By: Glenda Stansbury

Since the world tilted on March 11th, we all faced the realities of the overwhelming dangers, the unknowns and the complete change of life as we knew it. There were a myriad of frustrations and a lot of expressive language as we tried to navigate a completely new way of doing business. From national shutdown to staggered reopening, to navigating mixed messages from national and state leaders as to best practices and requirements, we never stopped working. Our work never ends even when everyone else is sheltering at home. So, let’s stop and consider some of the F words in Funeral Service in dealing with the pandemic and its continuing impact on our lives and our firms.

The first reaction, of course, was fear. What was this invisible enemy? How do we know if we have it? How do we safely deal with the dead and with their families? How can we continue to serve without complete information and protective equipment? What is going on? When will it be gone? And where can I find toilet paper?

Funeral Service as a whole has never been known to be a flexible or facile profession. We deal in tradition, in past practices, in what we’ve always done. Overnight, we were faced with learning technology—what exactly is a zoom? —upgrading computers and phones and software and physical facilities. While your chapel might have served your community for 100 years, suddenly it is not set up for cameras and screens and streaming and social distancing. And we had to respond. . . yesterday.

In the beginning, as I visited with funeral providers all over the country, some of them turned on a dime and embraced what would be required to continue to offer services in a pandemic. Some just advised their families to wait, optimistically hoping that this would all be gone by summer. So, no need to rethink business practices. I was told by one firm owner, “We’re a traditional funeral home. We are not changing”.

As days stretched into weeks and then months, it became clear that the only way to protect revenue and fulfill the needs of the families was to adapt and adjust. Facebook Live, Zoom, professional streaming companies, sanitizer stations, deep cleans, new protocols for the prep room, posting services on the website, microphones and speakers at graveside, drive through funerals, drive in funerals, broadcasting to the parking lot on an FM channel, masks sitting on the register stand. Flexibility, doing what it takes to keep the doors open in a safe environment, became the mantra. Many funeral professionals had to first find those creative muscles and then stretch them to keep providing the services that their community expected

As soon as we realized exactly how immense this new journey was going to be, the Celebrant community came together to brainstorm how to best serve their funeral homes and their families. We put together a resource book titled Ceremonies Together from Afar, which included ideas for offering services, words to acknowledge the hard experience of grieving in isolation and ceremonies that could engage virtual viewers. I told Celebrants in that very first week, “we are built for this time”. Being creative, working in difficult situations, dealing with the unfamiliar is right in our wheelhouse. We provided the resource book to any and all who requested it. It was posted on all the national association web site Covid resource pages, it was picked up by NPR and CBS and many other media outlets who were seeking information about death in the time of Covid.

Some of our Celebrants found themselves being called upon to conduct many more services. The funeral directors/owners/ managers recognized that this group of professionals was uniquely suited to work in unknown territory. And, with all of the churches closing, and many remaining closed, clergy have been unable or unwilling to conduct services. So, this has been a time of growth and partnership with Celebrants and funeral professionals.

Traditionally funeral service has prided itself on always saying “yes”, doing our best to accommodate a family’s wishes and desires and plans for a service. The most challenging aspect of this time has been that “I’m sorry, we can’t” has become part of the professional language. How to explain to a family who lost their 32 year old son to suicide that they are only allowed to have 10 people in the chapel when there are 50 members of the family and all the friends who want to come stand in support?

The financial burden only adds to that challenge. Fewer services or smaller services for many firms means no opportunity to sell catering packages, or flowers or paper goods or all the elements that create revenue as well as satisfied families.

Recently, we have been focusing on those “waiting families”. During the shutdown, many families decided, or were advised by their funeral director, to postpone. So, they had an immediate burial or cremation and promised to come back for a service. I talked to the owner of one large funeral home in June and he indicated he had 80 pending services on the books. I told him, “you’ll be lucky to get 20 of those.” Later becomes when becomes maybe becomes never. It is difficult for families to go back, to revisit that loss and pain, to gather people back together. So, it becomes easier to just not have a service. When I visited again with that owner a week ago, he said he was having to write refund checks on pre-need contracts. This is not a great business plan.
We must reach out to our families in a way that invites them back for a reason. Calling and asking “are you ready to have your funeral?” invites a negative answer. So we wrote some words of invitation:

Dear _____,
You have been in our thoughts since the passing of _____. We know that experiencing a death in such an uncertain and unsettling time meant that you had to make difficult decisions about where and when you could gather to honor this life.

Experts in the field of grief all agree that one of the most important steps in the grief journey is the act of gathering. Grief delayed is not grief diminished and the most important thing that can be done is to create a time for remembering. Giving voice to the stories, seeing the pictures, hearing words of comfort and special music are vital components of creating a safe space to express your loss.

Perhaps you put your plans for a funeral on hold and are now wondering if it is necessary or valuable.

Our experience in walking with families tells us that it is never too late to have a time to remember.

We invite you to contact us to discuss how we can create a sacred space for remembering your loved one. It could be a celebration of life service, or a placing of the urn, hallowing the ground at the cemetery, or a time of sharing and communing with others. This can be in person (depending upon the restrictions in your area) or we can stream it so that all your friends and family can participate.
Your journey is our journey and we stand ready to walk with you as you find meaningful ways to say goodbye.

Funeral directors have taken versions of this invitation, printed it on a beautiful card with the obituary picture on the front to send to families, providing guidance and opening the door to creating a service.

So, what does it look like? Hopefully the lesson learned is that we must continue active engagement with creating new and different ways to reach families, that unique and personalized services are now the standard and that everything that we depend upon for conducting business can be gone in a day.

Continue to offer streaming, continue to offer off-site experiences, continue to reach out to Celebrants and other professionals who are suited for new approaches to service, continue to ask every day how can we set ourselves apart as the funeral home with the staff and the vision for meeting the needs of every family. This should be a time of reflection and repurposing and refusing to go back to thinking inside the box. The box is destroyed. Now what? FBA