The gift of simpler follow-ups

Date Published: 
June, 2005
Original Author: 
Richard Perl
Mobile Memorial Gardens, Mobile, Alabama
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, June 2005

Adapted from a presentation at the 2005 ICFA Annual Convention

It's easy to say you need to do family service follow-ups, hard to come up with a system that works.

It was not that many years ago when no one had a family service team, let alone knew what "family service follow-up" meant. Then it seemed everybody jumped on the bandwagon and established a "family service unit."

I can remember sitting in the audience at a convention, listening to a speaker talk about the "circle of opportunity" that extends out from your at-need families. I walked away from that session excited to get back to my office and start working what I believe the speaker referred to as the "seven circles (or layers) of opportunity."

The concept is sound, and I have preached and taught it for years. I always had a problem, though, in getting my family service counselors to do it. They would promise to improve their family follow-up, but it never seemed to happen.

It took me years to realize what the problem was. It was like telling a new counselor that "everyone is a prospect"—which is something we've all said (or had said to us). But "everyone" is too broad a definition. If you cannot narrow it down, "everyone" soon becomes "no one."

I have found the same to be true with family service follow-up. We have so many opportunities that it's easy to end up not working any of them effectively.

Find a focus for your follow-ups
So what is the answer? Identify a specific group of people outside the family but with a special connection to the deceased and his or her family.

In the cases I've dealt with, the answer we've come up with time and time again is the pallbearers. Why?

• They have been recognized by the family to have a special relationship to the deceased and the family.

• They are among the few people who physically participate in the funeral ritual, by carrying the casket.

• Due to their closeness to the deceased, their grief is nearly equal to that of the immediate family. (If the use of pallbearers is not common in your area, select another category of people.)

The next question we asked was how we can thank the pallbearers for their participation in the funera1. Very often we give them a white carnation, which we ask them to place on the casket at the end of the service.

More than once, I've heard a pallbearer ask if he could keep the flower. That told us that people would like a tangible memento of the funeral.

In trying to select a memento to be delivered by our family service follow-up counselors, we noted that almost all pallbearers are men. I'm not sure why this is, other than tradition, but it's true. Therefore, we decided to come up with a gift that most men would appreciate, something that would be seen as having lasting value.

Select a gift
This is how we chose a small, stainless steel pocket knife as our "in remembrance" gift. The knife includes a small blade, scissors and a nail file. The engraving on one side says "In Remembrance," and on the other, the name of the funeral home or cemetery.

The engraved pocket knife is delivered in a box. (We do not engrave the name of the deceased on the knives because we have not come up with a way to do so at a reasonable cost.)

During the arrangement conference, we tell the family that we will be delivering a special "in remembrance" gift to the pallbearers on their behalf. We then show them the pocketknife, which is enclosed in an attractive box.

If the family asks if they can give it to the pallbearers themselves, we tell them we would like to handle it on their behalf, and most people let it go at that. (Yes, this surprised me.)

More often than not, the family asks if we can make the remembrance gift available to others who participate in the service. Our answer is always "yes," of course.

We have found that when we conduct the follow-up by delivering the gift to the pallbearers and any others the family has added to the list, the reception our counselors have received has been overwhelmingly positive.

People tell us that each time they touch the “in remembrance” knife in their pocket it helps them remember their departed friend.  This small token from the funeral home or cemetery becomes priceless.