ICFM Magazine, October 2005
Can there be true personalization at a funeral if the person whose life is being remembered isn't even present?
Personalization. The last time I recall such mantra-like repetition of a single hot topic in the funeral profession had to be in the heyday of preneed.
At the onset, anyone could easily surmise the impact of preneed upon every facet of funeral service. Just a glance through any industry journal and the yield of articles and editorials, advertisements and how-to seminars served as testimonial.
The bottom line was that preneed had to be addressed by us personally, as business owners, and collectively, as a profession.
Fast forward to today. Personalization is the fresh buzzword. Of course, the concept is nothing new—astute and compassionate funeral directors have always encouraged individuality in the personal design of meaningful tributes.
We help client families express their beloved's lifestyle, career, hobbies, memberships, community or military service, etc. Together we endeavor to capture the essence of a life lived well. We thematically set the stage for the complementary rituals and ceremonies that follow.
In and around the casket are displayed artifacts that once belonged to that person. A golf putter, bingo card, remote control, hand-knit throws and cross stitched pillows, lapel pins—all serve to help tell the story of the decedent's life. Heirlooms of all sorts, photographs and letters and achievement awards all share an intimate connection with the person in the casket.
What is new is personalization for sale, which if we're not careful can make the funeral experience we offer families less rather than more personal.
Generic curios in mass production lack an historical connection to the deceased. The items are symbolic, but impersonal. They never belonged to the deceased. This trend toward personalization for purchase may also be upstaging the deceased and stealing the final bow.
Picture this: Funerals with no bodies
The video tribute does have real value and is significant and appropriate at the memorial service. But consider this: Today we can minimize or circumvent many of life's difficult experiences through avoidance or drug therapy. We can choose to not experience hard-to-handle emotions. A pill exists for every ill. We can choose to circumvent the funeral and/or viewing of the body, too!
A powerful video tribute may be less difficult for mourners to confront than the actual dead body. Could the video tribute eliminate the need for the body to be present at all?
Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D., director of the Center for Loss and Life Transition, Fort Collins, Colorado, speaks to this dominant model in North America: ''We as a culture appear to be forgetting the importance of the funeral ritual. While funerals have been with us since the beginning of human history, we seem to be rapidly moving toward minimizing, avoiding and denying the need for rituals surrounding death."
Can society choose to avoid the therapeutically painful rites of passage that define and validate death altogether? Will items of personalization serve as substitutes for the real physical form?
As Philippe Aries writes, "The change (in death's role in our society) consists precisely in banishing from the sight of the public not only death, but with it, its icon" (the dead body).
In the United States, from 1900 to 1960, over 90 percent of bodies were embalmed. Today, that percentage is significantly lower.
Can the funeral profession be truly effective providing funerals without bodies? Any garden-variety service/hospitality company can provide personalization and ceremony when the dead body is absent. Can we risk that?
The primary role of the licensed funeral director embalmer, according to the board of health, is to dispose of the dead human body and, concurrently, to protect public health. Ceremony is a separate, non-licensed function.
The successful survival of the funeral profession depends on ensuring that the public perceives the value we provide in handling both legal requirements and ceremonial rituals.
Death begins the process. The ceremony would not exist if death had not occurred. It is only logical that the decedent participate in his or her own final proceedings.
Back to the basics
I suggest we return to the basics and qualify ourselves to emphasize the most powerful resource we have for personalization. The subject we are to personalize is, after all, inherently the hallmark of our profession: the dead human body, which funeral directors-embalmers are granted exclusive license to handle.
The deceased person is the guest of honor and commands center stage. Despite a growing trend wherein the deceased is absent from his or her own final event, I maintain the dead human body in the casket for funeral visitation is still the public's expectation. Seeing is believing.
The increasing number of telephone inquiries asking if the "body will be available to view" suggests the public still needs and desires a viewing.
It is our professional duty to respond to the needs of our communities. The manner in which we help our client families fully understand the relevance of our services directly impacts how they ultimately value their own choices.
A good supporting foundation is necessary to the success of any endeavor. Embalming is the foundation of body presentation, and intensive and skillful embalming is critical, followed by impeccable grooming, cosmetic application and hairstyling.
A tailored fit for the clothing reflects meticulous care put forth in dressing and grooming. The decedent should rest comfortably in position and in facial expression.
In life, someone embarking on an important event—a first date, a job interview or any function where a poor appearance will have consequences—must look his or her best. So too in death, when the decedent is presented for approval to family and friends.
During the arrangements conference, emphasize the value of the decedent's farewell engagement here upon the Earth. Emphasize the family's "last look" at their loved one. Promise to dedicate your professional best efforts to that final appearance and invite the family to share in the commitment.
Encourage family members to discover items personally significant to their loved one, perhaps tucked away for safekeeping in a jewelry box or dresser drawer. Suggest a selection of photos and letters.
The simple act of reviewing these treasures, once held and dearly loved, offers the bereaved a starting point in the process of grieving and healing. These personal acts of the family reinvest the decedent in his/her own funeral, which in turn, reaffirms the bond between the dead and the living.
Personalization may exist in the tangibles, but it is much more. Personalization is the culmination of truly unique services that funeral directors can provide upon the person who has died and those who still live.
Consideration is given to a lifeless individual for the welfare of those who survive. The benefits are universal.
This quotation (often attributed to William Evart Gladstone, though Gladstone scholars say erroneously so), captures the benefits of what we do to society as a whole:
"Show me the manner in which a nation or a community cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the law of the land, and their loyalty to high ideals."
At life's curtain call, the "star" appears one final time to give family and friends one last look, for laughter's release at a remembered anecdote, or one last tearful memory. One last moment is suspended before the audience can let go of the main character. No one is absent; no one is overlooked. And then, as in life, there is a definitive end.
Absent the person from the funeral, personalization becomes the understudy that takes center stage.
Even when effective and powerfully symbolic, it's not quite the same.