Most funeral homes can identify one or two core communities they serve consistently. But what about families whose faith or cultural background are unfamiliar to funeral home staff? Unlike in past years, funeral homes are now faced with the challenge of adapting to new cultures integrating into their communities, and faiths that are shifting away from old traditions. Meeting the needs of families in your community means having a wide array of tools at your disposal and the knowledge to use the right one, at the right time. By sharing stories, experience and information, funeral professionals can help each other be better equipped to accommodate a broader spectrum of faiths, cultures and traditions. Several industry veterans were kind enough to answer our questions on how they serve families with a variety of backgrounds.
Often, the changes funeral homes witness occur through a migration of cultures. In Washington State, Rick Phillips, owner of Telford’s Chapel of the Valley in East Wenatchee, says, “Our staff has always strived to meet the cultural and religious needs as they’ve evolved here in the valley.” In recent years, that’s meant serving a growing Hispanic community. He says these families are mostly Catholic and they usually request traditional services with a Rosary and viewing. “Because the Hispanic services are usually large, we often will have the service at the church. This helps with concerns about seating and parking for large numbers of people. In addition, when a family does not speak English, the funeral home makes use of a translator to ensure accurate communication.”
In Texas, Lucas Funeral Homes and Cremation Services’ Jimmy Lucas shares his own experience with the local Hispanic community. “Within the Hispanic culture we see a very traditional funeral service, centered around family,” Jimmy says. Services generally begin with two nights of visitation, preceding a traditional Catholic Mass. Food and longer visitation hours are staples of the community. Because of its proximity to Mexico, Jimmy says many within the Hispanic community wish to be taken back to Mexico for burial.
When it comes to the Jewish faith, Jimmy cited his experiences in Texas as an example of serving a variety of traditions within the same faith. “While the four main branches of Judaism are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist, there are differences between each one.” There are even differences between synagogues within a specific branch, “due to the uniqueness of the Rabbi.” Some groups within both the Hispanic and Jewish communities have softened their stances on some traditional services, as well. As an example, Jimmy cited cremation as an option that “neither the Jewish or Catholic community would consider,
The Jewish community in Spokane, Washington has generally kept with tradition. Dennis Murphy, President of Heritage Funeral Home and Crematory, says “[They] do not, under most circumstances, allow for embalming or cremation of the deceased, believing that the remains as a whole need to be laid to rest.” The ceremonies Heritage provides for these families tend to be very formal. Dennis says they include “stopping at designated points during the procession to the grave, wearing of black ribbons and yarmulke, recitation in traditional tongues, and no flowers or music.”
Both Washington funeral homes noted the growing Russian population in their respective community. And, how they’ve learned and adapted to provide services that meet these family’s cultural needs. For instance, Rick says many Russian families will gather for viewing, praying and singing at the funeral home the night before a service which is always held at their church the next day. Dennis echoed those sentiments, “The deceased is always present and the community at large attends the funeral service. Traditional hymns are sung in the native tongue, both in the chapel and at the graveside, which holds an equal amount of importance.” Both funeral homes strive to continue providing options amiable to Russian families and whoever shares their community in the Northwest.
Cultures also differ on how soon after death a ceremony needs to occur. The Jewish community “dictates that burial must take place the next day when possible” according to Dennis. Although Jimmy’s experience is that some denominations can be within three days. People in the Russian community also require a ceremony as soon as possible, many happening within two days. Most other faiths plan services within a week.
J.C. Battle and Sons Funeral Home has served the African-American community in Cincinnati, Ohio since 1933. Now under its third generation of family leadership, brothers and co-owners, J.C. Battle, III and Lynwood Battle, Jr. continue its legacy.
J.C. Battle primarily serves Baptist and Methodist faiths. J.C. says “music is at the core of the rituals, with a very strong spiritual foundation.” They also serve Pentecostal and Apostolic families whose services are “perhaps the most expressive” and whose eulogies “tend to be exhortations to the faithful to get your houses in order because you don’t know when it will be your turn.” In most of their services, J.C. says the body is still present, although memorials without the body are becoming more prevalent. For most families, “Saturday remains the preferred day for funerals.”
Many of J.C. Battle’s services begin with an hour-long public visitation and viewing before the memorial service. However, at the request of some older families, the funeral home will host a wake which can last two to four hours and occurs the day before. “This longer time period is a more informal way of allowing for remarks to be made by family and friends who otherwise would not be possible at the service.” By holding this service at the funeral home, J.C. says they are able to control the time better. “After a family member opens with a few remarks, it becomes an open-mic session.” It’s also an opportunity for the family to “display items/memorabilia that were important to the deceased in life.”
What, besides faith, can influence a family’s decision on a type of service? The core of most ceremonies originates with a family’s own history, a mixture of religion and tradition. “A person’s experience from childhood often sways the decision on viewing of the deceased, and the beliefs of the family around them can influence a person to make a choice for a service that they may have otherwise not made,” according to Dennis. Jimmy adds, “Much like many families have traditions in and around Thanksgiving/Christmas that are special and unique to that household, we see the same in the families we are honored to serve.”
For a growing number of families, modern trends are moving away from old traditions. Dennis says “there have been significant shifts in the past years in regards to how our community views and interacts with the death of a loved one. People are turning more and more to simplifying services.” Cremations and memorials are increasing in use. Helping these communities may be different, but funeral homes are adapting. J.C. agrees, saying no matter what, his funeral home staff is always “prepared to modify what [we] think is correct and proper to accommodate the family.”
The Value of Service
While this article isn’t meant to closely examine every culture or religious faith, each funeral director we spoke with described their goals of continuing to learn. Rick reveals, “I have visited many times with various clergy, priests, bishops, etc., to continue learning their religious beliefs.” Jimmy adds, “Your willingness and passion to serve outweighs any lack of experience within a population you’ve never served.” He has helpful advice for funeral directors who are met with changing communities, “The easiest thing to do is ask. Make an appointment with the Church, Synagogue, Mosque, Temple and/or other group. Let them know what you do and that you want to be prepared to serve their community. Follow up with a Thank You card and offer to build a custom package to fit their community. It has worked for us.”
So, while it may not be practical to prepare for every situation, it is always possible to grow your knowledge and share your empathy. The most prevailing thought from these funeral professionals was that of being open to help any family. “We view the funeral service as a time of healing regardless of who you are or where you come from,” Dennis says. J.C. adds, “Regardless of group, listening is always at the center of what we do. That way, we are able to tailor each service to a particular deceased.” Rick also says, “I believe a service is for the living, not the dead.” It is important to recognize that being willing to listen to any family’s needs will help ease their difficult time. Says Jimmy, “Bottom line – people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
The underlying element within the services offered by every successful funeral home is their commitment to help. Jimmy summarizes it well, “Grief is grief and I feel when the phone rings at 3am and someone has lost the most important person in their life, they have humbled us with their trust in a way that is rarely given. Culture, ethnicity and religion have gone out the window.” No matter where a person comes from, we all want to celebrate the lives and preserve the memories of our loved ones. By sharing our wealth of knowledge and compassion for all cultures, we will collectively better serve families in all communities. FBA
Dennis Murphy, Heritage Funeral Home and Crematory, Spokane, WA
Rick Phillips, Telford’s Chapel of the Valley, East Wenatchee, WA
J.C. Battle, III, J.C. Battle and Sons Funeral Home, Cincinnati, OH
James (Jimmy) N. Lucas, Jr, Lucas Funeral Homes and Cremation Services, Hurst, TX
Steven Seim and Kevin Wakefield are with Memories By Design, a leading professional video production provider of premium custom tribute video services for the funeral home industry in the United States. Memories By Design has produced over 130,000 for over 1,000 customers across the country. Today, Memories By Design remains committed to its mission to celebrate life and preserve memories for families through these premium videos. Steve can be reached at [email protected] and Kevin at Kevin.[email protected] For more information about Memories By Design, call 1-800-223-3050 or visit www.memoriesbydesign.com.