In this episode, Todd details his introduction to Canadian funeral directors from coast to coast and in particular his special bond and friendship with Harry Rath.
In this episode, Todd explains why he was the most popular kid in town and shares the lesson about the transaction for his grandfather’s funeral.
A TRUE ACT OF MERCY
Several months ago I made a speaking trip to Northampton Community College in Pennsylvania to give the annual Pearson Lectures. I always have enjoyed my trips to the “Keystone” or “Quaker” State, and as always I was treated with much courtesy and hospitality.
I am guessing that the lectures went alright. My host John Lunsford, who is a true gentleman, and the head of the mortuary science department at the college, said the evaluations looked good. Of course there were a few good people who took task with some of my thoughts, but then that is the risk and the reality of giving public presentations – you can’t be all things to all people.
However as enjoyable as my work with Northampton Community College was, and as gracious as my hosts were, one of the true impacts of my life and career happened just out of the blue when I was introduced to a couple by the name of Trish and Tom Quinn. The Quinn’s are funeral professionals in the Philadelphia area, and what I encountered both in listening and learning from them has had a great influence on my view of funeral service and the noble worthy ideal of our continued quest to improve our abilities and skills in helping bereaved human beings. Helping people always seemed so worthy to me.
The substance of my interaction and subsequent friendship with the Quinn’s has revolved around one primary subject, and that subject is the extremely sensitive and vulnerable topic of the death of a child, and the subsequent funeral activities or lack of them when a child dies.
I cannot remember a time in my career when children have not died. Certainly, and this is a great blessing, the death of a child is nothing today like it was at the turn of the century, or throughout history for that matter, but still even though the numbers of children death’s are less than ever before the impact of the death is more pronounced than ever before simply because CHILDREN ARE NOT SUPPOSED TO DIE ANYMORE.
There was a time, actually not that long ago, when people with good reason just expected that a child was going to die. Throughout history children have been particularly susceptible to the never ending work of the Grim Reaper. I remember looking at an old ancient funeral record book one time and I particularly remember being struck by the statistics that for the month of August, 1893 this undertaker had conducted 38 funerals, and 13 of them had been for children under the age of twelve. It was sobering reading I can tell you that!
Thank God things have improved concerning child mortality statistics in this country, but yet, as every funeral professional in this country can attest children still do die, and this cruel reality is the particular ministry and mission that the Quinn’s have focused their attention on – the subject of a child’s death.
Customarily such connection between a funeral professional and the subject of the death of a child is usually a psychological one. You know, the seminars which have been presented for years on the subjects of “How to Tell a Child” or “What Do Children Do” or “What Happens When A Parent Dies” or the never ending topic “Should A Child Go To A Funeral.” Now all these subjects have great worth, but the Quinn’s have focused on something else. Their focus is on the basic economic structure, or lack thereof, of a child’s funeral expenses, and to that end they have created what I consider one of the most innovative, worthy and creative organizations that I have ever heard of in our great profession which is called FINAL FAREWELL.
Let’s freeze this frame a moment and as usual I would like to dive into some funeral history. When I started out in funeral service the rock solid policy of the funeral home I was connected with was that is a child died, (and the criteria was if the body was too small to go into an adult sized casket), the funeral home treated the call as a child’s death and there was no charge made to the family – even if they could pay.
I knew several other funeral homes in the area in which I worked that had the same policy. My employer’s attitude was one of benevolence, kindness, generosity, and mercy. The truth was that most often when I child died the parents or the most closely affected were people without means. Most of the people we served when a child had died could not afford prenatal care, they might not have been married, some were shunned by their own families, and when the child’s death was not of a pathological nature then we seemed to always be dealing with accidental death and sadly homicides. It was clear that a child’s death placed the funeral home and our staff in a psychological position that many times tackled the very fiber of our service ability. To that end my employer made the decision that since the atmosphere of a child’s death was so charged with complications and sensitivities and trauma and drama, he was not going to add to these poor people’s problems with a funeral bill. He would just absorb the expenses and move on. Certainly today this approach might well annoy or cause some readers to react negatively, but I am just sharing history and not in the least suggesting how a funeral home owner ought to approach such a similar situation. This is just history, nothing else, and as we all know we can’t change history.
As time has marched on it seems evident to me that the death of a child still causes much anguish. It also seems evident that the social, psychological, and practical situations that people who have experienced the death of a child, whether in history or today, still experience poor prenatal care, might not be married, might well be shunned by their families, and children are still killed accidentally or intentionally. The Grim Reaper is still very busy with his never ending work.
However the approach my old employer took concerning his old-fashioned ideas concerning giving a child’s funeral away did have positive results for his career, and his business – his generous spirit simply translated into family loyalty, and while he gave a child’s funeral away, he did not give away the child’s grandparents funerals, or their aunts and uncles, or their parents funerals. In fact this great funeral directors generous spirit truly came back to him a thousand times, and what is more he slept well at night, but of course what I am writing about happened over 40 years ago, and I am not naïve that things have changed. The basic profit structure of a funeral has changed in a big way, today the economy has changed in a big way, and now in our present time the notion of giving anything away needs careful consideration, careful procedures, and most of all careful fiscal responsibility. Things have changed.
This is where the Quinn’s and their creative work in starting up the philanthropic foundation called FINAL FAREWELL comes in.
It has been a long time since I have seen a philanthropic effort concerning our profession being started that I personally believe has as much worth to it as does the Quinn’s FINAL FAREWELL ministry.
The basic idea behind Final Farewell is terribly simple: the foundation is a financial resource, a pool of funds, which are used to assist families when a child dies with funeral expenses. In other words based on each individual situation, case by case, the vision and now the work of Final Farewell is to help supplement funeral expenses on behalf of a bereaved family which goes directly to the serving funeral home, so that a type of win/win situation is created – if one can possibly even use the word “win” in reference to a child’s death. Worded another way, the Quinn’s, and their Final Farewell Foundation, when contacted will work in tandem with both the bereaved family and the serving funeral home to arrive at a figure which the foundation will contribute to simply defray the funeral expenses that occur when a child dies.
There are no complicated formulas, no complicated forms, no lengthy application processes, no bureaucracy, and no one is turned down. The amount of money given is always predicated upon how much money is in the Foundations account, and what the particular situations arise in each instance of a child’s death.
The Quinn’s also have been diligent in creating a non-profit recognized enterprise, which is overseen by a Board of Directors all of who are highly respected leaders from funeral service and other professions.
The amounts of money that are extended to a funeral home is based presently on the amounts of money that are sitting in the Foundation coffers, and the truth is the Foundations bank accounts is not piled high with cash, in fact the cash presently goes up and down depending on how many generous souls the Quinn’s can contact and attract and what the daily needs are concerning helping bereaved people when a child dies. Bluntly speaking the Foundation needs money, they need contributions, and they need it from us, and they need it now.
The Quinn’s have just begun their noble work, and I believe they are doing pioneering work, but also I believe they have their hearts precisely in the right place. They do not look at this work as a business I believe the Quinn’s look at this work as their mission in life, a ministry to the least of these, and in the end a true corporal act of mercy.
They need help. They need contributions. The need relationships out in the funeral service profession. They need a solid base so that the funds that are extended to the worthy people who experience a death of a child can be in time made entirely from the interest which will be in financial investment accounts in perpetuity and which are intended to last long after the Quinn’s are gone and other people take over the program.
The other side of the wisdom of Final Farewell is that it will help contribute to the financial security of funeral homes. Final Farewell might not be able to take care of all the financial obligations of a child’s funeral, but they can, and right now they are helping, but I know they want to help more.
I would ask any reader that before you make a decision to invest your time and/or monetary contributions you first explore Final Farewell on your own by looking at their website at: [email protected] Also you can easily contact the Quinn’s by calling this phone number: 1-800-238-8440. I believe you be happy you made the contact to get involved.
This is NOT a sales pitch, but it is a worthy call to action. I believe Final Farewell is a worthy ideal, and it is managed by two worthy and dedicated human beings: Trish and Tom Quinn. I believe their work deserved our attention and support.
Anyway that’s one old undertaker’s opinion.
The great, late, speaker of the House of Representatives, “Tip” O’Neil from Massachusetts once made this insightful remark, he said, “All politics is ultimately local.” I agreed with him when he said it, and I still agree with him today.
With that said allow me to humbly paraphrase the great “Tip.” According to TVB “All funeral service is ultimately local.”
In times such as these, when everything seems to be changing, and change has been the constant companion of funeral service for a mighty long time, in times such as these I find it helpful to sit back and remind myself of a couple of glaring and in the end comforting truths about our great and beloved profession. Here are a couple of truths, as I see them anyway:
- The average funeral home in this country is not large, it is not owned by large companies, and it is located in relatively small communities. I believe that small communities still are more numerous than large metropolitan areas.
- The success in funeral service is still relationship based. In other words the more relationships which are created through pre-need, at-need and after care translates into future security and success for funeral homes – regardless of who owns them.
- Nothing happens until a relationship is created.
This is not Pollyanna stuff, nor is my list of funeral home strengths a feel good expression of pleasantries and platitudes, because even in view of these three mighty important strengths, things have changed. The buying habits of people have clearly changed, and if we as a profession continue to be addicted to using outdated financial models that worked very well in 1968, and persist in using these outdated and obsolete models in 2010 – well it doesn’t take a scientist to conclude what will happen.
There are many more sages and wise people in the funeral profession than I that can address the changing habits of the public, and what these continuing changes mean to our success. I will leave that analysis to people who are much more insightful and skilled than I am.
My list of funeral home strengths might be indeed short, but the length of the list ought not be confused with the truth that these strengths (and there are many more that I have certainly missed) are in reality a powerhouse of influence, a powerhouse of mission, a powerhouse of stability, a powerhouse of compassion, care, and comfort.
Local funeral homes are I believe potential and real powerhouses. In fact given that the death rate is 100% and the resulting misery that this glaring mortality fact creates in every community, the local funeral home truly emerges as a powerhouse of influence, or anyway a potential powerhouse of influence. The difference as to whether a funeral home is a powerhouse or not is always predicated on the attitude and what is in a funeral directors heart.
I grew up in Southwestern Iowa. It was somewhat of an isolated existence. Omaha was 35 miles away and that gave us some contact with another way of life, but the truth was that in the 1950’s my little town was a wonderful place, but it was also in a type of time warp, which looking back was NOT a bad thing.
Key to our little town’s mental health as a community was the presence and involvement our two beloved and eccentric undertakers – the Blust Brothers (Henry the older, and Norbert (nicknamed Nob) the younger). The Blust Brothers were absolutely a living truth concerning the reality that in the end all funeral service is local. In fact the Blust Brothers were what I call today funeral directors powerhouses, and here is the beauty of the Blust Brothers they didn’t even know it, which was part of their charm and success. These two men just loved being undertakers.
Today I marvel at the beautiful opulent magnificent funeral homes that are built. They seem to be getting nicer and more opulent each year. I knew as a young undertaker that in most towns the funeral home was indeed the most beautiful building in town. In the big cities this was not always the case. However in small town Iowa this aesthetic reality was a social more. Funeral homes in small towns were almost universally located in the most impressive homes in the community, and the Blust Brothers facility was no different. Outside the building was simply stunning, but this was not the case inside.
Not one piece of furniture matched in the Blust Bros. Funeral Home. Nothing matched. Pictures were hung either too high or too low. The furniture had cigarette burns in the fabric, because one of the Blust brothers was a chain smoker, and carpet was really tired (which was interesting given the fact that the Blust Brothers also operated the town’s only furniture store, which sold carpet), the rooms were dingy and dark, the wall paper ancient, the curtains were drab and heavy, and there was a water stained colored portrait of Jesus hung over the area where they placed the casket.
Then on top of all this were the eccentric Blust Brothers themselves. Their father, a chap named Ferdinand Blust, had opened the funeral home in 1871, two years after the town was founded, and his two sons Henry and Norbert took over the business at the turn of the century. Henry Blust was licensed in 1900 and his brother Norbert was licensed in 1908. They were still doing funerals in 1955. The Blust brothers were not perfect, they were not polished, they were not sophisticated, they were not cool, they were not socially adept, but they were local and very visible, and what is most important is the fact, and a fact it is, we liked them. For all their warts and faults the community liked these two eccentric brothers. They were both popular. They built relationships. They participated in the life of our community, and we liked them
Their eccentricities were legend. For instance no dead person entrusted to the Blust Brothers care would or could be laid out wearing eye glasses. The dead person’s eye glasses were placed carefully in the dead person’s hands. Nob Blust was firm on his no eye glass funeral conviction when he would declare “Dead people can’t see!” so thus ended the lesson, Nob hath spoken, and no one in town ever argued with Nob’s eye glass theory and logic. Everybody in town agreed, dead people can’t see, Nob is right.
The other difficulty, looking back, with the Blust Brother’s was the fact that both of them were almost stone deaf and they stubbornly refused to get hearing aids. So friends just let you imaginations go concerning how smoothly one of the Blust Brother’s funerals went. The brother’s made mistakes constantly simply because they could not hear and hence communications usually fell apart and became shambles. But that little human frailty didn’t make much difference to us folk in town, because remember we liked them, and hence we found it easy to forgive and forget the Blust Brother’s snafu’s on funerals. No matter what the Blust Brother’s both had good hearts. They like us, and we liked them.
I remember very well one funeral where Henry was in front of the living room where the funeral was set up, and he had run out of memorial folders. Nob was in the back of the living room and Henry shouted from the front in the presence of everybody “Nob I’ve run out of cards.” Nob replied “I’ll take care of it.” In about a minute Nob marched forward carrying a folding chair for his brother. Henry got annoyed, he did not need a folding chair he needed memorial folders, and dressed his brother down in front of everybody. Of course Nob could not hear one word that his brother was saying to him and off he went attending to other funeral duties. That kind of stuff happened all the time on a Blust Brother’s funeral. However I also well remember when this minor funeral infraction happened my grandmother leaned over to me and said “Todd, Nob means well.” Remember friends we liked the Blust Brothers.
In the age of high technology, high tech communication, high tech impersonal people, high tech greed, high tech fast lane living, high tech, high tech and then more high tech, is the thought that all funeral service is in the end local an old-fashioned, antiquated, terribly boorish concept? I believe that some good people will say that the good ole’ days of relationship building, the good ole’ days that all funeral service is ultimately local, and the good ole’ days that being well liked is essentially important are truly and indeed over with – they are days gone by, they are ancient history and never to be seen again. They might have a point, and of course the Blust Brothers have been dead for many years, but interestingly the funeral professionals who are the legacy of the Blust Brothers are also highly visible in the community, and people still like them. I wonder who they learned that idea about life and service from.
As I write these words I feel a tug in my mind that I am so out of step with what is going on. However I am equally tugged by the memory of what I learned made the Blust Brother’s so well liked in our little town, and we like them NOT because the Blust Brothers sat around in the coffee lounge waiting for the phone to ring. Those two old deaf eccentric men were out in the community, they participated in the life of the community, they were there with a mission in life to help people, and they earned every dime they made, and they possessed good hearts. They paid the price for their success because they gave of themselves relationally to our little town. Something to think about, is it not?
Oh, the last thought on the beloved Blust Brothers – they operated not only the furniture store, but the ambulance service as well. Now there is a scary thought of which I will have more to say about in a future writing.
All funeral service is local – what do you think? Anyway that is one old undertaker’s opinion.