Solving the Puzzle of a Good Funeral – By Gerry Lougheed Jr.

by MSO

A funeral director can help you put together all the pieces of your funeral puzzle to make each sendoff a memorable one for family and friends.

In the journey from womb to tomb we learn life’s lessons by experience and repetition. From the preschooler’s success of tying their shoes to their grandparents’ decision to reside in a senior’s residence, we gain skills and make informed decisions by becoming familiar with circumstances. When the preschooler has tragically and suddenly drowned in the backyard pool or the grandparent slowly dies in a hospice bed from cancer, we often fall off our learning curve and lay in a ditch of disorientation and despair. Our right brain seeks hugs for its hurting. We hurt because we love.

In sudden death situations words like “surreal” and “like a bad dream I wish I could wake up from,” often are said. While lengthy illness deaths engage a vocabulary of “relief” and “no longer suffering.” The pervasive word “why” goes unanswered with words like sadness, anger, guilt, and anxiety describing our feelings. In the age of “apps” the right brain is offered programs, counseling, mutual help groups, interventions and for those in a hurry medications. Likely all of this is a mistake. The hurt is normal. It needs to be expressed. It needs to be embraced. Mourning doesn’t need meddling or medicating. It needs to tell its story, to vent the anger, to confront the guilt, to celebrate the gift of memory which allows the deceased person to continue to live in us by the mention of their name. Mourning is a natural process that is part of the healing process.

Meanwhile as we stand in the hospital emergency room or drive off the Hospice parking lot, our logical left brain is shouting “what happens next? Who does what? How do I get what I want?” The logical left brain wants answers and options to make informed decisions.

Unlike the tying of the shoelace, death is unfamiliar. Each death is unique in relationship and circumstance. The prospect of making funeral arrangements often solicits the statement “I’ve never done this before, I’m not sure what I need to do.” Enter the funeral director. There is no law that demands a person use a funeral director. He or she is a professional whose knowledge and resources can expedite and insure a family’s wishes are accommodated. Unless you are completely familiar with the intricate process of death certificates and government laws, you are probably best to leave this process to a funeral services professional who handles these end-of-life on a regular basis.

Gerry Lougheed Jr. was the keynote speaker at the National Funeral Directors Association's annual convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

The first decision is selecting a funeral home. According to industry surveys, the two most popular reasons people select a funeral home are; professional reputation or previous experience with the firm. If your aunt Millie was satisfied that your uncle Wilbur had a “good” funeral (the English language is inadequate to describe a meaningful funeral with full value ¬†hence the word “good”), you might select the firm for your father’s arrangements. Or if at your workplace coffee break a colleague comments that a certain funeral home has been instrumental in developing a hospice program you might select it for its community reputation of helping others. If your universe has a black hole regarding funeral homes, you might seek the recommendation of the hospital Chaplain or the nurses who have become extended family to you during the difficult time of a loved one’s passing.

It is the responsibility of the family to contact the funeral home when a love one passes. All funeral homes provide a 24 hour, seven day a week answering service because death can come calling at any time. The initial contact will advise the funeral home of the death with the following information: who has died and where, who is calling to make arrangements and their relationship to the deceased. The funeral home representative should ask at this initial contact if the deceased had any prearrangements or special, personal requests for their loved one’s sendoff. The reason for this question is to determine the potential or need for embalming. A funeral home cannot embalm a deceased person without the consent of the legal next of kin. Embalming is unnecessary if there is not going to be a viewing and it if is an unacceptable practice for certain religious and/or cultural groups.

The funeral director will set up a time to meet the family representatives at his/her office. The funeral director will arrange the transfer of the deceased to the funeral home securing the necessary releases from attending physicians or in the case of a sudden death, the coroner or medical examiner depending on the jurisdiction of the death. If the family is unable to go to the funeral home the funeral director will visit the family at their residence.

As you traverse the funeral home door frame, you enter an unfamiliar environment. It is a place you don’t want to be, meeting a person you don’t want to speak to, convinced the conversation will be difficult and the consequences overwhelming. The funeral director greets you and introduces him/herself. They should make you feel comfortable. They should explain the meeting is to alleviate the practical burden of what happens next allowing you more time to commence the healing journey from the hurt of having someone you love die.

The interview with a funeral director has three components: the deceased’s life, the deceased’s family and the deceased’s funeral. The life requires vital statistics, information to fulfill legal requirements by the province/state. This information is similar to birth or marriage registration; birth date, birthplace, occupation etc. The funeral director will look after all legal requirements and in turn provide the client with proof of death documents for financial and legal reasons. The funeral director should access death benefit applications for the workplace, pensions, military benefits or life insurance companies. The funeral director will also contact appropriate clergy (if desired) and provide parish information.

The deceased’s family requires the recording and preparing of family names for an obituary publication. Any wording, information or relationships will be created by the funeral director with the input and approval of the family unless the deceased had pre-written their own obituary. The funeral director will know the newspaper deadline times for publication and subsequent costs and this will be included in the final billing. The funeral director can also put the obituary in out of town papers and online. There is no legal requirement to publish an obituary and it is not a legal document but it is a good thing to do on the basis it allows the community to know of the death. It informs people of the opportunity to participate in the funeral process of the departed.

The deceased’s funeral is the decisions about gatherings, celebrations and dispositions. The funeral director will ask about preferences and provide options;

* Will the body be viewed; and by who? Just family or everyone.

* Does the body need to be embalmed and an explanation of the purpose and process of this preparation.

* What is the appropriate clothing for the deceased? In today’s more personal funerals, familiar fashions like sports jerseys are sometimes more appropriate than business suits.

* Will there be a separate day of visiting or just before the funeral liturgy or public viewing. The more time provided for the gathering the more time to visit with less of a “rushed” experience.

* What will be at the visitation to provide ownership of the environment? People nearer to the tomb than womb might make collages and picture boards while younger people will burn DVD’s, still others have picture albums, framed pictures or memorabilia for tables. Personal musical CD’s are better than the funeral homes elevator music. Most funeral homes are more than willing to accommodate any personal wishes and requests if they are provided with guidance because it is the job of any funeral home to ensure that all special requirements are met.

* Who will preside at the liturgy or celebration of life? People with relationships to clergy will be seeking the ministry of their denomination. If they do not have a person contact, the funeral director will provide a clergy connection. There is no law that says a person must have an ordained clergy. Friends and family members can provide the leadership and coordination of the celebration.

There is no rule that says only religious music must be played. An independent thinker may be better in tune with Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” while a mother who devoted her life to her children may be defined by “Wind beneath My Wings”. A denomination dogma will provide an agenda of readings, reflections and prayers. The participation of a eulogist(s) (someone who gives a speech about the deceased) is very important to celebrate the gift of memory and the best eulogies are always delivered from the heart. They are not verbalization of vital statistics but rather stories about relationships and remembrances of what the deceased said and did.

What about the casket selection? The funeral director will have a selection room with various priced caskets and a casket is only required if the body is present. Urns or photos are appropriate representations at memorial gatherings when a body is not present. Rental caskets are very popular if final disposition is cremation. They save a tree. Save some money. And do the job. A rental casket has a cremation insert with a Velcro lining which is cremated. The casket shell is the rental component.

For earth burial or mausoleum entombment, standard caskets are appropriate. As we have choices in life regarding clothes we wear and cars we drive, funeral directors provide a selection of caskets constructed with materials and finishes at various costs. The casket cost is itemized on your statement with the service and facility fees. The funeral director should provide a total cost before the funeral arrangement interview concludes and explain the terms of payment, requirement for a deposit, time of final payment settlement and any subsequent interest charges.

Further issues the funeral director may discuss if appropriate: the requirement of pallbearers, limousines, ordering of flowers, clothing requirements and presence of jewellery (dentures and glasses are needed if available). The funeral home will provide a guest book and memorial cards (with photo if desired) if so desired at a cost.

Subsequent to this interview the gathering and celebration of life will be held in accordance with the agreed upon timing and location. With the exception of private funerals people are not formally or personally invited to visitation or service. The guests come uninvited and they are welcomed with open arms and hugs, tears and laughter to help ease the pain. They come to remember the deceased and support the surviving family. They come with gifts of food, flowers and memorial donations and hugs. They come to share stories and tears. The guests come because they care and with their presence they define the funeral experience not simply the disposition of the deceased. They are a part of the catalyst for commencing the healing journey for the bereaved. In short funerals are for the living. Their rituals fill emotional and spiritual needs.

So what about that “good” funeral? For many years my grandmother lived across the street from the funeral parlor in her small village. Her family had been in the county for generations. She was active in the community and the church. She attended almost all the funerals at the neighbouring parlor. She would telephone my father to report “so and so” died and inevitably comment that they had a “good” funeral. With time I would tease my grandmother and ask what happened at a “bad” funeral. Did people act rowdy in Church? Or didn’t they bury the body? She would smile and say “Hush you know what I mean”. And I did.

A good funeral was when people gathered and remember the deceased. It had gifts of food for the family and prayers for the soul of the departed. It found beauty in flowers on a casket and music from a choir. It was a celebration of a life lived. It was a sendoff of a loved one and it was also one of the first steps in healing for the living. It is a jigsaw puzzle of decisions and details that if done well produces a picture of life lived, and a surviving family well supported, if some of the pieces are missing or misplaced it is flawed and will fail to meet the needs of the living.

May you and those you love and live with always be blessed with a good funeral in the bad and sad times of death and may your funeral puzzle contain all of the necessary pieces to make each sendoff a memorable one for family and friends.

Gerry M. Lougheed Jr.

Gerry Lougheed Jr. is Vice-President of Lougheed’s Ltd, a family operated funeral home operator that has successfully performed over 30,000 family funerals over the past fifty-nine years. Gerry Lougheed Jr. is a well-known motivational speaker and prominent advocate in the North American funeral services industry recognized for his work with bereavement and healing. In 2006, Gerry Lougheed Jr. was the opening keynote speaker at the National Funeral Director’s Association annual convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

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