I am not a funeral director by trade. I have never embalmed a body or went on a midnight removal. Yet, I feel just as connected through my heritage and life experience from growing up in a funeral home as I imagine many licensed funeral directors feel. Living in a funeral home from age eight to eighteen I witnessed hundreds, possibly thousands of funerals come and go under my roof. I experienced all types of services from those that were attended by only two or three people, to others bursting at the seams with mourners in lines wrapped around the building and down the street. I’ve sat with families who were complete strangers and listened to them cry while my dad (a licensed funeral director) was finishing up paperwork or ran to greet another family. I have crept down the steps in silence listening to arrangements being made. I have curled and teased many heads of hair. I’ve heard bag-pipers blaring and pastors, priests, and reverends lamenting, families crying, and children fussing with confusion. I was witness to it all, perched at the top of the steps examining funerals from a close distance. And although I am not a funeral director on paper, I feel deeply connected to the profession in my heart, mind, and soul.

So how is it that after living, witnessing, and participating in all of these aforementioned events did I recently experience feelings of anxiousness, confusion, and unease at one particular funeral I attended this summer? And the larger provocation I have is this: if I was so uneasy and anxious at the funeral, and my childhood was spent with caskets, urns, and embalming fluid in my basement, how did the regular attendee feel when he or she walked in to pay their respects to a friend or relative that same day as me? What follows is an uncomfortable recap of that funeral I attended:
The funeral was for a friend’s relative who I knew and adored. The Memorial Service took place on a Saturday morning. I arrived a few minutes after the calling hours started and was immediately approached by a well-dressed man in a suit with a polite smile who directed me where to park. I entered the funeral home through a side door and was completely lost as to where to go. No one was there to greet me or even point me in the direction of the register book. When I did find it, I waited in line to sign where I stood nervously, hyper-aware of everyone’s actions and behaviors around me.
Next, I saw the room where the urn and family stood. Without anyone to direct traffic in the viewing room, relatives and friends, like me, were at a loss for where to go, which side to approach, and even whether to stand or sit. Instincts kicked in and I began to walk toward the family. I acted in a manner as I had seen so many times before and oddly enough, found other visitors following my lead. Soon the foot traffic began to move in a smooth general direction, I expressed my sympathies, paid my respects to the relative’s urn, and briefly chatted with my friend. After 30 minutes or so, I said goodbye and exited the funeral home.

Reflecting in my car, I realized the entire time I was at the funeral, I did not see a single employee inside the building. Remember the well-dressed parking lot attendant I mentioned? He was the only representative of the funeral home I met or even saw. I was not handed a prayer card, they were left scattered on a table; nor was I shown where coffee or water were served (legal in PA). Instead, I became my own funeral attendant, directing myself—and by default, other attendees on how to act and behave based on my years of experience. Without the guidance or even the presence of a visible employee in the building, it felt as if we were a leaderless group of sad strangers who stoically moved through the building trying to escape the room as soon as possible.

My intention is not to paint every funeral home in the same dark hue as the bland and bleak one discussed above (that shall remain nameless) because I know and work with hundreds of funeral homes and their staff nationwide that go leaps and bounds further, graciously exceeding expectations while serving their families and community. My retelling of this event is intended as an example of the funeral profession’s self-sabotage that is all too common today.

When funeral professionals provide the type of service that I witnessed, they are devaluing the worth of the profession at large and our place of meaning within our communities. We are paving the way for the commoditization of generational family-owned businesses and opening the door for discount funeral and cremation centers to pop up in every town, large and small. Why would the consumer pay a premium for services as slim and skimpy as the ones I had recently witnessed? Why not seek out a funeral home on the basis of price if this is the level of service the general population of mourners are getting? Furthermore, the consumer should not continue to become the scapegoat for diminished call volume and lower margins; rather, we should first look at ourselves and the value we provide (or do not provide).

The funeral profession must establish tangible and intangible value for today’s consumer. Value today means depicting and staging an engaging experience where the consumer feels their time was well spent. What does that look like in funeral service? It looks like engaged, thoughtful staff that asks questions and searches for only and exactly what the client family truly desires. It means treating each member of that family as the unique consumer that they are. It is realizing that every person that walks into a funeral home is a consumer of the profession, or as I see it, a disciple of the ministry that the funeral professional is.

As funeral professionals, we have both a calling and a duty to give, help and do more each day that we care for the dead. We so often ask families in our care “How do you want to be remembered?” Wouldn’t it be interesting to know what each funeral professional had to say if they were asked the same question about their businesses? FBA

Shannon Cummings is the Creative Thinking Writer and Storyteller for Life Celebration, Inc, a company that specializes in experience staging, training, and custom print design and production. Shannon can be reached at 888.887.3782 or [email protected] or visit www.lifecelebrationinc.com.