Don Shell

Thanks for the Memories
Who would we be without our experiences?

What is a memory?

Sounds like a simple enough question, doesn’t it? Memories are just the people, places and events we lock away in the ol’ brain-box, aren’t they? Most scientists will tell you that a memory is the encoded information resulting from stimulus and the firing of synapses, and stored in various regions of the brain, depending on the type of memory being formed. But they’ll also tell you that the truth is, they don’t really know how the brain stores memories — or why we can’t find our car keys.

(There is a fantastic National Geographic article about two ends of the memory spectrum here).

While we might not know exactly how memories come to be, we’re fairly certain of what they are. Memories are, quite frankly, what define each of us, the collective experiences that color our character and paint our personalities. To paraphrase Yogi Berra, Who would you be if you didn’t know who you were? Memories are much more than who we were — they’re who we are.

At least, while we have them.

Like the people they belong to, memories are imperfect creations, often fleeting, or failing us as time goes by. When we die, too often those memories are gone with us, the memories and stories so precious to the people we leave behind.

What do you do to help people save and share those memories? As funeral directors, you can help people create fitting memorials for their friends and family members, and help them save the stories they hold so dear. You can help preserve those memories for future generations. And you can help celebrate what those memories mean to the people in the pews and chapel chairs.

Or, you can simply continue business as usual, as the profession changes all around you. But if you’re not careful, it’s your profits that will become just a memory.


Don Shell is a staff writer for Life Story Network®, a Portage, Michigan-based multimedia company serving 15 independently-owned funeral homes in the Midwest. For more information, visit, or email Don at 


The ‘Greatest’ Celebrations
Give our veterans the memorials they deserve

We said farewell to another member of our Greatest Generation the other day. Jim was 86, a man for whom character was more than a catchphrase. He lived a long and full life, a life built on duty and service, and it’s sad to see him go. It’s not so unusual, though; members of Jim’s generation are dying at the rate of 1,000 per day now, slowly fading from view, but hopefully, never from memory.

It’s up to all of us to make sure that doesn’t happen. We need to help tell their stories, stories like Jim’s.

Jim was one of the greatest examples of our Greatest Generation. His father was a conductor on the C&O Railroad, and after going to high school through the 10th grade, Jim dropped out and answered President Roosevelt’s call to service, joining the Civilian Conservation Corps.

When the darkening skies of World War II thundered upon our shores, Jim answered his country’s call once again, joining the U.S. Army Air Corps, and trained to become a tail-gunner on the “Flying Fortress,” the B-17 bomber. Over the next two years, Jim flew more than two dozen dangerous missions all across Europe, from France to Norway to Germany.

On his very last mission, his plane was shot down on the return trip, and crash-landed into the English Channel. Half of the crew perished; Jim was one of the lucky ones, and only lost the hearing in one ear. He was reported as Killed In Action, which made for quite a surprise when he got back to the base!

When the decorated Staff Sergeant was discharged, he did what so many of his comrades did: he returned home, got married, and began raising three fine children, who made him very proud. He was a great provider for his family, as well, and helped build office furniture for a booming workforce. Jim walked to work every day, for his entire 40-year career at the company.

Loyalty, duty, sacrifice.

No generation before or since has epitomized those values more, or embraced tradition as a lifestyle more than they did. Jim’s generation quietly did what needed to be done, never asking for reward, only for respect. So now, as their time with us comes to an end, how do we memorialize them? While they may want something simple, something modest, they deserve so much more.

They deserve to have their stories told, and remembered, and preserved for the generations to come, to learn from their hard work and sacrifice. Their lives deserve to be celebrated.

What are you doing to celebrate them?


Don Shell is a staff writer for Life Story Network®, a Portage, Michigan-based multimedia company serving 15 independently-owned funeral homes in the Midwest. For more information, visit, or email Don at 

I’ve started a new feature for Final Embrace, with which I ask our “Be Our Guest” writers to share their thoughts about specific topics. 

This is the first response from Don Shell:

Caring for the WHOLE Family
Pets are becoming a big part of the funeral profession

Let me introduce you to someone.  Her name is Hollie, and she’s the beautiful blonde turning heads here at Betzler Life Story Funeral Home®, in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  Everybody loves her, and they have to admit, she just has a way with people.It’s not what you think, though.  You see, Hollie is a golden retriever, as well as a trained therapy dog.

Hollie spends her days at the funeral home, where she helps console grieving families with her warm heart and cold nose.  She gingerly works her way around the room at a visitation or funeral, letting people pet her, hold her paws, or just lay at their feet.  She has been trained to understand verbal and non-verbal cues from people, so she knows who to help and who needs space.

But almost universally, Hollie is a welcome sight.  In fact, her presence is often specifically requested by families, who have heard how much she’s helped other people during their tough times.

It shouldn’t be that surprising, really.  Our own pets do the same for us every day, don’t they?  They listen when no one else will, they’re always there for us when we come home, and they’re excited to see us, too.  Our pets are an important part of our lives, and a part of our families.  If you still don’t believe it, consider these statistics:

• Americans now spend $41 billion a year on their pets — more than the gross domestic product of all but 64 countries in the world.

• That’s double what they spent a decade ago, and the total is expected to hit $52 billion in the next two years.

• That’s more than what Americans spend at the movies ($10.8 billion), playing video games ($11.6 billion), or buying music ($10.6 billion) combined.Given those shocking statistics, should it be so shocking that we want to give our pets an appropriate send-off when they head to the hereafter?

The funeral industry is changing, changing rapidly, and not always in ways that benefit our bottom lines.  One of the few areas with growth potential is pet memorial and cremation.  At Life Story Funeral Homes®, which are comprised of 15 independently-owned locations throughout west Michigan, pets are a growing part of their business.


While the human members of families are enriched by the sharing of a Life Story®, their pets can be memorialized with Life Tails™, pet memorial services, as well as cremation.  The website for the funeral homes,, also includes Memory Pages for pets, with an online guestbook, pictures and a place to share memories and stories, too.

Believe it or not, plenty of people do.  There’s more than 120 Life Tails™ Memory Pages created on the site, filled with heartwarming stories of people’s love for their dearly departed dogs, cats, and even turtles.  Lest you think the public outcry would be deafening, think again.  They’ve yet to receive a single complaint, and they include questions about the Life Tails™ portion of the business on every survey they send home with families.

Life Story Funeral Homes® aren’t alone, of course.  Funeral providers all across the country are beginning to embrace pets as a viable avenue for their business.  It’s become such a growing segment of the industry, it’s even got its own publication devoted to it! (As we all know, a trend isn’t really a trend until it has its own niche publication.)

Kates-Boylston, publishers of the American Funeral Director, recently unveiled the Pet Loss Insider monthly newsletter, which according to their website, “provides business tips on how to start a pet funeral home or pet cemetery, articles that focus on best practices, how veterinarians can foster beneficial working relationships with those in the pet remembrance industry and much more.”  More and more, people are beginning to understand that pets do indeed have a place in funeral homes, just as they do in their own homes.  But you don’t have to take my word for it.  Just ask Hollie.


 Don Shell is a staff writer for Life Story Network®, a Portage, Michigan-based multimedia company serving 15 independently-owned funeral homes in the Midwest. For more information, visit, or email Don at

In response to my post, Tim Responds to “A Monumental ‘Undertaking’?”, Michelle Carter writes:

Clearly, many people- myself included- are uncomfortable with the Lynch family making arrangements from behind a desk. However, if you ignore that one aspect, what is the difference between the old and new, or small town and big city funerals?

Is it simply a matter of how personal they are? I can see each person’s point so far, but I don’t think traditional, personal, meaningful, and valuable funerals have to be mutually exclusive of each other.

No, Michelle, they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.  In fact, part of my comments were a warning to folks doing traditional funerals to find ways to stop the rush toward fast, cheap and dirty funerals by figuring out what people “really” want and giving it to them while they still see value in traditional funerals.

I think it’s too late for many parts of the country, including Central Florida, where I live.  Other areas are starting to see the rush toward direct cremation, since most folks don’t know that cremation can include viewing and services with the body present.

In fact, I should have made it more clear that Mr. Lynch speaks quite eloquently about the necessity of having the body present at any type of service that commemorates the deceased.  He asks whether a christening would work without the baby or a wedding without the betrothed.

So I guess my issue about “old-fashioned” funeral service is that it doesn’t anticipate the needs of today’s consumer.  And why do I think that?

Because I’ve talked with a lot of “old-fashioned” directors who are afraid – almost shaking-in-their-boots afraid – of the changing face of the industry.  They ask how they can keep their community from embracing cremation, because it means lower margins for them. 

Seldom do they ask WHY cremation equals lower margins.  If they did, I’d answer that the public knows cremation as “take grandma away and bring back an urn with her dust in it” and nothing else.

I should have pointed out that Mr. Lynch talks about cremation and how he directs his clients to view the disposition by fire. 

But do Mr. Lynch’s constituents predominantly choose burial because he’s so eloquent about the necessity for a body at the service, or because the community hasn’t yet begun “the change”?

It’s an interesting question and one I can’t answer with the information I have at my disposal.  I can say, however, that a funeral professional in Florida (2005 cremation rate:  48%) sees a different world than a funeral professional in Michigan (37%) or New York (24%).

PBS ‘Frontline’ offers look at a profession unwilling to change

“I want a mess made in the snow, so that the earth looks wounded, forced open, an unwilling participant. Go to the hole in the ground. Stand over it. Look into it. Wonder and be cold. But stay until it’s over, until it’s done.” ­— Thomas Lynch

Like many of you, I couldn’t wait to watch the PBS Frontline program, “The Undertaking,” which aired October 30.  It was a beautiful, romanticized look at the funeral profession, through the eyes (and words) of the ever-eloquent Tom Lynch.  It was also the glowingly positive portrayal the funeral profession so desperately craves.Circa 1950.

OK, that may be a little harsh, but c’mon, you know it’s true.  Lynch has cornered the market on funeral nostalgia, and maybe that’s why he’s such a rock star in the industry.  It’s comforting to listen to him wax philosophic about “getting the dead where they need to go, and the living where they need to be,” the same kind of home-spun stuff our granddaddy used to tell us.

Unfortunately, Lynch seems to think “getting the living where they need to be,” is primarily to the church and the graveside on time.

Indeed, for a man who says that “funerals are for the living,” Lynch seems most concerned for the customers who can’t complain.  He is far less concerned with preserving the memory and celebrating the life of the person who formally occupied that body.  In fact, he has gone out of his way to bemoan any kind of personalization in the profession.

“…Our efforts to put a smiley face on every experience – to do ‘funeral lite,’ to have a nice day, to call it a celebration, regardless of what has happened – strikes real mourners as a kind of cruel insult,” he told the ICCFA convention earlier this year.

Yet, what is the crueler insult?  To celebrate a life that was lived, a life that was shared with others, or to stamp out the same funerals day after day, with only the name and the color of casket changing?

For its flaws, “The Undertaking,” beautifully told the heartfelt (and heartbreaking) stories of several grieving families.  Indeed, the great irony of “The Undertaking,” is that the program itself did a far better job of helping those families save and share their stories than Lynch himself did.  And he’s a published author.

No, Lynch is far more concerned with the functionary aspects of funeral service, that of preparing a body for viewing and burial.  Oh, Lynch & Sons are without question caring and professional undertakers.  But the question remains: do those qualities make them somehow special?  Shouldn’t those traits simply be the bare minimum every funeral director should have?  Shouldn’t they offer families something more than spit-polished professionalism?

Confronting grief is good, and for many people, viewing the body is a critical element to accepting their grief.  Yet Lynch professes this as the sole Gospel.  He would have us all stare at it, wallow in it, and “stay until it’s over.”  The simple truth, of course, is that it’s never really over, is it?  It’s always there, no matter how long we stare at it, no matter how much cold, snowy earth we bury it under.

Nonetheless, Lynch wants people to embrace it.  Not because it puts them on a path to healing or closure, but because he knows no other way, and he offers no alternative.  For a man so adept at telling stories, you’d think he’d realize the importance of helping families share them, and celebrate them.

As Mr. Lynch has pointed out, humans have been performing funerals for thousands of years, one of the great differences between man and beast.  Yet thankfully, we’ve changed a little in that time, and like it or not, the funeral profession is changing, as well.  Sadly, it seems Lynch and the legions like him will remain mired in the same nostalgic traditions they always have, content to stay until it’s over, and until it’s done.


Don Shell is a staff writer for Life Story Network®, a Portage, Michigan-based multimedia company serving 15 independently-owned funeral homes in the Midwest. For more information, visit, or email Don at

We’ve added a few readers since the NFDA Convention in Las Vegas, so I’ve prepared this “tour” to familiarize them with the surroundings.  (Regular readers, please excuse the refresher course)

Final Embrace is a blog, which means all new articles (also called “posts”) will appear at the top of the page, with older articles moving down.  Picture a long scroll, where the newest writing is at the top and the older writing is rolled onto the scroll as time progresses.

Posts are also grouped by category.  On the right side of the blog, there is a list of “categories.” 

With titles like Advertising, Big Ideas, Cremation Issues, Meet Your Maker and more, these categories will help you find other articles about topics that interest you. 

And don’t forget, each article has at least one of the categories listed just below the title, so you can click from an individual post to find related articles.

Worried about getting bored with my writing?  The BE OUR GUEST columns are written by a group of other, more interesting writers.

From Kim Stacey (funeral home copywriting) to Deidre Blair (event planning) and from Don Shell (life story writing) to Robin Richter (human resource issues), we’ve got articles on every facet of the funeral industry.

Here’s just a few of our categories and recommended articles contained in each:

Kim Stacey on Advertising Language
“Doing Your Best” vs. “Being the Best”

How to Fix the Modern Funeral
Michael Manley on a Possible FBA Buying Collective
Creating a “Must-Have” Funeral Experience

My Take on Plush Teddy Bears Keepsake Urns
One Size Fits All. Really?

Eulogies are for the Living
Surprised, She Asked “You can have a viewing with a cremation?”
Candace Craw-Goldman Shares “The Tin Can”
No One Wears Shoes Here

How Do You Act When No One Is Watching?
How to NOT Mess Up a Job Interview

Don Shell: “It’s not about the casket™. No, really.”
DAILY NAG: Make Eye Contact

Nigerian Scam Letter Turns to Funeral Homes
Why We Don’t Sell American Flag Cot Covers
Someone is Educating Your Community. Is it You?

MEET YOUR MAKER (Interview Series)
2007 NFDA Convention: Remembrace Reproductions
Interview with Urn Maker, Spirit Remains

PODCAST: The NFDA Interview
Our Podcast Vault is Growing!
PODCAST: Meeting the Needs of the 21st Century Consumer

Now Everyone Can Visit Fallingwater
Candace Craw-Goldman on “Baba’s Story”
Deidre Blair on Reception Layout
Funeral for a Lakota Warrior

Quilted Mortuary Cot Covers
Where’s Toto When You Need Him?
A Death in the Family: Part 2
Our Cot Cover on NBC
Revamped Treasured Memory Bear Site
Next Stop: Las Vegas!!!

We appreciate your time on our site.  Don’t forget:  there are over 600 articles and podcasts available. 


We leave tomorrow for the NFDA Convention in Vegas!

 I’m leaving my office assistant, my two sewing workers and my business partner in Central Florida to keep making product and prepare for the coming onslaught of orders!

I put out feelers to my blog contributors to see who’d like to accompany me to Vegas. 

The requirement?  He/she had to pay for own lodging and meals.  I promised to provide at least one meal and a plane ticket.

Master storyteller and awesome writer, Don Shell of Lifestory Network funeral homes, couldn’t attend. 

Kim Stacey, our resident copywriter and regular contributor to Funeral Business Advisor, Mortuary Management and others, couldn’t attend because of family obligations. 

Event planning expert, Deidre Blair, is in Paris!  Guess Vegas can’t compete! 

Our good friend (not yet a contributor, but soon, I hope!), Shirley Rowe of Rowe Photography Studio is so swamped with business that she can’t get even a day away!

I was finally able to convince Robin Richter, our H.R. expert, to give up a few days and trek across the country with me.

So we’re leaving tomorrow on what will most likely be the biggest week of our small company’s life.

We’ll update the blog while we’re there.  So look to this space for info about the convention, our daily sales totals and more!

Wish us luck!

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