"People will care for their dead in a consistent manner with how they live their daily lives. In good times and in bad."

Todd Van Beck's picture

I do not like to bring up subjects that annoy people.  Well on second thought there are a few people I like to annoy, but not many.

With that said, and with profuse apologizes made right now before I really say anything, I have noticed that the press is amazed at the number of people who die at this particular time and have no funds per se for a funeral, cemetery plot, or even cremation.  Also the newspapers are reporting that this trend is not going to slow down anytime soon.  Once again I sit back and wonder the same old thought, why is it that the press just misses so much about the truths, the many truths, the glaring truths, about funeral service?  

For years I have known that the press does not “get it” about us and for a while I thought it was because they were just rash, rude and rough, but over the last several years I have developed a sneaky suspicion that they really do “get it” they just don’t want to report it, because “getting it” about funeral service almost always translates into the average Archie and Edith Bunker in America ending up being quite interested in our fascinating profession, and that translates into “good news” for us.  We know the press gives lip service to good news, but does not really like good news because good news does not create fear, and worse yet the readers and listeners of the news might just conclude that the world is not such a bad place, and that idea terrifies media people, who seem to thrive on doom and gloom. 

I can’t empirically prove this, but my old trusty Iowa farmer’s instinct tells me I am right on the mark about this issue.  Good news just does not sell – that is really a shame. 

So now the media is telling us another doom and gloom story that people are in a financial bind because the economy is in the bucket and of all things this is affecting funeral service.  Now there is an extremely insightful idea – something in life affecting funeral service – my, my they do know how to cut to the chase.  I would venture to think that the only people who are not in a financial bind concerning just about everything in life are those fat cats on some famous street in New York City whose mouths are watering right now in anticipation of some mighty obscene bonuses which I think you and I are paying for.  I also suspect that those fat cats are not in the least concerned about paying for a funeral when they need one.  In fact it might easily be predicted that these fat cats will never ever be concerned about death care costs, because I have noticed when a family pulls up in a Bentley their loved one usually goes out in a carboard box with no services whether the Bentley is paid for or not. 

In my career it is Archie and Edith Bunker, the salt of the earth, common folk who pull up to the funeral home in a Chevy whose loved one often times goes out in a wood or metal casket, with some services.  Thank God for the common folks, I believe they are the foundation, the rock, the anchor of our great profession – but exploration of that subject is being held for a future blog.  (I can’t still believe I am blogging!).


For many years I have been told, undercover of course, that people who select cremation are, well, cheap, they don’t care, they are strange.  Might I balance the scales here a tad?  For my entire career I have encountered clients, no matter what method of final disposition they select who are, well, cheap, they don’t care, they are strange (to me, anyway, and I have been mistaken many times in these judgments).

Sometime back I concluded that people choose cremation because it reflects in an almost unconscious way how they have lived their lives, long before they encountered any funeral director and/or cemeterian.  Long, long before.

I believe that in the instance of cremation the attraction –  again almost unconsciously these days – is because it mirrors how these good people, common ordinary people have eaten, driven, entertained themselves, cooked, washed, taken care of their autos, just lived daily life long before they were involved with our profession. In other words they walk in the front door with already set lifestyles, attitudes, values and convictions concerning the disposal of the dead, and unfortunately they might well have formed these pretty solid ideas without any input from any person from our profession. Now that is too bad.

Seems to me that most people make medical decisions in consultation with a physician, dental decisions in consultation with a dentist, financial decisions with a banker, educational decisions with a teacher, but too often, way too often, rock solid decisions are made concerning death services or the lack of them without any consultation with the funeral director.  To be sure consultations with funeral directors happen every day but possibly not on the scale to which is might or should.  Too bad so many people have such solid opinions and arrive at such convictions concerning anything to do with death and fail to converse or communicate with the funeral director.  We have some dandy valuable information – anyway I believe we do.

In fact I had a woman tell me once, very innocently that she spent more time picking out her hair dresser than she did the funeral director when her husband died, and her experience with this 11th hour funeral director was not good.  When I suggested to her that it was her responsibility to select a reputable funeral director to insure she didn’t end up with what she encountered with the “last minute” guy she got grumpy with me. 

So right now, people, good common ordinary people, have become used to a way of daily life which is quick, painless, easy, instant, and perceived as inexpensive - this latter point is all the more critical these days.  Put all those ingredients together and when people walk into the funeral home it might well be way too much to expect on our parts to ask them to “slow down” and smell the roses, and experience something which we know is valuable but they have not developed those insights which are common knowledge to you and I.

For years we have known in funeral service that people want instantaneous gratification.  Now add a terribly shaky economy to this mix, and the implications for funeral service are something to monitor and examine carefully.

When I was a child in Iowa if I ordered a hamburger, French fries, and a soda it took on average about half an hour for my food to show up, and guess what?  We all waited, never complained, had no high expectations, we just sat there waiting for the food – of course that was in 1956.

My father would take our car to the service station to get the oil changed and we had to leave the bloody vehicle all day long and three service attendants worked on the project throughout the entire day – of course that was in 1962.

Let’s do an internal check.  How many of us would wait for a NUMBER FOUR at Burger King for say half hour?  How many of us would leave our auto at Jiffy Lube for an entire day just to get the oil changed?  I am predicting - - - - NOT MANY!

Now add to this social condition the ingrained social mores and folkways about life being fast and easy and add a horrible economy. Why would anybody these days wonder why the number of people who die and have no money would be increasing? 

The average layperson might be interested in such news, but for you and I this reality is yet another truth concerning people caring, or not caring, for their dead in a consistent manner with how they live their life day to day.  This is a powerful insight which calls out for analysis and action, for if anybody in our profession wants to get a true, accurate, real insight as to where funeral service has been and where it is going, all anybody in any funeral home or cemetery needs to do is to get out of the office and walk downtown and witness daily life, soak it in.  This is a real type of focus group as sure in its accuracy as if a funeral company paid a professional focus group leader $100,000 to come to town and tell them what’s going on.

Downtown, neighborhoods, the local café, the church suppers, and scouting activities, the Friday night ballgames all are living indicators, all are truth serums as to what is going on in your communities, which will ultimately translate into what is going on in funeral service, cemetery work, cremation, burials, and yes, even indigent/penniless deaths.  I find it disconcerting that the poor indigents or just people who can never pay for a funeral through no fault of their own never before made the newspapers until now when increasingly their deaths create (according to the reports) an economic hardship on the community.  Can the indigent and poor of this country when they die possibly be a problem?  The dead being a problem, what are we coming to?  I think a much better question would be to ask is why is it that these people dying without any money, did they once have money, and if they did what happened to the money, which appears today to be translating into a pauper’s grave or immediate cremation?  What happened to these people? 

Yes people are going to care for their dead in a consistent manner with how they live their lives, and if now they have no money – well my friends in funeral service, what are the alternatives? 

Do you think any of the bonus people, the very wealthy, would, because of this terrible economic situation kindly make a large contribution to the “Worthy Poor Funeral Fund?”  I doubt this very much, and as has been the case before in funeral service history, the responsibility of caring for the dead in good and bad times falls to the local funeral director/cemeterian.

I am of the opinion that these poor economic times will see funeral history repeat itself so in the end the compassionate, caring and concerned service to humanity regarding basic care of the dead, regardless of monetary wealth, regardless of station in life, regardless of unavoidable changes in life circumstances and fortunes, will end up on the front door step of the local, hometown funeral director, as it always has in the past.  Thank heavens many funeral homes still have good old-fashioned front porches on them – the front porch has always been a symbol of safety and comfort which are mighty important mental health assets in turbulent times like these.

A great American funeral director - I mean folks this gentleman was one of the best in our profession - once passed along two pieces of funeral service philosophy, not advice but philosophy, to me.  First he said that the word “No” should not be in any funeral director's vocabulary, and second he said, “If it is mentionable by the family it ought to me manageable by the funeral home.” 

This great American funeral director was named Alfred Bickford Marsh and I worked for him while I was a student in Mortuary College in Boston.  No matter who walked through the front door Mr. Marsh embraced them, exercised unconditional positive regard, and became a legend in funeral service.  What an honor it was to work with him.

My friends, Al lived his philosophy with a consistency that most men never attain in life.  He had the ability to gauge his community, he accepted always without question any call, he served "the least of these," and he drove a 1964 Plymouth Fury which seemed to always be in the shop.  The stellar human beings who have been attracted to funeral service make one proud.

Times are not good right now, and there are good people who are living in a consistent and required “new economic” manner by having to watch pennies, to tighten up the belt and yes to spend money on life essentials and in the end possibly die without funds. 

This is happening right now, but as mentioned before, consultation with a funeral professional is ALWAYS a good idea.  Since funerals and death activities are important aspects of living life, given the current situation might it not be wise that funeral homes/cemeteries rekindle, rejuvenate, rebirth the advance planning programs, and get out into the communities and tell our important story? Not to make a sale, but to help a friend make wise and careful and informed decisions and help them make the future not such a scary place.

Anyway that’s one old undertaker’s opinion.    TVB