I remember when I was in Mortuary College in Boston we took a field trip and visited a vault manufacturing plant in a town a little north of Boston. I was quite excited about the adventure mostly because I had never seen a vault made before, and I was terribly interested in literally anything to do with funeral service. I am still terribly interested in anything to do with funeral service but honestly my fascination with vault manufacturing left me some years past.
When the bus arrived at the vault plant an extremely distinguished looking gentleman greeted us. I was immediately struck by his grand style of appearance, impeccable dress, gray hair, black horn rimmed glasses, tall, stately, dignified – everything that the prototype funeral director possessed (back then) and all the attributes which I dearly wanted to acquire in my own person. However I was just tall, that was it, and other than being tall I in no way resembled this extremely dignified and professional looking man.
He graciously gave us the grand tour of the vault plant. He spoke in flowing eloquent inspirational terms about his great love of the funeral service profession. He told story after story about his great career, about this family and that family he had served and how much of an honor and privilege it was to serve the bereaved. He spoke in glowing terms about the importance of ethical care of the dead, the value of embalming, the benefits of the funeral rituals to the bereaved and how he himself had been so blessed and fortunate to be a member of the funeral service profession. All I could think was “Hot damn, I want to be just like him when I grow up!”
I remember getting on the bus for the trip back to Boston and I felt like I was floating on a cloud. I needed a lift in spirit! Even as a baby undertaker in those early years I had contended with the naysayers concerning funeral service. I mean after reading Mitford’s “American Way of Death” (which literally brought me to tears), after reading all the negative press about the alleged graft and corruption in funeral service, after confronting all the “negatives” about this profession which I loved so much, at last, at long last here was a man who had conviction, focus, belief and most important here was a man who had a mission in life and that was his career in funeral service. He loved funeral service and by God he stood up and expressed his beliefs and convictions seemingly, I thought, to anybody who would listen. I was tremendously impressed and awed to say the very least – he was a great role model, or so I thought at the time.
It was not three months later after the great inspirational tour that we received the news at the College that this funeral director had died suddenly without warning. He collapsed in his office and was dead when he hit the floor. I was stunned and thought to myself what a grievous loss his death was to the entire funeral service profession. All the students who had been on the field trip were visibly affected, shocked and grieving. We as a class decided that when the arrangements for this funeral director’s visitation, funeral and disposition services were announced we would make arrangements to attend as a class representing the Mortuary College. We asked the secretary of the College to let us know as soon as she received any news concerning the arrangements.
The final class for the day was just finishing when the secretary came into the classroom and asked Dr. Jackson if she could make an announcement concerning the arrangements for this deceased funeral director. Here is what she said: “There will be no calling hours, there will be no funeral services at all, and the remains will be immediately cremated and the cremains would be disposed of privately at a later unknown date.”
We were stunned! Our group shock turned to anger and several students expressed their anger by making some fairly strong comments concerning the glaring hypocrisy of this funeral director. Had he not made mention in glowing and flowing words about the wonderful opportunities which waited for us in professionally helping families “through the valley of the shadow of death”? Had he not gone on and on with inspirational words concerning how important the funeral experience was to the entire community – and did he not emphasize that the funeral was NOT JUST VALUABLE FOR THE IMMEDIATE FAMILY BUT FOR EVERYBODY? As baby funeral director’s we were stunned, angered, disappointed, and frankly hurt by the phoniness and contradictions concerning what this funeral director said as compared now to what he did. It then got worse because the story floated around the College that the “no funeral” decision had been preplanned by the deceased funeral director himself! I remember, at the time, feeling guilty in speaking of the dead in such harsh terms but honestly even back then I knew that something was not right here – this was not fair – something was missing – something was terribly wrong. It was not a good experience, it left an empty feeling in my gut and a sour taste in my mouth, and I have never forgotten it.
Fast forward 40 plus years – Dateline 2015.
Recently I was traveling out of the country doing a series of seminars for Hospice, Victims Assistance Program, and some funeral home management staff training. On the last evening of my visit I had a wonderful dinner with the funeral director who had been my gracious host and a gentleman who has been a good cherished friend of mine for many years in funeral service. When three or four funeral directors get together at a dinner and cocktails what is the conversation going to be about? Funerals of course! I have at times looked at the poor people who are not involved in funeral service and who attend one of these funeral director dinners and just set there in basic silence for hour upon hour while we, funeral insiders piddle the night away with funeral and/or ambulance stories one after another. I have sometimes thought that the polite thing to do would be to change the conversation in order to kindly include the funeral outsiders – but then I think to myself “Nay” and I dive right back into the deep end of the pool telling one funeral/ambulance story after another. It is great fun and I never ever get bored!
At this dinner however one of the funeral directors relayed an incidence where a funeral director in the area had recently died and there was no funeral, no calling hours, and the remains were immediately disposed of. We then all proceeded to remember another, and another, and yet another funeral director who upon their own deaths had no funeral, no calling hours, and the remains were immediately disposed of. My memory flew back to Boston way these many years ago, and I shared that experience, and then we all started remembering the death of this colleague or that one which also fell into the category of “nothing” concerning the use of the rites and ritual of the funeral. Finally one of the directors at the dinner poised these simple questions, “How could that happen?” “How can a funeral director when they die have no funeral?” Finally the biggest question of all was put on the table, “Where is the conviction?”
At this dinner the suggestion was made that I tackle this sensitive subject and write an article. I accepted the suggestion and so here goes. However before I get into the DNA of the thoughts I would like to share I want to say straight away that I firmly believe in freedom of choice; however I also firmly believe that when it comes to the issue of a deceased funeral director having no funeral the ideal of freedom of choice must come under scrutiny by other funeral professionals, so let’s scrutinize; it’s only fair.
In a time in funeral service where honored rites, rituals and ceremonies seem fragile and teetering here and there this is not the time for funeral directors to “move in” with the impersonal, sterile, tide of events and adopt and accept rejection of death rituals, or concur with funeral critics, or worse abandon the time honored beliefs, convictions, and professional heritage that set the basic foundations for the funeral service profession and our cherished careers in the first place.
As I have aged, as life has kicked and picked at me, as I left innocence behind and faced the rigors of adulthood I have learned a hard and difficult lesson. ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS. I have also learned that in funeral service if the funeral director does not stand up and act on behalf of the values and benefits of the funeral – WHO WILL?
In a time when cynicism, criticism, individualism, and a bunch of other “isms” seem to have taken on a life of their own the need for belief in something bigger than ourselves, unselfish service to others, and a firm personal and professional conviction about life, and one’s mission of action in life and vocation is more magnified today than ever before.
So how can it be that a funeral professional who talks about the values and benefits of the funeral experience throughout a lifelong career rejects those same values and benefits when it is their own death that is the focus?
Several years ago I was engaged in debating a well know critic of the funeral profession. The meeting was to take place in a large city on the West coast, and I arrived well prepared for the confrontation and frankly was looking forward in a big way at the opportunity to act upon my professional beliefs and basically “blast” away at this anti-funeral person. Right before the session was to begin this funeral critic leaned over to me and asked me this question: “Do you know what the biggest problem is in funeral service today?” “No” I answered (already provoked.) “I will tell you, funeral directors stop believing in what they are doing and when that happens it opens up the door for people like me.”
During the years of my career I have been blessed to work with and for funeral directors who truly believed in the mission of funeral service and made no bones about sharing their beliefs and convictions, and more importantly upon their own death’s they had these beliefs and convictions exercised through the wise use of rites, rituals and ceremonies. They not only spoke about their convictions they acted on them. All these funeral directors when they died (sounds awfully simple does it not?) HAD A FUNERAL! They acted on their convictions.
Can it be that certain funeral directors choose not to have a funeral for themselves because they are burned out, frustrated and really in their heart of hearts disliked the funeral profession in their lifetime? Could this no funeral decision on the part of some funeral directors really be a protest as if to say “See I finally get to express my true honest feelings about funerals having been stuck in this career for X amount of years – and I hated it – hated every minute of it!” This is a harsh rough thought but could this be a possibility?
Common sense really reduces the issue we are exploring to some simple observations. Funeral directors who choose to have no funeral for themselves when they die is like a dentist who has terrible teeth and refuses treatment, or a physician who refuses to get a physical, or a teacher who hates teaching, or a clergyperson who hates doing worship services. Something unhealthy, disturbing and damaging is present when professional people turn on their own careers, stay in the career, and display their true feelings at the end of their life and career in such a visible and blatant manner.
So what about that big glaring issue of freedom of choice? Certainly in the end freedom of choice must and will prevail, but in the instance of funeral directors rejecting the value of their own profession, well this attitude carries a heavy cost.
I truly believe that when a funeral director rejects the values and benefits of the funeral for themselves they have that right, but I also as a longtime member of the funeral profession know that I also have the individual right and obligation to stand up and challenge the correctness of exercising that type of freedom of choice. Why do I have that right? Easy…I love the funeral profession. When a funeral director upon his or her own death rejects the merits of the very ceremony he or she promised to dedicate themselves to when they took the Oath upon graduating from Mortuary College they succeed in this type of funeral rejection to mock, yes mock, the very career which furnished their income, furnished their reputations, and basically furnished a major part of their lives. However the worse offense when the funeral director has no funeral when they die is this: by making the no funeral decision they unwittingly make professional life much more difficult for the rest of us who are still laboring in the vineyard of funeral service and who have the spark and mission devoted to an authentic love of the funeral profession. A dead funeral director who has no funeral is truly an oxymoron.
My entire career I have seen nothing that the public likes more than a professional person with firm beliefs, firm convictions, and the ability to implement those beliefs and convictions in their daily actions. Conversely all my career I have seen nothing that the public dislikes and is more cynical of and suspicious of than a “professional” person with no beliefs, who bends with the wind, has no convictions, and publicly “talks the talk” but privately does not believe what they themselves have said.
Funeral directors should have public funeral ceremonies when they die – there I said it. The content and scope of the ceremony can take on any form meaningful to the survivors, both family and community, however the funeral needs to be given a chance to breathe, is needs to be visible, it needs to be inclusive not exclusive.
Winston Churchill summed up a profession this way:
“A profession is where a group has taken its stock and trade of all their activities to the direction of helping the human need to solve problems.
The solution to these problems comes from the mentor, apprentice experience, from the careful, scholarly, objective, truthful and passionate systems of ethics and philosophy which says
‘What we do is good!’
Is it possible when a deceased funeral director chooses to have no funeral the message to the world is “What we do is NOT good,” or “What we do is good for the rest of you, but not for me or my family?”
Think for a moment about a career in this great and wonderful profession. We all should have the same sense of identity because most in funeral service have had a life-long identity and involvements in many of the most traumatic and dramatic events of the entire community. Funeral service has had a well recognizable, well annunciated set of values as to how we conduct our professional affairs, and one of the recognizable and annunciated values is this: FUNERALS ARE GOOD – for funeral directors too!. Examine for a moment the time and energy that it took all of us in funeral service to learn the language, the arts and sciences of mortuary activities, look at the system of licensure, certification and discipline which we must adhere. Take a long look at the future of funeral service and the values and benefits which you and I are required to pass on to the future funeral professions and what is the central core value of funeral service that we are all morally responsible to communicate far and wide? FUNERALS ARE GOOD!
For the young funeral director and the veteran funeral director, for the clergy, the community, and anybody who will listen to the gentle persistent communication and action of all funeral professionals concerning an authentic belief, conviction, and dedication to our beloved profession centers ultimately on this one core value: FUNERALS ARE GOOD – FOR EVERYBODY.