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Research

      
Todd Van Beck's picture
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I don’t read the funeral service internet gossip and/or chit chat sites very often, if that is indeed what they are called. Not that I have any strong feeling for or against such efforts and places, but I have often thought that the funeral profession has been way too involved with gossip and rumors for way too long a period of time.  However, that is just my opinion (and who am I to talk), and as with so many things, I am no doubt totally in error about the gossip mill in our beloved profession being very active.

With this said, for what the sentiment is worth, something caught my attention this week while I was trying to pull up my emails. (I get on average 80 emails every day and in reality only 8 of them actually demand my attention and response.) 

What caught my attention was the writing by an old chum of mine - Mr. Alan Creedy.  Mr. Creedy and I have a history together, and while our paths rarely cross these days, I learned many years ago that Mr. Creedy is both a gentleman and a scholar ( even if you disagree with him), and I have also discovered that when a gentleman and a scholar says or writes something, it does deserves attention.  In addition to this, Mr. Creedy opened up with a famous Lincoln quote (one of my favorites), which also caught my attention in a big way, for I wanted to see how he was going to weave that sage Lincoln philosophy into funeral service.

My purpose here is NOT to critique Mr. Creedy’s writing. Mr. Creedy made the overall point that much of what funeral service holds onto, holds onto with a tight grasp as being professional ideas and concepts that are written in stone, is just quite possibly both overstated and not based on much solid information.  That idea is unsettling.

Two primary examples are used by Mr. Creedy.  First he resurrects the long held written in stone notion that “traditional” funerals are good, and “nontraditional” funerals are bad.  I personally don’t encounter that attitude that much anymore in the field, but I did encounter this attitude for a long time, and I myself was personally a true believer in this position for a very long time, and I still find some stuck funeral directors that firmly believe this idea to this very day - sadly.

The second notion that Mr. Creedy makes reference to is the long held professional standard that having the dead body present for a viewing and at the funeral is the foundation for subsequent healthy grieving.  Not only have I held firm to this standard, I have written about it, lectured about it, taught about it, argued about it, and debated this point for years.  However, I have to admit that I have been involved with hundreds of death situations where the dead body was not present, not viewed, and played no part in the ritualistic proceedings (if there were any) and it appeared to me (and I am not a psychologist)  that everybody involved got along just fine.  No one shot themselves after funeral environment (although I have had this happen a couple of times in my short and uneventful career).  So we have to be careful with this stuff, don’t we?

Mr. Creedy also shares his thought that the funeral professions defenses which we use to proclaim who we are and what we do have many times failed, and I am thinking this is where the famous “dogmas of the stormy past” speech from Lincoln comes in. (If you have not read this Lincoln gem, just pop the last quoted line in your computer – it is good stuff, as is most of Lincoln’s writing.) 

While I have always greatly admired this outstanding paragraph from the pen of Mr. Lincoln, who had a true command of the English language, I personally question if any of the challenges faced by the funeral service profession loom high enough on the level of a importance to even come close to what Lincoln faced in the American Civil War, but that is a subject for another blog.

 

The Philadelphia epidemic & embalming story

Defenses are interesting things; in these times, the phrase “now don’t be defensive” is used in a variety of human communication – being defensive is just not cool. When I was a student in seminary they called it apologetics, and it was a required course of study. Basically the course in apologetics is where Christian writers defended and explained complex theologies.  It was an interesting course of study.

Here is an example of how the defenses (or the apologies) of funeral service can easily fall flat on its face.  I believe this is in part what Mr. Creedy is writing about.

Anybody remember Jessica Mitford?  Who can forget her!  In addition to remembering Miss Mitford, does anyone remember the frequently taught professional standard of the sanitary value of embalming? This was mortuary science gospel when I was in school, and at the core of this sanitary value of embalming lay the following case study.  This supposedly “true case study” was about an epidemic of typhoid or some horrible disease that raged through Philadelphia in the 1850s, and the bodies of those who died of this horrible disease were not embalmed.  Then, just as people thought the scourge was at an end, the epidemic took off in full force, but when they started embalming the bodies this dreaded epidemic miraculously vanished.

Later, according to the account we were given by our embalming professor, Philadelphia authorities discovered that in the cemetery where most of the typhoid victims had been buried there ran an underground fresh water stream which was the drinking water source for the area when the epidemic hit hardest, and that was the reason why the typhoid epidemic continued – no embalming. But when the bodies were embalmed, all this death and mayhem in short order ended, and it was all due to embalming.

Does anybody remember this story?  Well I do, and I used this story countless times when I was talking about and defending to any spellbound person about the risk of horrible disease and how embalming totally eliminated the possibility of such a scourge on society.  

Looking back, what I actually accomplished with my educated defense was simply scaring the person I was talking to out of 20 good years of life.  I used this story for years, and believed with all my heart that it was accurate, truthful, and most importantly credible – because after all I learned it from my embalming professor in mortuary school.

Well come to find out good old Jessica Mitford had heard the same story.  In her relentless work at dismantling American funeral service, she interviewed the executive director of one of the most well-known funeral director associations in the United States, and folks it was NOT Howard Raether she was talking to.  In the course of her interview with this funeral service authority, she brought up the Philadelphia story (no pun intended) and straight away, with great bravado and self righteousness, this executive director launched into the dreaded Philadelphia epidemic/embalming story.

He finished, and in a New York second Miss Mitford was all over him, peppering him with nonstop hard and sharp direct questions.  Where is the empirical research that proves this she demanded?  Where did you get this account from?  Is there a paper trail I can follow at the Philadelphia Health Department?  Are any of the medical experts at the Jefferson Medical College aware of this account?  How do you know this actually happened?  Who was involved in verification of this to you, personally? What Philadelphia undertaker did the funeral?  Are they still in business?  Where is the cemetery where all this happened?  Who told you about this?  Then she asked the most embarrassing and withering question:  Weren’t dead bodies embalmed with arsenic during this period of history?  Formaldehyde had yet to be invented.  The obvious conclusion then is that people stopped dying of typhoid, but then why didn’t they start dying of arsenic poisoning?

The executive director was stumped.  He fumbled around.  He acted as if he had misplaced the verification documents.  Yet he still stuck to this story, and when I was a student in mortuary school, this story, or similar stories, or even more stories (our dogmas) which were in reality were un-researched, unverifiable and unclear as to accuracy, were still being taught in the classroom as being undisputed facts, and I believed them.

 

Funeral service needs new research

After reading Mr. Creedy’s writing, I was reinforced concerning my long-held belief that one of the most risky Achilles heels in funeral service is this:  As practicing funeral directors, we all know that there is truth and substance to the idea of a meaningful funeral experience (whether the word traditional is used or not), we all can give account after account of when the reality of death (seeing the restored and beautified dead body) is established in the minds of the bereaved that IT DOES help in a tremendous way to set the foundations for healthy bereavement.

Hell, even Dr. Erich Lindemann from the Harvard Medical School proclaimed this very idea and eloquently defended funeral practices. This firmness of opinion came from his extraordinary experiences in dealing with the survivors of the Cocoanut Grove Fire, which he researched, verified, and wrote about concerning the value of viewing the dead in an article published in 1944.

But 1944 is a very long time ago. Other than some embalming microbial studies that were funded by embalming chemical companies years ago, Dr. Lindemann’s research in 1944 might well be the most recent example we have in funeral service of credible, independent scholarly research into what we do, and this article was published over 65 years ago (but is still good reading.) The Symptomatology and Management of Acute Grief, the other research that comes to mind, was the Wirthlin Study, which was marvelous.  My long-held opinion is that our profession desperately needs new independent research.

Might it just be true that our profession needs tangible, funded, scholarly empirical research?  Do we need to fund studies that have credible, fair, and non-biased researchers (not connected in any way with funeral service; we pay them, but they are as neutral as possible) asking the precise questions that Mr. Creedy brought up in his writing?  Just think of the possible outcome: does ritual and ceremony REALLY, REALLY help? Yes it does, and finally here is the hard evidence.  Does seeing a dead body REALLY, REALLY help in the psychology of grief?  Yes it does, and finally here is the hard empirical evidence.  

Our profession has done so little of this type of credible research, and in the absence of this type of sophisticated research, the “dogmas of the stormy past” that Mr. Creedy is writing about are almost certain to take on a life of their own, and based on what anecdotes, hopes, dreams, desires, fancy or worse, just falsehoods?  I fear this has already happened in funeral service and there have been consequences, but it is never too late to right the error – research is costly, but what has already been the price tag of the lack of it?  As a profession, we have too much authentic and accurate experiential expertise on our side to give up hope; all we need is verification of what we know to be true. 

However, and this is a big however, such sophisticated, neutral and credible scholarly research has with it a fearful and unsettling risk attached.  The research might well prove beyond a doubt that many of our cherished “dogmas,” the ideas that we have held so close to our hearts and which have contributed so much to our very identities as funeral professionals, are in the end not true. That possibility is indeed unsettling, scary even.  It could be that we could fund the sophisticated researchers which would no doubt cost thousands if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, only to get the final report back that this or that dogma was and is simply not true.  This happens in the pharmaceutical profession daily, if not hourly.

I don’t believe this would happen, and the really good upside is that we might finally get in our hands on some independent, empirical, sophisticated reports that proclaim what you and I have known all the time to be true.  That rituals are valuable, that caskets have meaning, that a prepared beautified dead body is important to grieving, and that all of our experiential expertise, all our case studies, all our years of attained working knowledge is true.  What great things could be done in marketing, promotion and just good old fashioned education for the public with that information?  Just think of the credibility, the influence, the simple good service enhancements if we could say with utter conviction “Well, madam, the studies clearly say ...”

There is a risk to this type of research, but in my heart and gut I think it is worth the risk.  Is it just possible that the time has arrived that we can get the major funeral groups together to form a type of cooperative United Funeral Nation and fund such credible empirical research?

 

Looking for a new opportunity

Now for my last point.  Our employment deal here in lower Alabama fell through about a month ago for a variety of good reasons, and so now I am in the ranks of the unemployed.  We are seriously looking for new opportunities, to either purchase an existing funeral home or get involved in the management of one.  I thought I would just be forthright about this situation, so if you know or hear of anything, or would like to visit, just let me know by responding to this blog or emailing me at toddvanbeck@sbcglobal.net, and we can take it from there. 

TVB