Stop. Listen. Then create.

Date Published: 
May, 2005
Original Author: 
Rich Darby
Trigard Engraved Bronze
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, May 2005

Personalized funerals take time. So do personalized memorials.

One of the larger trends in today's world is "personalization." I am 40 years old; my generation wants to be remembered. And when we're buying memorials for our parents, we want the same thing for them.

How can a cemetery provide personalization to families beyond the normal names, dates and emblems on monuments, memorials, niche plates and crypt plates?

First of all, if a family walks into your office to buy a memorial and asks for something unique, recognize that this is a tremendous opportunity and be willing to put in the effort required to truly fulfill that request.

The average family service counselor might sell this family nothing more than a 24-by-14-inch or a 44-by-14-inch memorial with a couple of extra emblems on it, and be proud to have made the sale of a "personalized" memorial.

Ridiculous! And a shame for everyone involved—the counselor, the cemetery and the family.

When a family tells us they loved their parents dearly and want to remember them with a memorial that will tell everyone who sees it what their parents enjoyed during their lives, it's our job as cemeterians to help them honor and celebrate those lives.

Funeral homes get it
What are progressive funeral homes doing to help families celebrate lives? They are encouraging photo boards at visitations, helping families put together remembrance videos played during the visitation or the service, offering personalized memorial folders and register books, displaying portraits of the deceased and selling Web-based memorial sites.

Funeral homes get it! Are we as cemeterians allowing the celebration of life to end at our gates? In too many cases, we are, and it's going to come back to haunt us.

Let's go back to that family who walks into your office and wants a unique memorial for their parents. How can a family service advisor at the cemetery approach this situation with a "celebration of life" attitude?

Simple: The same way the good funeral director does, by asking the right questions, listening to the answers and then figuring out what you can offer the family to not only satisfy but delight them.

So, start by saying this: "In order to create a memorial that's unique and captures your parents' lives can you please tell me about them in detail? What were their lives like? What was important to them? What made them happy?"

It’s obvious this is going to take longer than the normal 45 minutes you might spend on a memorial sale. In fact, it should take twice as long, but it will be time well spent. You will get to know this family much better, and you will be able to see their motivation for the simple statement that "we want something different" or "we want something unique."

One family's story
Let's do a case study of a family who has come into the cemetery because the mother has passed away. The father is too upset to join his children, so they are there to arrange for what will be a joint memorial for their parents. The counselor asks the family to talk about their parents, then listens.

"Our mother led a very simple life. She didn't have the highest paying job, but she always said she held a position that brought her more riches than the CEO of any Fortune 500 company. She was a school bus driver who was able to touch the lives of children each and every day. She enjoyed it so much and was proud when she was named Bus Driver of the Year.

"She loved Christmas. She loved buying and wrapping presents that the grandchildren were allowed to open on Christmas Eve.

"She had a wonderful smile, and she knew how to have a good time. We remember one time when the whole family was at a theme park together and she beat the grandkids to the punch by being the first one to have her picture taken standing next to one of those characters in costume.
"At the end of a day, right after dinner, she would unwind by playing her piano. It was an old piano that had been handed down from generation to generation. It needed tuning for years, but that didn't matter to her. She would sit down every night, close her eyes and play for at least an hour, a big smile on her face. That's how we remember Mom.

"Dad also considers himself a simple man. He worked in maintenance at the local foundry for 33 years before retiring. It was a job that didn't pay the best, but he liked the benefits and insurance package—for him, that was security.

"He loves anything with two wheels. That infatuation started when he was a boy, with bicycles, and has continued into adulthood with all of the motorcycles he's had throughout the years. What's really strange is that as he's grown older, his focus has shifted to hot air balloons. He won a hot air balloon ride and that got him hooked.

"Sunday afternoons, he's always with the grandkids at the skating rink—never misses a Sunday. He's known as "the yoyo man" because he sits in the snack bar and does yo-yo tricks for hours.
"He used to play pool every night at home while Mom played the piano. The piano and pool table were in the same room. It's funny—they were always together for that hour in the rec room, but somehow they both had an hour of free time doing what they loved.

"I guess to sum it up, our parents are simple people who enjoyed life. They weren't wealthy, but they were good planners who wanted to make sure their family was secure and that neither one of them would be left out in the cold if the other should die. They loved their family, their jobs, their hobbies and each other.

"There's a photo of the two of them when they were younger, I believe it may have been their engagement picture. They are very young and they look like a million bucks. In fact, they look like movie stars. And they went on to live a very rich life with each other."

Translating a story to art
What a life story! Have you ever gotten this much detail from a family before working with them to design a memorial? I bet not, but this is what you should be striving for.

I said earlier that you need to listen and then use the information help the family design a memorial. In the case I just outlined, what did you learn from the family?

One thing you should have noticed is that while they may not fit a preconceived notion of affluent customers, their father valued the security his job offered, including insurance. He wanted to leave his family something, and now his family wants to spend some of it on a loving, personalized memorial for their parents.

Families have probably told you something like this in the past, but you may have failed to pick up on it.

Using what you've heard as a guide, ask the family for any photos they have that capture the different facets of their parents' lives. Offer to accompany them to their home, if that's more convenient for them. Use these photos as the basis for creating a truly personal memorial.

Think of the memorial as a canvas on which you and the family are going to paint their parents' story.

For the counselor and the cemetery, this sort of attention can mean the difference between selling a memorial for at most $2,900 vs. selling one for $2,000 more.

What would it mean for your cemetery if 25 sales rose by $2,000 this year? Or 50 sales? (Not to mention what it would mean to the individual counselors who closed the sales.)

The fact is, families find value in highly personal memorials and consider the money spent a bargain when they get what they want, a memorial legacy that will last for generations to come.

It's a win-win-win situation for the family, the counselor and the cemetery.

In closing, I challenge you to look at every family who comes to your cemetery as an opportunity. Take the time to listen and to follow through on what you learn.

I promise you the rewards you receive from happy families will be worth much
more than the time you invest.