Imagine you and your spouse are meeting with a financial advisor for the first time. The financial planner shows you lots of fancy, colorful graphs and provides a detailed, comprehensive plan. But it isn’t until the drive home that you realize the advisor never asked you about your goals and dreams for retirement. While the plan seemed detailed and customized, you now realize that this is likely the same plan they use for everyone. After all, how could the financial advisor develop a customized plan if they don’t know your preferences, timeline, and ultimate goals? The truth is that they can’t. They failed to ask the most important question that a financial advisor could ask.
How does this relate to funeral service? I believe some funeral directors fail to begin the arrangement conference with the most important question: Would you tell me about your loved one?
Starting at the Beginning
Funeral-related products and services are important; I would never suggest they aren’t. And it is important to help the family choose products and services that are tailored to their unique needs. However, funerals and other grief rituals are ultimately about how the bereaved honor their loved one and begin to wrestle with their loss. All funeral products and services should help achieve those goals.
That is why the most important question is about the deceased. If you don’t begin with the deceased (and the family members’ memories of the deceased), then you are not starting at the beginning. It is like trying to create a financial plan without knowing someone’s goals, or trying to plan a wedding without first asking the bride about her vision for the event.
I have heard funeral professionals provide two common reasons for why they avoid directly asking about the deceased, including: “I’ll make them cry,” and “That makes the arrangement conference last longer.” Let’s examine why these excuses are flawed.
But I’ll Make Them Cry
There is a common, yet mistaken, belief that asking about the deceased is forcing the bereaved to experience emotions they weren’t already feeling. The assumption is that simply asking about the deceased will somehow “force” a grieving person to cry. The truth is that asking about a deceased loved one in a compassionate, empathic way is never “making” someone cry; it is providing them an opportunity to express emotions they were already feeling.
To see how illogical this misconception is, let’s use a different example. Imagine you encounter a friend who has recently become a new father or mother and you say, “Congratulations on the arrival of your new baby!” You would likely be met with smiles, offers to see pictures, and other happy exchanges. But you would never think your comment was what made them happy. They were already happy and your greeting simply gave them a chance to express their joy. Similarly, our questions about the deceased do not cause grief, but it does give bereaved family members the opportunity to share their grief and other reactions to their loss.
Another misconception is the belief that after “making” the bereaved cry, you need to “fix” them and make them happy. Some funeral professionals avoid talking about the deceased because they believe they will be responsible for sending the family out the door with a smile on their face. It is essential to remember that nothing you say or do in an arrangement conference can take away their grief. Therefore, this should not be a reason to avoid the most important question.
It Makes It Take Longer
Will questions about the deceased make the arrangement conference take longer? Yes, it probably will. It may extend the arrangement conference by 5 minutes or an hour or more. But, if you:
– tell families you provide better service and care more than your competitors,
– claim to provide personalized funerals and rituals,
– present you and your staff as being funeral professionals for “the right reasons,” and/or
– will be asking them to pay thousands of dollars for your products and services, then you owe it to them to ask about their loved one. After all, it is the loss of their loved one that has brought them to your business. If you want families to feel cared for, never rush them through the planning process.
The Benefits of Asking the Most Important Question
I have focused primarily on the reasons why some funeral professionals avoid asking about the deceased, but there are many benefits to starting with the most important question. One key benefit is gaining information about the deceased (including occupations, hobbies, interests, etc.) to recommend personalized products and services. Another benefit of asking the most important question is that our death-denying culture provides few opportunities for bereaved people to talk about their loved ones. While some families may choose to say very little, many others will welcome the rare opportunity to share their memories with a caring listener.
All of these reasons are important, but the most important reason to ask about their loved one is to show that you really do care. I know the vast majority of funeral professionals genuinely care about the families they serve. But each family needs to experience that care and concern through caring interactions. I believe the most important way you can show the family that you sincerely care about them is to inquire about the deceased. Otherwise, you are forgetting the most important question you could ask. FBA
Dr. Jason Troyer is the Founder of Mt Hope Grief Services and a psychology professor at Maryville College in Maryville, TN. Dr. Troyer is a published author, former grief counselor, and provides presentations, grief publications, pre-need products, training seminars, and consulting services. Learn more at www.mthopegrief.com or contact him directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.