The five-year cycle

Todd Van Beck's picture

The word went out last week.  The announcement was made to most every living soul connected with death care that the prestigious news magazine “60 Minutes” was going to put their spotlight on the “death care industry.”  First off, I don’t like the word “industry” in describing our profession.  I always thought “industry” was where steel was poured, hammers were hammering, and people worked in dirty conditions and sweated profusely.  Of course I have been wrong about so much in my life and career, so if the intimidating powers of “60 Minutes” want to call our profession an “industry,” who am I to challenge their wisdom? But I believe they are wrong; this is a profession.

When the word (or maybe a better word would be alarm) went out last week that the television people were going to investigate our work, I personally had the cynical and totally jaded thought “well folks, here we go again.”

I have noticed, with some accuracy, that most every five years or so, the television gurus turn their ever-present camera lenses and their powerful spotlights on us.  

The first such program I remember was when a long dead ABC news correspondent named Howard K. Smith hosted just such a program in the mid-1960s.  What Howard K. Smith did in the mid 1960s was followed almost to the letter by Anderson Cooper last night on his “Special Assignment” for “60 Minutes.”

Here is the format that seems to be written in granite when the television people are investigating our line of work.

1. The host always looks terribly serious and absolutely sincere, with images of hearses and gravestones lurking in the scene behind as the story unfolds.

2. There is always the example of the lonely used and abused victim who has a story to tell.

3. Then there is always the absolute funeral home/cemetery horror story which simply stuns people who are watching the program.

4. There is the consumer rights advocate who has stories and indictments to tell about more examples of use and abuse.

5. Then there are the selected representatives from the profession itself who have their story to tell.  Their stories are explanations, defenses and apologies. (This job is particularly difficult no matter how good the person or the information is—it is not an enviable position to find yourself in.)

6. Lastly, the host makes the warning that the consumers need to be careful, they need to do their homework and most of all they need to beware.  The conclusion, “We have just told you an important story for your own good.”  The seed of the motivator of fear has now been planted.

These programs are designed to last a certain amount of time, and usually take months to produce, however the power of the program is the final story that is being told, the story that makes it (after many editings) on the television screen, no matter how lopsided the story actually is. The power of television is that they can edit and choose what part of the story is told and, most importantly, what part of the story is withheld (this is where the power of the media has its core), and in the end the viewers will probably or hopefully not know the difference, not know what has been withheld—you and I know the difference, what is being withheld, but Archie and Edith Bunker in Tiny Rock, Iowa, the common ordinary human being, probably will not.

The six items I have just spelled out here were precisely what Howard K. Smith did in the mid ‘60s, and the format has not changed, and in fact it makes no difference which profession or industry investigative reporting focuses on—a hospital, a church, a used car dealership, a nursing home, whatever—the format is always the same and always follows those six simple steps.

Sunday night it was our turn, and this will certainly happen again.

However in examining this event, and as stinging as most of the commentary was, there is still good reason to not overly dramatize the work of the media Sunday evening.

Here are some thoughts:

• Time has proven that each and every time one of these “investigative” programs comes on television there might be and usually is a ripple effect where funeral homes and cemeteries report an increase in consumers calls, but that these calls in time subside, and once again the public loses interest in our line of work and moves on to other life issues, just as “60 Minutes” in just one week’s time will have moved onto some other topic or target, implementing the six steps once again.  It has always amazed me that once in a while I meet people who are funeral/cemetery interested, but most people seem to clearly want to say at a distance, so hence in short order their attentions are directed elsewhere.  

• Programs of this type usually spark the most reaction not from the public but from the people who make up the rank and file of the entity which is being investigated. Here, the focus was you and I.  I remember “60 Minutes” took off after nursing homes one time (they are also on the five-year cycle). The program was a hatchet job concerning nursing homes, and in the end you easily could have been convinced that every single individual nursing home in the world were made up of crooks, highwaymen, pirates and thieves; it was truly a wicked assessment.  The next morning, I saw a friend of mine who ran a stellar, top-notch nursing home and she was so down it was like somebody had shot her favorite dog.  I am thinking that right now the main thing last night’s program has accomplished is that thousands of people in our lines of work are having conversations, emails are flying around, professional journals are pounding out articles, and our people are trying to make sense of this type of program once again, we trying to find our career and professional equilibrium (which will be found—it most times always is) and in a week or two, we all will move on with life.

• I also am thinking that the anti-funeral people are right now having a short-lived celebration of joy and jubilation because a mighty blow (in their minds) was struck against a mighty foe last night.  That celebration will also be short-lived, because no matter what bravado and good works the anti-funeral people devote themselves to, the influences in death care still remains inside the walls of the local funeral homes, and not just in the big volume firms, but the thousands of small funeral homes which dot and cross the byroads of this country from Maine to California.

• The public likes funeral directors.  It is true.  Yet some in our profession disdain this fact and have taken me personally to task for proclaiming this great news any chance I get.  Regardless, it is still a fact. The Gallup Poll has consistently given funeral directors high marks in the areas of public approval and trust.  The public likewise have NOT given the national media such praise. Wonder why?

• Sunday night Anderson Cooper did not separate the world of funeral service from the world of the cemetery.  I am thinking that there might be a few good folks out in our world who are annoyed that he did not clearly tell the public that funeral homes are this, and cemeteries are that, or vice versa.  However understandable as this wish on our parts might be, it is in reality an insider’s wish.  People in our world know that there are perceived differences (real or imagined) between cemeteries and funeral homes, but the Wirthlin Study has been abundantly clear that the public sees no difference, and this is a key to understanding the contemporary mindset of our customers.

• The program also took swipe after swipe at the world of corporate funeral service, one corporation in particular.  The corporate world has been the focus and target of countless criticisms, and criticisms much stronger and more virulent than what was tossed around at them last night, and regardless of a myriad of criticisms, they have always survived, and I expect that they will survive this one too.

I am thinking that in the days to come, there might well be some good-natured jokes pointed at the local funeral directors downtown in the Chatterbox Café, or there might well be some really annoyed and cranky people who are stimulated, right now anyway, to call, or even visit the funeral home and/or cemetery and give us “what for!”  I don’t know about you folks, but I don’t like getting “what for,” but for four decades once in a while, here and there, I get “what for.” It is just the way of it at times, regardless of what “60 Minutes” tried to stir up.

I also do not think that we should be naïve and in any way dismiss the information in “60 Minutes.”  For instance, the case of the poor victim who could not find her father’s grave was utterly deplorable.  The Gothic horror novel debacle at Burr Oaks Cemetery was criminal.  To be sure the program last evening had some hard lessons, which we need to be reminded of on a regular basis, but even after the Burr Oaks mess when one lone political representative attempted to get something done, he failed at getting anybody to side with him in the rough and tumble political area in Washington.  Could this be yet another example of the possibility that this subject so near and dear to you and me does not rank all that high in importance to others, to our representatives, to people whose lives rapidly move from one issue to another?  It is a question worth thinking about.

In the real daily world, however, I believe most workers in the funeral home/cemetery vineyard are careful, diligent and devoted to accuracy, and to caring compassionate service.  I believe this with every breath of air in my lungs and blood running in my veins.  I know full well that the Anderson Coopers cannot possibly be that interested in funeral service or cemetery work, but I know that you and I are indeed that interested.  So no matter what slings and arrows I am tossed, and believe me, friends, I have been tossed a lot, I still have to quickly answer the phone, I still will go on the call, I still will order the grave, the grave still will be dug, bodies cremated, flowers delivered, cards printed, DVDs made, receptions catered and in essence the vitally important work of our great profession will continue, and continue, and continue.  Concerning getting shot with arrows, I always liked the quote of St. Sebastian, who said:  “When you are shot with seventeen arrows the eighteenth doesn’t hurt very much.”  There is wisdom in that quote.

Anyway, that is one old undertaker’s opinion, and I will probably be writing on this TV stuff again in five years, if I am still around.—TVB


Great arrow analogy, Todd.

I'm sure the Josh Slocum Fan Club paid great homage to their leader for his insightful wisdom.

Considering the lackluster ratings that 60 Minutes garners, there probably are not too many people who will remember after this Sunday night. As I learned from you, it is much better to light candles than it is to curse the darkness.

Ray V.
A Simple, Village Undertaker