Click the link below to read/download the June Newsletter (June 2018 Newsletter Vol 1 No. 2 ).
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 vocation is correctly spelled “t-r-a-n-s-f-o-r-m-a-t-i-o-n” and its outcome is correctly called “growth.”
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 extreme humility; it’s not power as such, and it’s much less control. It’s the aura of authenticity, of compassion; people trust me.
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.
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 the 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 their 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 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 antemortem, 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 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. “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 a seminary college, 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 at least elements of the major decision — 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 no funeral service groups and corporations tend to involve a chaplain in the initial family meeting or the arrangements conference. In fact, I know of none who involve a chaplain 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 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 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 that 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. Fact is, they’re 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 specialities. Most of us have degrees in pastoral care, theological studies, divinity. Many of us have degrees in psychology or the humanities. Many of us have either formally or informally studied mortuary science and understand and appreciate what the funeral director has been taught; perhaps we are not licensed to embalm or to operate a funeral home but we have made every conceivable effort to know what makes them tick. Many of us attend regular continuing education courses and conferences, and maintain programs of continuing awareness. Many of us are members of professional associations. And many of us study, study, study to be able to provide the most comprehensive 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 — 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 specifically do not include here rabbis, imams or priests of Buddhism, Hinduism, etc.) 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.
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. 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 pastor and the funeral director.
So, given the choice between the 15-minute Wham! Bam! Amen! cookie-cutter 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 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 interested in getting that involved in the process of grief work.
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 pretence 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 merchandizing 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 the music with the music director, meet with the parish council, 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 pastoral clergy 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 both on the profane and the religious 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.
Peace to you and joy! May you be blessed in this New Year 2018 with health in mind, body and spirit!
Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney
A Reflection by Proto-Companion
Rev. Ch. Harold W. Vadney B.A., [M.A.], M.Div.
It can be no coincidence that the first church constructed by the Monks of New Skete in Cambridge, NY, was called Transfiguration.
The icon is transfiguration. It does not receive its light from the outside, because the Light is its essence. Just as it’s impossible for anyone to illumine the stars, one cannot simply endow the icon with the Light, the iconographer’s inner vision has to become “theology” through deep, practiced spiritual contemplation. The circumincession, the perichoresis, if you will, of the artistic element with mystic contemplation matures to become the germ of a visionary theology, expressed through the iconographer’s authentic faith and living, the fertile ground from which the icon will emerge.
Compare the naturalistic photograph of St Silouan Athonite (left) with the iconographer’s depiction of the saint (right). While the saint is easily recognizable in the iconic depiction, the iconographer has incorporated a wealth of symbolic elements without lapsing into what we could term decadent iconography, an excess of stylistic detail.
Sister Cecilia’s icon is a beautiful rendition of the Orthodox saint, Silouan of Mount Athos, which I commissioned in 2017, and received on September 19, 2017, at New Skete Monastery (OCA), Cambridge, New York.
Generally, the icon shows the full torso view of the saint in his monastic attire, one hand in the gesture of deisis and the other holding a scroll showing one of his quotes in Church Slavonic. His name, the Venerable Silouan, appears on the left side in Church Slavonic, and “Athonite” on the right side in Church Slavonic. The Saint is depicted on an effulgent background of gold, symbolizing the Divine Light, and is gazing upward, to the vision of the Christ in the left upper corner, who from the heavenly realm is issuing rays of the uncreated light, which appear to be embracing the saint.
The icon in its style and execution is a masterwork of iconography.
The traditional execution of a holy icon is by intent and purpose not naturalistic, as I shall discuss below in terms of its stylized features, its flatness, two dimensionality (absence of depth or 3D perspective), and its points of convergence, traditional elements of style, color symbolism, etc.
Most remarkable is how Sister Cecelia was able to capture the naturalistic features of St Silouan’s face and render them faithfully but symbolically expressive in the holy icon of the saint.
When viewing an icon I find it especially important that the iconographer does not overemphasize the strictly personal and unique natural features of the subject but that the sacred artist renders them symbolically, which opens them up rather than focus the viewer’s gaze on a uniquely individual face. The face, though superficially true to the embodied saint, appears to transcend the physical, it is beyond the here and now but is yet present here and now. The depiction shows the saint not bound in chronos but liberated into kairos, divine time, right time. Correctly contemplating and engaging the saint’s countenance does not draw us into the icon itself but draws the iconic countenance — and all of its content — into the observer. Quite the opposite approach and effect that many might have or experience when observing a secular work of art or even some of the more naturalistic religious art.
Upon seeing the icon for the first time on September 19, 2017, at the Monastery of New Skete, my very first impression was focused on the eyes and the cheeks of the saint; it was as if a sob was swelling in my chest, as if I would at any moment feel the warmth of tears rolling down my own cheeks. The icon had entered me, filled me, and almost overwhelmed me. The softness of the overall expression is one of deep love, compassion, a hint of mourning but not the mourning of grief or loss, it’s an expression of the mourning of “not yet but soon,” a focus upon an unfathomable, ineffable point in infinity but attainable, a certain twinkle, if you will, in the eyes and just the hint of a hidden smile. Did the iconographer actually capture the essence of holy nepsis (νῆψις) in this depiction? Do all of these elements I perceived in the saint’s countenance distill down to holy clarity, nepsis? If ever I attain the gift of silence, I hope I can continue to receive the icon with at least a scintilla of such clarity.
We note the saint’s drawn face, the strong lines and the modeling around the saint’s cheekbones symbolizing the life of fasting and sobriety. The iconographer avoids the impression of harshness, though, by balancing these features with an expression of gentleness and dignity.
I find the expression on Silouan’s face to be one of enlightenment; it is opened by, to, for and through his love for God and, in consequence, his love for all of creation, for the “other.” The Light in the saint’s face is the light of Love and comes from contemplation of the infinite transcendence of the Divine. Another one of my favorite Greek words is χαρμολύπη (harmolipi). It’s a compound word based on the words for joy (think: “harmony”) and sorrow, “joyful sorrow” or a harmony of joy and sorrow. This is an emotion elicited by the facial elements of the Sr Cecilia’s icon, and is elicited by the inspired rendition of the saint’s facial elements.
Facial elements: While symbols, gestures, colors, objects all provide clues to the nature and the role of the saint being portrayed — the face is eminently important — particularly the eyes, lips, the brow and the forehead. These elements of the portrayal express salient characterological qualities to which our attention is being directed. St Silouan is depicted with the modeled sharp lines of the ascetic in high cheek bones and shallow cheeks. His wisdom is represented by a high forehead. Silouan’s gentleness an dspiritual power and compassion are clearly discernable in the iconographer’s rendition of the eyes — there is nevertheless a calm stillness in the facial expression. The one eyebrow is raised in a high arch, while the right brow is lower — the contrast of great understanding with great gentleness. The shadowing between the brows makes the impression of a puckering, an indication of sadness or compassion which, together with a hint of a smile on the lips created by the shadow along the saint’s beard flowing around the lips, compatible with the concept of harmolipia.
Eyes: Compare and contrast Deep set eyes, but not hollow, and with the effects of the brows — note that one (right) is higher than the other (left) — this emphasizes two contrasting aspects as represented by the effects on the eyes of the saint.
Mouth: tightlipped silence with a slight nuance of smile. The mouth in icon figures is never open; silence is a virtue perfected and embodied in those transfigured.
Cheekbones: high bone structure deep cheeks, the indicators of an ascetic life of fasting and moderation.
The beard is not disordered or in disarray, it is smooth, flowing, grey. The flow of the beard suggests a calmness, a peacefulness, a softness. The grey of the beard might symbolize a long life of commitment, engagement, experience, wisdom.
The saint’s attire is highly symbolic and in keeping with the holy tradition of the use of symbolic color in writing holy icons. For example, we note the color of the outer robe, the riassa; it’s a dark shade of grey with nuances of green. Earthy colors, the colors of humility. Likewise the rose-colored podryasnik or podrjaznik(подрясник), (under)cassock is a traditional earth color, the color of clay, the substance of humankind, a symbol of mortality and humility.
In iconic symbolism the robes of the great ascetics and monastics are depicted in black, symbolizing a life of renunciation of the world and ascetic discipline. In this depiction the ascetic’s or monastic’s undergarment are frequently rendered in earth tones, symbolizing poverty. In the St Silouan icon the saint’s undercassock is depicted in an earthtone, an Indian red hue or caput mortuum shade.
Noteworthy in this icon is the blue of the saint’s kalimavkion (καλυμμαύχιον), kalymmavchi (καλυμαύχι), or in the Russian tradition, the kamilavka (камилавка) and veil. In holy iconographic tradition, blue may signify heavenly or imperial characteristics, depending on the hue. Here, we can discern a certain divine spirit in the bluish component of the saint’s kamilavka. The nuances of blue in the kamilavka offset the harshness of the black of the vestment and serves to add a spiritual element to the harshness of ascetic life suggested by the black; if the kamilavka were rendered in total black, it would suggest a darkness or a shadow element alien to the holy icon but especially alien to this saint. It would be an inconsistent contrast with the divine, uncreated light that forms the background of the saint.
I found that the hands of this peasant saint to be uniquely expressive. The right hand is raised in a gesture of deisis (δέησις, “prayer” or “supplication”), the liturgical gesture of intercession and supplication. The deisis gesture is accompanied by the saint’s eyes directed towards the heavenly realm, towards the Word, suggestive of Silouan’s vision of the Christ, and towards the emanation of the Divine Uncreated Light (upper left corner).
The saint holds in his left hand a scroll, the symbol of the teacher, and on that scroll, in Church Slavonic, are the words of his teaching.
If one were to compare St Silouan’s hands as depicted in the icon by Sr Cecilia, it would be clear that they differ from the typical stylized hands seen in many icons. Unlike the delicate, slender fingered hands in many icons, Silouan’s hands are heavy with thick fingers, the hands of the hard-working peasant. This is a brilliant touch that I believe is intended to remind us that this saint, as blessed and as transfigured as he is, was still a creature who lived close to the earth. These are the hands of a human being who knew the travails of the flesh and yet attained remarkable spiritual maturity.
With permission from the publisher and the author, I recently republished an article of interest from the Smalbany blog and retitled it on this blog, “Do Funeral Service Providers Police our Spirituality? Character is important?” I found the article interesting, relevant and topical and completely compatible with this blog’s purpose. I continue to be of that opinion, while taking especial care not to take sides and to offer the information as information to my readers, and not necessarily my personal or professional opinion of the parties involved. That having been said, I do agree in principle with what the publisher and the author have to say.
Apparently the original article has been receiving some considerable attention and the Editor of the Smalbany blog has published his/her personal remarks on the article, and I’d like to share those remarks with my readers.
While I can understand that some readers of the original article and perhaps even the republished article which was unedited and republished here in its entirety may have found it difficult to get their arms around the message, I find that the editor’s concern and care in responding to some of the comments he/she received is intelligent and responsible. I found them interesting and clarifying so I’d like to provide my readers with a link to those comments. Please take a moment to read the Editor’s comments. You may find them helpful.
Here’s the link: The Smalbany Blog Editor’s Response to the Deathcare Exposé
Peace and blessings!
My recent article was actually meant for funeral services professionals but since it has important relevance for all of my readers, I decided that I would post it for the general readership. This is just an abstract of the whole article, which and be downloaded or read on line at What we do and how we do it makes the ultimate difference!
There is a disturbing trend in the funeral services industry that threatens to undermine the most sacred rites of passage and transition human beings ever experience, and its aftermath is likely to be worse than we ever could have imagined. This trend is incarnate in amateurs and dilettantes foisting their services as funeral and memorial celebrants on the unwary and vulnerable bereaved. In the past, the worst we had to deal with was indifferent boring clergy and finicky funeral directors offering cookie – cutter funeral and memorial services. There was a pitiful collusion between the funeral director and certain clergy, who held their congregations in a strangle hold of obligatory, staid, incomprehensible rituals. Another factor in this deplorable development is the fact that although we wallow in abundance we sleep in the lap of self–centeredness and abandon much of what might distinguish us as compassionate beings; we allow our customers to abandon all notion of proper care and dignity for our dead, opting for cut–rate funerals, abridged opportunities for closure, quick fix funeralization, the worst of which is direct burial and cremation. Today’s western culture seems to have enough money for flat – screen televisions, multiple cars in the driveway, every conceivable electronic toy but not enough money to give grandpa, mom or dad a decent, dignified, loving send – off. It’s really embarrassing how families today are so dysfunctional and how they have marginalized even their dead. And Yes! we funeralization professionals can all meet our obligations while serving our families and avoiding the impression of cookie – cutter services, and “one size fits all” routines, or the ever – present risk of making a judgment and then having to make an apology. So this paper is about boundaries and competency, about establishing relationships, about communications, about you and your appreciation of the boundaries between the mortuary services you provide and the spiritual care services the chaplain provides. Boundaries should not be viewed as obstacles but as safeguards and reminders of the essential humility of our professions. I do not believe that by meeting our obligations as death – care professionals we are not violating any boundaries by gently but firmly educating our the families and survivors we serve about their traditional family obligations even, especially in the difficult moments surrounding bereavement.
Please download or read this revealing and thought-provoking article by clicking this link: What we do and how we do it makes the ultimate difference!
Thank you all! Peace and blessings at this wonderful winter holiday season!
Rev. Ch. Harold