Keys to Service: The Vital and Active Role of the Funeral Professional

By: Todd Van Beck, Director of Continuing Media Education, John A Gupton College, Nashville, TN
Monday, December 3, 2018
In bygone days in our profession there was a method
of “arranging” a funeral which was called “the indirect
method” of counseling. At the core of this funeral
arranging approach was that the funeral director
played an entirely passive role in the decision making
processes that the “family” was engaged in. The results
of this approach to the funeral interview was that it did
not work, very well. One funeral director who was a
disciple of this approach once told me, “When I make
arrangements I don’t even want the family to notice that
I am in the room.” I cannot disagree with this type of
funeral interviewing approach more for this is another
example of black and white rule making, in which the
funeral professional is making all the rules – doesn’t
the families feelings and wishes need to be involved,
need to be taken account of, need to be respected? I
believe they do.
 
Just imagine this scenario. The bereaved family has
seen one or two caskets in their entire lives. Now, today
the door is opened and they are looking at twenty-one
caskets or 40 urns, or 20 keepsakes and they are in the
room alone – absolutely alone and on their own. Do
you think this type of situation creates a vulnerable and
possibly high risk client situation?
 
Analogous to this, for a naive fellow like me would be
my wanting to buy an airplane. The airplane company
representative opens up a door to the airplane hangar
that has twenty one new airplanes for sale and then
turns heel and leaves. For a limited guy like me, well I
don’t have a chance!
 
The reason the indirect approach flopped so many
years ago is that while some funeral professionals were
attracted to it, the collapse of the indirect approach
came because our valued client families did not like it.
The indirect approach to helping I believe was created
because of our professions long standing phobia
concerning any type of criticism whatsoever, and
particularly our high alert sensitivity concerning being
criticized about being a “high pressured sales person”
or worst or all “taking advantage of the bereaved.” I
understand our professions sensitivity to this, and
Jessica Mitford made hay in the sunshine using and
abusing this theme. However her book was published
51 years ago and still our addiction to wanting to
please absolutely everyone in everything all the time,
which is utterly impossible for any human being to
accomplish, still haunts our great profession (but this
theme is fodder for another article).
 
I personally would like to suggest that the reason the
indirect approach to helping a family didn’t work
is that it relegated the funeral professional to an
exaggerated passive role, and I have concluded that
bereaved client’s are not attracted to passive funeral
director helping.
 
I do not see the funeral professional as the interviewer
or as a presence in the funeral experience as serving
a passive role in the least. On the contrary, I perceive
the funeral professional as staying active at all times.
I am not implying that he/she should talk a great deal,
but I am saying that he/she should make their presence
and interest continuously felt – throughout the entire
funeral home experience, not just the arrangement
interview. The funeral interviewer is ideally active in
revealing to the client family that they are indeed an
interested person in the welfare of the client family.
Being too passive does not have enough energy about it
to convey this important communication. In fact being
passive is in reality as dry as a piece of unbuttered toast.
 
The question then is not whether the funeral
professional will be of assistance, help or counsel. In
all sincerity of purpose is not the larger question
this: Will my assistance, help and counsel be based
on active wisdom and care, on active insight and
compassion, and on active trust and respect? The
operative word here is active.
 
Primary to this vital role is that the funeral interviewer
is and acts as a genuine person. As funeral interviewers
we contribute of ourselves and our professional
knowledge to help the client family, and not simply to
display our intellect or our splendid personal qualities.
The funeral interviewer reveals what they themselves
see and understands, what they think the client family
is thinking and feeling, in order to help him/her look
deeper and try harder to reach his/her inner self to
make the type of once in a lifetime decisions that offer
two priceless gifts in taking the journey through the
valley of the shadow of death: Peace of mind and
the feeling that one has done the right thing. The
combined psychological health of these two feelings is
absolutely priceless; no dollar sign can ever be attached
to this – never!
 
Coming right down to it in our ongoing quest for
substance and meaning, what do funeral professionals
actually bring to the helping interview? Essentially, we
bring our knowledge, experience, professional skills,
the information we possess, and the resources at our
command, and above all else a genuine committed love
of the profession in which we serve. It follows then
that the continuous funeral student (going considerably
beyond Mortuary College and the National Board)
actively continually learns about every single aspect
of the funeral service profession.
 
This type of quality learning time will result in creating
the most effective professional who by the results of
their dedication to lifelong learning will possess the
most knowledge. This professional funeral person will
then be able to assist family clients by be offering and
suggesting creative ceremonial experiences, creative
help and counsel which will result in a tangible
enhancement of our bereaved clients arriving at wise,
valid, and satisfactory decisions.
 
Here are some suggestions to help us stay active in
the experience of the funeral interview and funeral
service in general. Ponder these, and add to them. Your
time spent thinking about these four points will prove
helpful in the long term.
 
First: Funeral professionals use themselves first
and foremost. If the funeral professional is calm,
understanding and clearly concerned as well as
obviously wanting to be helpful they set the stage for
the response of those being served.
 
Second: Funeral professionals are usually and
fortunately where the action is. Doing something
constructive is an important way of moving people
through a crisis. Inner balance can be sustained by outer
action. Having people do things will help to confirm
reality, express feelings, and gain group support is
never a passive experience, these important funeral
standards are always in the active tense.
 
Third: Funeral professionals help the expression
of feelings in the helping interview. The funeral
professional is usually present when feelings are
intense. The funeral professional within the save
harbor of the funeral interview and overall funeral
experience can provide the personal attitude and
social atmosphere within which the appropriate deep
grief feelings can be expressed and most importantly
accepted and understood.
 
Fourth: The funeral professional also has quick access
to items to memorialize creativity which can help the
mourner’s experience deeper expression and find
deeper significance in the selected services and goods
which are decided upon and invested in.
 
The funeral professional/interviewer/arranger (last
week I learned a new professional designation
“Remembrance Counselor”) who is keenly aware of
these four simple points and who uses them in an active,
not passive way will find additional foundations of
worth in their communication with the client families.
 
Bringing yourself, being in the thick of the action,
allowing for the expression of feelings, and having
at your immediate access valuable remembrance and
memorial items is a wonderful way to further assist
our families we are privileged to service, and that is
the goal, is it not – to work to further assist our client
families to the best of our abilities.

 

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