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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Till Death Do Us Part

Inside the sanctuary, all the men are wearing dark suits. Boutonnieres have been pinned on lapels and flowers have been placed carefully at the front of the altar. Most of the women are wearing dresses, and there are a few hats in the crowd; it’s a summer day in the South after all. A limousine pulls up to the front of the church and the driver gets out to open the door. The minister takes his post as the music starts. A small stack of programs rests in the vestibule, where they’ll stay until someone decides to pick them up and save a few in a special place. There is a congregational hymn today, and the organist is a little nervous about playing for such a large crowd. Nerves are on edge all around, in fact…these kinds of occasions bring out a strange mixture of emotions for most folks. When the service ends, everyone will gather to eat. They will tell stories and exchange hugs as they part saying, “We really should get together more often… Seems like we only see each other at weddings and funerals!”

The story parts ways here… There’s a fork in the road. Is it a wedding or a funeral?

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If it’s a funeral, it could start while a limousine driver goes around the car to open the doors for the grieving family. They step out one by one and enter the sanctuary for the funeral. There is a eulogy and a song or two and the minister and family follow as pallbearers carry the casket down the stairs and place it in the hearse. The graveside service is brief, and afterwards, the family gathers for a meal and some time to reflect together. It could be an elderly widow laying her beloved husband to rest after a tough choice to leave his wedding band on as the casket was closed. It could be a child gone too soon from this world, a young mother who battled cancer for too long, or any number of circumstances. The family could be united in their grief or split for various and tragic reasons. In any case, it is likely crumpled Kleenexes will be found tucked in pockets days later. Flowers will be taken to the graveside and to someone’s home to sit on the hearth or on a table until it’s time for them to move on too. There is a quiet kind of ending to a funeral, a kind of silent grieving and uncertainty for what the future may hold.

But what if it’s a wedding? It could start with the bride opening the door before the limousine driver even gets around the car. She steps out onto the sidewalk and meets her father as they enter the vestibule. She has a death grip on her bouquet and her grandmother’s pearls around her neck. The lighting is perfect and his smile is too. Vows are exchanged, a kiss is shared, and the newly pronounced couple turns with faces beaming as they make their way down the aisle. Family and friends will gather afterwards to celebrate with eating and talking and dancing. The future is uncertain here too, but there is a promise of going towards it together.

Tears are shed at times like these whether they are tears of joy or tears of pain. Some may be a mixture of both.

One of my coworkers even quipped, “The only difference between your wedding and your funeral is that at your wedding, you see the flowers!”

It’s true that both types of events have seen changes over the recent years. Wedding planners and funeral directors are event specialists in an age of Pinterest inspired parties and Do-It-Yourself crafting. Engagement and wedding announcements in newspapers are all but a thing of the past; it is simply not part of the morning routine anymore to sit and read about the color of bridesmaids dresses or honeymoon destinations over a cup of coffee. We “Like” the pictures on Facebook after the fact. Obituaries may be headed in the same direction. We say, “Pull up the funeral home website and see when the service for Mrs. So-and-So is.” We even place orders for flowers online and can click on a link in an online obituary to fill out a memorial form on a charity’s webpage. Our online interactions have become integral to how we experience community. I would argue, however, that “lighting a candle” or signing the online guestbook on a funeral home’s memorial page is just not the same as going to the visitation or funeral. At times when it is impossible or understandably inconvenient to attend the service, these online interactions are valuable, and almost as personal as sending a card in snail mail.

It’s interesting that even in this age of technology and virtual community, we still seek to gather at times of great importance. We recognize the value of ceremony and we strive to be together for momentous occasions. There is cultural and personal push to mark life changes with a service or gathering of some kind. Weddings, baby showers, funerals, graduations; each is marked by loved ones coming to pay honor and respect to the change that is occurring. If we can’t be there in person, we feel a sense of loss and sadness. Even scrolling through the Facebook pictures leaves us with a twinge of regret at not attending. So when we can, we gather and we share; stories, laughter, smiles, and tears. We experience the moments together, and our connections live on, till death do us part.

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