranging that we simply don’t have time to reflect and take stock of our personal lives. Our schedules become so busy that we stop going to the gym, we stop eating healthy, getting enough sleep; and we let our hobbies fall on the wayside.
And out of nowhere our partner leaves us.
Out of nowhere we’re contemplating suicide.
Out of nowhere we’re using a destructive coping mechanism to get through the stress of Death’s spree.
Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve noticed that the funeral industry doesn’t offer a good support system when it comes to the personal mental and physical health of its workers. When one of us gets burnt out, there’s rarely someone there to council you. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see those in funeral service being encouraged to see out professional help from psychologists.
And maybe it’s time to change that. Maybe it’s time we start recognizing that it happens often in this industry. Maybe it’s time to start doing something about it.
So, if you’re burnt out right now, let me encourage you: seek help. It’s not okay for you to be burnt out. In fact, you’re robbing your family and friends, the people you serve and yourself. You are NOT strong enough to do this on your own. It’s time to overcome the monster.