A True Act of Mercy

Todd Van Beck's picture

Several months ago I made a speaking trip to Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania to give the annual Pearson Lectures.  I always have enjoyed my trips to the “Keystone” or “Quaker” State, and as always I was treated with much courtesy and hospitality.

I am guessing that the lectures went alright.  My host John Lunsford, who is a true gentleman, and the head of the mortuary science department at the college, said the evaluations looked good.  Of course there were a few good people who took task with some of my thoughts, but then that is the risk and the reality of giving public presentations – you can’t be all things to all people.

However as enjoyable as my work with Northampton Community College was, and as gracious as my hosts were, one of the true impacts on my life and career happened just out of the blue when I was introduced to a couple by the name of Trish and Tom Quinn.  The Quinns are funeral professionals in the Philadelphia area, and what I encountered both in listening and learning from them has had a great influence on my view of funeral service and the noble worthy ideal of our continued quest to improve our abilities and skills in helping bereaved human beings.  Helping people always seemed so worthy to me.

The substance of my interaction and subsequent friendship with the Quinns has revolved around one primary subject, the extremely sensitive and vulnerable topic of the death of a child, and the subsequent funeral activities or lack of them.

I cannot remember a time in my career when children have not died.  Certainly, and this is a great blessing, the death of a child is nothing today like it was at the turn of the century, or throughout history for that matter, but even though the numbers of children deaths are less than ever before, the impact of such a death is more pronounced than ever before simply because CHILDREN ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO DIE ANYMORE.

There was a time, actually not that long ago, when the death of a child was not unusual.  Throughout history children have been particularly susceptible to the neverending work of the Grim Reaper.  I remember looking at an old funeral record book one time and being struck by the fact that for the month of August 1893 this undertaker had conducted 38 funerals, and 13 of them had been for children under the age of twelve.  It was sobering reading, I can tell you that!

Thank God things have improved concerning child mortality statistics in this country, but yet, as every funeral professional can attest, children still do die, and this cruel reality is the particular ministry and mission on which the Quinns have focused their attention.

Customarily such connection between a funeral professional and the subject of the death of a child is a psychological one.  You know, the seminars which have been presented for years on the subjects of “How to Tell a Child” or “What Do Children Do” or “What Happens When A Parent Dies” or the neverending topic “Should A Child Go To A Funeral.”  All these subjects have great worth, but the Quinns have focused on something else.  Their focus is on the basic economic structure, or lack thereof, of a child’s funeral expenses, and to that end they have created what I consider one of the most innovative, worthy and creative organizations I have ever heard of in our great profession, FINAL FAREWELL. http://finalfarewell.org/

Let’s freeze this frame a moment and as usual I would like to dive into some funeral history.  When I started out in funeral service, the rock solid policy of the funeral home I was connected with was that if the deceased was a child (the criteria was if the body was too small to go into an adult-sized casket), there was no charge made to the family – even if they could pay. 

I knew several other funeral homes in the area in which I worked that had the same policy.  My employer’s attitude was one of benevolence, kindness, generosity and mercy.  The truth was that most often when a child died, the parents or others most closely affected were people without means.  Most of the people we served when a child had died could not afford prenatal care, they might not have been married, some were shunned by their own families. When the child’s death was not due to illness, we seemed to always be dealing with accidental death or, sadly, homicides.

It was clear that a child’s death placed the funeral home and our staff in a psychological position that many times tackled the very fiber of our service ability.  To that end my employer made the decision that since the atmosphere of a child’s death was so charged with complications and sensitivities and trauma and drama, he was not going to add to these poor people’s problems with a funeral bill.  He would just absorb the expenses and move on.  Certainly today this approach might well annoy or cause some readers to react negatively, but I am just sharing history and not in the least suggesting how a funeral home owner today ought to approach a similar situation.  This is just history, nothing else, and as we all know we can’t change history.

It seems evident to me that the death of a child still causes much anguish. It also seems evident that some people who have experienced the death of a child still experience poor prenatal care, might not be married, might well be shunned by their families, and children are still killed accidentally or intentionally.  The Grim Reaper is still very busy.

The approach my old employer took of not charging for a child’s funeral did have positive results for his career, and his business. His generous spirit translated into family loyalty, and while he did not charge for the child’s funeral, he did not give away funerals to the child’s grandparents, aunts and uncles or their parents.  In fact, this great funeral director's generous spirit truly came back to him a thousand times, and what is more, he slept well at night.

Of course that was more than 40 years ago, and I am not naïve; things have changed.  The basic profit structure of a funeral has changed in a big way,  the economy has changed in a big way. Today the notion of giving anything away needs careful consideration, careful procedures and most of all careful attention to fiscal responsibility.  Things have changed.

This is where the Quinns and their creative work in starting up the philanthropic foundation called FINAL FAREWELL comes in.

It has been a long time since I have seen a philanthropic effort in our profession that I personally believe has as much worth to it as does the Quinns' FINAL FAREWELL ministry.

The basic idea behind Final Farewell is simple:  the foundation is a financial resource, a pool of funds used to assist families with funeral expenses when a child dies.  In other words, based on each individual situation, case by case, the vision and now the work of Final Farewell is to help pay for funeral expenses on behalf of a bereaved family. The funds go directly to the serving funeral home, so that a type of win/win situation is created – if one can possibly even use the word “win” in reference to a child’s death.  Worded another way, when contacted, the Quinns and their Final Farewell Foundation will work in tandem with both the bereaved family and the serving funeral home to arrive at a figure which the foundation will contribute to defray the funeral expenses that occur when a child dies.

There are no complicated formulas, no complicated forms, no lengthy application processes, no bureaucracy and no one is turned down.  The amount of money given is always predicated upon how much money is in the foundation's account, and the particular situation involved.

The Quinns also have been diligent in creating a non-profit recognized enterprise overseen by a Board of Directors, all of who are highly respected leaders from funeral service and other professions.

The amounts of money that are extended to a funeral home is based presently on the amounts of money that are sitting in the Foundation coffers, and the truth is the Foundations bank accounts is not piled high with cash, in fact the cash presently goes up and down depending on how many generous souls the Quinn’s can contact and attract and what the daily needs are concerning helping bereaved people when a child dies.   Bluntly speaking the Foundation needs money, they need contributions, and they need it from us, and they need it now.

The Quinns have just begun their noble work, and I believe they are doing pioneering work, but also I believe they have their hearts precisely in the right place.  They do not look at this work as a business; I believe the Quinns look at this work as their mission in life, a ministry to the least of these, and in the end a true corporal act of mercy.

They need help.  They need contributions.  The need relationships out in the funeral service profession.  They need a solid base so that the funds extended to the worthy people who experience a death of a child can be in time made entirely from the interest which will be in financial investment accounts intended to last long after the Quinns are gone and other people take over the program. 

The other side of the wisdom of Final Farewell is that it will help contribute to the financial security of funeral homes.  Final Farewell might not be able to take care of all the financial obligations of a child’s funeral, but they are helping. I know they want to help more.

I would ask any reader that before you make a decision to invest your time and/or monetary contributions, you first explore Final Farewell on your own by looking at their Website.  Also you can easily contact the Quinns by calling this phone number:  1-800-238-8440.  I believe you will be happy you made the contact to get involved.

This is NOT a sales pitch, but it is a worthy call to action.  I believe Final Farewell is a worthy ideal, and it is managed by two worthy and dedicated human beings:  Trish and Tom Quinn.  I believe their work deserved our attention and support.

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