Today’s guest post is written by Pastor Dieter Reda:
Over the last 34 years of pastoral ministry I have conducted hundreds of funerals. That means I have worked with scores of funeral professionals. My ride to the cemetery is usually in the lead car, which normally is driven by the director who is in charge of a particular funeral. Sometimes it is a short ride, but there have been some longer trips also to distant cemeteries or to burials in a rural cemetery way out in the boonies. The conversations have ranged from the polite professional, to swapping stories, to the occasional theological conversation. In any case, when you spend time in close confinement with someone on a repeated basis, you get to know something about their personality and what makes them tick. And then there were two years of hiatus from ministry; time that I needed to heal some personal wounds. In that time I worked first at cemetery sales, and then spent a year in a corporate funeral home. That presented even more opportunity to spend time with funeral directors up close.
The majority of the men and women I worked with are capable and compassionate professionals, who believe strongly in what they do, and sincerely try to help the families they serve. For some however it is just a job, and a very small minority should probably be in a different line of work. But that is true of all professions, including the ministry. Some of the people I worked with, I would trust to look after my family, and in fact one of them did. A very few I would not trust with the burial of my dog. Several have remained my friends to this day.
Many directors struggle with the myths and stereotypical generalizations about their work and their role. . Here are some of the more common myths and my response based on being up close and personal with a number of these professionals.
- Funeral Directors are only in the business for the money. That is partially true for almost anyone who is gainfully employed. Everyone would like fair compensation and many if not most of us think that should be as much as possible. Some of the funeral directors that I was close to revealed their income level to me and frankly I was appalled how little they are paid. I would suggest that it takes a special kind of person with a deep commitment to what they do, to work the long hours that funeral professionals do, which often includes holy days and public holidays on which the general work force is paid not to work. Like doctors, nurses, police, fire fighters, ministers and others, a funeral director often has to work when everybody else is having fun. Some of the others are paid double time for those efforts, but not the funeral director. When a death happens on Christmas Day, we expect someone to be available when we call the funeral home. If you want to be in something “just for the money”, the funeral business is not the place to be, unless you happen to own a funeral home. Nowadays many of them are owned by huge corporations, and yes they are very profitable.
- Funeral Directors are opportunists who prey on other peoples’ vulnerability. The assumption is that funeral homes take advantage of the fact that you are emotionally distraught as you come to make final arrangements and that therefore they will manipulate you into spending as much money as possible. While there are unscrupulous people in every profession, the truth that I have observed is that most funeral directors prefer that the principal mourner not be alone when it comes to financial decisions such as what casket to purchase. Most encourage that other members of the family, or perhaps even close friends take part, in order to avoid making emotional and unwise decisions. I have known more than one director who has persuaded someone to consider a more affordable option. That is why they also advocate making pre-arrangements at a time when one can carefully consider what is affordable.
- Funeral Directors are aggressive sales people. My experience has shown me that actually very few of them are skilled sales people. Most of them are “order takers” who try and find what it is that the customer wants, and then make that happen. I have seen the “used car salesman” type of funeral director only in the movies. In real life, a mortician couldn’t stay in business if he or she had a reputation about such antics.
- Funeral Directors are insensitive Fakes. I actually met one, but only one such professional. It seems that no matter where you saw him, he had weepy eyes that actually could produce tears on demand, and he always spoke in that soft stained glass whisper. We don’t expect funeral professionals to pretend to be mourners. I have always appreciated the ones that are respectful in their demeanor, even when the funeral involves rituals that are contrary to a director’s beliefs. I don’t expect a director to sing the hymns, recite the creed or the prayers, but I would appreciate it if he did not whisper and joke with a colleague during such moments, and yes I have seen that too! When a family is a gravesite, the worst sight for them is to see the funeral staff standing behind the cars laughing and joking during the service, only to put on the soft whisper when they hold open the door to the limousine. That is fake, but according to my observation that is the exception, rather than the rule. Most of those that I have observed are respectfully professional, and others are genuinely compassionate.
- Funeral Directors are Experts about Everything on Death and Dying. To be honest, some of the younger newly licenced directors do come across that way. I had to remind one young colleague that he often served people who were much more educated than he, and know more about psychology, grief, to name just a few things. While more and more funeral directors now have university degrees, here in Ontario the educational requirements are minimal. A High School diploma will get you admitted into the “Funeral Services” program at one of the colleges in Toronto. This involves 1 year (2 semesters) of classes and embalming labs, followed by a 1 year apprenticeship in a licenced funeral home, after which time the provincial licence exam is written. The licence entitles you to embalm, and to sell and make at-need funeral arrangements. It does not however make you an authority on grief counselling, financial and estate planning, medical issues, and many other things that some funeral directors like to pontificate about. Neither does it make you a theologian, although I was surprised by how many former ministers ended up in the death care industry.
I have come to the conclusion that it takes a very special person to pursue this calling. Someone with a unique set of skills to deal with both the living and the dead. My advice: get to know one, preferably before you need to.
Dieter Reda has been an ordained Minister for the past 34 years and served various churches in central and western Canada. Since 2003 he is senior pastor at Mission Baptist Church in Hamilton, Ontario (Canada). His blog of pastoral musings on various issues is at www.dieterreda.com and you can follow him on Twitter @Dieterreda.
Today’s guest post is written by Jennie Haskamp:
After signing my Pop, EM2 Bud Cloud (circa Pearl Harbor) up for hospice care, the consolation prize I’d given him (for agreeing it was OK to die) was a trip to “visit the Navy in San Diego.”
I emailed my friend and former Marine sergeant, Mrs. Mandy McCammon, who’s currently serving as a Navy Public Affairs Officer, at midnight on 28 May. I asked Mandy if she had enough pull on any of the bases in San Diego to get me access for the day so I could give Bud, who served on USS Dewey (DD-349), a windshield tour.
We linked up with Mandy outside Naval Base San Diego and carpooled to the pier where we were greeted by CMDCM Joe Grgetich and a squad-sized group of Sailors. Bud started to cry before the doors of the van opened. He’d been oohing and pointing at the cyclic rate as we approached the pier, but when we slowed down and Mandy said, “They’re all here for you, Bud,” he was overwhelmed.
After we were all out of the van directly in front of the Dewey, shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries, Petty Officer Simon introduced himself and said as the ship’s Sailor of the Year he had the honor of pushing Bud’s wheelchair for the day. Unbeknownst to us, they’d decided to host Budaboard the Dewey, not at the Dewey. And so they carried him aboard. None of us expected him to go aboard the ship. I’d told him we were going down to the base and would have the chance to meet and greet a few of the Sailors from the new Dewey. He was ecstatic. The day before, he asked every few hours if we were “still going down to visit the boys from the Dewey,” and “do they know I was on the Dewey, too?”
Once aboard, we were greeted by the CO, CDR Jake Douglas, the XO and a reinforced platoon-sized group of Sailors. To say it was overwhelming is an understatement. These men and women waited in line to introduce themselves to Bud. They shook his hand, asked for photos with him, and swapped stories. It was simply amazing.
They didn’t just talk to him, they listened.
Bud’s voice was little more than a weak whisper at this point and he’d tell a story and then GMC Eisman or GSCS Whynot would repeat it so all of the Sailors on deck could hear. In the midst of the conversations, Petty Officer Flores broke contact with the group. Bud was telling a story and CMDCM Grgetich was repeating the details when Flores walked back into view holding a huge photo of the original USS Dewey. That moment was priceless. Bud stopped mid-sentence and yelled, “There she is!” They patiently stood there holding the photo while he told them about her armament, described the way it listed after it was hit, and shared other details about the attacks on Pearl Harbor.
Bud finally admitted how tired he was after more than an hour on deck. While they were finishing up goodbyes and taking last minute photographs, GMC Eisman asked if it’d be OK to bring Sailors up to visit Bud in a few months after a Chief’s board. I hadn’t said it yet because I didn’t want it to dampen the spirit of the day, but I quietly explained to GMC Eisman the reason we’d asked for the visit was simple: Bud was dying.
I told him they were welcome to come up any time they wanted, but I suspected Bud had about a month left to live. Almost without hesitation, he asked if the crew could provide the burial honors when the time came. I assured him that’d be an honor we’d welcome.
Leaving the ship was possibly more emotional than boarding.
They piped him ashore. CMDCM Grgetich leaned in and quietly told me how significant that honor was and who it’s usually reserved for as we headed towards the gangplank. Hearing “Electrician’s Mate Second Class William Bud Cloud, Pearl Harbor Survivor, departing” announced over the 1MC was surreal.
Later that night Bud sat in his recliner, hands full of ship’s coins and declared, “I don’t care what you do with my power tools; you better promise you’ll bury me with these.”
He died 13 days later. For 12 of those 13 days he talked about the Dewey, her Sailors and his visit to San Diego. Everyone who came to the house had to hear the story, see the photos, hold the coins, read the plaques.
True to his word, GMC Eisman arranged the details for a full honors burial. The ceremony was simple yet magnificent. And a perfect sendoff for an ornery old guy who never, ever stopped being proud to be a Sailor. After the funeral, the Sailors came back to the house for the reception and spent an hour with the family. This may seem like a small detail, but it’s another example of them going above and beyond the call of duty, and it meant more to the family than I can explain.
There are more photos, and I’m sure I missed a detail, or a name. What I didn’t miss and will never forget, is how unbelievable the men and women of the USS Dewey were. They opened their ship and their hearts and quite literally made a dream come true for a dying Sailor.
They provided the backdrop for “This is the best day of my life, daughter. I never in my whole life dreamed I’d step foot on the Dewey again or shake the hand of a real life Sailor.”
Without question, it’s the best example of Semper Fidelis I’ve ever seen.
Jennie Haskamp is a Marine Corps veteran. Follow Jennie’s personal blog HERE. And to read a follow-up to the post you just read, click HERE.
Today’s guest post is written by John Davis:
Dementia is a lost-ness, a wild unknowing, an uncomprehending path that leads nowhere and means nothing. It does not easily lend itself to sentimentality or imagined goodness. It is stark and haunting.
The distance and isolation that falls over a family is inescapable, as is the cruel glacial drifting that forces people to become strangers to one of their own. It alters interactions and mercilessly constricts those we know until only a shell remains. One sees the mimicking mask of a stranger and feels the sting and ache of a familiar body inhabited by one who is now not known.
At first its presence is barely noticed: a name not remembered, a misplaced pen, a pause, a break, a whisper of a stranger’s voice coming from mother’s mouth. But eventually it forces its way into the center.
She was our common ground. We all knew her doting, her goodness, her infectious love and laughter. We were connected to each other by our knowledge of who she was to us. Now we are bound by her cold unknowing. We are unremembered and unknown to her, and somehow this makes us unable or unwilling to talk of her as if she is who she was. She has slowly fallen out of our conversations, our family rituals – and unforgivably – our thoughts.
Her body is now but a poor memento, a walking replica that is shoddily made. It is not quite right in the important ways. The eyes are different. They no longer perceive or comfort. And the hands are not right. The hands should be better taken care of. They should be softer. They should knowingly grasp back. These don’t. These hands seem to not know how. It is impossible to imagine what these hands have done or where they have been. They do not know, and therefore they can not be known. They are not hers.
I am alone. She is alone. It is joyless, soulless, and a deep sadness.
Yet I am struck by the incompleteness of those words. They do not capture what I feel or all that I know to be true. I refuse to accept the awful arithmetic that allows a decade worth of confusion to equal more than an entire life lived. I know innately that what is broken means less than what is beautiful, and I believe deeply that hope and memory are made of stronger things than a diseased unknowing.
So after witnessing her mind smolder with disease and living through the slow burn I want to shout that there was more, and that I can remember when things were different. I want it to be known that there were days when the sun shone on my grandmother and she was strong and brave, confident in her step and sure in her voice, and that the world was too small to hold her love.
I know what happened to her, but I do not approve, and I am not resigned. So I force myself to remember the sound of her voice, and I say her name to others, and I dream her back to me.
I see her enlivened face as I knew it in my youth: her skin creased like worn paper, her smile gleaming, and her eyes blue splashes of lapping waves on top of a mirrored sunset. She walks towards me and I hear her laugh. I reach for her hand and she tenderly turns my fingers to fit within her own. We walk along the shore as the sun slowly slides beneath the endless expanse of a summer ocean and whisped water strikes our arms and necks and legs. And we talk in half-whispers. She tells me where she has been and that she loves me more than I could ever imagine, and that she always has. I tell her that I know, and that I never forgot her love. I tell her that it was all that I ever really knew.
*****About the author: Biblical Seminary attendee (only for a semester though. apparently I like questions more than answers.) I spent a few years as a social worker (both with the elderly and mental health population). Currently self-employed as a ‘personal historian‘. Which means that I help individuals turn their memories into something more and find meaningful ways to memorialize the lives of loved ones. Visit John’s website HERE.
Today’s guest post is written by funeral professional and blogger Jeff Harbeson:
I have seen it in the eyes of family upon my arrival for the removal/transfer of their deceased loved one. Exhaustion, sadness, disbelief that death has arrived for the person they cared for and loved. Many of us in the funeral profession have made home removals to see the look and feel the tone of those that have given so much of their lives over the recent past. For the next 48 to 72 hours, these saints must muster even more energy for the funeral activities that will take place.
I have been part of and talked with many that shared their experiences with the exhaustive “death watch” which may last months. In their wonderful mission of making the transition from life to death as comforting as possible, I also know that hospice and senior care workers now must move to their next assignment, exhausted as well.
Similar to bringing a newborn home, caring for a dying loved one uproots routines. Sleep, work, personal time, meals, care visits, laundry, etc. all change. In most cases, babies at some point get settled and find a routine similar to our own, but the transition to death has no routine.
An example and the inspiration of this post is one of our associates lost his father just last night. Several weeks ago we were made aware that hospice care determined that the death of his father was imminent, which meant that as his funeral home family we are on standby to assist and serve. The agonizing weeks, days and hours that followed took an emotional toll on their family. It’s interesting that at our funeral home we have been notified by family that life sustaining procedures have been stopped on their loved one, and death may occur at any time. I have personal knowledge of people surviving without life support and living for over a month…incredible testimony to our human design.
For some, plans for the funeral have been made for their deceased loved one. The details of contacting others, dates, times and locations are pretty much all that has not been secured. For others, even more exhaustive days are ahead. Funeral decisions made under the cloud of grief coupled with exhaustion only exasperate what is considered one of life’s most stressful events, the funeral of a loved one. On top of this, finances, frayed emotions and unresolved family issues are not unusual during funeral events.
Death is often exhausting…for those that are dying, for family that is tending and caring for the dying, for those that make the transition more comfortable from life to death, and for those that serve the families in their darkest of days. I have witnessed, deal with and ultimately know that I too will personally experience exhausting death of a loved one. My words are from my heart to encourage all of us to continue to have empathy, provide comfort and serve those that are experiencing exhaustive death. At some point, we’ll want to be served as we serve.
Jeff Harbeson, Founder & CEO of The Harbeson Group www.theharbesongroup.com brings his innovative development of partnerships, products and services in the funeral industry to The Funeral Commander www.thefuneralcommander.com blog. Jeff’s unique experience as a military officer, funeral home developer/owner/partner, funeral industry entrepreneur, and B2B funeral industry product/service provider offers perspectives from his various viewpoints. Working alongside, meeting and collaborating with funeral industry professionals, The Funeral Commander is an excellent platform to profile superlatives, innovation, challenging issues, humor and stories that matter…stories from the heart. Also follow Jeff on twitter: www.twitter.com/harbesongroup
Today’s guest post is written by Micha Boyett.
I have this joke with my husband about who he’ll be allowed to marry if I die: Heidi Klum, of course. I want him to achieve all his life dreams.
Sometimes we laugh over which of his three brothers I would marry if we lived in Biblical Old Testament days and I was forced to carry on his bloodline (of course I would only get to choose between brothers because I’m making up the rules). I refuse to comment on which one I’ve chosen. I’ll let them arm wrestle for the prize.
The point is, we talk about dying sometimes. And we should. I don’t want it to be some taboo topic between the two of us. As a mom of two, it’s almost impossible for me to not think about the impermanence of all this life around me. My kids are growing at a rate I cannot believe. My oldest son is somehow almost six years old, and I feel the loss of his babyhood in the deepest parts of me. I have lost his infant-giggle, his chunky body, his cuddles, his toddler mind. Now, he is an almost-graduated Kindergartener with Kindergarten-sized friendship troubles, secrets, and frustrations that I can’t completely understand. He’s also learning to read and discovering his passion for science and nature. He’s developing a conscience of his own, working hard to persuade his parents that our love for eating meat is harmful to the Nature he loves.
In short, this is the story of every human on the planet. We live and grow and, one day, leave the care and nurture of our parents. It’s beautiful and it’s tragic. For every thing gained, another is lost. This is the work of Time: A Planet Earth whirling in its spot in the universe—day and night, day and night—bringing us to one another and removing us from one another. My son is growing up. I am losing him and gaining him—his real self—which, heartbreakingly for his mother, is separate from me.
As a person of faith, I first discovered the writings of St. Benedict because I was struggling with this notion of Time. I was a new mom, already feeling the simultaneous devastation and joy of motherhood. And I was also an anxious American, with a calendar packed full of stuff I ought to do and was failing to accomplish. When was I supposed to exercise/read/have a spiritual life when my kid was demanding me at all moments? I’d read somewhere that the Benedictine monks believe that there always “enough time in each day” and I wondered what that could possibly mean. (And I hoped they would give me some magic secret to getting control of my wild life.)
As I studied St. Benedict’s 6th Century notions of community and prayer, I came to an instruction that has remained with me, these years later. Benedict reminded his monks that they should live in such a way that they, “Keep the reality of death always before [their] eyes.”
What does it mean to live that way? Not with some morbid death obsession, but to notice that this moment—here, right now—is a gift? Everything is passing, and that reality is both beautiful and devastating. Somehow, the fact that we are always in the process of losing each other allows us, if we let it, to love more deeply. Recognizing our coming-death teaches us to cling to the life we’ve been given.
I’m not really sure what it means to live with the reality of death always before me, but I think it has something to do with gratefulness, with awareness. And I think that’s where prayer—however we define it—begins: in the place where we pay attention, see the people around us with compassion, and hold both death and life in the same tender hand.
Micha (pronounced “MY-cah”) Boyett is a writer, blogger, and sometimes poet. Her first book, Found: A Story Questions, Grace, and Everyday Prayer releases today. A born and raised Texan, Micha lives in San Francisco with her husband, Chris, and their two sons. Find her on Twitter, Facebook, and at michaboyett.com.