Back to the Future

The previous post was all about technology. This time, we’re taking a few steps back in time–before the age of smartphones, before the Internet, before sliced bread.

We’re going back to a time when you couldn’t simply pick up the phone and call the funeral home to ask about a price for cremation or whether or not we have the body of Mr. John Doe.

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Image credit: Smithsonian.com; follow hyperlink to article

Imagine for a moment that you are homesteading in the wilderness and you have nothing to rely on but your neighbors. I don’t know how telegraphs actually worked, but let’s just say those haven’t been invented yet.

You wake up one morning and someone you love, someone you share a house with, has died. The body is stone cold and no matter how hard you cry or how loudly you scream, there is silence.

I’d venture to say panic sets in. What do you do? Who do you turn to? Do you start digging a hole in the dirt in the backyard? Do you bury your loved one and lay flowers on the grave? How are you going to move this body where it needs to go? Shouldn’t you wash and clothe the body before anyone else comes?

Even though many of us are not modern day pioneers, it’s possible you have encountered this feeling before. It may have been with a beloved pet you discovered dead in your home or in your yard. It may have even been an unexpected death of someone in your family. All of a sudden, time stops. You’re frozen in your tracks. Even though nowadays there are numbers to call and plenty of people to turn to, many of us don’t know what to do when we’re staring death in the face. Dialing the number to the ambulance or to a funeral home can take extreme bravery. Many times, it’s hard to articulate just what we need to say. We try to form words around, “Someone has died, come now,” and it comes out more like gibberish.

When the phone rings at the funeral home, there is absolutely no telling who or what is going to be on the other end of the line. It might be a nurse or a coroner or even a pastor calling to notify us of a death. It might be someone who Googled our funeral home to find out about how much it costs to be embalmed. It might be a florist shop calling for funeral arrangements so they’ll know when to deliver flowers. It might be a woman who woke up and found her husband’s body had turned cold in the night.

The person on the other end of the line might say, “How much does it cost to use the chapel? ,” followed by, “My son has died and I want to see about having a funeral.” After some conversation back and forth, we may hear, “I’m not sure where his body is right now.”

 It’s a scary place to be, not knowing what comes next. The funeral industry has been built on this very principle, on being available to help at a time of great need and uncertainty. As time marches on, people become more mobile and less apt to know who to turn to or where to go when a death occurs. Thankfully, many hospice and palliative care programs have been established to help ease the transition for end of life care. You can also rest assured knowing if you need answers, you can call the funeral home and we’ll do our best to help.

Whether we like to admit it or not, none of us are immune to dying. Death reaches us in ways we can’t predict and we are often left startled in its wake. Even in my short time as a funeral director, I’ve often been left speechless as I listen to complete strangers telling the story of the death of a loved one. It’s a truly humbling experience to walk those first few staggering steps into the planning of a funeral.

Think about some of your experiences surrounding the death of a loved one. Looking back, what are some of the surprises you came across? What or who do you recall being helpful? Church families, friends, nurses and doctors, funeral directors; many elements work together to shape the initial moments and days surrounding the loss of a loved one. Is there anything you wish had happened differently? Share these thoughts and stories with your family and friends; if you’re up to it, I’d be honored to hear them too.

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Dying in a Digital Age: 3 Ways the Funeral Business Has Been Transformed by Technology

You might say to yourself, “Funerals are not that difficult. Dig a hole, put the body in the ground.”

But what about writing an obituary via email by coordinating with a family member who is out of state? How about scanning treasured family photographs and putting together a memorial video moments before a visitation? Have you ever tried to track the movement of a deceased body from the place of death, through the embalming process, to a funeral, and then to the crematory for cremation? Trust me, we are very careful to be sure nothing gets lost or confused along the way. Planning a funeral takes a few more tools than just some packs of tissues on the pews and a shovel at a cemetery. We live in a mobile, instant access society and (contrary to popular belief perhaps) the funeral business is not immune to using technology in the workplace.

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1. Obits—One of the most observable technological changes has been for obituaries. Obituaries are still published in newspapers, but they are also regularly accessed on the internet. It used to be that a friend would have a few newspapers stockpiled to give you to tuck in the family Bible; now, obituaries are “shared” on social media sites like Facebook. It is also commonplace for funeral homes and newspapers to have websites where friends and family can go to read an obituary and leave a memorial message.

For funeral homes, email has become the new method of delivery for obituaries to newspapers, but every once in a while, we have to step back into the dark ages and send an obituary over the fax machine or read it out over the phone. Thank goodness hand delivering a photograph to the newspaper office is a thing of the past—scanning and sending as a .jpeg or .pdf is a real time-saver.

2. Music—The digital music libraries available at our fingertips are undeniably convenient, but there are few greater terrors as a funeral director than pressing the “play” button on an iPad or computer during a funeral and hearing the wrong music begin to travel through the pipes. Music can be one of the most personal and sacred elements of a funeral, yet many families these days opt for “canned” tunes or versions of old favorites sung by popular artists. I’ve even set up a keyboard to play recorded organ music at a graveside and held up a microphone to play a CD in a hearse stereo at a cemetery.

The words of the tried and true hymns still make their way into most funeral services, but in my humble opinion, there is nothing which quite compares to the harmony of the keys of a seasoned piano matched with seasoned voices singing in an old country church or the majesty of a pipe organ sounding in a grand sanctuary. A guitar solo or a bagpiper every once in a while are not bad either…

3. Virtual Files—Paper trails are important in courts, doctor’s offices, schools, and yes, even funeral homes. Each service we funeral professionals handle begins with a First Call Sheet of basic biographical information. The file balloons from there—containing everything from an obituary and a list of pallbearers to paperwork for an international flight and burial overseas. There are forms, bills, and vital statistics that are used throughout the process of planning a funeral, and all of it must be accurate and accessible. There are enough databases and shared folders and scanned copies to make your head spin. Even many Death Certificates are filed online these days with programs similar to the State of SC’s WebDeath system.

All of these records take up lots of space, but whether they are gathering dust in the back of the file room or stored away in cyberspace, death data and cemetery records make up a big chunk of local and national history and archiving them is an ongoing yet important challenge.

Smart phones give the general public instant access to service information and obituaries, and we funeral folks utilize the countless contacts and resources at our fingertips—GPS, weather forecasts, and Find A Grave.com to name a few. Emailing crucial documents to be signed and returned has become standard practice when serving families spread across the globe, and it will be interesting to see how our mobile society continues to incorporate technological advancements even in seemingly “low tech” fields.

As I post this from my iPhone, I’m acutely aware that striking a balance between “high tech” and “face-to-face” is extremely important not only in this line of work, but in how we move around from day to day, interacting with the public and within our close communities. Think I’ll step away from the screen for a while… Hope you find time to do the same.

 

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You Can’t Take It With You When You Go

They say you’ll never see a hearse with a U-haul behind it…

I beg to differ!

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As you can tell from the picture above, I’ve been in both the moving business and the funeral business here lately. I couldn’t pass up this photo-op!

After an adventure of what I’ve been calling “My Big Fat Gypsy Move,” I’m finally settling into a rhythm with a new job and a new home. It’s strange to think about all the changes that have occurred in a short amount of time, but I sure am glad to have my microwave out of its spot in the passenger floorboard of my car and my clothes out of the suitcases they’ve been in for the past month.

I’d say I have a new respect for folks who move more often than I have or over longer distances than I did. Every time I unpack a box, I say to myself that I’m never buying anything else ever again.

Strangely enough, moving has also given me a new perspective on what families encounter when packing and cleaning out after a loved one dies. Simply put, it’s a lot of work.

I know I have a lot of “stuff,” and I live in a one bedroom apartment with basic furniture. I can’t imagine boxing up, paring down, and dividing a 3 bedroom house. Yet, people do it every day. It makes me wonder what the average time lapse is between a death and the “settling” of an estate. I know estate sales are common, as is renting storage units to help with the paring down  part of the process. Family arguments over possessions are also common, and, unfortunately, the stories on this topic abound.

The truth, however, is you can’t take the “stuff” with you when you go….. Sometimes people tuck memento’s into a casket, but I have yet to see a U-haul at a funeral. I don’t see a lot of “stuff” at funerals, but I do see a lot of people at funerals. I see a lot of love and support for family members who are left to process through both their grief and through all the “stuff” left behind. I see hands that show up willing to help in any way possible, and I see how beautiful memories are re-lived as times past are uncovered. Sometimes the sentimental value of our “stuff” really is an important thing to acknowledge–whether it comes in the form of a watch or a piece of jewelry, a hand-written letter, or a simple photograph of days gone by. May we learn to treasure the things that really matter, and celebrate the relationships surrounding us instead of just our “stuff.”

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