I’m a tough sell. I don’t browse, I don’t like salespeople, and I certainly don’t need any help or advice. When I am in a store, no matter the kind, I know exactly what I need and why I need it. When I purchased an automobile this past summer, I simply walked into the dealership and presented the salesman with a typed-out list, detailing make, model, color, and so on. I told him to get me exactly what I specified in the list. When he attempted to describe some new features I could purchase, I interrupted his sales pitch, referred him to the list and told him to phone me when the vehicle was ready. “There’s no need for a discussion,” I said, “I’ve done the research.”
Quite possibly, I am a jerk. Most certainly, I know what I want.
So, what happened last week when I walked into a meeting with a funeral director to discuss business and walked out, an hour later, convinced I needed to buy another urn, a plot, and a stone memorial for my father, who died 16 years ago?
Stories. That’s what happened. Simply, stories. When I met with this funeral director, the conversation we were having about community outreach began as I anticipated. He listened to me. He asked a few questions. I replied. He expressed interest in my work and offered to help. I uttered something about memorialization and then, the conversation became really dynamic.
Immediately, the funeral director took over our discussion. He spoke with an impassioned, but measured tone, relying on anecdotes to reference his examples. His wisdom, like many of you, was passed along familial lines; His experience, honed by his upbringing. For me, his ability to articulate what memorialization means and how its understanding and use effects the industry and the client is unparalleled. Without prompting, the stories he told spoke to my own experience. Without knowing, he was appealing to my emotions. Without selling, he sold.
Before leaving the office, I was already reconsidering a number of choices I had made concerning my dad.
Memorialization is innate. Like ritual, customs, and tradition, memorialization is significant to our culture. You have all read the data and the studies which indicate how important memorialization is in this industry. I don’t need to repeat that here. We are also a ceremonial culture. We like to provide a frame of reference for everything in our lives: birthdays, holidays, milestones, religion, rites of passage, nothing in our world escapes the mechanisms of ceremony. And we suffer from the loss of a familiar ceremony, especially when it is incurred because a loved one dies. How do we start the day without our life partner? How do we not celebrate a birthday we have always celebrated? How do we spend an anniversary without the one who made the anniversary possible?
This is where the conversation is at its most potent and most genuine. To be clear, I speak to this aspect of your work as a potential client, not an expert. We have immediate and urgent needs when a loved one dies, but we aren’t considering the long-term implications of our own needs. For example, my father wanted a direct cremation, no obituary, and no funeral. I gave him the direct cremation, but wrote him a rather spirited obituary, and held a weekend-long memorial for him. My father’s urn, a nice wooden box, remains with me in my own home. When I see it, I feel good that he is close to me, but what about my siblings, my father’s siblings, and for a time, his own father, my grandfather? How do they mourn? How do they honor my father? Where do they go to remember him, love him, and memorialize? I had not considered anyone else when I arranged for my father’s cremains to sit atop my library bookcase, alongside my favorite photograph of him. As we all do, my father touched many lives. He had many friends and many people loved him. In my grief, I felt alone. In my grief, I felt isolated. In my grief, I wanted to be selfish. Finally, I had my father completely to myself.
At the time, no one explained to me the need for others to memorialize him. No one explained that others who loved him needed a place to grieve him, talk to him, and continue loving him in his death as they had during his life. No one explained to me what memorialization actually means: how and where we preserve memory and honor life.
After my meeting with this particular funeral director, I phoned my eldest brother and apologized for hoarding my father. For keeping him all to myself. For tucking him away into my life and depriving everyone else who loved him a place to honor him. Years ago, my eldest brother had even asked me for a portion of his cremains: “Undignified,” I yelled, “absolutely not.” Splitting my father, what was my brother thinking? Who does such a thing? Apparently, many people, but at the time no one told me that this, this dividing of ashes, this father-fractioning, this cremained splitting was not uncommon. This was my first close experience with death. This was the first time I had to truly say goodbye, the first time I had ever held a dead body. This was also the first time I had ever planned a funeral. I could have used stories about memorialization. I could have used the very simple example the funeral director with whom I was meeting used to introduce the subject: “Think about what this country does to help us process war and other national tragedies, we build a monument. We memorialize to help us grieve. Think about the World Trade Center and the Vietnam Memorial in D.C.”
My experience with death is limited, but my experience with tragedy, with war, with our country’s founding fathers and statesmen, with authors, composers, and beloved actors is great. When memorialization was contextualized to me outside of my own grief, it became more meaningful, more nuanced, and much, much more necessary. When I left the home after planning my father’s funeral, the only thing I knew was that I was going to have a non-religious gathering and I was to bring photos. No one had put memorialization into context for me. I had no indication of what my fellow countrymen were doing with their own dead loved ones. Had I known what I know now, I would have done so much more, not for me or my father, but for the others that loved and respected him. I plan on doing that now.
Speak with your clients through stories. Enlighten through experience. You are the experts. You have the wisdom. You have the knowledge and familiarity. I have been speaking with funeral directors for four years about how they speak with clients and how they define memorialization, and no one has ever responded to me with the kind of pointed, emotional anecdotal support that this man did. Even though the way we grieve is intimately personal, there are touchstones to which we can all relate: use those touchstones to highlight how memorialization can help your clients grieve, preserve legacy, and celebrate life. FBA
Petra Lina Orloff is the president and CEO of Beloved, which creates custom, creative, personalized obituaries and eulogies, and the founder of Death Talk, an ongoing series of public discussions on death and dying. She has been a professional writer for nearly 30 years and completed her doctoral studies in English at Wayne State University in Detroit, where she also taught composition, literature, and American Studies. To connect with her, [email protected] or 248-894-7076 or visit www.beloved-press.com.