I am a funeral director. If you had told my 25-year-old self who was beginning a career as a determined and dedicated special education teacher that 40 years later I would be typing that sentence, I would have laughed in your face. And, yes, I’m that old.
But life has an interesting way of taking turns and detours and branching off the map to the point where today I am proud to be part of this very special and unique band of professionals.
In the twenty-five years that I have been part of working with funeral directors, I’ve become known as one who trains, speaks and writes in the arena of imploring our profession to do better. To grow into the needs of our new consumers. To widen our practices beyond the safe and traditional. To think outside the proverbial box. Some people have appreciated the message and embraced the opportunities to try new things. Some people think I’m kind of a shock jock and loudmouth. All are accurate.
But, today, all I can say is wow! These past months have presented such overwhelming challenges and unprecedented practices as my sisters and brothers have faced the daunting task of caring for the dead and supporting the grieving families. This virus that has the world by its grasp has forced us to turn on a dime, to think differently, to adapt and adjust while being on the front lines of unknown potential dangers and a nationwide fear. And just when you think you have it under control, situations change once again, and a new plan has to be developed on the fly. We often talk about thinking outside the box. Well, for all of us, the box has been destroyed. All that we knew to be usual and predictable no longer exists for this moment in time.
In those states where the death toll has been crushing and constant, just the physical toll on staff to keep up with the demand, to deal with shortages of protective equipment, running out of space to care for the deceased in a safe and honorable method, to answer the phone again and again and again, knowing that capacity is a faint memory, has been nothing short of amazing. Every person involved-- the removal personnel, the embalmers, the arrangers, the office staff, the crematory operators, the managers and owners have all answered the call to stand in the chaos and provide the final farewell for every family. In those states where COVID-19 has not been the overlying problem, the issue of quarantine and social distancing has complicated the opportunities to say goodbye.
Removals have taken on a whole new level of caution and care. Those of us who attended mortuary school were all trained to deal with infectious diseases, but did we every think that we would be facing this? How do we honor a sacred moment of taking a loved one into our care while being vigilant for the staff and the family? How do we help those families whose loved one had to die alone in quarantine? How do we offer comfort without a handshake or a hug?
Funeral professionals live their lives to say yes. To be accommodating. To move heaven and earth to meet the needs of every family. So, the difficulty of having to look at a family and tell them that they cannot have the service that they planned and want is devastating. To be the bearer of the bad news that a grieving family cannot invite friends and family to join together as we always have, to hug, to hold hands, to cry together, to remember as a collective and see their reactions. Broken hearts that are further crushed by the restrictions of our current realities. It’s hard.
Everyone has had to stretch, to learn new skills, to think creatively and fiercely as we try to provide a healing moment of gathering in a world that changes with each sunrise. Technology that had never been used. Exactly what is a Zoom? Arranging by phone, online or by Facetime, streaming services live, posting complete services on the website, gathering safely at graveside, resurrecting drive-in movie theaters for an entirely new audience. Funeral directors, Celebrants, clergy, chaplains, officiants are all searching for meaningful and healing ways to offer remembrances, benedictions and blessings. Our hearts ache for those families who say “we’ll just wait and have a service when things are back to normal” because we know grief does not wait for normal. And we understand that for many it will be too difficult to capture that moment again and gather months later.
So, this is my moment to say thank you. As the hospital and health workers are applauded each day for the difficult and dangerous work they are called upon to do trying to heal the sick, I applaud our funeral professionals who are the ones called upon to care for our dead and their survivors in difficult and dangerous situations. People may not stand on street corners and sing to you, but please know that your efforts and diligent work are noticed and celebrated.
I am in awe and appreciation for each one of you who are waking up each morning determined to do the job you were called to do. There will plenty of time for me to get back on my soap box about things we could do better or differently. But today, I offer my deep gratitude. You are heroes. And I’m proud to say that I’m a funeral director.
Sustained, stressful situations require extra care for yourself and your colleagues. Jason Troyer, PhD., specializes in helping death care professionals serve their families better. He wrote a post for us about taking care of yourself in these ever-changing times. Additional resources unique to death care are available in his Finding Resilience program.
For inspiration on how to make meaningful, remote services, read Glenda's recent post . Download the free Ceremonies to Celebrate Together From Afar Resource for Challenging Times from Glenda filled with ideas on how to bring your families together.
Glenda Stansbury is the Marketing and Development Director, InSight Books, and Dean and Training Coordinator for In-Sight Institute. She holds a BS in Special Education from Central State University, as well as a BS in Funeral Service and a MA in Administrative Leadership from the University of Oklahoma. Before joining In-Sight Books, Glenda worked for 12 years for the Oklahoma Education Association as a trainer/facilitator. She has worked as Marketing and Development Director for In-Sight Books for 24 years and has been Dean of the In-Sight Institute for 20 years, co-training over 4000 Funeral Celebrants across North America with Doug Manning. She is a Certified Funeral Celebrant; Licensed Funeral Director/ Embalmer, Oklahoma; Certified Funeral Service Professional; Thanexus, New Jersey Board of Director; and Full Time Instructor- Department of Funeral Service, University of Central Oklahoma..