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Can I Get a Witness (Cremation)?

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, July 15, 2020
Updated: Monday, July 13, 2020
Can I Get a Witness (Cremation)?

 

“Offer all of the options, to every family, every time.” Dave Daly

No matter a family’s religion or cultural background, there will be times when it is appropriate for a family to see the disposition to completion, wherever it may be. When I served my first Hindu family during my internship, I was struck by the reverence, the beauty and meaning imbued in the ritual of the sendoff at the crematory. Perhaps the West Coast is unique in that many of the families we served in that region were already familiar with witness cremation, even if they did not have a religious requirement to do so. It was not until I moved back to the Midwest that I learned that so many funeral directors and consumers found the concept of going to the crematory shocking.

Families’ imagination is often far worse than the reality of cremation. Many may envision a stark, cold, clinical environment that smells like a hospital. They may imagine a chamber full of flames, and that the entire process is short, lonely, and perfunctory. This is why families are less likely to ask, When will we be able to watch the cremation? as they would be to ask, When will we be able to watch the lowering of the casket into the grave? Typically, this is an offer that the funeral director poses to the family who may need time to decide if that is something they can handle.

A History

From the late 1890s until the 1930s, the profession had invited the family to attend the cremation, as many marble-walled crematoria began to be built in Europe and North America (Jupp, 2005). Early cremationists treated the cremation ceremony in a manner virtually identical to committals. However, postwar funeral reform in the U.S. began to treat cremation as a threat to the industry, with several professional associations focusing on how to deal with the “problem of cremation.” Too many American funeral professionals determined that cremation was ugly and even our contemporary books on cremation describe witnessing ceremonies in a negative tone:

“As late as 1932, the Forest Home Chapel and Crematory in Milwaukee was encouraging family members to witness the placing of the corpse in the cremation furnace” (Prothero, 2002).

Putting the Service Back in Cremation

Is the consumer to blame for direct cremations? Or, as a profession, have we urged families away from ceremonial cremation in the hope that families who desire more time and a chance to say goodbye will opt for casketed burial instead? It is my belief that we are doing a disservice to families who select cremation if we do not offer them an opportunity to witness their loved one being laid to rest. Most funeral directors will invite the surviving family to be present at the graveside service. Witnessing the remains being placed into the chamber is like watching a casket be lowered into the grave, but for cremation. Similarly, this event creates a lasting memorial and final farewell for the family.

Offering ceremonial witness cremations to families allows a unique, hands-on experience that creates an additional opportunity for the family to gain closure in a meaningful way. When we set up a graveside service, we plan for ceremonial comforts: a tent, chairs, perhaps an ice bucket filled with bottled water and, more often than not, someone to officiate the ceremony whether this is a clergy member, celebrant, family member or the funeral director. There is a prescribed and widely accepted order to the event. To appropriately create this memory of physical separation from a loved one’s remains for our families who select cremation, we need to ask ourselves some questions and shift our own perspectives.

A Standard of Excellence

When was the last time you had a client family ask for a three-day viewing in a Promethean bronze casket with limos for everyone and a plot in the highest spot in the cemetery that overlooks the lake? The fact is that we will continue to serve a growing number of cremation families in the future. Why not create a standard of excellence in your market for cremation ceremonies imbued with meaning and ritual.

Regardless of the type of disposition, families want to ensure that the remains they are entrusting into your care are that of their loved one. Witness cremation ceremonies offer both an opportunity to gather in remembrance of the departed as well as rapport-building transparency with positive identification of the deceased. Families will consider your firm as more credible if you have nothing to hide, and many will want to participate in the hands-on experience of saying goodbye. Seeing their loved one right before the cremation—and potentially participating by initiating the cremation process—will help create a peace of mind, dispel fears about the process, and create greater goodwill and trust. It will allow the families you serve to recognize the permanence of death (Wolfelt, 2016).

Witness Best Practices

As the public becomes more familiar with “do-it-yourself” and hands-on experiences, while self-educating about cremation, it makes sense to offer private crematory experiences as part of our standard services just as we include visitations and graveside ceremonies.

Let’s consider the optics of practicing witness cremation ceremonies. When my mother passes, I plan on being present at the crematory to see my mother one last time. Will I be comfortable with her being cremated in a cardboard alternative container? I consider myself a pragmatist, but it would be much harder for me to select a minimum cardboard container over an alternative cremation option that comes with a pillow and is the same color as all her furniture. Even though I know, rationally, that it will be consumed during the cremation, the likelihood of upgrading my mother to a ceremonial cremation container is 100%.

Even if not embalmed, setting a decedent’s features and performing a minimum preparation of remains should be planned for regardless of whether the family has expressed a desire to view the remains at the crematory. The majority of crematory operators I have worked with in the past have told me that if a family is willing to travel to the crematory, then there is a greater chance that they may wish to view the remains at the time of the cremation even if they were previously undecided about viewing.

As with planning any other type of service, it is important to allot enough time and set expectations and constraints to the family, the funeral home, and the crematory. This will require clear communication between all parties involved to schedule a well-organized event. Families want a memorable and favorable experience; they do not want to feel rushed.

As the families we serve become increasingly participative, including them in the planning and tone of this event lends them a greater sense of control. Survivors may opt to place special photos, letters, or trinkets into the cremation container; they may wish to have a significant song played while their loved one is being placed into the chamber. The benefits outweigh the additional time and effort spent planning the service.

Communicating with Families

Fear comes from a loss of control. Not having a realistic picture of what the crematory looks like, feels like, smells like, or sounds like will cause undue stress. It is important for practitioners to help their client families understand what to expect so they will know what the outcome of the event will be and rest at ease knowing that nothing terrible will happen, like their imagination suggests.

There are several opportunities to convey the value and experience of witness cremation ceremonies: wherever you explain what services you offer. This service should appear on your General Price List, under the Services tab of your website, and be addressed during the arrangement conference with every family who selects cremation. Several funeral homes have the witness cremation option built in to their cremation authorization form, where the authorizing agent will initial “Yes, we want to witness the cremation and here are the names of the people who will be present”, or “No, we would like to opt out of that ceremony.” If appropriate, a gallery of photos or YouTube video can give a sense of the crematory, so you do not have to schedule a pre-cremation tour of the space (although an open-door policy is a recommended best practice).

When making funeral arrangements, a consumer may not have enough background information to understand what you are asking if you say, “Do you want to witness the cremation?” Without context, this sounds more like a threat, rather than an invitation. Over time, a funeral arranger can become more familiar with how to present witness cremation experiences by explaining the ceremony and inviting the family to be present for the event. Here’s a sample script:

“The cremation will be held at our crematory, which is located at our funeral home and cemetery on the northside. There, your mother will be held until the day and time that the cremation will occur. Our crematory allows for immediate family to be present to watch the cremation container be placed into the cremator. We welcome you to be present for one last goodbye in your mother’s send-off, which is completely optional. If you are interested in this, please initial here on the cremation authorization where it says, ‘Yes, family present.’ I will contact the crematory operator to schedule a time. I will be there with you by your side and if you wish to start the cremation process, you have the option of pushing the button.”

Whether your crematory space is “industrial,” or built specifically to host families for witness ceremonies, managing that expectation is key. Would heavy rain deter you from attending the graveside of your spouse or parent? If not, then a “no-frills” functional crematory space should not be a deterrent for a family, but having a weather forecast and knowing ahead of time to bring rain boots is always appreciated.

In an ideal world, every family who selects cremation would be present to see their loved one. If that were the case, the chances of an erroneous cremation would be nearly impossible. Realistically, the percent of families who choose to be present at the graveside to see the casket lowered is likely what you can expect of families to witness cremations.

As with a burial or any ceremony in funeral service, there must be an order of events to ensure a smooth cremation. Funeral directors must partner with crematory operators and schedule times for witnesses at the crematory’s discretion (e.g., “The crematory operator says that we can plan the witness ceremony on Tuesday at 1:00 pm. Does that work for your family?”).

Overcoming Concerns

If you have a distrusting family who does not want to “receive someone else’s ashes”, crematory experiences are the solution. You can collaborate with the crematory operator to allow the family to be present for the transfer of their loved one’s cremated remains to the urn, giving the family a greater sense of trust and peace of mind. It is critical to coordinate the scheduling with the crematory. It may make sense to hold the witness cremation as the last one of the day and schedule the pickup of the urn for first thing in the morning; this gives the crematory operator ample time for overnight cooling and an additional opportunity for the family to watch the identification process post-cremation.

Many funeral service providers may be reluctant to offer witness cremation ceremonies because it is more work. But you would be surprised by the number of “direct cremation” families who are ready and willing to see their loved one, they just did not know it was an option. We don’t know what we don’t know. It doesn’t hurt or cost anything to ask those you serve if they want to press a button, place the cremation casket into the chamber, insert a letter or drawing from a child in the cremation container, or order flowers when they see a photo of an all-concrete crematory space.

Giving the consumer a say in the cremation service helps add value to the experience. It offers another opportunity to mourn and be together in a difficult time. Plenty of funeral homes routinely ask the family if they want to see the lowering of the casket during a graveside service. Why not start with witness cremation ceremonies?

 


Heather Braatz takes a deep dive into "Witness Cremation Ceremonies" at CANA's Virtual Cremation Convention on August 5. The session will focus on differentiating your cremation business by providing witness cremation choices to families and practical guidance on how to add value through ceremony.

See what else CANA has planned and register at goCANA.org/CANA20



Heather Braatz

Heather Braatz is a learning experience designer at Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Wheeling, Illinois. She is a licensed funeral director in Washington State and has worked for low-cost cremation providers, family-owned funeral homes, and combo location corporations. She has arranged several hundred witness cremations with family present.

Tags:  arranging  consumers  events  processes and procedures  services 

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Proactively Running Your Firm in Uncertain Times

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, May 19, 2020
Proactively Running Your Firm in Uncertain Times

 

Depending on a variety of factors—where you live, the number of local cases and deaths, the availability of testing, and more—your deathcare firm could be anywhere along the path of the COVID-19 crisis right now.

Your area still might be dealing with an almost-total lockdown. Or your state and local authorities might be letting most businesses go about their services as normal, albeit with certain restrictions and limitations. What you're allowed to do now might be very different from what it was a month ago, and it might be very different again a month from now.

In other words, at the risk of stating the obvious, the coronavirus pandemic (and its resultant restrictions) have created a perfect storm of challenges for cremation service providers and related deathcare businesses.

As tragic as a natural disaster can be, whether a hurricane or earthquake or something else, at least there's (most often) a straightforward process of recovery. It's not something that just lingers on for the foreseeable future.

But that's what it's like dealing with COVID-19. There's no closure on the horizon anytime soon. Experts say it could be 18 months before a vaccine is created and widely available, and most say that's the most optimistic projection.

And no matter how you feel about the severity of restrictions at the moment—whether you feel it's an overreaction or an underreaction, or anywhere in between—the fact remains that we'll all be dealing with a "new normal" for most likely the remainder of 2020 and probably well into 2021.

Nothing's simply going to "snap back" into place. Everything will have changed.

The New Normal

So the question is this: What does all of this change have to do with your deathcare firm? Does it mean you have to start making some extensive changes, if you haven't done so already? Or do you still think you can wait for all of this to just blow over?

As we've dealt with all of this over the past several months, I've come to a few conclusions:

  • A shocking number of funeral industry business owners still think this is a temporary inconvenience, and everything will revert back to normal soon. They're wrong, and their loss can be your gain.
  • Many of the evolutions demanded by this crisis, especially videoconferencing and remote project management, are critical initiatives deathcare firms should have long before now.
  • Those same initiatives will be incredibly important for cremation providers long after COVID-19 is under control and virtually all restrictions are lifted.
  • Many people in this industry think making their processes more digital will require lots of time and money. It won't. These tools are incredibly cheap and easy to learn—even for technophobes.

Tools You Can Use

Now, I've spent much of the last six weeks telling anyone who will listen about some of the specific tools they can use. Some depend on what you need to achieve in your particular business.

Videoconferencing

If your setup is such that you regularly consult with families or individuals, it's obviously a good idea to leverage videoconferencing. You can use it to meet with clientele, staff, or vendors.

If you typically handle life celebrations and are still restricted from doing them (or remain limited in the number of attendees), you can look into livestreaming services or recording them for family and friends to later watch online.

There are lots of options for videoconferencing. You're likely aware that Zoom is the most popular right now. You're also likely aware that Zoom also got hammered with heavily critical news reports due to security lapses and a scary (but actually very rare) type of treacherous trolling known as "Zoombombing."

Here's the bottom line: I use Zoom all the time at my company. It works wonderfully for us. It's also incredibly inexpensive for the basic professional version, and the free version's pretty useful for most companies too.

Zoom is also so easy to learn that I could teach the most technophobic person in your family how to install and use it in less than 10 minutes, guaranteed. So that's why I use it (for about six meetings every workday, on average) and encourage others to do the same.

(This is where I like to note that I have no promotional agreements whatsoever with any tech product or tool I mention here or anywhere else. If I recommend something, it's because it works well—not because anyone's being paid for it. I'm certainly not!)

With that said, the real learning curve in videoconferencing isn't understanding the basics of the tool, whether it's Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, GoToMeeting, ClickMeeting, or one of several other major providers.

The learning curve is getting used to communicating empathetically with people through the internet instead of face to face. It's mostly the same, but there are some subtle differences, and you'll want to practice at least a little before jumping into a consultation with a grieving family.

Project Management

My other strong recommendation is that you look for ways to do more project management and coordination online. Even when there's no pandemic, it's much more convenient and efficient to handle the disposition of cases through cloud-based software than on a physical whiteboard in the office.

Yes, of course I know that all change can be challenging and stressful. And yes, I've spoken to many a funeral professional who explained to me that the whiteboard he's using is the same one his father did, which is the same one his father's father did, and it's worked just fine all this time and yadda yadda yadda.

I certainly respect these traditions, but when the traditional way has been long eclipsed by much more efficient processes, it's usually best to bite the bullet and evolve.

I can run my entire business, with more than 50 full-time employees from home. Our home office in Las Vegas has been empty for going on two months now, due to the pandemic, and we haven't missed a beat. I haven't laid off or furloughed a single worker. And we actually have more clients now than when the lockdowns started!

There are lots of reasons for that, but one of the biggest ones is that we had all the necessary remote tools and techniques already in place long before the COVID lockdowns began. They were just our standard way of doing business! I could run projects and coordinate with my teams anywhere in the country or in the world—from a laptop or even just from my smartphone.

Now, I don't expect cremation service providers to become as technologically advanced as a marketing firms that specializes in digital tools, but there's no reason you can't use some.

Try out Trello for project management: We've found it indispensable. We also use the Microsoft suite of tools for various creative projects, along with MS Teams for basic messaging and chat. (Slack is also an excellent choice for those who prefer that interface or simply don't use Microsoft computers or devices.)

Cloud-Based Filing

How many forms do you use that could be both filled out and legally signed digitally, but you're still using paper for everything? If you're like most deathcare businesses, the answer is somewhere between "most" and "all." While I realize that some paperwork remains restricted to literal paper in some places and for certain purposes, those situations are ever fewer and further between.

Find a Degree of Certainty

And honestly, that's just the tip of the iceberg. But you don't even need to concern yourself with the iceberg yet. Just start looking at how these cloud-based remote work tools benefit your business during the lockdown time—and picture how beneficial they'll remain long after.

The more you've evolved your business technologically, the more prepared you'll be for anything that comes along. The work you do right now to better handle COVID-related restrictions will pay dividends in the future.

At the very least, you need to keep up with competitors making these changes. And if they're not, you can be the one to take advantage. It's the best way to take control and find some degree of certainty in these uncertain times.

 


Welton Hong Welton Hong, is the founder of Ring Ring Marketing® and a leading expert in creating case generation from online to the phone line. He is the author of Making Your Phone Ring for Funeral Homes, 2019 Edition.

Welton recently launched Elevating Funeral Service, a podcast developed with Ellery Bowker. They have an entire episode about Zoom with practical how-to guides that you can see here.

Tags:  arranging  covid19  tips and tools 

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Ceremonies to Celebrate Together From Afar

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, April 1, 2020
Updated: Thursday, March 26, 2020
Ceremonies to Celebrate Together From Afar

 

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I am reaching out to you because you have been a resource and guide for families.

Times are so very strange and challenging and fearful right now and we know that everyone is scrambling to figure out how we honor our dead and support our bereaved from a distance. This is our daily struggle. I know you are dealing with so many questions and unknowns and facing families on their worst day with very few answers to give them. I also know that many churches and clergy are not available to conduct funerals for anyone—even their own church members. Local governments across the world are already telling families they cannot attend funerals. Now we are faced with a world-wide experience that no one could prepare for. We are here, to care for the dead and speak for the bereaved. You are a hero every day, and especially today.

Now is our time to shine. Whether you are a licensed funeral director, a Celebrant, clergy, officiant, chaplain—or one of those myriads of other roles who serve families—we have a bunch of talented and creative people here. Let's think about how to create services that capture the moment and invite people to feel close even when they can't be there.

Download Free Resource Ceremonies to Celebrate Together From AfarWhat I want to offer to each of you is this—if you have families who would like to have a small service now, reach out to a Celebrant in your area, or use my free resource to inspire you, and find a way to connect families at this difficult time. Arrange to meet with them by phone or Facetime or Zoom and gather the stories and put together a service that you can give them now by webcast, or just by print.

Some of you may find yourself needing to do more family meetings by phone, Facetime or Skype. If you are not familiar with how to do those, ask a teenager—they are out of school with nothing to do right now so they can be your tech support.

Phone family meetings are challenging and you will need to work a little harder to connect with the family and to get them to open up. There's just nothing like face-to-face meetings, but that may not be possible right now.

Some of you may find yourself doing services via webcasting or video or for family only. These situations can also be challenging, but just keep focusing on meeting the needs of the family and the best way to tell the unique story of their loved one, no matter who is sitting in front of you. Or not, as the case may be.

For example—virtual candle lighting ceremonies—invite everyone who is watching to go find a candle/flashlight/something that can light up. Play some quiet background music to give people a moment to do that. Then have everyone light their lights at the same time. Even if you are not on a virtual platform where people can see each other, we can talk about the power of thoughts and presence being represented by our lights.

That's just one that popped into my head.

My thought is two-fold—the fear is, if they walk away now they’ll never come back. If they have a service already prepared and ready, they might be more willing to come back and actually have a chapel service. Or, at the least, they will just have the words to read that will hopefully provide some comfort and guidance for them in this very dark and lonely time and they will be grateful to the funeral home for providing this.

Grief does not wait and demands that we embrace it. We all are grieving our losses right now--loss of movement, loss of income, loss of friends and family, loss of security, loss of trust. A death just magnifies those feelings and the sense of isolation. As the people who are trained for this work, we can help families walk this path and give words of solace and comfort and ways to put the stories in a place that will help.

Every life deserves to be celebrated. Even when we are together from afar.

These are difficult times, for the families, for the funeral directors, for the Celebrants, for everyone. So, let's support each other, be kind, be generous, be vigilant—and wash your hands!

Let me know how we can stand with you in this uncertain time. We are all partners in serving families, even on the hardest days.

Take care and be well!!

- Glenda Stansbury and Doug Manning
Celebrant Trainers:  Kathy Burns, Matt Bailey, Cathy Nichols, Sara Brown

Suggestions for conducting services

The first thing to consider is how the services will be presented.

Some firms already offer webcasting and are comfortable and positioned for this situation. Others will be figuring out very rapidly how to procure the equipment and software and skills.

There are professional companies that offer streaming services on a per service or a monthly fee. You have probably already been contacted by some of these companies in the past few days.

There are public platforms such as Zoom, Facebook Live, Go to Meeting, WebX, etc. Consult with others who have used any of these platforms or services for advice or tips on what works or pitfalls to avoid. For example, Gordon Welch, Executive Director of the Oklahoma Funeral Directors Association informed us that Facebook routinely mutes music streamed on Facebook Live. Apparently, Facebook’s agreements with song producers require Facebook to mute music broadcast over the platform. Unfortunately, BMI, ASCAP and SESAC are not parties to these agreements so there is no way to solve the muting problems with Facebook. Therefore platforms like Zoom, Vimeo or Skype who are not parties to the same type of music copyright infringements agreements work better but still require a webcasting license.

Live Stream with family present with no participants visible on the screen.

Suggestions:

  • Give the family a moment to wave and express their thanks to the people who are joining them.
  • Ask the participants to type in their wishes or condolences in the chat function and take a few minutes to read some of them during the service.
  • Have a video tribute or pictures of the deceased visible on the screen next to the officiant.
  • Be sure that flowers or mementos or service folders are shown for everyone to see.
  • Have a favorite or familiar song played and put the words on the screen so everyone can sing along.
  • Put the words to readings or scripture or prayers on the screen so viewers can read along.
Live Stream with or without family present and participants are visible on the screen

Suggestions:

  • Ask the participants to write a note that can be held up to the camera for the family to see.
  • Have a ceremony (a few are included in this resource book) that everyone can do together.
  • Have a video tribute or pictures of the deceased visible on the screen next to the officiant.
  • Be sure that flowers or mementos or service folders are shown for everyone to see.
  • Have a favorite or familiar song played and put the words on the screen so everyone can sing along.
  • Put the words to readings or scripture or prayers on the screen so viewers can read/recite along.
Taping for later broadcast
  • This provides a little more opportunity for editing and smoother transitions to video tribute, music, flowers, service folders, etc.
  • The opportunity for real time participation and family involvement is sacrificed.
Outside Services
  • Have a “drive-in” funeral service with everyone staying in their cars. If you have not yet invested in portable microphone/speakers set up, now would be a good time.
  • Borrow a drive-in theater in your community and broadcast the service on the screen
  • Drive past the home of the family with the coach.
  • Encourage people to drive by the home of the family at a set time, so they can acknowledge their “presence” and wishes.
  • Gravesides with family standing by their cars. Again, a strong outdoor microphone/speaker system is very important.


Download the free Ceremonies to Celebrate Together From Afar Resource for Challenging Times as a MS Word doc here.Download Free Resource Ceremonies to Celebrate Together From Afar

With everyone seeking information on COVID-19 right now, CANA plans to host a weekly conference call for our members to convene and ask questions of one another, talk best practices, and learn together about COVID-19. Check your inbox for instructions to join, or contact Membership Manager Brie Bingham for more information.

CANA continues to frequently update a blog entry related to COVID-19 as new information becomes available. Be sure to bookmark the blog post and revisit as needed: GoCANA.org/covid19.



Glenda Stansbury

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..

Download File (DOCX)

Tags:  arranging  celebrants  personalization  services  storytelling  tips and tools 

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Event Tips and Trends for Funeral Service

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, November 6, 2019
Updated: Friday, October 18, 2019
Event Tips and Trends for Funeral Service

 

Today, more and more funeral industry professionals are becoming “accidental” event planners due to the ever-changing nature of funeral practice. In part 1, we talk about best practices from the event industry, standardized forms used by both event planners and suppliers, ideas on how to make your events successful, examples provided by attendees for how they have made their events successful in the past, and tips for avoiding common mistakes.

Part 2 covers event trends to inspire you when planning your events.


As more millennials become consumers of your business, they aren’t wanting the traditional. They’re not thinking about that at all. What they want is experiences. Think about how Pokémon Go was able to get nerds out of their homes and running around, chasing after ridiculous phantoms. That’s what the events industry saw. Pokémon Go reached out to every generation, but millennials are going to change the way all of us have to do business.

In preparing for this presentation, we met with CANA members in Las Vegas. One member said his career has been traditional funerals followed by cremation. Now, families combine memorial and reception with island music playing with a bar and a food buffet of shrimp with a slideshow playing. Fill the chapel with silk plants and soft lighting – people love it. It’s a meaningful experience. The family then invites attendees to share words of remembrance, not a clergy member.

One member said that they had just spent a lot of money renovating their funeral home, because they want to keep families there. They offer food and families can BYOB since the business can’t have a liquor license. So they emphasize convenience – it’s all here, simplifying the decision-making for their families and keeping the service in-house.

If the other option is to lose the business, become an event coordinator. Think about your direct cremation families. Let’s say 25% aren’t using your facility. So, how can you get them to come back? Don’t think about the families you’re doing well with, think about the ones you’re gaining by planning events that mean something to the families.

Small Meeting Trends to Know

In preparing for this presentation, I spent a lot of time reading about what is coming down the pike for us. These are the trends we’re talking about in the events industry, but you can see how many they apply to the modern funeral.

Experiential Get-Togethers

This means people being involved – the talking heads, the powerpoints, that’s not what people are looking for anymore. We are talking about an experience that translates to a memory. More than anything else, events are about memories.

And a funeral shares lifelong memories. There are ways to do that through technology, but it’s really important to sit down and talk to the family about what they want to get out of this gathering.

Customized Content

The most fundamental question you can ask is “How does this event succeed?” No two events (including funerals) are the same, so don’t make assumptions about them or the funeral, but ask the family what they envision for the event.

Here, you can tell a story about someone’s life. Sit down with the family and ask them about the experience they want people to have and make it a personal experience for them and the people that gather.

Smaller, shorter meetings

While this one might be more obvious for the corporate event, it really means that people don’t want to sit in a chair for three hours. People prefer events that are small, shorter, and invite interaction or keep a variety of speakers talking all day.

Use of Technology

This has been around for a while, but the technology changes every year. In events, we use technology throughout the planning process from designing the space and layout, through the way that it contributes to the experience at the event. Technology enables the use of emotional memorial videos, favorite songs, and even controlled lighting to set the atmosphere of the space.

But don’t use technology just to have it, and don’t have it just to say you do. There must be a reason behind it and it must be used to make the event and the experience better. Whether it’s used to improve event planning or in the production of a keepsake video, technology can enhance the experience.

Food and beverage trends

If you’ve ever planned a big event in a special location – think a wedding at the Bellagio – there are specific rules about food and beverage. They don’t want you to bring in an outside caterer – they want to keep that revenue in-house. If your facility is large enough to add catering, this can be a great service to add to your business. If it’s not, you can work with local catering companies to develop special relationships that add value to your services.

One of the most important things we think about in events is the food. It’s one of the most common memories from an event – we congregate around food. Adding food to any of your packages is a great idea, especially if your family is not affiliated with a church group that brings food to the family. Gourmet nostalgia – a new twist to an old favorite (e.g., lobster mac-and-cheese, chocolate chili) – is really in. Growing up in Indiana, some of the best food I ever had was at funerals. What kind of foods are you seeing served at your events?

The local and sustainable “farm-to-table” has been around for a while, and people and chefs are very interested in buying locally and sharing the best that they can. The grass-fed beef raised without hormones is healthier and tastier.

We’re moving away from processed foods as the general population becomes much more interested in eating healthy. We’re seeing new cuts of meats and chefs are moving toward using the entire animal. Catering menus, and your own menus, now involve bone marrow, chicken skins, pork neck. I know that my family, in Tipton, Indiana, went to the Pork Festival every year (my mother was actually Pork Queen!), so being able to involve the foods that address the culture or the person is very important in your events.

One of the trends is do-it-yourself cocktails and mocktails, and some funeral homes have even acquired a liquor license. I don’t know about you, but I think liquor would make a celebration of life a lot more fun. I can imagine mine being my favorite drink – vodka tonic – and my favorite foods, and everybody just has a great celebration. Do-it-yourself cocktails and mocktails – if you don’t have a liquor license cocktails are hard, but mocktails are easy.

Try it out

What can you do to help make memories for attendees?

Get them involved in the planning process. This is a way they can feel like they’re contributing to the legacy of the deceased. Solicit input from the larger family to make it special. Music, photos, fragrance – these can raise memories for attendees and make a lasting impression.

Much of the direction of the event is determined by tone. We talk a lot in the event industry about tone and theme. They’re related, but not the same. Tone is how people feel when they’re in the room, the atmosphere of the event. Tone can be defined by lighting, ritual, language, and the design of the event is defined by and reinforces the tone.

I haven’t been to a lot of funerals, but, at the best ones, I learned a lot I didn’t know about the person who died. Finding ways to bring that out, to show different sides, is valuable and what I think the person would have wanted. Themes can be defined by the interests and hobbies of the deceased – fishing, motorcycles, and related mementos.

Participation in planning and the event

This is not only a great way to be inclusive, but also a great way to increase attendance and make memories that are long-lasting. Since funerals have tight timelines, it can be difficult to get many people participating – in some cases, waiting for families to get back to us can slow us down – this is where technology is key. An event planning portal, or even a private chat on Facebook, can keep everyone informed and attuned to the schedule. The benefit of their participation will out-weigh the inconvenience of the family being involved if you can manage them. And be up-front. Ask if these tools will help gather the key voices that should be heard.

Select unique and interesting venues if possible.

This is a trend in every industry, and funerals are no exception. For team-building events and corporate conferences, planners are looking for interesting places (and it’s not just physical challenges – cooking a meal can be a great team activity.) Similarly, destination weddings and funerals are growing. Developing a relationship with venues in your area and they will become your partner in making memorable events. Get to know them, their space, and preferences and they will bend over backwards for you when you need them.

Looking to the future

Immersive Sensory Experiences

Today, 3D Mapping is possible for most events and venues. This technology combines the use of fabrics used as screens with projected imagery. It may seem out of financial reach, but it will only continue to drop in price and rise in popularity. Imagine how powerful it could be to create this for your families and embody the tone and theme of your event.

The Holograms are Coming!

Some of you are going to think this is too out there, but I still want to mention holograms. People are still talking about Tupac performing at Coachella in 2012, years after his death. More and more deceased celebrities are performing at events. Now, it’s still very expensive – you can’t set up shop and do this now – but it too will come down in price. There’s already technology where you can open a book and enjoy a hologram.

It’s going to happen. I can see a day where the decedent could eulogize her own funeral or perform her favorite song. Maybe it’s not them, maybe it’s their favorite companion, or another person, but it’s out there.

 

I’ve been fascinated with your industry ever since HBO’s series Six Feet Under. I thought it did a wonderful job, and I don’t know if it’s realistic, but it took away the fear about this experience for me and everyone I knew. I know I’m going to be cremated and I’ve got it in my trust that I’m going to fly my closest family and friends to the Four Seasons in Wailea and have my cremated remains scattered there. It’s going to be an event. I’ll need an event coordinator to do that for me – or, do you want to do that in-house? Have you done something like that? That’s a package. That’s an opportunity.

 


This post is part 2 of our two-part event planner series excerpted from the 2017 Cremation Symposium presentation “Best Practices for the ‘Accidental’ Event Planners” by Dr. Rhonda Montgomery and Todd Uglow of William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Read part 1 here.

You can learn more about event planning and access useful resources from the Event Industry Council:

See what CANA has planned for the 2020 Cremation Symposium: goCANA.org/cgt



Dr. Rhonda Montgomery

Rhonda Montgomery, Ph.D. is the Department Chair of the Food & Beverage and Event Management Department in the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration. She conducts research and has written articles on the social psychology of purchasing decisions and customer loyalty for meetings, conventions and festivals. She has also written numerous books in the areas of meetings and conventions, private club management and the first-year experience.

Todd Uglow

Todd Uglow is an assistant professor, faculty in residence of event management in the UNLV Harrah Hotel College. He has been a member of the UNLV faculty for over 10 years and focuses on event management & marketing, having expertise in festival design and entertainment management. Former clients of Mr. Uglow include the NFL, Professional Bull Riders and Major League Baseball. He is certified by the courts to testify on matters of celebrity and brand valuation. He holds an undergraduate degree in Business Management, with a marketing emphasis from Cal State San Bernardino and a Juris Doctor degree from Western State University College of Law.

Tags:  arranging  consumers  events  memorialization  services  storytelling  tips and tools 

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The Accidental Event Planner

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, October 23, 2019
Updated: Friday, October 18, 2019
The Accidental Event Planner

 

Today, more and more funeral industry professionals are becoming “accidental” event planners due to the ever-changing nature of funeral practice. Industry professionals are being asked to produce events in venues outside of their facilities and to work closely with suppliers not traditionally associated with their business. This post, derived from a presentation at CANA’s 2017 Cremation Symposium, provides best practices from the event industry, standardized forms used by event planners and suppliers, ideas on how to make your events successful, examples provided by attendees for how they have made their events successful in the past, and tips for avoiding common mistakes.


As a funeral professional, you’re planning events every day – coordinating supplies and products, preparing for attendees, crafting a memorable experience. This is a space you can comfortably own, so there’s really no reason to let it go to an outside planner. With the right tips and tools at hand, you can be a success.

Events 101

There are two common complaints regarding events, backed up by lots of research, and they’ve been standard for quite a while:

#1 : Why am I here anyway?
#2 : Wow, This is boring.

Why am I here? This should be pretty obvious for a funeral or memorial service, but you don’t want the only connection people have to event being obligation to attend. The best way to change that is to make the experience worth their time. Make sure they receive something they can use – for a funeral, this may be a memory or keepsake – so they leave with a positive outcome.

Wow, this is boring. You may have heard that goldfish have a memory span of 9 seconds, but the average human has an attention span of only 8 seconds. So how do we keep them engaged? Everyone takes in information differently so it’s crucial to understand what families want. Rather than starting with the budget (a limiting question), ask them a foundational question: what would a successful event look like? Then you can reflect what they told you and attempt to deliver exactly what they want.

Ask lots of questions, don’t make assumptions

In every industry, there will be mistakes. But in the event industry, the biggest mistakes made are based on the planner’s assumptions of their client’s needs – what the purpose of the meeting was, how they defined success, what they wanted, how much money they had – and the way to eliminate that is to have an in-depth conversation and then confirm what you’ve heard to make sure you’re on the same page. Maybe you have a preliminary form to get them thinking. Your goal is to avoid an unhappy client who got something they didn’t want or didn’t get something they did.

Most Fundamental Issue of All

How does your client define event success?

Four ways in the traditional event planning industry to define success:

  • Achieving certain financial goals.
    For conferences with tickets or tradeshows with booths, you budget and plan to profit.
  • Meeting certain attendance goals.
    For conferences, you want to build attendance every year by providing and experience and takeaways.
  • Attendee satisfaction.
    This is particularly important for the hospitality industry, but the challenge is how do you measure if they were satisfied. An ideal survey is 5-10 questions.
  • Media coverage/social media “likes”.
    This is a common way that families are connected and can be a useful tool in the planning process. For a conference, they want to know about the buzz and the online engagement.

For a funeral service, success might be defined by:

  • Finding a convenient location to attendees.
    Being creative, even leaving the funeral home, can make the experience.
  • Focusing on celebrating a life, rather than mourning it.
    Remembering loved ones they way they want to be remembered.
  • Correctly performing required religious rituals.
    When ritual is key in event planning, professionals often bring in consultants to make sure this part goes right.

While your goal for any event is meeting the needs of the family, their concern is their own experience, and that of everyone who came – what was their experience and what did they think? The best way to meet their needs is to know what the family wants.

Personalized experiences require research of the subject matter and, in the case of funeral events, the subject matter is the decedent. You will want to ask questions of your families about the deceased individual. Have them bring photos, mementos - things that mean something – starting with the first meeting. It’s essential that you get to know the person. Be sure to research him/her yourself online – find the photos and stories people are sharing online to get even more information.

You may not have much time to gather everything, so ask your client who you should talk to outside of the arrangement room in order to enhance the experience. Relinquish a bit of the control and partner with the family to get these other people involved.

Consider developing a theme. What was important to the decedent? What made this person happy? You don’t often get a readymade idea from the deceased about what they wanted, and you can’t ask, so get creative. From there, incorporate appealing décor and music, and even a nearby club, team, or group, based on what you learn about this individual.

Use of Technology

Using technology may not always be appropriate or feasible, but most attendees today expect some level of technology for virtually every event. This can include the use of simple AV equipment to play a video retrospective or a slideshow of favorite photos. It can be more elaborate, such as a video “invitation” about the upcoming service shared on social media or your website.

Technology also allows planners to be in contact and interact with the families online throughout the planning process. With a custom, private portal, family members can to communicate budget and vision, and see project status on their schedule. Many families don’t know exactly what they want – they don’t know how much it will cost, the options that are available, or how long it will take – but they have a general sense of what it should look like. Sitting down and committing ideas through their portal, especially with families spread across the country or the world, can keep everyone informed and facilitate these conversations.

Best Practices of Meetings and Events

For most people, the opportunity to celebrate someone’s life is coming at them at the deepest of their grief. The more examples you provide, the easier it may be for them to choose. We go back to “What is the take away from this event?” Wedding planners say to the couple, “What do you want your attendees to leave thinking about?” Some people will say “I want them to remember the food” or “I want them to remember how beautiful the room was.”

Location, location, location.

The venue should mean something to the family and friends. Don’t hesitate to look beyond the funeral home or rely on outside help. If you are facing a limited timespan to organize things, partner with venue managers and planners to make it happen. But be upfront about cost. If you’re talking about doing something original – a barbeque at a gravesite – you may need time to get the permit, the space, but the family will remember how meaningful it was.

Take time to visit local venues to get to know the space. When choosing a venue, you really want to think about the ambiance and its impact on all five senses. Does it smell musty or fresh? Does it look bright or dim? Is the furniture soft or uncomfortable? In Las Vegas, a casino will spend millions to place diffusers in slot machines, cushions on chairs, the right lighting, etc. to make sure that their visitors stay at the machine or table just a little longer.

If you establish relationships with local venues, you’ll know what you can offer and have concrete examples for your families. And cultivate the relationships with the local venues to keep the planning in house. If your space is booked, then you can refer your families to the outside venue and build a local partnership. And if families prefer another space, you won’t have to relinquish your role in planning. You can build on the relationship with the space, caterers, tech, etc. to work together.

Always walk through your event from the attendees’ perspective. What are they thinking about? If you walk through thinking about that, you’ll have a better understanding of exactly what is going to take place. And you’ll see the pitfalls, the challenges.

It’s all in the Timing

A detailed planning timeline is a best practice to keep in mind. The more details you include, the more helpful it will be in helping to organize the family members and your staff.

Traditional funerals give you a three-day timeline, but many CANA Members report that cremation expands the time to plan. A cremation arrangement doesn’t need to be condensed into three days, so you can continue working with the family and get creative. Since Saturday is the most popular day for a service, the timeline might naturally expand up to five weeks until the next available weekend.

If you’re helping a family celebrate, you have to keep them informed of the timeline. Some families wait two weeks while some wait six months until the weather clears. That’s the family’s decision – the more you push, the more uncomfortable they’ll be. Let them know the pitfalls of waiting three months for burial. Communicating to everybody involved in an event frequently and transparently is very important.

The Event Industry Council is an association of hospitality companies that focus on events and they have come together to provide a collection of templates and forms. With these, and your newfound event planning knowledge, go out and start looking at venues that are outside of your normal facility. Look at them, and imagine what an even would look like there. Then, when you hear what the family wants to their service, you can have options and ideas for them ready.

 


This post is just part 1 of our two-part event planner series excerpted from the 2017 Cremation Symposium presentation “Best Practices for the ‘Accidental’ Event Planners” by Dr. Rhonda Montgomery and Todd Uglow of William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Part 2 will be published soon, so check back.

You can learn more about event planning and access useful resources from the Event Industry Council:

See what CANA has planned for the 2020 Cremation Symposium: goCANA.org/cgt



Todd Uglow

Todd Uglow is an assistant professor, faculty in residence of event management in the UNLV Harrah Hotel College. He has been a member of the UNLV faculty for over 10 years and focuses on event management & marketing, having expertise in festival design and entertainment management. Former clients of Mr. Uglow include the NFL, Professional Bull Riders and Major League Baseball. He is certified by the courts to testify on matters of celebrity and brand valuation. He holds an undergraduate degree in Business Management, with a marketing emphasis from Cal State San Bernardino and a Juris Doctor degree from Western State University College of Law.

Dr. Rhonda Montgomery

Rhonda Montgomery, Ph.D. is the Department Chair of the Food & Beverage and Event Management Department in the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration. She conducts research and has written articles on the social psychology of purchasing decisions and customer loyalty for meetings, conventions and festivals. She has also written numerous books in the areas of meetings and conventions, private club management and the first-year experience.

Tags:  arranging  consumers  events  personalization  services  tips and tools 

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