It has been brought to my attention that a journalist by the name of Brittney P. Laryea of MagnifyMoney recently had a short essay published entitled “7 Lies Your Funeral Home Director Might Tell You.”
Because of my long-time dedication to the funeral profession, and because I love being a funeral director (which possibly Ms. Laryea might not totally understand), this essay caught my attention.
One would think that after a half-century of periodically reading these types of “investigative” journalist efforts about the funeral profession, I would just toss my hands in the air, and say something like, “Well, here we go again!” or even worse, “Why bother responding?”
A little history now is in order. The first attempt I remember of journalists making the noble but deluded attempt to tell other people what to watch out for concerning funeral directors and how to spend their money on funerals and definitely identifying the good people and bad ones in funeral service was in the early 1960s when Howard K. Smith hosted a program on ABC entitled “Merchants of Sorrow: The American Funeral Director, Living Off the American Dead.”
Even the name of this show created the negative and highly charged emotional idea that funeral directors are cannibals!
Even then, I realized that as a caretaker of the dead I would find many people, including journalists, who would take great exception with anything we did as funeral professionals and feel the compelling self-righteous need to “save” society from the “cannibals” of death.
When I was asked to compose a response to Ms. Laryea’s journalistic efforts, I pulled out the “Anti-Funeral” file I have kept for decades, and reviewed the contents. I would like to share a bit of the contents to inform the readers that nothing, absolutely nothing Ms. Laryea’s wrote about to protect the innocent reader from people like you and me is anything new.
Here are some historic gems from other savior/rescuer journalists/media people: “Ripped Off: Living off the American Dead” (1977); “Death’s Money Woes—Rip Off” (1973); “Prepaid Funerals: Not the Way to Go” (1986); Betraying A Trust” (1991); “Rest in Pieces” (1983); “Bake and Shake” (1980); “R.I.P Off” (2000); “The Ecological Cost of Dying” (1992), which was published—now get this—in a magazine called “Garbage.” Now I can add “7 lies your funeral home director might tell you.” (It seems clear that many journalists think using R.I.P. in their titles is new, cool and extremely creative. As you can see, it is not!)
Back to Ms. Laryea. First off, she says that funeral directors might be liars. I don’t believe many people want to be called a liar, but Ms. Laryea indicates that we well might be lying to people. However, as the saying goes, “people who live in glass houses should not …” What is the end of that old quote? Ms. Laryea is certainly on shaky ground when using the word “liar” in the same sentence with funeral directors.
Is it not unfair for her fail to include people in her own profession when saying funeral directors “might” be liars. If memory serves me correctly, none other than the famous, cool Brian Williams, longtime anchor of the NBC Nightly News, admitted that he was a liar—not that he might be liar, but that he was a real, honest to God liar. He lied about his experience after Hurricane Katrina, then again about what happened during a 2003 Iraq mission.
But wait a minute, hold on there, Todd, you are being way too harsh. Brian Williams is a journalist. Isn’t Mr. Williams allowed license to fabricate stories, since he is protected by the First Amendment?
Something is going on here that Ms. Laryea just misses. Brian Williams got away with lying to the American public on national television. Why? Well, just possibly the self-righteous flavor of the media makes such dishonest actions such as Mr. Williams not only possible, but also without consequences. Brian Williams is still on television. Dishonesty, which seems to actually be rewarded, translates into cynicism, and it seems evident that we are now living in cynical times.
I have concluded many years ago that the media can dish it out but can’t take it. And, yes, we are now culturally cynical partly because of the media’s addiction to creating cynicism, which leads to fear. You know the results: “Watch out for those people,” or sweeping comments such as, “Funeral directors are liars!”
The consequences of spreading cynicism and whipping innocent people into a state of fear are never good. Wars have been started by such out-of-control actions.
As a funeral director, as a human being who loves funeral service and, just as importantly, as a human being who takes umbrage to the very idea of indicting an entire group of professionals as perhaps being dishonest, I believe I am qualified to stand up and defend the nobility of my chosen profession.In this type of response, this is when the writer usually acknowledges that there are rogues in every profession, and that is abundantly true. There are rogue dentists, rogue educators, rogue clergy, rogue physicians, rogue lawyers and, yes, rogue funeral directors. We all know this is a fact of life, so we won’t belabor that fact.
Suffice to say that we all know you can’t be all things to all people, and certainly we can’t defend our profession or any profession for that matter as being perfect and free of errors. So I won’t try that approach.
Let me address Ms. Layrea. I must say that her research is somewhat dated and faulty. Her interpretation of the Federal Trade Commission Funeral Rule was weak, her cautionary statements about the risks of prepaid funerals were also weak (I mean, friends, the death rate is 100%. People buy fire insurance and most homes never burn, but what is the risk of dying? It is an even 100%). Her admonition about sealing caskets protecting the dead (sealed caskets were invented to stop grave robbing) is ancient history, and I know of no funeral directors who are still telling people that embalming is required by law.
Basically, Ms. Layrea’s discussion of these points reflect her youth and inexperience. Sorry, but it is true: Her research could have been more accurate and up-to-date. It was as if an editor said, “Let’s do something on funerals. Go write a piece on the lying funeral directors—people always like reading that stuff!”
I did, however, totally agree with the first sentence in the 10th paragraph. She wrote, “It’s ultimately up to you.” Nothing she wrote had more power than those five words. And this is precisely where Ms. Layrea exposes her innocent naiveté.
It would be wonderful if people had a mature attitude toward their own death. It would be quite nice if people understood that death is universal, inevitable and the physical cessation of life. That would make so many people’s lives so much better, but this is not the case.
The majority of people don’t think about death. In fact, many people walk around the world under the misapprehension that death has nothing to do with them.
The funeral director’s dual tasks of caretaking of the dead and providing care for the living would be much less complicated and less vulnerable to attack if people thought about death, but most simply will not do it. Then when something goes wrong, the grief card is played and the funeral director is easily made out as the scapegoat.
Death anxiety in our culture compounds the impossible task that funeral directors are asked to accomplish. People don’t confront death easily; they certainly don’t confront their own death easily. So people don’t like death, but they do like funeral directors. The evidence proves this fact.
In the last decade, funeral directors have been rated by the Gallup Poll to be in the top 10 of the most honored, trusted and respected people in their respective communities. They must be doing something right, and doing it right despite journalists who usually ignore, reject and poo-poo any information which indicates the truth that people like, respect and trust funeral directors.
Now I want to zero in on Ms. Layrea in particular.
I have always been interested in exploring this question: Why would a young journalist focus on the funeral director? With all the myriad problems facing the human race, why would Ms. Layrea direct time and effort to our small occupation?
I don’t know Ms. Layrea, but I do know the motives of journalists when it comes to the subject of death, and the results are usually not good.
Journalists, throughout history, seem addicted to several major points concerning funerals that they repeat over and over again, all claiming originality: First, funerals are too expensive; second, funeral directors are dishonest and third; funerals are a pagan waste of time.
Of course none of this is true, but the media never lets up. Why? Why would Ms. Layrea wittingly or unwittingly tell people that funeral directors are liars when they are not?
The Rev. Dr. Edgar N. Jackson, who was my psychology profession when I was a student, offered a hauntingly insightful answer. He told me, and I quote, “When I have a patient who has anxiety about death, they almost always express enmity toward the funeral director.”
Might Ms. Layrea have anxiety about death as her creative motivation to pen this type of “helpful” information? Certainly that was the case with the infamous Jessica Mitford and her history with death, which resulted in her aggressive attack on the funeral profession in the United States.
If the fear of death motivates a person to call funeral directors dishonest, then Ms. Layrea may well be frightened to death of death. This possibly might be true.
We live in cynical times. Many who are immersed in the media world depend on the power of constant cynicism to create fear in other people. Journalists proclaim to the world non-stop that, for instance, dentists are crooks, physicians are incompetent, clergyperson are perverted, educators are untrustworthy, and lawyers—well, what hasn’t been said about lawyers?
Such unbridled cynicism in life has tragic consequences, because being addicted to “the sky is falling” approach to life 24 hours a day has results that are visible to anyone sensitive enough to look, and these results do not inspire or enhance the quality of the human experience.
The message from Ms. Laryea is simple: Funeral directors are not to be trusted. I suspect that she would have no hesitation writing the same treatise on dentists, physicians, clergy, educators or lawyers.
However Ms. Laryea (who from her posted photograph is very young) simply misses the truth. Most dentists, physicians, educators, members of the clergy and lawyers are honest and have a mission in their lives, and careers involving helping people. The vast majority of funeral professionals have the exact same mission in life.
There are literally thousands of funeral homes in the United States. Most of these funeral homes have been serving their communities for an impressive number of decades. If funeral directors were liars as Ms. Laryea’s article indicates, how could people be deceived for so long by them? Are people really that gullible? Ms. Laryea simply misses the point of the substance of funeral service.
She is clearly sounding the cynical fear alarm. But her efforts are inadequate. She stirs the cynical pot but then she offers no substantive suggestions to help people face up to their own deaths. However, to her credit she states that ultimately this is up to the layperson. Which sounds great—I agree with it totally—but as has been said, it is mighty difficult to get people to face up to the 100% death rate, and the consequences of this fact of life.
She says nothing about the Federal Trade Commission’s Funeral Rule, which by its very creation was written to aid in the public’s literacy about death decisions, and she also omits to mention that every state in the union has regulatory boards which oversee the funeral service profession and are always a place for the public to submit any type of funeral service grievance.
If the majority of the public is disinterested in a sensible investigation concerning their post-death options, that is not the fault of the funeral director. If the public persists in their chronic and predictable disinterest in post-death options, until the 59th second of the 11th hour, until it is too late and someone is already dead and they are clueless about making these decisions, that is not the funeral director’s fault.
It is my personal opinion that one of the reasons funeral directors get such high marks in community polls about trust, respect and honesty is precisely because funeral directors are highly sensitive and respectful of the evident vulnerabilities of people who are totally unprepared to face the reality of life caused by the certainty of death. So this, then, is just the opposite of what Ms. Laryea is writing about.
I even suspect that if Ms. Laryea saw the different types of advertising and promotions that funeral directors use trying to motivate the public to accept and act on the wisdom of preplanning post-death decisions she would have yet another opportunity to write cynically about that. In fact, she already has. Her third point, which she includes in her list of lies that funeral directors tell people is this: “You should prepay for the funeral.” This statement is presented as yet another red flag that the funeral director might be a liar.
I could not disagree her more. Preplanning, prearranging, prefunding a funeral is a wise, mature and sensible thing to do—given that the death rate is 100%.
For 50 years, I have counseled thousands of people that prearranging funerals is a good, mature and sensible idea. Does that make TVB a liar? According to Ms. Laryea, I might be.
The question then is this: What to do? What does a funeral professional do with this type of predictable, cynical and fear-mongering journalistic effort? What is a funeral professional do to in dealing with a cynical culture in which people spend more time selecting their hairdresser and/or barber than they do their funeral director? What to do?
The ultimate foundation of the funeral service profession is the firm and fair believe in the value, purpose and benefit in human beings participating in the various rites, rituals and ceremonies that have been proven through the centuries to help alleviate human misery caused by the death of someone and the subsequent grief.
This is the substance of our profession that the journalists from Mitford down to Laryea always miss. They just miss it. They all have missed it because they all, every one of them makes one fatal error, they reduce the rites, rituals and ceremonies of death to being simply and only an economic event.
Death rituals, to be sure, have an economic component. And here is a liberating idea which ought to attract Ms. Laryea: Human being have the absolute freedom of choice to not participate in a community’s death rituals. All they have to do is dispose of the decedent in a legally acceptable manner.
This needs to be clearly understood. Death rituals are much more than money, and the value, purpose and benefits of death rituals can never be confined to a four-page treatise written by a journalist—it can’t be done.
Death rituals are theological events, sociological events, philosophical events, practical events, ecological events, religious evens, spiritual events, psychological events and, yes, Ms. Laryea, they can even be humorous events. In other words, death rituals are much, much more that a logical, sterile, rational monetary event.
The final word, if is such a thing is possible concerning this mammoth subject, might be this: When someone dies, it is probably safe to say that the significantly bereaved will not make a phone call to Ms. Laryea for her help, knowledge, expertise and guidance. It is probable that the significantly bereaved will not call any of the myriad of other journalists (some really famous) who over the last half century have all made the fatal error in writing about our profession of reducing death rituals to simply money. I don’t know of a journalist who has written about our profession ever receiving a death call at 3 a.m., unless that fateful call was for a relative or personal acquaintance’s death.
No, my friend, the bereaved, the suffering, the lost and alone, the grieving, do not call journalists. They call the funeral director! That, my friends, makes all the difference in the world to thousands of people in our communities who are today walking around with better mental health because you were their funeral professional. This truth can never be underestimated or proclaimed too often by too many funeral professionals.
They call the funeral director!