Coleen Ellis Headshot PhotoBy Coleen Ellis

They were a sweet couple, but their beautiful little Maltese, Lexi, had just died so they were solidly in the throes of grief. They were a “Maltese family,” meaning every dog they have ever had was that breed. I was so touched to hear all of their stories, starting with their very first Maltese, Mitzie who passed away years ago, to the three others that were still currently at home. They adored those sassy little dogs; they were not afraid to show their tears and to be vulnerable in front of me about expressing their love and their grief.

It was such a privilege to do what Dr. Alan Wolfelt lovingly refers to as “honoring their story.” From hearing about each of their dogs’ unique qualities, to finding common ground in both of us being farm girls, and knowing our “wheat-lingo”. We all cried one minute, and then laughed the next. It feels so good when you’ve created a safe and trusting place for sharing, and mourning. A place where folks can say whatever comes to mind.

While I take my responsibility very seriously in honoring their story, I also take my role very seriously in making sure that every family receives a proper education regarding memorial options. Countless times I have said to families “it’s my responsibility to educate you on what you can do, and it’s your responsibility to pick what is right for you.” I go on to tell them that a bad day for me would be to have a family come back and say “I wish you would’ve told me about that, it would have been perfect.” Consequently, every family, regardless of the situation, deserves an education of what their memorialization options are. As we in death care know, oftentimes, a “do-over” simply is not possible.

We do not wake up on a bright sunshiny morning and declare that it is such a beautiful day that we are going to run down to the funeral home to learn all about memorial choices! We just don’t do that, for humans or pets. So, when we as death care professionals have the opportunity to educate others on their options, we need to take that responsibility seriously.

So back to Lexi’s family. Lexi’s human mommy did what many oftentimes do, she sat and shared stories for a bit and then found the need to wander around our display area. As I had already given my scripted memorialization presentation (yes, I said scripted), I was glad that she was surveying the various options we had just chatted about. She focused in on a Mother of Pearl and brass urn, as the white reminded her of her beautiful Maltese. However, I could tell that it still was not 100% certain, and it was not because she had made mention of that urn being a bit higher priced than she originally expected to spend. No, there was something else that just wasn’t right yet.

To digress a second regarding my presentation script – I always coach people that home décor and style really ought to be taken into consideration when buying an urn. Some questions such as these are good to ask:

• “Picture taking this piece home – where will this urn sit?” I literally have families close their eyes and envision this.

• “What will be around this piece? A frame? What colors? What materials – wood, metal, tile?”

• “Since it is an urn, do you want it to stand out or nest subtly in with your décor?”

And, the last big question for pet families is getting a feel for the entire pet family at home so that we can talk about perhaps purchasing a “family urn.” This would be a large human urn that can be used to hold all of the pets someday. Or, or as I put it, “our pets live under one roof in life, let us let them live under one roof in death.” (Note – if you would like more information on how I make family urns like that even more special for each pet in that urn, let me know!)

Back to Lexi’s family. We had previously agreed that the urn selected would be used as a family urn. Now, it was just a matter of zeroing in on the right urn. “Tell me again the décor of your home?” I asked. “Rustic, old-world, stone, deep colors of nature” she said. And, then she remembered a photo that she had on her cell phone of her kitchen, and proudly pulled it up to show me. All of the words that she had used to describe her home were exactly right on. As I looked at her home, and got a feel for who she was, and what she would be proud of for her precious Maltese babies, I knew just what to suggest! And, it had nothing to do with the Mother of Pearl design she’d eyed earlier.

I didn’t have the urn in stock I was thinking about. So, I quickly popped up my iPad and opened up the on-line product display site of one of my suppliers, and clicked on the picture of the exact urn I was thinking about. A beautiful organic pebble stone urn (human size) that matched her home and style exactly. I showed it to her and her eyes lit up. “It’s gorgeous!” she exclaimed. I shared the price with her, almost four times the price of the Mother of Pearl urn. I did not apologize for the price and I shared it with pride. “I’ll take it! For something that beautiful and perfect, it does not matter.”

And, she said, “It will be the most beautiful piece for my gorgeous Maltese’s to be in. Just like they were.”

For some of you, Lexi’s story may sound like baloney, because in your experience, every family you have worked with never seems to want anything more than what the funeral home has to offer. More often though, what I find is that the objections families so often give has worn down some death care professionals to the point that they have just stopped making standard merchandise presentations. They’ll tell me “what difference will it make – people don’t have money to spend on stuff like this.” (By the way, Lexi’s story is quite true!)

Or, for some of you this all may seem elementary because it’s how you already see your responsibility for educating families regarding their memorialization options. And if that is the case, I’m sure the section of this article will merely be a refresher for you!

Here are some pointers when it comes to memorialization education:

• Have a script that you present every time, without fail, to every family, when regarding memorialization choices.

• Communicate to the family that you are there to educate them on all of the memorialization options so that if/when they do choose something, they have enough information to make a good educated decision. (Do a little “self-speak” in this regard too!)

• Display your memorialization products so that families can easily envision these pieces in their own home. News flash! NOBODY decorates with slat walls in their own homes. You will find a much easier and customer-friendly way of talking about memorialization when you can mimic their own environment versus showcasing items on slat wall! Have that stuff removed, for God’s sake!

• Arrange items in vignettes with themes. Put like-items together such as a cat urn, a cat cremation keepsake jewelry piece, a frame to hold the paw print and a locket of hair, a small keepsake item for the child at college, and a rock with a sample of the cat’s paw print and their name. Help people envision these pieces together. Think of it like a mannequin at a clothing store; they are outfitted and adorned with pieces that complement each other. Do the same thing!

• Listen to what the family mentions in conversation, and bring those important tid-bits back up in your educational discussion:

 o “My mom sure loved Lexi, too.” Make sure to talk about keepsake urns, jewelry pieces and personalized rocks so that Mom can remember Lexi, too.

 o “Molly was really my daughter’s dog who’s off away at college. She had the hardest time sleeping at first in her dorm room because Molly was essentially her pillow her at home.” Remind yourself to show her the personalized blanket so that she can always have Molly near her at night.

o “My husband used to pretend to get really mad when Ace helped him plant the flowers. Actually what Ace did was go behind him and dig everything up! He put on a good act but he, like all of us, thought it was very funny!” Wouldn’t a rock, complete with Ace’s paw print on it, be so touching in that flower garden? A “tribute” to the many flowers that Ace dug up and needed replanting?

Families want information – they really do. They just don’t know the right questions to ask. And, just like most of us, they do not want to be “sold”, but are open to buying. Make it easy on them. Listen for important “life-nuggets” that are so freely shared when you really listen as you honor their story.

Educate. Educate. Educate. Trust me. They will appreciate it, and they will thank you. FBA

Coleen Ellis is the Founder of Two Hearts Pet Loss Center. If you’d like more information regarding identifying and leveraging both individual and team talents and strengths, please contact [email protected]. or you may call 317.966.0096. You may also visit her website at