By Bruce Likly
If, on New Year’s Day 2020, anyone had predicted that a pandemic would sweep across the globe, changing our lives – and our industry – overnight, most of us would not have believed it. We could not have conceived of the new vocabulary we would learn so quickly and so well: social distancing, mask mandates, PPE, and of course, COVID-19. We could not have dreamed of the demands that would be placed on funeral homes, directors, and related industry workers, that is until we all began working 18-hour days for weeks at a time, serving families who still needed to process their grief and bury their loved ones, regardless of whether a pandemic was raging or not.
During the past ten months, I have witnessed incredible dedication, compassion and endless determination as funeral homes have worked to support grieving families. In fact, the past year has shown me something I did not fully appreciate before: owning, running, or working in a funeral home is not a job; it is a vocation, or as one dictionary defines that word, “a divine calling.” A job does not get you up at midnight to drive through a blizzard and retrieve a body. A divine calling does. A job cannot carry you through countless sacrificed weekends and late, late nights. But a divine calling can. Most of all, a job does not ask that you risk regular, direct exposure to a new, potentially deadly virus. Only a divine calling demands so much – and gets it.
This divine vocation is what I have witnessed, time and again, as we helped homes and directors navigate the new, and frankly somewhat frightening, terrain of the pandemic. During this time, members of our industry have been forced to reimagine the three pillars that form the foundation of a successful funeral – and lead to closure and healing:
• Congregation, or the ability to gather the loved ones of the deceased to mourn
• Venue, or the ability to provide a safe, nonjudgmental space/environment where these loved ones can grieve, and finally
• Remembrance, or the ability to help bereaved families access memories, both joyful and sad, that evoke the essence of the person they have loved and lost and enable friendships to be rekindled and strengthened in support of one another in the process.
At a time when many funerals involved only three people (the funeral director, the officiant, and the deceased), it has been challenging if not impossible to provide all three vital services in a traditional format. Thankfully, vocation once again has shown the way forward, inspiring homes to use new tools – including but not limited to new technology – to help bereaved families begin their healing journey.
We have worked hard to develop products that can enable families and friends to attend funeral and memorial services from any location, and to share precious memories online, making it possible for mourners to gather, mourn, and remember in a private, engaging, and dignified way.
But that is only one of many innovative tools that homes have employed during the darkest days of the pandemic. In some cases, directors have utilized graveside services, but with a modern twist: the reading aloud of emails and social media posts from loved ones who were forced to stay away. Other homes organized outdoor, drive-by viewings, where mourners said their goodbyes from their cars; still others have put up screens to livestream services in their parking lots. When attendance for indoor services was limited, one home encouraged loved ones to stand outside holding signs and other tokens of respect and love.
Even when a family has chosen not to hold a service immediately, our industry has found a way to innovate and serve. As I write this piece, I know that funeral directors across the nation are holding video conference calls to help families and loved ones preplan funeral and memorial services – services that might not take place for another six months. They are helping families choose music, readings, and other ways of personalizing the service; they are offering remote attendance options even as they assist with arrangements for burial, cremation, final interment, tribute videos and more. And they are doing all this while still helping loved ones to process their grief, in most cases without meeting face-to-face as they once did.
At no time in our history have these efforts been so important, especially for those who have lost a loved one to COVID-19. The media has shown how many of these victims have died alone, deprived of their final farewells – with no last words, no last kiss, and no final holding of hands to ease their passing. What we know is that the relatives and friends of all those who have died during the pandemic, whether from COVID-19 or for other reasons, have also been deprived of these final moments. They are grieving not only the death of their loved one, but also their inability to be physically present during their beloved’s final farewell. All those bereaved during the pandemic have been handed a cruel and unusual reminder of how important funerals are to the healing process by having them taken away. In response, the people in our industry that see funeral service as a vocation have responded by employing new and innovative ways to deliver the foundational pillars of successful funerals to those who cannot attend in person as well as to those who can. And they are doing so day after day, often at risk to themselves and their families.
In watching these men and women – men and women like you – live out their vocation, I have been awed, I have been inspired, and I have been blessed, all because I have witnessed in this work true compassion, determination, and grit. And so, I want to end on this note: We will get through this, and our industry will emerge stronger and better than ever before, with even more tools to help families navigate the complex byways of death in our ever-changing world. Because that is what vocation does: like love itself, it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. I am so honored to stand alongside all of you at this unprecedented time in our history. God bless and God speed. FBA
Bruce Likly is President and co-founder of TribuCast™, a patent-pending remote funeral attendance system with clients established across the US and overseas. Likly’s experience includes developing and implementing technology and communications solutions that help businesses build a competitive edge and address changing market conditions. His experience spans a wide range of industries including funeral services, healthcare, manufacturing, professional services and distribution. Bruce can be reached at 203.762.8278, or email [email protected], or visit www.tribucast.com.