The Real Death Deniers

Perhaps it’s a consequence of being on social media, but barely a day passes that I don’t read some nonsense article, post or tweet about funeral service. Shooting ashes into space, turning cremains into bullets (Seriously, With all the gun violence these days !?), mushroom suits, and so much more fill pages. My colleagues who do not subscribe to social media (and there are many) are amused when I tell them what I’ve been reading. What’s more, my colleagues don’t recognize the names attached to these fanciful stories which seem aimed at turning funeral service into entertainment. Perhaps they are better off than I am, as seeing so much fake news about funeral service grows tiresome and demeans the serious work we do.  For many years, I have worked side by side with dedicated funeral directors, many of whom were raised in funeral service families. In addition to coordinating meaningful funerals, we have painstakingly prepared remains for visitations. One of the things we were taught in mortuary school is that viewing of the remains “confirms the reality of death.” And indeed the first visitation is not an easy one. As Dr. Alan Wolfelt has said, “People tend to cry, even sob and wail at funerals because funerals force us to concentrate on the fact of the death and our feelings, often excruciatingly painful, about that death.” Still, despite the pain, we are almost always thanked by mourners, often through tears, for the opportunity to see a loved one for the last time. The feedback has been gratifying and convinced me that the work funeral directors do continues to be important.

 Now, we are being told by unlicensed individuals, and those with limited experience, that we have been doing it all wrong. Funerals are somber and depressing, (No Kidding!)  and we need  to see death in a more positive light, they tell us. Then it hit me—these are the true death deniers. They are afraid, quite literally, to look death in the face, planning parties and investigating absurd alternate rituals instead. Making light of what we fear is not uncommon among people. Still, this “death positive” talk is an affront to all those who have lost a loved one, as it mocks (perhaps unintentionally) their grief. There is nothing positive about losing your child, the love of your life, your best friend, etc.  It shocks, it hurts, it changes lives, and no amount of positive death talk will ever change that. As Dr. Wolfelt wrote in his book, Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart, “As a death educator and grief counselor, I am deeply convinced that individuals, and ultimately society as a whole, will suffer if we do not reinvest ourselves in the funeral ritual.”

Funeral Customs.

While browsing for other books about funerals, I happened upon this. I love the description of it from Amazon. All reviewers give it 5 stars.

“A funeral is a ceremony marking a person’s death. Funerary customs comprise the complex of beliefs and practices used by a culture to remember the dead, from the funeral itself, to various monuments, prayers, and rituals undertaken in their honor. These customs vary widely between cultures, and between religious affiliations within cultures. In some cultures the dead are venerated; this is commonly called ancestor worship. The word funeral comes from the Latin funus, which had a variety of meanings, including the corpse and the funerary rites themselves.”

In a time when many people want to move away from the word “funeral” – this simple definition really is important to remember.  We can celebrate any life during a funeral. I question if those who are so quick to remove the word “funeral” from our vocabulary, are the ones who really are denying death.

 

Chicago Cubs Great Andre Dawson – His Quiet 2nd Career

I don’t think I would have ever thought that Chicago Cubs outfielder Andre Dawson would have been counted as one of the ranks of my profession. For more than ten years he has quietly owned a funeral home in Florida. No flashy publicity or news stories to get more business. Nothing to tie his career in baseball to his funeral home. He and his family have chosen to dedicate this second career to serving the people in the community. It’s not about him but about the grieving family.

Today, the funeral profession is regularly criticized. So many blogs and articles say that we need to change and that we aren’t relevant. Others even go so far as to suggest we don’t provide anything of value to the grieving public. It is true that the traditions of the funeral have changed. Anyone who studies history knows that every type of tradition changes over time, it is expected.

We, as funeral professionals have always had only one responsibility. We serve a grieving family at one of the worst moments in their life. That has not changed. Personally, I feel as though the public has been led to believe that tradition is a bad thing. Every family should have the type of service they want and can afford. That means different things to different families. Every family should be encouraged to include the traditions that comfort them, even those that may reach back to previous generations.

Each families needs are different and unique. Funeral service has always personalized services. But, we have evolved and changed to offer different types of good and services and create new traditions. That’s a great thing and that is how it should be. We will continue to change over time and it will be interesting to see what funeral service will look like in the future. In the mean time we will continue to serve families with the same dignity and respect as was provided by previous generations of funeral service professionals.

Andre Dawson made a conscious decision to become a funeral director. He offers compassion and sensitivity to the families that he serves. He is a “hands on” funeral director (he is not an embalmer) and wants his funeral home to be carried on in the future by the next generations of his family. I personally love that.

Read more about his story:

Andre Dawson

Visit his funeral home Facebook page:

Andre Dawson Funeral Home Facebook

 

What Is Death Positivity?

We hear so much today about a “movement” called Death Positivity. As a funeral director, I couldn’t tell someone what that means. Once we are born, we all move toward death. It’s just a matter of when and how. It’s also a concept that some people have a hard time wrapping their head around. Being positive about anything that causes pain to not only ourselves but those we love is difficult to understand.

So, what does this mean in simple language? A number of websites discuss this concept. One calls for individuals to boldly state their support of the movement by signing their name to a page on a website. Others discuss Death Cafes, a European innovation to openly discuss death. One article states death can be “fun.” Describing an after-party of lecture on death positivity that had tarot card readings, palm readings and an insect petting zoo. And today there is even an app, WeCroak, to help remind you five times a day that you are dying. Too many times we see death depicted as a goth or ghoulish movement, something that brings to mind the Addams Family without its satiric humor. Clearly death is none of that. It is deep, it is emotional, it is personal, it is painful and, yes, it should be taken reverently.

In 2007, PBS aired a program called The Undertaking. It featured well respected author and poet AND funeral director, Thomas Lynch and his family owned funeral home. This program really was the beginning of introducing death, dying, and the funeral trade, as Lynch calls it, to a larger audience. His book, The Undertaking: Life Studies From A Dismal Trade, openly discusses what takes place within grieving families at his funeral home. A quote from the program website states “The Lynch family believes that the rituals of a funeral are more than mere formalities. Funerals are the way we close the gap between the death that happens and the death that matters, Lynch contends. A good funeral gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be.”

That last sentence, “a good funeral gets the dead where they need to go and living where they need to be” is so important. Our American culture toward death has changed. It has evolved from the days of the Civil War, and that is expected. Our traditions and rituals surrounding death and funerals have changed. It’s hard to pinpoint when this happened. Many people now say we are a death denying culture. I feel that’s not true, it’s present every day, in our faces in every form of media. What I see is that more people do not believe they can die in the blink of an eye. We think that not seeing the deceased (it doesn’t matter whether it’s at home or a funeral home) removes death from us. It doesn’t. Many families have started choosing direct cremation, or immediate burial, which removes the deceased from the view of family and friends. Thus, denying them the opportunity to say good-bye and grieve with others. While the options for coming face to face with death, by viewing the deceased, are there we are seeing more families not choosing them. As funeral directors, we have to learn why so that we’ll know what we can do to make it easier for people to embrace the opportunity to see a loved one (family, friend, or co-worker), one last time.

In the meantime, we should reinforce the need to educate people as to why thinking about our own (or a family member’s death) is a positive thing. There is much to be considered around end of life wishes, along with preferences that extend beyond final arrangements. We should choose how we want to die, and how we want to be memorialized. It also helps those left behind to make that happen. We should be asking, “What we can do to prepare for that eventuality? We have to start somewhere and at the end is a good place to do that.

When My Yiayia Died

 

yiayia

Marjorie Kunch is a funeral director, and writer, based in Arizona. When her grandmother died, Kunch, the mother of two young children, searched for books to answer the questions her two young children had about funeral rituals. Not able to find what she was looking for, Kunch decided to write her own book. Written from the perspective of her Slavic Orthodox faith, When My Baba Died was published in 2015, and a companion workbook soon followed. In 2017, Kunch published a Greek Orthodox version titled, When My Yiayia Died. Both books are tenderly illustrated, with Kunch’s children serving as models.  In a piece I wrote for American Funeral Director’s December issue about Kunch’s works, I noted that  the Worsham College of Mortuary Science graduate “aims to demystify death, funerals and cancer, events that are often kept hidden from children.” For more information, here’s a recent review on Goodreads

The Journey Begins

Melissa Johnson Williams and Alexandra Kathryn Mosca are two well-known and respected names in funeral service.

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