What's in a Number?

Before Christmas my marketing team thought it would be cool to find out the number of funeral service professionals that I had taught and certified as crematory operators in 2016 through the various Operator Certification programs I am involved with as an instructor. I wasn't sure what value knowing that information had for my company or myself beyond bragging rights, but it got me thinking about our Universal Education value statement. It's not only a corporate value, but a personal one for me as well. Thousands of candles can be lit from a single flame and the life of the original candle won't be shortened. We have had a lot of candles in the funeral profession but not all have been spreading 'good' flames. Think about Jessica Mitford and her book "The American Way of Death" and some of the scathing rhetoric that came out of those pages. She successfully cultivated a negative public perception of funeral professionals and portrayed funeral directors as money grabbing shysters profiting from people's grief. She called "Gracious dying a huge, macabre and expensive joke on the American public". She completely discounts how people need to grieve and how important the funeral rite is to healthy grief. 

This begs the question, what exactly is a proper funeral rite?

I'll use a lawyerly phrase to answer. It depends. In my opinion, the funeral rite is whatever you want or need it to be.  Some folks want a full, large, expensive, traditional funeral and others may need something less formal. Some choose cremation where others will prefer burial. There are now even options for a more natural burial. When my Mother passed away in October we decided to have a private family viewing prior to cremation, and then an informal memorial service with a beautiful portrait displayed behind her in her stainless steel lotus blossom urn, after. Today's families are demanding more and more options and creativity in their grief process and to ignore that is to do a disservice to them. Long gone are the days that funeral directors direct funerals knowing "what's best" for their families. Funeral directors need to have more flexibility and more intuition and actually listen to their families and diagnose their needs—as the specialist—and then direct the funeral that their family chooses. Not doing so will result in the funeral director's role as we know it being tossed into obscurity. 

I had a discussion with a very prominent funeral director last year and she and I disagreed about a few things. She even pulled the 'you are not a licensed funeral director' card and said I wasn't qualified to even have an opinion about it.  I guess that 20 years in the funeral space means nothing unless you are 'licensed'. She exclaimed "I have been a champion of funeral directors for decades!" This is exactly the wrong attitude to have, in my humble non-licensed non-qualified opinion. I replied with "Instead of being a champion for funeral directors why not be a champion for your families?" The conversation ended at that point.

Funeral directors are like doctors.

I know, hear me out for a minute.... Doctors diagnose illness by asking questions to ascertain what is wrong with the patient and typically prescribe a treatment. Funeral directors do the same thing only the illness in their "patients" is grief. Everyone deals with grief differently, so the funeral director needs to ask questions to diagnose the proper treatment (or funeral rite and its details). This could be anything from a basic no-service cremation to a full religious service complete with embalming, solid African mahogany presidential casket, multi-day visitation, church, procession, burial (or cremation) and even a reception. If you don't ask you won't know what the family wants or needs.

Think about this: what is the first question a funeral director typically asks a family at the arrangement conference?

"So, are we going to embalm?"

What a way to start off with a family! A better choice is to take a few extra minutes (it's not that big a deal to miss the first half hour of the game) and inquire about their deceased loved one.

"So tell me about you Mom. What was she like?" 

This will put the family at ease and they'll be more apt to answer questions and not feel like you are trying to gouge them. 

As cremation becomes more and more 'traditional', I often hear from directors that base their entire business plan competing with the low-cost cremation provider with the billboards and the metal building trashing funeral service.

These types of businesses exist in every space and will never go away. Why are we so intimidated by them? They are not a full-service funeral provider's competion. They cater to a specific portion of the market and as long as the full-service provider stays relevant, the low-cost clients will go to the low-cost providers and the others will continue to go to the tried-and-true funeral homes and cemeteries.

Sak's Fifth Avenue doesn't have to worry about Walmart. Louis Vuitton makes a huge profit selling handbags and luggage and doesn't give a flip about bags being sold in Target or K-Mart. It's all about perceived value. 

Education is the key. There are so many continuing education opportunities available through multiple associations, manufacturers, progressive funeral providers and even non-industry groups like Rotary or similar. Take advantage with an open mind and never say "that won't work with MY families".

One of the most brilliant mantras of late is the NBC public service announcements that always end with the 3 tone "jingle" and "The more you know", and it is true. 

PS: In case you actually were wondering, I trained more than 1,100 students in 2015. It's amazing how quickly you can light those candles.