by David Navarrete
As I sat down at my computer to compose this article, one of my earliest memories of personalization popped into my mind. I am a 19 year old kid and a new funeral director about to meet with one of the first families of my career, and I received some direct instructions from my supervising FDIC. He is clear and firm and says to me, “David, whatever you do, do not let them bring a bunch of stuff into the visitation or do anything like that…we don’t do that stuff here. We are a traditional funeral home and we do things the right way here. Besides, the church won’t want us to bring a bunch of pictures and things there either.”
Wow, that really hit me! At the time I was wondering what I was going to say if this family did bring a bunch of “stuff” in. This was my first introduction to personalization, or the lack thereof, and right or wrong, it was the first big lesson I received in funeral arranging. My how times have changed!
Obviously as I made my way through my career in funeral service, I came to realize I wasn’t quite on the same page as my boss back then… quite the opposite actually. And as I grew and matured in my career, I was blessed with many great influences and mentors, most of whom played a large role in my dedication and love of personalization. This word, “personalization,” is the word of the decade in funeral service. It is a culture and a way of doing business now for all of us. However, I have always felt that we are more than people who provide personalized services. I believe we are all Storytellers. We are storytellers who have the opportunity each day to create and deliver one of the best stories ever told – the story of one’s life. We have that sacred duty and honor, quite frankly, to be the best storytellers in the world.
Our process of composing these stories begins the minute we take the initial call that someone has died. This is where our skill as storytellers begins – asking for important information about the deceased, asking the family to bring clothing, pictures, etc. This is the first opportunity we have to gather information and guide the family in creating this most meaningful story of their loved one’s life.
Step two is the arrangement conference, the biggest opportunity we have to really dive in and allow the family to build this incredible story with you. This is a critical step – the process of engaging the family in the conversation. The more they feel a part of co-authoring this story, the more meaningful and healing the whole experience will be for them (isn’t that a great deal of why we exist as death care professionals – to aid in the families healing process?). In our successful execution of engaging the family in the creative process, we must forget about the “cookie cutter” arrangement conference that we were all taught long ago (first you get vitals, then obit info, then service info, etc.) and instead have conversations, asking open-ended questions and be “overwhelmed” as the family shares meaningful stories about the life of their loved one. The family must feel engaged and comfortable enough to share these stories with you, the funeral arranger, or you will never get the information you need to create a unique story of their loved one’s life. Personally, I always thought of an arrangement conference more as an extended conversation about the deceased and their family. It is through these extended conversations and our ability to provide visual examples of the possibilities that a wonderful, meaningful story will emerge.
Step three is the visitation and ceremony. This is where all the conversations and sharing culminates into a truly meaningful and healing event. Through your conversations with this family, you, the storyteller, along with the valuable participation and contributions from the family, have created a story of depth, love, beauty and comfort. It is immediately evident when the family is not simply sitting on the front pew, waiting for everyone to stop and say how sorry they are, but rather are up and engaged in showing their friends this wonderful story, sharing stories about the items around the room and laughing about the good times through memories created by the pictures on the walls and the ones playing on the monitor. The family is completely and totally in the moment, grieving in a way that allows them to share their emotions and the story of their loved one they created with you, the storyteller. Is there any real healing or comfort in structured, rigid, mechanized funeral services? The answer is a resounding no. But ironically, that is what we did for the first 130 years of our business. We were more concerned about us, the funeral professional, being in control rather than in being a valuable source of comfort and healing by being the best Storytellers!
I am extremely proud to see the huge growth in personalization and all the wonderful products that aid in creating these stories. All of our product partners have really focused in on this and provided us with the best tools to tell the best stories. Personalization is how we tell the stories and provide our client families with a healthy way to begin the grieving and healing process. If we continue to be great storytellers and do the right things for our client families, we will all be successful and fulfilled in our profession. FBA
David Navarrete is Senior Vice President of Funeral Home Gifts, Inc., the nation’s premier weaver and supplier of tapestry Tribute Blankets to death care providers throughout North America. Navarrete is a licensed funeral director and top producer whose 20 plus year career has included leadership and senior management positions with both corporate and privately held funeral home locations. He can be reached at his office at 682-323-4076 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.