Why Funeral Directors and Clergy Should Ally with the Chaplain.
Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney B.A., [M.A.], M.Div.
Bereavement Chaplain/Thanatologist/Psychospiritual Care Provider
In principle and practice, as a celebrant/officiant, the focus of my attention is the family, then the deceased, the assembly and finally the venue. As a bereavement chaplain my focus is correctly spelled “t-r-a-n-s-f-o-r-m-a-t-i-o-n” and its outcome is correctly called “growth.” It’s a vocation not a career; a specialist profession, not a job.
Today’s most communicable disease is called control. But as a chaplain, control is alien to me. True, when I appear people seem to quiet down, to be more in listening mode. They seem to be more receptive to hearing a message that might possibly ease the suffering, the acute pain they are experiencing. There’s a certain authority that I have to bear with self-effacing humility; while powerful it’s not power as such, and it’s much less control than it is co-being. It’s the aura of authenticity, of compassion; people trust me. I care for and about them.
I am in fact not in control, nor do I attempt to assume control of anything, not even the funeralization rites and ritual, the ceremonial, on which I may have worked for days to organize and to tweak right up to the point of greeting the assembly and pronouncing the words of dismissal, “Go in peace and love one another.” I am merely an instrument of comfort and healing; a mere master of ceremonies. A sometimes crisis manager. A paid consultant.
“This is about the family, your loved one; it’s not about me or anything else. I’m here to serve you.”
I receive the first call from the funeral director with gratitude and commitment; I contact the family and the arrangers with compassion and humility. My first words after introducing myself and expressing my condolences and assurances, are likely to be “This is about your family, your loved one; it’s not about me or anything else. I’m here to serve you.” Those words usually break the ice immediately, and the anxiety associated with the protocol of chatting with the chaplain about rites and ritual that might be as strange and mysterious as death itself, is dispelled, and we can talk about the deceased loved one and the service like family—or as close to being old friends as the situation will allow. Always in the back of my mind is that these are suffering people, each in his or her own way experiencing a loss and attempting to cope with the situation and to manage the bizarre, unfamiliar ball of emotions with whatever they might have at hand. It’s my job in this initial phase to sort through my armamentarium of training and experience, common sense and wisdom (my own and that received), listening skills and vocabulary, style and demeanor, to find the right salves, ointments and incantations to assuage the acute pain, to prepare them for the chronic aches, and to ease, not remove, their suffering; it’s the suffering that will nurture their healing and growth, after all, you can’t harvest a good crop without wounding the earth and planting the seed.
But even after breaking open the earth and planting the seed, aftercare is essential. You must water and weed the rows to ensure that the seedlings prosper and grow. It’s what I call a resurrection experience, similar to the seed parables of the Christian Gospels and so many other sacred texts that deal with death and rebirth. So, too, in our funeralization rites and rituals, we can describe the bereavement experiences as being broken open, the seeds of transformation planted, receiving the waters of life experience, wisdom, and then resurrecting as transformed beings. The final transformed being that emerges from the ante-mortem, pre-bereavement person becoming the post-mortem mourner doing his or her grief work, implementing coping and support resources, and finally healing and growing, differs with each unique situation, and it’s what makes my vocation that much more exciting and rewarding because each call presents its own unique set of challenges and opportunities.
I’ve often taught that Death is not an enemy; we just have to embrace it and befriend it. We often look at things we can’t control as the enemy; that’s a modern mistake in our relationship with everything from relatives to the line at the supermarket to the neighbor’s dog to the mysteries of life, including death. Death is not the enemy; our modern tendency is to think that everything, including creation, needs to be controlled, dominated, subdued. As soon as we find that we can’t do that we avoid or deny the situation until it can no longer be denied, and then we curse it. That’s unfortunate because we could enjoy life so much more if only we would accept the humility that brings peace to our lives. To do so would mean that we have to be silent and most of today’s humanity has been taught that silence is bad; movement, no matter how frenetic, noise, no matter how cacophonous, is a sign of life. That’s how we have lost touch with our innermost self, the core of our humanity, and we have become animate tools, an insidious but real violation of a basic moral principle: Human beings should never be used as means to an end.
I have found that most families whom I have served over the years have lived in denial of the inevitability of our 100% mortality rate. As the result, when Death ultimately pays a visit they are caught 100% unprepared, are shocked by the fact that a death has occurred, are devastated that so many decisions have to be made NOW, completely confused by the bureaucratic complexities of just getting the deceased moved, and once moved, bombarded by a bombastic but “compassionate” salesperson dressed up as a funeral director, and floored by the financial burdens of just one death. “We know you want to honor your loved one. Now that’s what we would suggest, but if you’d like to keep it simpler, we can also offer…” Sound familiar? As a bereavement chaplain trained in spiritual care and thanatology, I often have to recall one of the first things my deathcare instructors repeated: “The bereaved should never make a major decision in the first year following the loss.” But arranging for the final disposition of a dead human being, a loved one who has died, is a major decision, one of the most major decisions some of my clients will ever have to make, and that major decision — or perhaps more accurately stated, major decisions — have to be made within mere hours of the major loss and in the 2-3 days following the major loss. So now what do we do?
“Would you like us to bring along our chaplain?”
Well, too few funeral homes, too few funeral directors and — to my personal knowledge and in my experience — no funeral service groups or corporations tend to involve a chaplain in the removal call, the initial family meeting or the arrangements conference. In fact, I know of none who involve a chaplain immediately after receiving the first call. Wouldn’t it be great if one of the questions asked during the first call conversation would be, “Would you like us to bring along our chaplain?” In the hours immediately following the death the family is most receptive to the idea of having a spiritual care provider in their midst — not necessarily to talk but just to be present, perhaps just to listen quietly, just to be there if needed — at least that’s been my experience in my hospital and nursing home chaplaincy work.
Too few funeral homes, too few funeral directors and — to my knowledge and in my experience — no funeral service groups or corporation arrangement meeting guidelines recommend that a chaplain be present at the arrangements conference. I’m usually called after the arrangements conference and have to put the family through the ordeal of repeating so much of what I could have gleaned from simply sitting next to the funeral director or the arranger during the arrangements conference. Quite frankly, it’s beyond me why this is so.
Worse still, too many amateurs are allowed to inject themselves into the incredibly complex mix of emotions, physical reactions, social intricacies, and spiritual questions, and amateurs tend to complicate things beyond anyone’s expectations. When I use the term “amateurs” I mean people who are only minimally trained in spirituality, in psychospiritual care, people who read a book or take a course and are miraculously transformed into a being with privileged and extraordinary knowledge. Worse still, we frequently find volunteers or CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) trainees — most egregiously in the acute care setting, the hospital — winging it through some of a family’s most difficult moments! Fact is, they’re amateurs. Fact is that they can cause a lot of damage, directly and collaterally, simply because they are well-intentioned people but dilettantes, amateurs.
Bereavement chaplaincy, psychospiritual care is a vocation and spans a wide range of interdisciplinary subject matter. Many of us have graduate degrees in at least two academic or scientific specialties. Most of us have degrees in pastoral care, theological studies, or even the gold standard, divinity. Many of us have degrees in psychology or/and the humanities. Many of us have either formally or informally studied mortuary science and understand and appreciate what the funeral director has been taught, how s/he has acquired his/her practical experience, and most importantly, their limitations; perhaps we are not licensed to embalm or to operate a funeral home but we have made every conceivable effort to know what goes no behind the scenes and what makes the funeral home staff tick. Many of us attend regular continuing professional education (CPE) —not to be confused with CPE as in “Clinical Pastoral Education,” the training offered by some healthcare institutions under the aegis of a national or international accreditation program — courses and conferences, and maintain programs of continuing awareness and currency. Many of us are members of professional associations. And many of us study, study, study to be able to provide the most comprehensive and efficacious care possible.
As an on-call chaplain or chaplain “in residence” I have also made special efforts at understanding the protocols of hospice and the role of spiritual care in hospice environments; the same is true regarding palliative care. Hospice, palliative care, hospital, nursing home pastoral care providers differ considerably in their protocols and practices; as a bereavement chaplain serving funeral homes and providing post-funeralization aftercare, I have to pick up where hospice, palliative care, hospital and nursing home staff — some of them ordained amateurs —, and funeral directors have left off or, in some cases, dropped the ball!
Some funeral service operators, whether independent funeral homes or corporate funeral service groups, need to learn that the chaplain is not the enemy. Mainstream clergy — those priests, ministers who run parishes and congregations as part of a mainstream institutionalized religious community (I’ll call these collectively “pastoral ministers”) do view the bereavement chaplain as an interloper cutting into their revenues. But a more compassionate view would be to accept the chaplain as an ally, someone with whom they should be collaborating instead of undermining and disparaging. Why? Well tackling the first proposition that the chaplain cuts into their revenues, I can say that most clergy will show up with Holy Scripture tucked under one arm and swinging a rosary in the other hand, machine gun a couple of verses or race through a couple decades of a rosary and then be off, tucking a hefty check into their pockets. Even funeral masses and church services are cookie-cutter and generally unconvincing. But they bring in the bucks. Consequently, if a chaplain is engaged to perform the funeralization rites and rituals, the pastoral minister will have to forfeit his or her stipend, and that can add up over the shorter or longer term.
Funeral directors are not stupid either. Most will get real cozy with a local congregation or the local priests and ministers, wining and dining them, ensuring that they have the local clergy in their pockets and then putting out the funeral-home sponsored annual free calendar promoting their funeral home in the vestibule of the church or temple. The priest or pastor gets a call when a local family loses a loved one and recommends John Smith Funeral Home. Bingo! It’s a win-win for both the priest/pastor and the funeral director. The only real loser is the consumer.
So, given the choice between the 15-minute Wham! Bam! Amen! cookie-cutter wake service, commendation-committal combo offered by the local pastor and the hour-long in-house commendation or memorial service with the 20 minute graveside or committal service offered by the chaplain/officiant, the funeral director will play his best, winning hand regardless of the quality of the service or the therapeutic effects — or lack thereof — on the bereaved and the mourning community. After all, for both the funeral director and the pastor the adage “Time is Money” applies with few exceptions.
But the difference between the chaplain and the parish priest or deacon or the congregation minister is that the chaplain is a specialist in psychospiritual care, especially end-of-life and deathcare, something few pastors can claim. Furthermore, the chaplain has the knowledge and experience to guide the bereaved through a complicated process, which may take the investment of hours of time, something that few if any pastors will do unless there’s a bequest or an estate to consider, or the deceased was a community leader. The chaplain is not concerned with what the faith tradition prescribes or what the faith community expects; the chaplain’s concern is directed and focused on the care of the bereaved, how they are coping, navigating them through the grief work, the mourning process, healing, transformation, and reintegration. Neither the funeral director nor the pastor is in a position to tackle such a situation. In fact, most funeral directors and pastors are really not interested in getting that involved in the process of grief work and forget aftercare altogether. The same applies to many pastoral ministers.
This means that the bereaved and the mourning community are short-changed; they’re cheated out of the full transformational experience of offered by the personalized funeral ritual that offers profound psychospiritual support and paves the way to healing and transformation, making grief less traumatic and life more promising.
When secular funeral professionals and pastoral ministers collude and conspire together under any pretense or for any reason whatsoever, they betray the trust traditionally conferred upon them by the community, they cheat the bereaved and the mourning community, and worse still, they set an fundamentally evil precedent! The resulting situation is not only regrettable, it’s reprehensible. Why? Because most persons who are in the traumatic throes of acute grief are in an altered psychospiritual state; they are not thinking right and see the world in a confused vision. They tend to grasp trustingly at any straw coming their way and think that it will save them. Regrettably, most funeral service providers and clergy take fullest advantage of that to spew their respective “pitches” whether it be merchandising or pabulum preaching. Both disguise a cookie cutter as a life preserver!
In reality, the funeral director, whether independent or corporate, is interested in getting the case processed and closed within the shortest time possible without traumatizing the bereaveds’ sense of decency — assuming that the bereaved have any such sense — and getting on with the next removal. The pastor has to prepare his sermon, supervise the bible study groups, plan the religious education curriculum, discuss Sunday’s worship music with the music director, meet with the parish council, look for a new car, check the obits, and make time to have dinner with the local funeral director(s). Tough life for both, right?
My message, if I may presume to state it in so many words, is that funeral directors and pastoral ministers or spiritual care providers must take their fiduciary duties and obligations ethically seriously, they must play fairly and remember their privileged role in the community. When I say they must play fairly and remember their privileged role in the community I mean that they must respect boundaries, admit their limitations, and practice true humility in compassion. Funeral directors and pastoral ministers must be ready to admit that they can’t do everything, that they don’t have the training or experience to do some things, and that they have to stop deceiving their respective publics by shamelessly representing or misrepresenting that that are masters of all trades.
While I would like to pass on some of the responsibility for this deplorable state of affairs, essentially caused and exploited by spurious funeralization practices and the greed of pastoral ministers in institutionalized religion, each at times illicitly operating both on the profane and the psychospiritual planes, on the shoulders of the consumer of funeralization and religious services, I can’t do that with very great confidence or credibility. The reason I can’t do that in the majority of cases is stated at the beginning of this essay, in a nutshell: They are simply so traumatized and confused by the complexity of circumstances surrounding a death that they have to legally, physically, practically and spiritually rely on others to help them through it all. It is here that the so-called professionals fail in their basic duties and obligations, and not only the bereaved, but all of society suffer the deleterious effects caused by these two professions, the funeral director and the clergy, alone.
Death is not just natural. Death is not just inevitable. Death is not just a loss. Death is a set of circumstances that sets into motion a vast array of complex responses and reactions in a process that can either be destructively or constructively transformational at the personal, community and societal levels. It is the vocation of the bereavement chaplain to provide the psychospiritual armamentarium to ensure that the transformation is constructive, healing, and nurtures positive growth and reintegration into life.
To read or download the original article please click Accepting Our Roles Respecting Our Limitations.