In recent years churches have made a greater effort to prepare members of their congregations for death. But much of that conversation is still squarely focused on advanced directives and clergy often delegate that responsibility to people who know more about the attendant legal complexities. That, no doubt, is an appropriate choice.
Churches and clergy pay less attention to the funeral arrangements themselves. Having been through that process with members of our family and with parishioners, my wife and I have become convinced that one of the places where clergy can assist their members is in helping inject some spiritual sanity into the process as families intersect with “the funeral industry.”
This can be accomplished by educating our congregations about the challenges they are likely to face. But there are times when, if the opportunity presents itself, clergy need to be more directly involved as advocates for the survivors. There are dedicated funeral directors, who take a measured, pastoral approach to their work with grieving families, but there are others – and, sadly, in my experience, far too many – who are simply selling a product.
Here are some things that are important to tell those grieving the loss of a loved one and who are preparing for a funeral:
One: Your love cannot be measured by the money that you spend on funeral arrangements.
Loving relationships are forged in life on a daily basis, in gestures and kindnesses large and small. The specifics of the funeral arrangements are not the place to place to express that love. Don’t be bullied into trying to do that by being told that “if you really loved him or her, you would do this or that by way of funeral arrangements.”
Two: You know your loved one more intimately than anyone at the mortuary.
It is transparent manipulation when a funeral director pronounces on what your mother or your father “would have liked” by way of funeral arrangements. Apart from a conversation with a loved one about what would be meaningful to her or him, there is no “knowing” what our loved ones “would have liked.” Trust your own thoughts and feelings. Remember, too, that funerals are about articulating certain deeply held convictions about life to people who are still alive.
Three: Remember, there is a reason it is called the funeral industry.
According to some sources, the average funeral in America costs between $8000 and $10,000. Those who cite that figure note that the much-publicized figure of $6000 is an old number that is still used because that is the amount typically paid to the funeral director. Another $2000 to $4000 in costs is often hidden from families in expenses associated with a cemetery gravesite and headstone. Funeral directors often say very little about those expenses until they have a signed contract. In my experience, however, the “basic package” at most funeral homes is closer to $12,000.
Four: Remember, the funeral director is not your friend, nor is he or she your pastor.
The funeral director is a salesperson whose immediate responsibility is a funeral home’s bottom line. I have had to say to funeral directors, “Are you done selling?” That shouldn’t be necessary, but it often is.
Many of those services, like a service leaflet, can be produced at a fraction of the cost or without expense by your religious community.
Six: Funeral directors will also try to bundle funeral expenses, hiding the individual charges from you, forcing you to buy services that do not necessarily need.
In an effort to grow the bottom line, funeral directors are adding a growing list of sentimental remembrances designed to tug at your heartstrings through your wallet. These things include displays of memorabilia, framed thumbprints, and host of other frills that are a waste of money, and have little more claim on your attention that the emotional appeal funeral directors create. Insist that the director give you an itemized list of the proposed services and choose only the ones you really need or want.
Seven: Be gentle with yourselves.
Lives rarely, if ever, have a neat or simple conclusion. More often than not, death leaves us with unfinished and untidy endings. Some of those untidy endings deeply rooted in our own journey with those we love. To recognize that this is the case, will not sweep away the unresolved anxieties and regrets that we may experience. But hopefully we will learn to be gentle with ourselves, and more at peace with the complexities of the situation.
Eight: It’s a good idea to take someone with you to the funeral home who cares about you, who can be trusted to help you make wise decisions, and who has the emotional distance to help you make the decisions associated with the funeral.
This is where an increasing number of clergy may find themselves called upon to help. As families shrink in size, an increasing number of family members are called upon to make funeral arrangements with little or no help from others. Many of those people have also been sheltered from the realities of preparing for a funeral. Clergy can spare their congregants added emotional distress by providing perspective and advice.
Finally, this (ninth) reminder for clergy:
The best antidote to the sentimental and cynical exploitation of our congregations is to introduce them to the values of our respective traditions. Funerals grounded in those values and observed in our houses of worship will always be a source of comfort, solace, and prayerful preparation in ways that cannot be achieved in a funeral home or mortuary.
Those values cannot be achieved or absorbed overnight, let alone in a time of grief and loss. They are best acquired over time as a part of the congregation’s formation. Among our tasks, it is one of the most important.
Photo used with permission by David Castillo Dominici at freedigitalphotos.net