Aside from DNA, there is only one other aspect of the human body unique to each and every individual who has ever walked the earth: the fingerprint.
As we move toward greater individualization and personalization as a business, working to create tributes that tell a story unique to the person being memorialized, I believe the source of helping families to think more about their loved one than about cost and details lies in the fingerprint.
First, though, the history.
Time well spent
Recently I stood at the rear of our chapel with a pastor from one of our local churches. This pastor's approach to "officiating" at a funeral is somewhat unusual. When he receives a request for services, he schedules a time where he can sit with the whole family and get a feel for who the person was and what the family envisions happening at the funeral service.
He usually spends about two hours with them while they tell the stories that were important to their family. He then writes a personalized eulogy and a message of hope tailored to each family and situation.
The time he spends at the service and in the follow-up is handled with the same care and concern for the bereaved.
In all, he spends about five to six hours with each family, compared with some ministers who spend about 20 minutes on the phone with the family and for every service deliver the same message, with only the name changed.
Anyway, this pastor made a passing comment to me about what was happening following the funeral at which he had officiated.
He said, "Isn't it interesting that these people can come here and share this raw emotion, get it out of their system, and go on with life?"
Until that point, I hadn't spent much time reflecting on the value of what we do. I had spent two years in the "alternative" funeral delivery system, where anything that reeked of service or ceremony meant more cost and, therefore, was not appropriate for the families who chose to do business in the "alternative" environment.
Now I had left that environment and returned to a funeral home, I was having to relearn the emotional, spiritual, sociological and psychological value of a group-centered, time-limited tribute wherein a deceased individual's story is told, often for the first time.
The times, they have changed
When did a funeral stop being a rite of passage and become a transaction? Why does a client family look for the least expensive route of disposition without taking into account the effect that choice will have on their families' emotional health?
How can those of us in the funeral profession and not planning to retire anytime soon show families the value of what we do?
The first step involves learning to interview and listening to families as they tell the life story of their loved ones. In essence, taking their "lifeprint."
Where do we go from there? Several years ago, at a Cremation Association of North America marketing conference, I was looking for a place to sit down and enjoy my buffet breakfast.
Just as I was about to sit down alone, someone said, "Why don't you come sit over here?" I didn't know the fellow who had issued the invitation, but I recognized him as a fellow conference attendee.
As soon as I sat down, he started talking. "I've been working on this idea for identifying the deceased person while still at the place where they died," he said.
He showed me drawings and some notes he had scribbled. The drawing was of a metal disc with two hearts, an inner one and an outer one, each marked with the identical number.
His idea was to attach the inner heart to the deceased when the pick-up took place and detach the outer heart and give it to the family at that time.
This disc would accompany the deceased throughout the entire disposition process, whether burial or cremation, and end up affixed to the casket or urn, thereby giving the family extra assurance that the body they were receiving back into their care was, in fact, the same one they had placed in his.
I was impressed both with the idea and at the man who had envisioned it. He extended his hand and said, "I don't believe we've met Dave Daly."
I'm sure most of you reading this knew him for many years, but I was a young man just starting out, and the name Dave Daly held an aura of celebrity for me. "Are you the Dave Daly?" I thought. This was one of the guys I'd listened to on tapes and watched on videos for so many years, along with others such as Gary O' Sullivan, Asher Neel, Bud Kendrick and Bill Rowe. And now I had had the opportunity to share a meal with one of those giants of our profession.
I love this job.
Back at Eternal Hills, we drew on Dave Daly's idea to take our "lifeprint" concept further. When someone is received into our care, we take a fingerprint of the deceased's right thumb and place it on a bracelet that will accompany the deceased through the entire disposition process.
In a burial case, the bracelet will remain in place and end up in the casket with them. In a cremation case, the bracelet is removed and kept with the paperwork while the cremation takes place, then placed in the urn.
At the same time we place the thumbprint on the bracelet, we also attach a copy of the print to the first call sheet. The thumbprint is then scanned onto our internal computer network and a copy is placed in the paper file for the deceased.
Aside from providing an additional means of identification if a question of identity ever arises, the thumbprint helps us transition to service planning. As I mentioned before, the service becomes the telling of the deceased's story—his or her "lifeprint."
To help families think about how their loved one was unique, we bring the scanned image of the thumbprint onto the television or computer screen in the arrangement room.
We then say, "We've spent the last few minutes talking about your dad and the impact he had on your life. The purpose of the funeral is to tell his story and show his unique “lifeprint” on you, your family, his friends, his colleagues and society.
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At this point, the funeral director begins to share some of the ways Eternal Hills can work with them to turn the memories they've shared about the deceased into a meaningful tribute that will be remembered by everyone who attends the service.
Learn to direct the service
As providers of goods and services surrounding the death of a family member, we must stop standing at the back of the church or chapel and move to the front. When I look up "director" in the dictionary, I find it defined as: "one who supervises the production of a show."
How many funeral directors would meet that definition of the position? How many understand what Ernie Heffner calls "the panache and profit correlation?"
Based on my own observations, I would say not many. Funeral "directors" who realize that bereaved families need help and advice will not worry about the rising rate of cremation or the rising costs of doing business. They will instead seek new and profound ways to take the business we know today as "death care" to a new level.
I'll end by dropping one more celebrity name. Todd Van Beck's concept of seeking, with or without the family's knowledge or permission, the one thing that is going to be their "WOW factor" should be a funeral arranger's ultimate goal.
This is what elevates the funeral from something endured for the sake of the grieving family to a tribute that accurately reflects the deceased's life so that everyone in attendance leaves with the feeling their time was well spent.