February 2008


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 It’s very easy to fall into the depressing mindset that the future of funeral service is grim, with more and more families choosing less expensive options, or forgoing funeral services all together. We see it in our own experiences, and it seems like its mentioned regularly in the trade publications. Sometimes we even overlook how many ‘traditional’ families we still serve, because of this preoccupation.
 
That’s why I was surprised when I watched part of a 3-part series on CBS’s Early Show called, “Funerals to Die For”. (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2008/02/25/earlyshow/series/main3872511.shtml)
 
The series profiles the many elaborate, unique, and often expensive ways individuals are choosing to honor their loved ones- and more often- themselves. It mentioned that the elusive Baby Boomer generation grew up watching the elaborate funerals of Princess Grace, President John F. Kennedy and even Princess Diana on TV, and more and more want a similar send-off themselves. After all, aren’t their lives just as interesting and worthy of a tribute?
 
When I first started watching this, my first thought was, “Wow, we couldn’t write a better commercial for ourselves if we tried.” But as I continued watching I realized I was stuck in the bad mindset I mentioned earlier. Not all clients are focused on direct cremations with no or little services. There is a huge segment of the population out there of people who want funerals as unique, flashy and individual as they themselves were in life.
 
It seems as though these individuals are using independent contractors like The Funeral Concierge (http://www.everestfuneral.com/trialoffer/) or the Memorial Space Flights (http://www.memorialspaceflights.com) because they are under the impression they can’t get the service they’re looking for at their local funeral home.
 
Why?
 
Are we not able to handle the needs of someone who wants a service on the 18th hole of his favorite golf course? Aren’t we equally capable of hosting a visitation with the deceased’s favorite easy chair sitting in the corner, and their favorite music playing in the background?
 
And realistically, is it always so difficult? I’ve dealt with plenty of at-need families who wanted a procession of classic cars or motorcycles for instance, and there was almost always an eager friend or family member who wanted to help make it happen.
 
We’d all do well to think critically about how we’re addressing the needs of these families.
 
In the movie Pretty Woman, there’s a scene in which Julia Roberts, dressed scantily, walks into a store with the intention of spending a lot of money, but can’t get service because of the judgements passed by the sales clerks. Later on, she returns to the store dressed to the nines and loaded down with shopping bags, to tell the clerks what a big mistake they just made.
 
When someone walks through our doors and asks for a cremation, do we assume they mean a direct? When someone makes a request for something a bit outside of the norm, is our gut reaction to say no, or probably not, before giving real thought as to what the request would involve?
 
We’re funeral directors. There should be no one else out there better prepared to handle the needs of the families who wants something unique or outside of the norm. We’re the experts. So let’s not open the door for someone else to step in and fill that need.

michellecarter.jpgMichelle Carter is the former owner of the Center For Transition, a grief counseling and funeral consulting company.  A licensed funeral director, Michelle is now the Assistant Manager of the E.O. Curry Funeral Home in Peekskill, NY.

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For many of my loyal readers, it’ll seem like I’ve been absent from life for the past few weeks.

Truth be told, LIFE is the very reason I’ve been absent from this blog for so long.

Now, I won’t make excuses for my sporadic posts (I hate blogs where the writer apologizes and gives all kinds of explanations for how the blog has “run its course” or “taken up too much time”) because there is no excuse to make:  I write posts here when I have something to say about the topic.

And while we discuss a variety of important topics on Final Embrace (most notably funeral home management, funeral marketing, funeral industry vendor issues, etc.) there are times when not much is going on in the industry.

But I haven’t been completely silent on the issues of our chosen field.  I’m putting the finishing touches on an article for Funeral Business Advisor that looks at upcoming conventions and trade shows (notably, the ICCFA Convention in San Diego) and how to prepare for them from both an attendee and exhibitor viewpoint.

That article uses a lot of the experiences I’ve had attending and exhibiting at local and national conventions.

I’m also participating in an interview with Robin Heppell of Funeral Gurus next week.  Our discussion will center around Internet technologies, like blogs and social networks and how funeral homes can utilize them to better serve clients.

I’ve also been featured in a recent off-line article about podcasting and the Internet, by a young writer out of the Northeast.  His piece deals with the popularity of blogging and podcasting and how niche markets are being targeted by Internet media like blogs and podcasts.

In addition, I’ve just finished helping out with all the GeorgeFest 2008 activities in our small town of Eustis, Florida.  The second-longest festival in the U.S.A., GeorgeFest celebrates George Washington’s birthday with fireworks, a festival, a parade, a dog jog race, bed races, hotdog eating contest, cherry pie eating contest, the 7th Annual Citrus Squeeze and much more!

The whole event, with the exception of the parade which was rained out, was an awesome success!  But I’m also REALLLLLLY tired!

And in two weeks, I get to lead the 1st Annual Greenwood Cemetery Tours in Eustis.  We’ll be telling the history of our community through the beautiful municipal cemetery, just off a main road in town.  As costumed volunteers in period garb quietly pay their respects at graves of different eras, we’ll learn about 6 or 7 of our fellow Eustis residents and how their lives affected our small town.  The tour will end at a recent burial, where I’ll remind our guests that cemeteries are “living” places, with new history being made everyday and new stories waiting to be discovered.

In the meantime, I’ve decided to provide more substantive posts here, if only because I’ve covered a lot of the simple issues in funeral service.  Now, I’d like to write larger pieces that deal with bigger topics or provide a more-detailed view of a specific issue.  So I won’t be writing as often, but hopefully, my writing will be better and more substantive.

I’ll talk with you again soon.

–TIM

Some great folks (Robert Wright and Marcelo Metayer) have created a blog to document the history and continuing “life” of the Recoleta Cemetery in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

The site features beautiful photographs and fascinating stories about the lives commemorated inside the gates of Argentina’s most famous cemetery.

Why so famous?  Most American visitors stop by the grave of Eva Peron (EVITA) and leave without knowing how many other interesting and influential people are buried there.

Father Fahy, Recoleta Cemetery

Check out their fascinating blog (in English), called Afterlife, by clicking here.

Late afternoon, Recoleta Cemetery

Jim Paul of Williamsburg, Kentucky was just like any other funeral director working in his family firm until Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the United States.

That’s when Jim’s life changed.

The Paul Family

While not directly affected by the horrible winds that destroyed so much of Louisiana and Mississippi, Jim volunteered with DMORT and the NFDA to provide counseling services to families in Baton Rouge, LA affected by the tragedy.

“During my three weeks there, I counseled 800 families, 200 of which had experienced a death (related to the storm),” says Jim.

Unhappy with the bureaucracy and ineffective assistance being offered to those in need, Jim returned home to mobilize his community.

Through his newly-formed charity, KEN-TENN Relief Team, Jim’s team has distributed more than $8 million worth of relief aid, building supplies and comfort items to folks in the ravaged areas.  And their work continues as families work to rebuild their lives and homes.

Jim Paul contacted me after reading my article, “Ten Ways to be Seen as a Community Contributor” in the January/February issue of Funeral Business Advisor.  He reports that his firm currently practices 9 of the 10 suggested community outreach activities.

Including #6:  Start a Foundation.

And Jim wants me to share that his firm does 60+ calls a year.  It just goes to show that you don’t need the resources of SCI or the clout of a 100-year-old family chain to influence your community and make a difference.

You might consider adapting these tips and giving the list to families when they make arrangements.  This list might help some of your clients cope with speaking at their loved one’s funeral and help make your clients see you as a valuable resource.

Here’s the list, as written by Anna at Widow’s Quest:

  1. I concentrated on seeing this as speaking on his behalf, this was not about me or my nerves this   was about speaking on behalf of my loved one. This gave me the strength to do it…I wanted to”do him proud”
  2. I wrote the speech straight from the heart, I thought about what he would want me to say and wrote it as if we were speaking about it. I didn’t over edit it, I just let the words flow.
  3. I printed it out in VERY BIG PRINT...sounds silly but if you have tears in your eyes, or your hands start to shake…then it is easier to read.
  4. When I first stood up…I focused on a friend who I knew would smile and comfort me…I almost spoke the words to her…
  5. I understood that this was emotional and that each person listening would know how hard it was for me to speak….I didn’t fear getting emotional and actually that ensured that I kept myself together. There is something in knowing that you can, that stops you from breaking down.
  6. I had asked my cousin to take over if I did fail – therefore I had a back up plan just in case.
  7. Speak slowly …and take 3-4 large breaths before you stand up.
  8. Don’t make the speech too long….and also celebrate the life as well as acknowledging the loss.
  9. I practised speaking out loud many times the night before…that way I almost knew it by heart and knew that I would not stutter.
  10. I spoke early at the funeral, this allowed me to concentrate on delivering a worthy speech and then allowed me to become emotional and grieve during the rest of the time.

 Frequent contributor, Michelle Carter, writes:

Hi Tim,

  I thought I’d put a bug in your ear about this to see what you think about it. We FDs tend to get a bit starstruck and pour over every detail of the funeral of say, a former president. But how many of us paid close attention to Heath Ledger’s funeral? On the flip side, how many of his fans did?

  I think there’s a perception that the Hollywood types ‘just get cremated’, but Heath was embalmed, casketed, and had services in NY, LA and Australia.

What caught my eye was reading the captions under the photos on the site TMZ.com that said things like, “Michelle Williams shows courage during a celebration” and “The real tribute took place when Heath’s friends took a dip in the ocean.”

  Your thoughts?

I was also interested in how younger people reacted to his death.  Well, any unexpected death of a young icon, for that matter. 

And while we could argue the merits of Mr. Ledger’s career or whether he ranks up there with James Dean or Marilyn Monroe when it comes to untimely demises, we can’t ignore the fact that so many of his young fans may have experienced his funeral as their first.

How many of us actually paid attention to Heath’s funeral?  “But I don’t have time to pay attention to celebrity funerals!” you claim. 

But even I made time in my busy schedule to watch President Reagan’s funeral (I actually have six hours of it on videotape!).  A big part of me was fascinated by the all the details that a state funeral required.  I’m sure many funeral professionals were similarly engaged by the television coverage.

You may protest, but I know many of us paid attention, even though it’s unlikely any of us will be called upon to carry out a service even half as detailed or involved.  Likewise, I’m sure most of us felt comfortable ignoring Mr. Ledger’s services.  Surely, a celebrity funeral won’t change much in the world, right?  Not like a big state funeral will.

But while big ornate funerals (Princess Diana, Presidents Reagan and Ford, Pope John Paul II) may tug at a nation’s heartstrings, but they do little to influence the funeral customs of the viewer. 

At least not the way of a close friend or close “celebrity friend” might. 

Why?  Because actors, singers and other media darlings endear themselves to their fans by forging personal connections.  Why do you think so many celebrities share their personal lives with tabloids?  Sure, some get hounded without their permission, but a great number of them employ teams of publicists to make sure they get into the paper.

Have a favorite singer?  Find his/her personal website.  I bet you 10-1 that it’s filled with personal stuff.  Some celebrities even publish their own blog where they spout opinions about everything from politics to positive body image.

And because they get so “close” to their fans, the way they lead their lives (and their deaths) can strongly affect their followers.  If Bono (lead singer of U2) says to buy a red cellphone to benefit AIDS charities in Africa, a whole lotta people are going to buy one.

So yes, Melissa, I noticed the funeral for Heath Ledger and I was also struck by the way it was portrayed by some of the media.  I think we’d all benefit by paying attention to the way younger folks talk about death and how death is presented to them by news sources.

Former fiancee Michelle Williams enjoys the water during a wake for Heath Ledger at Cottesloe Beach in Perth.
At the wake, Ledger’s friends frolick at his favorite surf spot.

You can read the full TMZ article here.

I’m always fascinated by stories of new and good ideas.  Often, people share their new business idea with me only to tell me about all the hardships first.

Then, after I’m convinced that they must have a truly exciting and groundbreaking product – they must if they’ve been through so much turmoil, right? – the “big new idea” they tell me about is either pointless or inadequately thought out.

It takes a lot for me to refrain from saying, “No wonder you had so many problems.  Your product sucks!”

If you create a truly groundbreaking product or figure out how to offer a fascinating new service that people can’t live without, the obstacles just seem smaller.

While I’ve spent quite a few hours (would probably add up to days by now) worrying about how to make and market our quilted cot covers, I’ve also been amazed by the complete lack of resistance from the funeral industry.  People just “get it.”

They understand that their old fur or corduroy cot covers aren’t very appealing.  They know that there has to be a more dignified and attractive way to cover remains during a removal.  They just don’t know where to get it.

So when my product is presented, they nod knowingly.

In fact, of the myriad “no”s I received at the NFDA Convention last October, I would say that at least 90% of them were followed with “not right now.”

Contrast that with the experience I’ve had trying to create other products, and I know now that I got really lucky with our quilted cot covers; we created a product that people really want and absolutely need.

So my concerns are now about how to make them better.  And how to tell more people about them.

This post was inspired by the following video that describes how a charity mixes necessity (water) with child’s play to benefit entire communities.

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