Making your arrangements conferences useful & personal

Date Published: 
June, 2006
Original Author: 
Bill Bates
Life Appreciation Training Seminars
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, June 2006

Dry and uninteresting funeral ceremonies fail.
They fail both the family the funeral was intended to help and the funeral home producing them, and ultimately reflect negatively on all of funeral service, leading to ballooning "cremation with no service" requests. The solution?
A proper arrangement process and a willing funeral director.

Many funerals are powerful and moving, but most funerals are not. Sad to say, funerals are not generally perceived as nourishing and moving events friends want to attend. Most are thought of as unpleasant social obligations rather than as occasions where what made the person being remembered special is creatively expressed.

The steady decline in funeral attendance is as dramatic as the increase in requests for "cremation with minimum or no ceremony" or "no funeral."

Innovative funeral directors can reverse these trends by making the services they provide interesting and moving. Doing so requires conducting a proper arrangements conference.

The wrong way
Many pre-arrangement counselors are product salespeople with little or no experience in helping a family plan an innovative or creative funeral ceremony. In their haste to quickly sell as many products as possible before moving on to the next customers they miss a great opportunity for increased revenue via dynamic customer service.

Some funeral directors are simply unwilling to have a real human experience with their clients. They act as "order takers" and remain emotionally detached during the arrangements conference. They may even furnish their arrangements room with a flat-screen TV that explains service and product options to families.

Some funeral directors emphasize "standard packages" from which families are encouraged to choose, opting to try to fit people into a prearranged format rather than to create an individualized experience.

Can you imagine asking the family of a head of state what funeral package they'd like? "Do you want the president's package, or perhaps the prime minister's packagette?" No, in that case, almost any funeral director would organize a service to reflect the individual and his or her philosophy of life, accomplishments and family. Why then do we not do the same for each and every person?
Rather than engage in a creative process with the family, some funeral directors pile on the personalization trinkets-personalized casket panels and corners, videos, picture boards and funeral props, to name just a few—in an attempt to personalize the funeral, but only end up replacing one commercial mistake with another.

Impersonal trinkets may provide an interesting backdrop for the funeral, but they don't personalize the funeral. To be fair, most of the items I'm calling "trinkets" have value, and some, such as good videos, contribute significantly to a good funeral service. What I'm saying is that if they are used in place of the funeral director and family bonding as human beings and creating a personalized service, they won't keep the funeral from being just another cold, commercial experience.

When a funeral service fails to touch the family or attendees, it reflects badly not only on the funeral home responsible but also on funeral service as a whole.

Too often over the years I have sat with the family's side of the funeral arrangement conference and watched in horror as grieving families go through an additional ordeal because of inept funeral arrangers with blinders on, bent on "getting the job done" with little or no acknowledgement of the family's emotional state.

The amazing thing is that afterward, many of those funeral directors seemed to think things had gone well. "After all," they might say, "I got the vitals; set the time and place for the service; suggested a minister since the family didn't have one; sold a casket; organized the funeral; and collected the money."

It's easy to delude ourselves into thinking that all is well, the family is happy and a good job has been done. But the truth is, many families are too polite to do anything but smile and say thank you—and go away thinking, "Never again. Next time, I'm not going through this."

The right way
Years ago, long before we knew better, I worked at a funeral home with a lot of competitors. Since I was the youngest person on staff, as well as the one with the least seniority, it was my job to call the other 40 funeral homes every six months and find out what their prices were. This was 45 years ago, before the Funeral Rule went into effect—and before anyone had Caller ID.

I would pretend to be a bereaved son whose mother had died at the county hospital. Since the family didn't have much money, I needed to know how much a funeral cost.

I still remember how cold and indifferent many of the responses were. "We bury for anything." "We don't give prices over the phone." But there was one small funeral home near us where the phone was answered every time by a woman whose responses were strikingly different from all the others.

Mary Elena answered my question straightforwardly—she gave me a price—and then, as she continued talking with me, managed to connect almost instantly with me on an emotional level. She spoke to me from her heart and made me feel valued.  If I truly had been a bereaved son, I would have chosen that funeral home regardless of the price.

Years later, I confessed to her what I'd been up to back then and learned that she owned the funeral home with her husband, and they lived upstairs. Her job consisted mainly of answering the phones, and the way she handled that job had a profound impact on me.

She introduced me to a way to communicate with the bereaved that had never occurred to me. It certainly hadn't been part of my training to be a funeral director. Her way of dealing with callers started me on my search for a more effective funeral arrangement process.

What Mary Elena did naturally and intuitively can be learned and practiced. It's the single most important tool you can use to develop funerals that touch the heart.

None of us went to funeral arrangement school. Learning how to make arrangements has always been something we learned on the job, like an apprentice, picking up all the bad habits of the person from whom we learned.

And once we learned, we tended to stick with what we learned way back when. If you ask funeral directors how their approach to arrangements has changed over the years, most will talk about how they go about presenting the required General Price List or bemoan the increase in people demanding direct disposition.

Often the goal in making arrangements is to not upset the family. The fear of making waves causes many of us to forego experimenting with creative ideas and innovative ceremonies in favor of what seems like a "safe style," guaranteed to suck all the joy out of a funeral service career.

The competitive advantage that comes from being known for developing unique and moving funeral ceremonies is obvious. The difficulty is in making such services more than an occasional occurrence in response to a family's requests. You need to make sure your arrangements process, both preneed and at-need, is designed to deliver consistent results.

Avoid these arrangement mistakes
The first rule of funeral arranging is that every method of doing it has predictable results. If you get information via the "taking of vital statistics" method, you'll end up with the same old service. To plan a better service, you need a better way of getting information.

The most common funeral arrangement mistakes are:
• beginning the arrangements with the taking of the vital statistics;
• asking an endless list of close-ended questions which require brief, to-the-point replies;
• not talking about the family's emotional experience due to their loss;
• attempting to arrange the funeral far too soon after sitting down with the family;
• not obtaining the type of information from which to make appropriate suggestions for the ceremony;
• not making ceremony suggestions that reflect the family's value system;
• making inappropriate suggestions for the ceremony; and
• not connecting emotionally with the family.

When you do any of these things, the arrangement conference becomes a quasi-business experience, the family closes down emotionally and the funeral ceremony ends up being dry and leaving people unsatisfied.

Even if the arranger tries to add on some personalization, the service is going to look more like a traditional funeral that's been remodeled with the addition of memory boards, casket panels and props than a compelling ceremony people will find moving.

Busy funeral directors wear a lot of hats today. It's not unusual for a funeral director to be on the run all day, making removals, embalming and working on funerals.

To have to switch gears in the middle of a busy and hectic day and sit down with a bereaved and broken-hearted family may involve a difficult and stressful transition from a task-oriented mindset to one of operating from the heart.

The effective use of the communication skills described below will help you adjust from a period of constant activity to a quieter time of earnest and heartfelt communication.

Do it this way, instead
1. Begin with open-ended questions and let the family talk. I cannot overstate the importance of what I call the "support discussion" as the way to begin your funeral arrangement conference.

Remember, your goal may be to arrange the funeral, but the family's goal, though they may not consciously realize it, is to begin accepting their loss. You need to start by making the family feel valued, by making a human connection.

Once you have bonded with the family members—which you can do quickly at the beginning of the conference—they will willingly talk about things that will help you plan a meaningful service with them.

I suggest you simply start by asking, "Could you tell me a little bit about what's happened?" With this type of open-ended question, a family member may start telling you about something that happened 10 years ago, or last night at the hospital or this morning in your parking lot. They'll be talking about whatever they have the greatest need to say. Open-ended questions give the family the chance to choose a response, which allows them to maintain a feeling of control.

All questions about vital statistics are close-ended ("Date of birth?"), and so are the ones about service options ("When and where do you want the funeral?" "What songs do you want used?"). The cumulative effect of this type of approach can be to make the family feel manipulated. Anger, either overt or smoldering beneath the surface, is a common reaction, with neither the client nor the funeral director understanding why the client is upset.

We are accustomed to asking questions to get information we plan on using. Open-ended questions are asked for an entirely different reason, to give people an opportunity to discharge some energy around their experience and to enable you to connect emotionally with them.
2. Paraphrase what the family has said. Paraphrasing or reflecting back to them the meaning their words have for you helps them feel understood and valued. It also reduces their sense of isolation (grieving is an experience of isolation).

Many people at first find that paraphrasing feels artificial, but that feeling gradually goes away, and with practice, paraphrasing becomes a genuine attempt to hear another person accurately.

Paraphrasing demands active listening, keeping you in the present moment. It helps you focus on what the family is saying rather than the inner dialogue that often occupies our minds while others are talking.

3. Share your feelings, too. The basis of any relationship is the ability of those in the relationship to honestly disclose their feelings. Without a mutual exchange, there is no real relationship. The funeral director's "I" statements, or disclosures about what he or she is feeling about what is happening at the moment, give the clients permission to share even more, enabling you to develop a truly helpful funeral experience.

We disclose our feelings both verbally and nonverbally, and nonverbal expression can be more effective in communicating real feelings and creating instant bonding. What good funeral director hasn't gotten a tear in his or her eye while talking to a family in pain? I'm not suggesting we should cry with every family, but I am suggesting we should not try to hide our humanity.

I don't believe anyone should be "required" to do what I just described; one has to want to do it. But I do believe that choosing funeral service as a career means choosing a profession that requires you to make your emotions available in order to help clients. That's certainly not for everybody, but neither is funeral service.

4. Redo your arrangements form to ask the right "vital" questions. Take a look at your current funeral arrangement form. Does it ask questions about the deceased's philosophy of life, accomplishments and significant relationships? If not, take a look at our guide for conducting an interview and planning a service to get ideas. An intimate understanding of those three areas of the deceased's life is essential for real personalization.

I actually see this process as one of developing a relationship with the deceased through the eyes of the survivors, a process almost all families freely engage in following a successful support discussion.

The more details you discover about the deceased's victories, defeats, passions, loves and adventures, as well as philosophical views, accomplishments and relationships, the more accurate and compelling the ceremony can be. Creating a ceremony this way is an exciting art form.
The basis of the American funeral ceremony has historically been one of words—eulogies, sermons and verbal participation by family and friends. As important as words are, they remain but symbols of symbols, thus twice removed from real communication. A ceremony that demonstrates the life of the deceased is far more powerful than one that tells about it. The comparison is one of television to radio.

5. Learn how to paint mental pictures for family members so they can picture a personalized ceremony. The presentation of a personalized funeral concept to the family is an art in and of itself. Once you have the information you need, have come up with a concept for the service and the family has given you permission to present it, don't simply make suggestions, help them picture what you have in mind.

For example, rather than suggesting the Boy Scouts participate, describe how you plan to have them participate: "I would like to reserve the first three rows in the front of the chapel for the Boy Scouts and bring them in after everyone else is seated. I will see to it that they wear their uniforms and carry their troop flags."

Make your presentation orderly, from beginning to middle to end, and give them a chance to react and contribute until you have come up with a ceremony they are happy with.

It's the non-commercial human components born out of the relationship between a sensitive, compassionate and creative funeral director and the family that make a ceremony experience powerful and moving, the type of funeral people leave thinking, "That touched me; I want one like that."

A guide for redoing your funeral arrangement form

The Life Appreciation funeral ceremony interview

Religion, spiritual or philosophical beliefs:
Special accomplishments:
Special spiritual activities:
Employment history:
Friends at work:
Organizations, service clubs, lodges and activities:
Special family activities:
Most active in:
What gave him/her the most enjoyment in life?
Offices held, awards received, recognition and honors:
How would you describe her/him?
Have you ever seen anything done at a funeral that you found objectionable?
Activities enjoyed the most:
Friends and associates:

Ceremony summary and concept development

1.    Rank Order (1 low; 10 high)
2.    Summation
3.    Discuss company funeral policy
4.    Obtain permission to discuss your ceremony concept
5.    Describe concept

Religion, spiritual or philosophical beliefs:
Most proud of:
Ceremony site (circle one):
Funeral Home
Athletic Facility
Participation method:
Family activities:
Most enjoyed in life:
Life symbols (items belonging to the deceased that will be displayed at the service):
Describe at least one unique activity or experience and how you plan to express it at the ceremony that would best demonstrate what others loved about the deceased: