Arguing. Fighting. Physical violence. Destruction of property. Extreme denial. When I ask funeral professionals about their most difficult challenges, I frequently hear about extreme behaviors in the arrangement room. Not only are the stories jaw-dropping, but they seem to be getting worse and more common over the years. In the face of anger and rudeness, it can be difficult to generate empathy for the bereaved. That’s why I think it is valuable to do our best to understand the source of these extreme behaviors. We may be able to be more patient and gracious if we understand what is causing these behaviors.
One way to make sense of these behaviors is through the lens of “defense mechanisms” – a concept originally developed by Freud. When you hear the name “Sigmund Freud,” you might immediately dismiss anything developed by a pipe-smoking, sex-obsessed, Viennese physician from the early 1900s. Even as a psychologist myself, Freud isn’t my favorite guy; I believe many of his perspectives are outdated, misogynistic, and outright wrong. However, some of his theories and perspectives have stood the test of time and can provide valuable insights into human motivation and behavior. I hope you will continue reading to discover if these 3 examples of defense mechanisms match your experiences in the arrangement room. I suspect you will discover that you actually agree with Freud on several of these concepts.
While I love giving a good lecture on Freud (seriously, just give this former college professor half a chance…), we don’t have the time or space for a full exploration of defense mechanisms. In a nutshell, Freud said all people use defense mechanisms to reduce anxiety or mental discomfort. Most of the time, these defense mechanisms are relatively normal and healthy; they only become problematic when they are used in extreme ways. For example, “denial” is one of the most commonly used defense mechanisms. A common experience of denial related to bereavement is when you reach for your phone to call a loved one, only to quickly remember they are deceased.
There’s absolutely nothing abnormal or pathological about this – our brains are simply used to them being alive and it takes a moment for that reality to reappear. On the other end of the continuum of denial is an extreme reaction. For example, when the police find that a family still has grandpa sitting at the dining room table – eight months after he died. All defense mechanisms can be viewed on a continuum; mild and common uses of reducing anxiety and pain or extreme situations when the individual’s reaction is much more dramatic and often pathological.
It is important to note that defense mechanisms are largely unconscious responses. Or put another way, these are not deliberate or premeditated strategies. They still hurt if you are on the receiving end, but I don’t want you to think these are intentional efforts designed to attack others. They are the unconscious reactions of someone trying to deal with painful thoughts and emotions.
Although Freud and his daughter, Anna, described several dozen defense mechanisms, we are going to focus on three that you may see in the arrangement room: displacement, projection, and reaction formation.
Like denial, displacement is a very commonly used defense mechanism. Displacement is when we take the angry or aggressive impulses toward one person and “displace” them on another, usually safer, target. For example, let’s say your boss yells at you and it makes you angry. You realize that it isn’t smart to strike back at your boss, so you go home and yell at your spouse, yell at your kids, or kick the dog as a way to displace your anger onto a ‘safer’ target. (I fully realize that getting angry at your spouse may not be a “safer” target – this is just an example. Also, don’t kick dogs.)
A common example of displacement in funeral service is when the bereaved are angry at the deceased. Perhaps the deceased wasn’t a kind person. Perhaps the bereaved are angry that the deceased didn’t take better care of themselves or go to get a check-up when they suggested it. But even though they are angry, Western culture states that it is not acceptable to “speak ill of the dead.” So where does that anger and frustration go? Sometimes it goes to a “safe target” like the funeral professional. They may assume they won’t see you after the services conclude and therefore you are a safe target for their anger – even if you haven’t done a thing to deserve it. Have you had situations where the bereaved are angry at you for no apparent reason?
Have you ever had someone accuse you of only caring about money? A second defense mechanism, projection, might be a part of their response. Projection is the process of taking our own feelings and thoughts that make us uncomfortable and then dealing with them by projecting them onto someone else. A common example of projection is when we deal with our own self-hate by projecting that view onto others. Projection takes “I don’t like myself” and turns it into, “He/She hates me for no reason” or “Everybody hates me.” It reduces our anxiety and negative self-worth to suggest it is coming from others, not from oneself.
Here are some examples of what a person might be feeling and how they may project that onto the funeral professional:
Bereaved individual’s thought: “I’m curious about death and death-related procedures, but am worried about how others will judge my curiosity.”
Projected onto funeral professional: “Why are you so obsessed with death!”
Bereaved individual’s thought: “I’m so angry at my mother for not taking better care of my father and look what happened.”
Projected onto funeral professional: “Why are you treating my mother so badly!”
Bereaved individual’s thought: “I wonder how much this is going to cost. I could desperately use some extra money right now.”
Projected onto funeral professional: “You’re only obsessed with money!”
A third defense mechanism that may arise in funeral situations is the use of reaction formation. Reaction formation is when a person takes a thought or feeling that is uncomfortable and attempts to convince themselves (and others) that they don’t really have that view by making an extravagant display that is the opposite of their true feelings. For example, if a man found himself sexually attracted to his best friend’s wife, he might deal with the anxiety caused by those feelings by suggesting that he doesn’t like her at all. (We see an example of this exact scenario in the movie Love Actually: It’s a self-preservation thing, you see.).
In funeral scenarios, reaction formations arise when the bereaved hates the deceased yet acts as if they were perfect. The bereaved reacts by choosing extravagant funeral products and having an elaborate funeral. Freud would suggest this individual is attempting to convince themselves that their feelings of hate don’t exist. Of course, later the bereaved individual may resolve those feelings of hate and wonder why they spent so much on an elaborate funeral. I suspect this is when they unfairly turn the blame on the funeral professional and say things like, “You tricked me into spending a fortune on the funeral!”
In the Arrangement Room
While many other defense mechanisms come into play, these are three that appear frequently. After learning about these defense mechanisms a natural question is, “How does a funeral professional respond in these situations?” That is the focus of my presentation: “Defusing Conflict in the Arrangement Room: Strategies from Family Therapists” at the CANA’s 101st Annual Cremation Innovation Convention. I will be reviewing how funeral professionals can better understand the conflict that sometimes arises in the arrangement process as well as strategies funeral professionals can use to defuse these situations. I hope to see you there!
With a wide range of valuable networking and educational opportunities, the CANA Convention features sessions from presenters carefully chosen to make the most of your time away from the office and ensure you leave with practical takeaways.
We can’t wait to welcome Dr. Troyer to the CANA stage in Louisville this August. See what else CANA has planned for our 101st Cremation Innovation Convention: goCANA.org/CANA19.
Can’t join us? We’ll have recordings available so you don’t miss out on this amazing content.
Dr. Jason Troyer is a grief expert, author, former psychology professor, and therapist. He provides grief support newsletters, Facebook content, and informational videos at www.GriefPlan.com/funeral. He also provides community presentations, professional workshops, and trainings on behalf of funeral homes and cemeteries. Dr. Troyer can be reached at DrJasonTroyer@gmail.com.