Why the Prophets and Pundits Are Wrong

Todd Van Beck's picture

I just finished reading a recent overview of a high level educational session conducted on the important topic of the future of funeral service. This has been a popular subject throughout my career.  It has dominated many issues of our professional journals, it has been the fodder for the prophets and pundits of our profession, it has certainly been the topic of many continuing education seminars, and many a written word (like this) has been devoted to the neverending topic of what is in store for the future of funeral service.  What do we see in the crystal ball?

I have even been asked now and then to put in my two cents worth concerning this subject, and for the life of me I could never and still can’t figure out why my opinion was ever solicited, because most everything I have predicted about funeral service has been wrong, which just seems to be the way of prophecy.  In fact in my college undergraduate liberal arts education I was taught very clearly in philosophy class that most prophecies have one thing in common (except of course for certain religious prophecies): they have always been wrong, they have missed the mark, they have terribly exaggerated or terribly understated the realities of what the future in the end did hold.  In other words, “crystal balls” only work well in the carnivals with fortune tellers. 

I have certainly encountered “crystal balls,” but I have never really encountered an honest-to-goodness mind reader who could predict the future.  My mother attempted to convince me years ago that she could read my mind, and there were many times I came close to thinking that she could, but in the end even my mother could not read my mind.  Nor can anyone else for that matter.  Telepathy, mind-reading and gifts of prophecy I believe are real but rare, and when it comes to the world of funeral service I have not encountered many clairvoyant undertakers, or embalmers, or morticians, or funeral corporate people, or funeral vendors.  I am sure they are out there, but I have not encountered them.

I have, however, concluded that the prophecies made concerning funeral service are different from the prophecies made about other professions.  It strikes me that most of the prophecies concerning funeral service end up being negative and in the end frighten people, and I would like to suggest this is not a good thing.

What I mean to say is that I have read in other professional journals positive reports about the future of this or that other profession.  This is uplifting, the future looks shiny, and these prophets and pundits bring good tidings.  Most of the reports have nothing to do with money or financial wealth, because I fear if the futurists in any profession focused only on money or financial gain the news would be pretty shaky for most of us.  These positive reports focus on a form of wealth other than money (if in America such a notion is today even possible).  They focus almost exclusively on what, for a better term, I am going to call the predictions of the “worthy ideal,” and I have concluded that by focusing on this, they always end up taking a positive spin. In fact, I have concluded that there are really no other options when the future is viewed as possessing a “worthy ideal.”

The “worthy ideal” always has at its core one premier concept, that of being of service to others.

Here is an example.  A few years ago, a buddy of mine who graduated from law school told me one evening that he knew that the members of the local garbage collectors union made  more per year than he did working for a well-respected law firm.  In the course of our conversation, my friend looked at me and said, “But I love the law.  I know people knock and ridicule being a lawyer all the time, but I don’t care – I’m different – I just love the law and I want to serve people.”

That is a stellar example of a human being having a “worthy ideal” and no matter what, my friend predicted he would succeed at being a good lawyer. Maybe not a wealthy lawyer, but a good, honest, mission driven lawyer helping serve people.  He had the “worthy ideal,” so in his own mind his future looked good and that was all that mattered.  His attitude toward serving others through his profession simply made him immune to the prophets and pundits who looked into the future of the legal profession and declared doom and gloom.

A history of “doom and gloom” predictions for funeral service

Let’s turn back to funeral service.  Throughout my career, I have watched our beloved profession go through fire after fire, and the future many times looked uncertain, but of course trying to look “through” a fire is always scary and uncertain—just ask any firefighter. 

Here are some examples of historic funeral fires: First there was Jessica Mitford, and the prophets and pundits predicted doom and gloom. Then there was the Federal Trade Commission and the Funeral Rule, and once again the prophets and pundits predicted doom and gloom.  Then there was the interference of OSHA, ADA and a slew of other regulations, and once again the prophets and pundits predicted doom and gloom. Then the cremation rate took off and the prophets and pundits predicted doom and gloom.

I don’t remember a single prophet or pundit, while with great certainty and self righteousness predicting (again) impending “doom and gloom” ever raising the professional bar and talking about the worthy ideal of actually being a funeral professional, and how a funeral professional with the worthy ideal would, like my lawyer buddy, find the “doom and gloom” predictions not so scary.

The result of the nonstop doom and gloom approach to anything in life is almost always scaring the hell out of people. Just watch the television news, or tune into a weather report.  Constant reports of doom and gloom create fear, and while fear is indeed a motivator it is a very poor one, and never truly helpful or permanent.  There are better options for getting people and professions motivated, and holding onto a “worthy ideal” of service to others is one of them – no matter what happens.

I remember years ago I went across a certain state doing OSHA compliance seminars.  I tried to take a careful approach and make some simple points, such as OSHA being a good thing – I mean who can argue against a safe work place for our people and clients? –  then I tried to assure them that OSHA was not a demon, and the chance of ever getting inspected was slim, unless a disgruntled former employee turned them in.  The points were not all inclusive, I knew other presenters would have done a better job, but I was careful not to put fear into the funeral directors' hearts and minds. In fact, I tried to make them laugh and relax.  I did not want to scare them simply because the truth was there was absolutely no reason to scare anybody about OSHA.

At the break, one funeral director approached me and said that after he attended a past OSHA seminar he went home so bloody worried and scared that he had seriously thought about just up and selling his funeral home to get a jump on the inevitable doom and gloom which was, according to that OSHA presenter, surely going to befall him and consume him and his wonderful funeral home alive.  I asked him a simple question: “Do you love funeral service?” He responded without hesitation that he did, and I followed up with this question: “Why would you want to sell something you love before it is really your time to sell?”

Scaring people, putting fear into a person’s heart, basically shoots the “worthy ideal” concept straight to hell, and in reality there is no reason to scare people – none.

Here are two beliefs that help me to avoid irrational fear about the future of funeral service:
    •    I firmly believe funeral service, no matter what, is a “worthy ideal,” and hence I believe that the future is good for our profession.
    •    I work consistently in the field with funeral professionals, and I know that thousands of them truly love funeral service. That attitude of service to others alone is success enough for the worthy ideal to prosper and continue to expand. 

This is not to say that any type of “Pollyanna” attitude will rule the day in our great profession.  The movie “Pollyanna” made me ill the first time I saw it in the 1960s when I was only a kid, and it still makes me ill.  If you've seen the movie, you remember the nauseating, ever cheerful, ever optimistic little girl. But that was just a movie, with memorized lines, costumes and make-up. There was nothing real about it.

But funeral service, the death of a human being, and the grief of a human being, is terribly real. I see scores of “in the trenches” funeral professionals with the notion of the “worthy ideal” of selfless service to humanity in their hearts. No matter what financial gains or reverses one experiences, having a “worthy ideal” of being of service to others in one’s mind and heart is, I believe, in the end the very definition and substance of success, and from this sole perspective there are many successful funeral professionals across the globe.

Fear is not a good motivator; a worthy ideal is

Funeral service has its challenges, but the truth is we always have and always will, but I never once saw fear improve things. Being motivated by fear has never made funeral service better – just the opposite, in fact. Fear has created jaded attitudes, sweeping criticisms of our own people from people within our own ranks, and a type of cynicism that tears down instead of building up.  Fear just does not build up anything.

On the other hand, the concept of a human being over time working to progressively realize a worthy ideal is a tremendous motivator and most every funeral director I work with and encounter has this worthy ideal, even if they do not call it by this name exactly.

It is clear that the buying habits of the public have already changed. It is clear that the historic financial structures of funeral service have changed. It is clear that the attitude of people toward rituals and ceremonies have changed.  All this and more is true, true, true – we are reminded of this constantly!  But what is also true is that the men and woman who actually get the work done are also changing and, yes, I believe improving.

No doubt from the point of view of the prophets and pundits the good people who actually make up the true working force of funeral service are not changing and improving fast enough, but I can assure you change and improvements are happening. I can also attest that in my own career I have had to change in both attitude and practice on a monumental scale from where I started out, and if somebody like me can change and improve attitudes, skills, knowledge and a vision of the future of funeral service, it means that scores of others in our great profession have already accomplished this task and are still doing it, because TVB has always been the slow boy in the class.

I would suggest that funeral professionals who have in their hearts the concept of funeral service being a premier example of living out by action and not mere words a worthy ideal do change and alter course when they themselves feel the impulse. They improve on their own timeline and not someone else’s, and this is how it should be.

In fact if a person carefully examines the history of our great profession, this is how the future has always been handled.  The power and influence in funeral service rests with the worthy ideal of human service held by the local funeral homes across this country.  It does not rest with a writer like me.  The future of our great profession rests on every breath taken by the funeral professionals (licensed or not) who make up the real substance of our ministry to the bereaved in the hundreds of thousands of hamlets and towns and cities and villages that make up this great country.

Some readers no doubt will conclude that what I have just written is in fact the problem. They would accuse funeral professionals of having a good old-fashioned  case of “the slows,” but I would suggest just the opposite.  I would suggest that most funeral directors have a good old-fashioned case of “the worthy ideal.” That is the great strength which has guided funeral service to always march through its challenges with care and not too fast, for our profession learned long ago that change just for the sake of change sometimes results in going from nothing to nothing.

As my young lawyer buddy struggled with pronouncements from all corners that the legal profession was going to hell in a hand basket, that all lawyers were crooks, all lawyers lied, all lawyers were scam artists, he held onto his own personal worthy ideal of service to others.  He held onto the idea that he could and would continue to make a difference, to be of service.  It seems that naysayers are in the ascendency in these complicated times, and some of the naysayers make big money tearing down and criticizing others and what they are honestly and sincerely attempting to accomplish.

Holding onto any type of worthy ideal is not easy.  Many times the rewards, particularly financial, are elusive.  Sometimes the worthy ideal concept and big money are simply incompatible.  Sometimes few people seem to understand or appreciate another person’s worthy ideal.  And some people's “worthy ideal” is making someone who holds a true worthy ideal in their hearts and minds behave in ways that will bring disapproval from people who don't “get” the worthy ideal.  But people addicted to behaving the way other people expect (or actually demand) rarely contribute much to making the concept of any worthy ideal a reality.  Worthy ideals and independence in thought seem to go hand in hand.  Here is a living example of a worthy ideal:

Take the physician who has been to college a million years, passed a thousand examinations, served years in a residency and is daily raked over the hot coals by people claiming the medical profession is going to hell in a hand basket, that physicians are just puppets of the great big immoral insurance companies, and that physicians make way too much money.  A physician who holds onto the worthy ideal of healing is able to look beyond all those naysayers and walk into a room where an ill person waits. Then and there the worthy ideal of healing takes over and healing work is performed.

So it is at times with our great profession.  The worthy ideal of ethical and reverential care of a dead body has great and ancient depth and substance, and even if some of the public has lost this connection, it does not mean funeral professionals must do so.  The worthy ideal of a funeral professional helping a bereaved person has great depth and substance, even if the legal next of kin is not all that bothered about the death. 

I suggest that this worthy ideal is needed more than ever in these cynical times.  I believe in my heart we need more funeral service builders, we need people with high ideals, we need people who see ultimate worth in the tenets, the true worthy ideals of the funeral service profession.

Funeral service has a positive future because funeral service is worthwhile. Caring for the dead and the living is a high ideal in life.  Funeral service will never be like it was, but it will never cease to exist.

The strength of funeral service is what is in a funeral professional’s heart. Nothing is more worthy than the kindness, mission, graciousness, benevolence and compassion in a human being's heart.  This is true:  funeral directors almost always are gracious and almost always have good hearts.  We need more funeral directors in the world.

Anyway that is one old undertaker’s opinion. TVB