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Last week I spent a very nice day doing some training. What a wonderful, professional group of individuals in the group – no grumpy, fussing complaining people – no, not one. It was fun, energizing, focused, and above all dedicated to discussions and knowledge about one major subject – serving families better. It was refreshing, and did this old undertaker’s soul a world of good.
During the time that I had to teach I posed a question that I always ask any group I am working with: “What do you think is the greatest threat and challenge facing funeral service today?” I believe it is a good question to ask because the question basically cuts to the chase of what I believe seminars should be all about and eliminates any potential “Pollyanna” stuff which one often encounters in what is called group thinking. I mean, really, anybody can deal with the good times, when things are going really well, that takes little talent. But are these times in funeral service/cemetery work good times and going really well???????
Here are some of the responses I received to my question: casket stores, WalMart (of course nobody liked WalMart), cremation increase, lost casket sales, government regulations, poor recruitment efforts, changed people, changed demographics, changed value systems, funeral director wannabes butting in, aggressive sales techniques, and general malaise and apathy concerning detailed funeral service. One courageous funeral professional even remarked that they thought one of the major problems funeral service was experiencing was preachers who did not know how to preach and hence ruined all the good work of the funeral home!
It was a great discussion and all the responses were valid I, thought anyway, to one degree or another.
Privately, and I eventually shared this thought with the group, I have been haunted by an issue which just does not get discussed or explored much in professional circles, the almost silent issue of dwindling time. In other words the erosion of the time that people spend these days in funeral and cemetery activities, in rites rituals and ceremonies, in leave-taking, in saying goodbye, in saying their final farewells. This dwindling of time haunts me, and I believe we are already experiencing the consequences and they are not favorable.
When I was 14, my grandfather died in Southwestern Iowa. He was 90 something, we really never knew how old he actually was, because he was born in Holland and never had a birth certificate. He did not even have a Social Security number, and could not read or write English. He smoked 20 cigars a day and had seven children. I adored him.
Upon his death we called the trusty old Blust Bros. to come out to the farm to get his body. What a nice way to describe an undertaker – trusty and old. Later that day my grandmother and a few select family members, me included, picked out the casket in the showroom in the back of the furniture store. Everything came to $800. My grandfather had kind of prearranged his funeral without the help of the Blust Bros. by putting ten $100 bills in an envelope which was labeled “Funeral.”
My grandmother just handed Henry Blust the entire envelope and said “Take out of that what you will need.” Mr. Blust counted out eight $100 bills and handed the rest back to my grandmother. What a transaction – win/win in 1964! Until the day she died my grandmother thought that Henry Blust was a saint from heaven because she received a “refund” on her husband’s funeral – two hundred dollars! Trusty old undertaker Mr. Henry Blust did not take all her money – now there is a refreshing idea.
The first day at the viewing our horribly dysfunctional family gathered in the large room at the Blust Bros. Some of these people basically hated each other and had not talked to each other for years even though they only lived maybe seven miles apart. The Van Becks weren’t and are not today the Waltons. No one ever said “Good night, Todd Boy” to me.
That first day, seeing my grandfather, we all cried for six hours.
The next day new people started showing up. There were some tears for some, but basically we were all standing around getting all the most recent updates on the gossip concerning our family. You know the drill – who is back drinking too much, who is cheating on their spouse, who got kicked out of high school, who just lost their driver’s license, who is still borrowing money. You know, gossip – our family seems to thrive on it.
The third day at the funeral home the place looked like we were having a party. Food was everywhere, people were laughing, some still crying, but most were just talking about what a long and useful life my grandfather had lived, and it was concluded by everybody that this fact was a comfort and blessing.
On the fourth day we had a funeral for him at 2 p.m. (that is when Protestants went to heaven in our little community) and buried him in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Hancock, Iowa. After the funeral we all returned to the basement of the church, where the church ladies as usual had prepared a funeral feast. Trust me, folks, Iowa church ladies know how to put on a funeral feast – nothing better not even at the Tavern on the Green in New York City.
Here are a few more particulars. The casket was a cloth covered wood, and looked real nice. The outer box at the cemetery was made of wood which was an old railroad shipping case. There were some nice flowers. The preacher did a nice job. It was a nice funeral, a nice experience, and in three days our entire family had moved from crying and weeping to celebrating. BUT IT TOOK THREE DAYS – IT TOOK TIME.
From a funeral service perspective, here are some particulars. First off the Blust Bros. building was used for three full days. The lights were on, the air conditioners were running full blast, the taped music was playing, the register book was out, the public was showing up by the tens of hundreds, the Blust Bros. were on the floor of the funeral home and not sitting in a coffee lounge watching a soap opera or Bob Barker giving away a new car. They had embalmed my grandfather and he looked great. They had dressed him and he looked really spiffy. They had NOT put on too much cosmetics. The funeral coach was not new, but it was shiny and clean, and the Blust Bros. were dressed impeccably.
Here is a private thought. I pangs me to drive by a funeral home at night and see that the entire place is dark – nothing is happening – nobody is going in or out, and I know that inside the building there are five deceased persons. That bothers me.
Looking back at my grandfather’s funeral, it was full of meaning, it was full of memories, it was full of emotion, and it was full of life. It was definitely worth $800.
BUT IT TOOK TIME.
I have told this experience to thousands of funeral and cemetery professionals across North America and when I tell this story everyone gets a peaceful smile and pensive look on their faces. I ask them “Do you think this was a valuable experience?” They all nod in the affirmative – yes, indeed.
Last week when I was doing my seminar I flew into my old hometown Cincinnati, “The Queen City.” I miss Cincinnati terribly. I was getting my rental car and looked at the morning issue of the local newspaper and started reading the obituaries. Here is one that caught my attention and sent chills down my spine. “Calling hours at the mortuary starting at 11:00 a.m.; funeral will begin at Noon.”
One hour! One hour! One hour! Now in these times, add to this immediate cremation, immediate burials, private graveside services, private services, services at the convenience of family. Well, here is a question: If we have gone from memorializing our dead for three days of time say 35 years ago, down to 3 – 5 hours of time today, what will be the time that people use for funerals in the year 2020? Three days down to three hours! Dwindling ...
Dwindling, dwindling, and dwindling! Fewer people attending funerals, less time being spent memorializing our dead – dwindling.
I personally believe that dwindling time is the greatest threat to the future of the funeral. Without time or without our making the precious little time we have to serve a family absolutely the most meaningful that it can be I believe we will continue to see the natural erosion of the funeral experience. Funerals need time they always have and always will.
To this end I believe that just simple awareness on our parts of this silent issue is tantamount to our improving this situation. Our awareness of this silent issue of dwindling time will stimulate professionals in funeral service and cemetery work to adapt, and adopt the new and improved methods which are being promoted everyplace and everyday to serve families to the best of our abilities within the time constraints that modern life and times are imposing upon us.
We can and do have an influence on the decisions that our families make.
Anyway that is one old undertaker’s opinion. TVB