Traditionally, in America, funerals have been held in the “parlour” of the deceased’s home. During the beginning decades of the twentieth century, the funeral business became more industrialized and funerals were moved to what we now call “Funeral Homes”, or “Funeral parlours.” Recently, however, there seems to be an interesting trending back toward “home funerals.”
This could be related to an evolution in understanding what the funeral is meant to accomplish for the grieving family. Having a funeral at a funeral home allows the director to take care of things for the family, but it also, by default, creates a disconnect between the funeral arrangements and their naturally occurring emotions.
In actuality, it causes a temporary shut-down of the grieving process for the length of time between the initial meeting with the funeral director and the post-reception gathering. This is not a bad thing—just the way it works.
On the other hand, with “home funerals,” the grieving process is allowed to progress uninterrupted. There is no unfamiliar setting for the funeral, no feeling that one has to put on a brave face in public. The family and friends are in their loved one’s home (or that of a close relative or friend), surrounded by familiar objects and memories. This fosters a feeling of security, so that it is safe to cry because everyone else understands, okay to laugh at funny memories, all right just to sit and take your time dealing with the loss. All this happens while the funeral director patiently talks the family through their tough decisions in the comfort of their own family room or at the kitchen table. The funeral director may even share meals and quiet time with the family. The developing familiarity and friendship prepares them to feel more comfortable during the funeral service itself.
Another benefit of home funerals is that schedules are much more relaxed for everyone. Home funerals are actually a two or three day experience, because many of the preparatory tasks ordinarily handled at the funeral home are done at the family’s home; the funeral director simply drops by the house when matters need to be tended to. Grieving cannot be rushed, so this new type of funeral offers a more personalized approach. Unlike funeral parlors which close at a set hour, with “home funerals,” people can sit with the deceased all night if they want or need to. No one will tell them that they have to leave.
Home funerals meet the needs of a growing percentage of grieving families. They are obviously not practical for large gatherings, so they will probably never become the norm—but it is comforting to know that they are an option.
Today’s guest post comes the hard working, creative entrepreneur, Matthew White. Matthew graduated from Cambridge in 2002 majoring in English after which he traveled Central America, Australia and South East Asia. While abroad he gained an abundance of cultural experience and also taught English in various places. He worked for Life Trends Magazine as the creative director from 2008-2009.
Since then, he has been working on developing resources to help grieving families, which resulted in opening the website funeralparlour.com which currently specializes in obituary templates and their complete customizations. He plans on broadening the scope of this website in the near future. Give him your “like” on his Facebook page.
(This article was originally published in the October issue of The Director. Written for ASD – Answering Service for Directors by Jessica Fowler. Used by permission.
We — at the Wilde Funeral Home — daily use the answering services of ASD; and our customers, no matter how distraught when they call, are always met with a professional and caring voice.)
Funeral Director Thomas Gale counts ceiling tiles. Each one represents another moment in his life to remember not to take for granted. For nearly 20 years, Gale has been a funeral director at Currie Funeral Home in Kilmarnock, VA, and has learned how to balance his professional and personal life after his own brush with mortality.
Gale remembers lying immobile in a hospital bed during a heart procedure several years ago, his only outlet the ceiling tiles above him. When he counts them now, it is to remind him to take regular breaks, set time aside for hobbies and accept assistance from others.
“We take better care of our cars than we take care of ourselves,” Gale says. “If you see a blinking red light in your car, you’re going to pull off the road to get it serviced. Yet, we have warning signs go off in our lives all the time, but we keep driving until we have a major crash.”
A funeral home operates on a constant, 24-hour rotation that never sleeps. On a daily basis, funeral directors must deal with economic, operational and emotional stress, as well as the demands of providing compassion to the bereaved. In Funeral Home Customer Service A-Z: Creating Exceptional Experiences for Today’s Families, author Dr. Alan Wolfelt outlines the symptoms of what he calls “funeral director fatigue syndrome.” Known generally as “compassion fatigue”, this syndrome is common among caregivers who focus solely on others without practicing self-care, leading to destructive behaviors. Some common symptoms include:
*Exhaustion and loss of energy
*Irritability and impatience
*Cynicism and detachment
*Physical complaints and depression
*Isolation from others
While the admirable goal of helping bereaved families may alone seem to justify emotional sacrifices, ultimately we are not helping others effectively when we ignore what we are experiencing within ourselves,” Wolfelt says. “Emotional overload, circumstances surrounding death and caring about the bereaved will unavoidably result in times of funeral director fatigue syndrome.”
Dramatically changing these behavior patterns and adopting positive, healthy habits help these symptoms diminish overtime. While it can be easy for funeral directors to get swept up in the workload, it is often considerably more difficult to allocate free time for leisure. Here are some tips from directors and experts on how to defeat feelings of funeral director burnout:
According to Tim O’Brien, author of A Season for Healing – A Reason for Hope: The Grief & Mourning Guide and Journal, funeral professionals must maintain a near-constant demeanor of strength and self-possession, rarely displaying their emotions.
“Those characteristics are exactly why they need to take time for themselves and practice sound stress management techniques,” O’Brien says. “Yes, they do have to show outward composure and be the steady hand in public. However, they can and should have private time for exploring and expressing emotions. The alternative is often premature death.”
In a recent article for The Director, O’Brien cited irregular hours, interpersonal relationships with employees, limited free time and the often-depressing environment that grief can create as some of the main reasons directors experience compassion fatigue. However, finding a way to strike a balance between professional and personal isn’t as simple for small town funeral homes where the two categories are often one and the same.
Director Stephen Hall grew up in the funeral home business and has worked at the family owned and operated Trefz & Bowser Funeral Home in Hummelstown, PA since he was 12 years old. As an experienced director living in a small town, it is often difficult for Hall to step away from his numerous responsibilities but he has found that the nature of the job offers its own share of rewards as well.
“When my kids were younger, if there was a slow day at the funeral home I was free to attend activities at school because I set my own schedule,” Hall says.
The fine line between personal and professional has always been especially faint for Funeral Director Derek Krentz. He resides at the Gardner Funeral Home in White Salmon, WA with his wife Dominique, also a director, and their children. While Krentz rarely takes vacations, he feels fortunate to work side by side with his wife and still function as a family.
“Its not on common for the kids to do their homework while we’re working. Very often we’re folding memorial folders and laundry at the same time in the middle of the living room floor,” Krentz says. “We rarely go anywhere more than an hour away. You just learn to enjoy being at home.”
Embrace Technological Solutions
In the past, funeral professionals would remain near their firm’s telephone at all times to secure new business and provide families with assistance day or night. Many firms still operate with skeletal staffs, employing only a handful of full-time employees to share the workload. However, in the past decade, new technology and services have emerged that cater to the funeral home industry and help directors conduct business more efficiently.
“With new technology, we’re no longer tethered to a physical location anymore,” Hall says. “Pagers and cell phones have given us the freedom to run our business practically from anywhere.”
Improvements in telecommunications have allowed directors to remain available to families anytime they step out of the office. Whenever Hall has to step out of the office, either for a few minutes or for the evening, he forwards his phone lines to a funeral home exclusive answering service that records detailed messages and contacts Hall for any urgent or first calls.
“When ASD (Answering Service for Directors) came around it was a god send because their people know the profession. All of our calls are screened so we only have to address important concerns right away. ASD can field a lot of the questions that would have been another phone call for me to make,” Hall says. “Now that they have broadened out with the web connection I can log in to see the activity and if there is anything that needs to be addressed immediately.”
Other organizations work to decrease the time consumed by daily tasks at the funeral home. Life insurance assignment companies expedite insurance payments that can otherwise take months for funeral homes to receive. Many funeral professionals rely on removal services to transport decedents after office hours. Software companies have adopted new technology to speed up the process of death certificate filing, obituary placement, and much more.
Yet there is a still a slight stigma associated with modern funeral home practices and some multi-generational and small town firms continue to employ an older business model based on 24/7 availability. Many funeral home owners avoid hiring extra help or seeking assistance from other companies in an effort to provide families with a more personal touch.
“I’m not that computer savvy so I just prefer sitting down with a family while they’re making arrangements and write it down rather than type it into a computer,” Krentz says. “I just find it more personable.”
As President of the Association of Independent Funeral Homes of Virginia and a director in a small, tight-knit community, Gale knows first hand the pressure placed on directors to uphold traditional values. It is the reason why he still sometimes counts the ceiling tiles above his desk—to remember to never ignore his own needs or take his life for granted.
“I remember the old regime of remaining available all the time,” Gale says. “While you still have to be available, you don’t have to do it all alone.”
Care For Yourself So You Can Care For Others
According to O’Brien, funeral professionals are highly likely to develop compassion fatigue without “professional detachment, a positive attitude in the midst of an apparent negative atmosphere, regular personal time and good dietary, sleep and exercise habits.”
Every person needs an outlet: an activity they enjoy that should never feel like work. For funeral professionals, it is essential to seize any opportunity for personal enjoyment, even if only for a few hours.
“I don’t get away a lot but I’ve learned that when things are slow, go fishing, because you don’t know when the phone is going to ring again,” Krentz says.
Like Kretz, Gale is also an avid fisherman and finds the peace and serenity of being out on the water help him restore his state of mind and return to the funeral home with a clearer perspective. He also believes that surrounding yourself with other community members is invaluable to never losing sight of the reason you do your work.
According to Gale, “You’ll become a better person, a better funeral director and just a better over all servant to the people around you if you can care for yourself.”
A change of scenery is also a vital ingredient for maintaining a balanced lifestyle. Apart from the time spent away, physical space acts as a barrier between the mind and the stress agent, in this case, the funeral home office. No one can consistently give 100 percent day in and day out. Regular breaks provide the rest necessary to renew motivation for returning to work.
Last year, Gale took a vacation to spend time with his family in Virginia Beach, VA. For the first time ever, he wanted to free his mind and pretend for one straight week that the funeral home did not exist. At first, the time apart was excruciating. He spent the first 24 hours fighting the urge to check his messages, unable to break decade-old habits of remaining on top of all business, no matter the time or day.
Eventually, he was able to settle in and truly enjoy his break.
“Even the greatest of engines can’t run all of the time without being serviced,” Gale says.
Jessica Fowler is a freelance writer and Public Relations Specialist for ASD – Answering Service for Director where she has answered calls for funeral homes for more than 8 years. Jessica earned her Degree in Journalism from Temple University in Philadelphia, PA and has written articles for The Director, Mortuary Management and American Funeral Director in addition to local travel publications. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Today’s guest post is from Pastor Melanie Thirion. Melanie lives with her family in South Africa. She tells me that English isn’t her first language, but she writes better than I do!
Here’s her bio: I am a follower of Christ, a wife to a very humble man named Christi, who happens to be a minister too (another story for another day). I am the mother of a spirited angel called Caro. I’m a youth minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, Kenridge congregation to be exact, in Cape Town, South Africa. I am also a part-time lecturer in Practical Theology (youth ministry) at Faculty of Theology, University of Stellenbosch.
In the first congregation where I ministered, I made a friend that was much older than me. She was a wise woman, someone who had a strong sense of justice and lived closely with Christ. She had a servant heart. While her children were part of the youth ministry, she and her husband were committed to the ministry, always driving lift-less teens to church (the age for a drivers licence in South Africa is 18 years), taking in troubled teens, showing them that loving parents still exist in this day and age.
When my baby girl was born, she looked after her when I had to return to work. I never had to consider day-care for my baby, she took the responsibility. Probably the best gift she could have given me and my girl. Since my parents, as well as my husband’s, live far away, she was my baby’s grandmother. Her house is the first place my baby slept right through the night. I believe she poured wisdom and love and grace into my girl’s life.
I then changed congregations, but still drove 20 minutes, once each week, for my little girl to visit my friend.
She became sick with bone cancer about two years ago. The chemo seemed to work and we all prayed that she would heal, as she had overcome breast cancer about 8 years ago. But once the cancer spread to her organs, I knew it was just a matter of time. Three months ago we had a heart breaking conversation when she told me she couldn’t look after my girl anymore. It was a very difficult decision for her to make, as this, for her, marked the beginning of the end. During our conversation, I went into minister-mode and seemed alright with her decision, numbing my emotions as just ministers can do in emotional-laden situations. I was in denial.
Then, the second week of December, we skipped our weekly visit to my friend. I can’t even remember why. And the week after that my friend was in the hospital and her liver failed. I thought I still had time to visit her, to say goodbye. So the next morning, I organised my schedule so that I could go to the hospital early afternoon. When I got into my car to drive to the hospital, her daughter texted me: “Mom just died.” I was too late. And hated myself.
I had a hard time forgiving myself for being too late. Which is kind of self-centered I know. As a minister I know that I shouldn’t beat myself up about that. As with birth, death has a time of its own – independent of anyone’s schedule or preference. But I did beat myself up, a self-directed tantrum. I wanted to say goodbye, I wanted some more time with my friend. I wasn’t ready for her to die. But, as with all the kingdom of God, it’s not about me…. My friend was ready to die. And she did. Although I was disgusted with God.
I found comfort on the day of her funeral. The minister shared with us how we now have a friend among the cloud of witnesses Paul speaks of in Hebrews 12. This scripture, not a typical funeral text, comforted me, and re-affirmed eternal life for me. The thought of my friend being amongst the great faith heroes, where she rightly belongs, gives an eternity to her legacy. I also had the opportunity to spend a minute alone at her coffin, saying goodbye. But the journey did not end there.
I still had a little part of grief that needed to be aired. I took to my paint brushes and painted something that will always remind me of my friend, but also of my God who comforted to me through his Word. Just take note that I am in no way an artist. It’s just the way I deal with emotions. And grief.
Rest in peace my dear friend. For I know that God is with you.
Attached is a picture of the painting I made, drawing inspiration from Hebrews 12:1-2.
“Jason, listen. I think I found a lump.” Karen’s eyes were full of gentle severity. “But hey, we’re okay. We’re gonna get through this. It isn’t our first rodeo.”
Karen was too young for cancer—just thirty four—and full of life. She and her husband George had been my friends for nine years, and part of my family for the last five. They were missionaries, planning to launch out to the South Pacific to eventually start an AIDS orphanage. And after countless encouragements, they believed with all their hearts that she would be healed. After all, she had beat cancer before when she was seventeen, and again (we thought) at thirty-two. That’s why she was so confident.
So they entered the rodeo a third time, pursuing all kinds of treatments; the ones that come from sober doctors in white hospitals, and the other ones from enthusiastic Americans with juicers in Mexico. They got prayer. Lots of prayer, from reserved, gray bearded conservatives, and from young mustached mystics who claimed they saw miracles happen every day.
They went on like that for months, traveling the country, raising funds for their move to the islands, all the while believing against the obvious. She was getting weaker. And weaker.
I got the call while watching a college football bowl game. Karen had collapsed and had a seizure. She was in intensive care. Even brain now, it seemed, was being squeezed by cancerous masses. The doctors were saying it was time.
Before I got in the car for our five hour trek to the hospital, I had an awkward stare-down with my pinstriped suit. As a rule, I don’t wear suits except for mandatory formal occasions. I knew the odds this time. But if I took it… what would that say about my level of faith?
I remember stomping out of my bedroom, tears shaking me from the inside. “Fine, God. I’m leaving the damn suit.” I said aloud. It was as much belief as I could muster in that moment.
Four days of blur followed, and finally, our remaining hope disappeared with our emotional strength. The nurses—Lord bless them—let me sneak my daughters into the ICU to say goodbye to their adopted auntie. She was too weak to say anything, but she hugged them limply. And to each of us, her circle of friends who had become kin, she spelled out farewells on a whiteboard full of letters.
I was in the room when her breath ran out. George was still embracing her, still serenading her body. “You are so beautiful to me.”
I would need my suit after all.
They wanted me to do her funeral, but I just couldn’t. All I could muster was a couple of weak stories about being together, watching Jack Bauer and dreaming of all the exotic ministry we were going to get to do one day. It all seemed so empty. So hollow.
I told God how much it hurt. I didn’t blame Him for her death, but I thought it was a pretty low thing of Him to do, giving words of hope when no hope, in fact, remained. God didn’t answer much. He mostly just listened. I don’t think He ever got offended by my doubts, or my cursing, or my anger. Wasn’t it Jesus, after all, who said to weep with those who weep?I wonder if you can’t talk someone out of pain, even if you’re God.
But eventually, I knew I had to make a decision. I could hold onto my complaint against Him, but only on one condition: I had to first acknowledge His generosity. He had given her seventeen years before she met cancer, then seventeen more after that. He gave her life. Karen was His present to all of us. And in this age, there are no presents that last forever.
So I made a decision to look God in the eye again and thank Him for my friend. This wasn’t so much a matter of religious sentiment as it was intellectual integrity. When gratitude is absent, mourning eventually loses all context and reason. It’s the same lesson I try to give my kids: to say “thank you for my ice cream” instead of pining hard for a second bowl. Even a gift cut short is, first, a gift.
Looking back, I see my own tears had testified of my great privilege: Karen was so lovely and gracious and warm, and I had been her friend. Her brother. Little did I know, my grief was itself building a case for the love and graciousness and warmth of her Maker.
And it made me look forward to the next age, when the Good and Perfect Gifts of our Father will indeed go on and never expire.
Jason Hague is a pastor, writer, and former Youth With A Mission teacher who lives in Oregon with his wife and five Children. He tells honest stories of faith, culture, and autism at JasonHague.com.
Miscarriage is a silent grief. We don’t understand why it happens. We don’t know how to talk about it when it does. Through my experience of three miscarriages and three healthy births, I am slowly learning to speak. Here is part of my story of learning to redemptively own my grief, and, in doing so, to try and offer comfort when others grieve silently.
Healing through words
Writing in my journal shaped my encounter with the miscarriages. I initially viewed our first miscarriage in 2004 as my wife Kristine’s loss, because she endured the physical trauma. Journaling about the miscarriage helped me acknowledge the hopes and fears of parenthood that I had held for our child. As I continued writing, I claimed each miscarriage as my own loss. I also claimed my identity as a grieving father, and Kristine’s identity as the mother of my children.
Writing about my confusion and grief enabled me to mourn the awfulness of your death. Not as an angry shout at the futility of life in a world that burned me one too many times. Nor as blind acceptance of actions from a distant God whom I’ve no right to question. But to acknowledge the loss of a life I was growing to love, the end of a journey that hardly had a chance to begin, the absence of a relationship I was looking forward to entering.
That lament created space for me to honor the value you brought to my life, verbalize the pain of your loss, and express the confusion of trying to come to terms with a side of life I didn’t expect to encounter. Talking about how I cried for you, for what you would bring to my life, was infinitely more valuable than finding a cure for the pain of your death.
I think I felt like I had paid my dues with the first miscarriage. Our second miscarriage forced me to face the possibility of never having children. During that time, I grappled with the symbol of the open hand, which had been foundational in my relationship with Kristine. I knew I must love her unconditionally, even though that would let her hurt me. I knew conceptually about loving my living children with the same open hand. I had never considered extending that open hand to a child still in the womb.
I had to decide whether to protect myself from being hurt by another miscarriage, or to voice my love for a child I might never meet. I also had to decide if I would extend an open hand to Kristine, who I resented for responding to the miscarriage differently than I was. Journaling helped me acknowledge the hope for my child’s life that was hidden deep beneath my cynicism about the miscarriage. I modified Albert Brumley’s hymn If We Never Meet Again as part of a liturgical farewell to my child.
Now you’ve come to the end of life’s journey. It turns out we’ll never meet any more, ‘till we gather in heaven’s bright city, far away on that beautiful shore. … Since we’ll never get to meet this side of heaven, I will meet you on that beautiful shore.
Farewell, Child, until we meet face-to-face for the first time. Go with my love. Dad
Healing through songs
The first miscarriage shocked me. The second miscarriage shattered my worldview. The third miscarriage brought me to despair. When we decided to try and get pregnant a fifth time, I let myself hope for new life in ways that I hadn’t when our daughters, Elise and Charis were born. I felt like that hope was thrown back in my face when we miscarried a third time. I wanted to give up completely on my hope for new life, and on the work Kristine and I had done to grieve together instead of alone. It hurt too much. I wanted the dreams to die.
I rarely write music but occasionally I have responded to turmoil in my life through music. The third miscarriage was one of those times. I arranged three texts from Celtic Daily Prayer into a song called The Caim Prayer. The song has two themes: The first is the cry that God would “lift me out of the valley of despair” that I entered when our child died. The second is asking for God’s leading “along a path I had never seen before” so that our dreams would not die.
Kristine and I also compiled about thirty songs – some individual favorites, and others that we listened to together. Expressing our pain, despair, and confusion to each other through these songs helped us to grieve both alone and together.
Healing through images
The crocuses in our yard comforted Kristine after our first miscarriage. Like our unborn children, they are precious, beautiful, and alive for only a brief time. When we commissioned Indianapolis artist Kyle Ragsdale to paint our family for our 10th wedding anniversary, Kristine asked him to include a crocus for each unborn child. In many ways, that painting represents our hope for the miscarriages to be part of our lives … not as a dark blot in the center, but nevertheless woven into their creative fabric. Much of that hope is articulated in a letter that I wrote to all my children.
All six of you walked an uncertain road with me as you have borne my burdens through the words of these letters. You will walk that road with me into the future. My unborn children, each of your presence in our lives continues to shape how your mom and I engage our world. You have challenged us to grant you dignity, and encouraged us to not let your deaths be the last word. Elise, Charis, and Clare, you are calling us into the joy of making new life grow. You will learn with us what it means to remember your three siblings, to live with open hands, and to see and speak peace into humanity’s wounds. So we will walk together, until the day when we all meet for the first time.
About the author: Dr. Shawn Collins grew up in Kenya as a missionary kid. This cultural diversity built a foundation that influenced his faith and vocation. His work in the aerospace and energy industries integrates graduate degrees in mechanical engineering and anthropology. He regularly writes and presents on a variety of systems engineering, organizational behavior, and theology topics. Shawn lives in Indianapolis with his wife and three living children.
More information about Shawn’s book Letters to My Unborn Children is available online at www.letterstomyunbornchildren.com. It can purchased there, from Kirkhouse Publishers, or from Amazon. The ebook can be purchased from MemorEmedia.