I had a woman come in for her mother’s cremation. She was the only person to show up. No one else was comfortable doing a visitation or witnessing her cremation. Our witness package includes a one hour visitation. She took 20 full minutes just setting up the crystals, sage smudge, river water, music, and Tibetan singing bowls. She spent a great deal of time cleansing her mother’s spirit, the space and her own grief in, what was to me, a very curious manner. One of my peers said, “Wow, that’s pretty over the top, what the hell was wrong with her?” Though this is not usually my style, I lashed out at him. I said “YOU KNOW WHAT?! At least she’s doing something. I wish that more of the families would take this kind of interest; what she’s doing may be odd, but she’s taking on her mom’s care, which is more than we can say about most families!” Taken aback, he thought about it for a second and said: “You know what? You’re absolutely right.”
As of now, the funeral industry does a horrible job at collaborating with families. Most people in the industry believe that if we give consumers the power to collaborate and join us as equals, somehow there’s no value in the services provided by directors. Or worse, no profit to be made. Low cost providers don’t want to take the time to walk a family through the funeral process because it could reduce their overall volume of business. And the majority of directors believe consumers are either too stupid or too squeamish (or both) to run a funeral on their own.
I know that this will be a shocking reality to hear – there are VERY FEW families that want, or have the capacity, to transport and care for their dead on their own. People don’t want to haul grandma to the crematory in their Honda. I also don’t know of anyone that has a personal cooler capable of storing a body, nor the cremation equipment. Regardless of the popularity of the home funeral movement, funeral directors aren’t in danger. Home funerals are definitely possible (and are encouraged!) but many people find it too difficult or too foreign relative to their traditions. People want to find things that they can do, where they won’t be told “no.”
One of my favorite stories comes from when I first started Elemental. I had a family that wanted to do something more meaningful with their mother’s service and they had been shopping multiple funeral homes. I told them that I would come to their home to talk to them about the options and see if we could find something that would fit for them. After an hour of discussing possibilities, we went from a stale, traditional graveside service to the family having mom come home to her own house for a visitation in her dining room. I took mom (on dry ice) to her home and her family helped me to carry her into the house and set her up on the dining room table (in a casket) and I went on my merry way. They brought mom back later so she could be refrigerated. They returned the following Monday to put her in the back of their pickup truck to head to the cemetery.
Here was a family that at the outset, didn’t think they wanted to, or could, engage in that level of involvement, and yet they developed this plan with a little coaxing from me, and a strong sense of needing to do something that had meaning and earnest involvement in the process of shepherding their mom to her resting place. All I had to do was give them permission and a couple of pointers.
Like the woman that I opened this article with, I’ve seen a rise in the number of people coming in and wanting to be a part of even simple cremations. Just an hour visitation before the cremation. Or the opportunity to witness the placement of the deceased into the cremation chamber. People in the United States have a tendency to raise an eyebrow or shudder at the notion until I explain that, for all intents and purposes, it is the exact same function as witnessing the lowering of the casket into the grave at a graveside service.
There were the two women that flew in to Seattle from Tokyo to spend an hour with an aunt of theirs that passed away quietly without any family to care for her after she died. They wanted to be there to witness her cremation so that she could have the respect and honor that they felt she deserved. They came in and sat down in front of their aunt with no fanfare, decorations, chanting, monk, or music. They told stories, they laughed, and they enjoyed having the three of them all together one last time.
A family came to me recently after they lost their son in a tragic accident. All they wanted was to create some kind of meaning in the face of the total chaos of emotion that they were swimming through. They had gone to another low cost funeral home that had no interest in listening to the family’s questions or entertaining any kind of notion out of the standard operating procedure: pick-up, cremate, return ashes.
The family only had a couple of needs: They wanted to be sure they got their son back from the mysterious cremation process, and they wanted to make the container that he was going to be cremated in. It wasn’t a very tall order – they just needed us to walk them through the exact process of identification, transport and cremation, so they could have the assurance that at every point there was a procedure to identify him. The family did not want to use the cardboard container used for most cremations, as they strongly felt their son needed something more personal. After 45 minutes of brainstorming options the dad came up with a brilliant idea – he was going to handcraft a surfboard shaped cremation tray. The family could come together to decorate the surfboard and write messages on it. What they came back with was beyond my wildest expectations. It was a beautifully handcrafted surfboard that was perfect to be used as a cremation tray. It was decorated with as much precision, love and care as anyone could ever muster and it was covered in loving handwritten messages to send him off on his next journey. This wasn’t another numbered body being shuttled into the cremation chamber, this was a life cut way too short, and he was riding a stunning example of craftsmanship and dedication on a wave of love to the other side.
Do I sound cheesy? You bet your ass I am. And I mean every word of it, because I will go to my own death remembering the time where I got the hell out of the way so that a family could send their son surfing.
What do all of these little stories have in common? Almost nothing, save for the fact that these people chose ways to give the death a little more significance. Someone they cared about had left this world, and they aren’t going to return, so they took the time to honor them in the best way that they knew how.
I’ll say right now that I don’t have a secret sauce to make the consumer happy in all cases. The biggest way to fight back with the industry is to plan your own death (which doesn’t mean you need to pre-pay). Here’s my promise to you, North American Consumer: the funeral industry will listen to all of your needs when you start talking with your family to make a plan for death. Because when you do that, you can go into the funeral home while everyone is still alive and do it on YOUR terms, not theirs. There’s a lot of grey area that you get to dance in (and write down in proper legal documentation) when you aren’t bent over a barrel in the darkness of grief.
You have the ability to research the funeral homes around you and find one that wants to collaborate with you and walk the path alongside you, not leading you by the nose. We can change the way that this society cares for it’s dead, and it starts with your family and your dialogue.