One of the biggest problems facing funeral service today is the fact that nobody knows exactly what a funeral director is.
Are they akin to waiters, with a responsibility to deliver exactly what a family asks but never dare suggest something healthier? Or are they leaders, duty-bound to guide a family toward the decisions that will serve them best?
Do they exist only for the deceased, to quietly handle the body and its disposition? Or is the surviving family’s health and well-being something with which they should concern themselves?
Are they counselors with a role of providing compassionate guidance? Or salespeople with numbers to hit?
Should they be empathetic to reflect the family’s state of mind? Or stoic, true to the fact that they have done this a thousand times?
Should they act like the trustworthy servants they are? Or should they acknowledge that they’re aware they’re perceived as self-interested and untrustworthy?
Every time they answer “both,” America’s morticians find their mission increasingly diluted and obscured. They must handle a confusing and daunting list of paradoxes, and their customers expect them to impossibly become all of the above. The role of being simultaneously guardian and salesperson, leader and attendant, confidant and business owner—it’s a terribly thin line to walk.
All of this has led me to ask a question of funeral directors every time I get the chance. It started as a way to get a particular client on the record, but when the response was the opposite of what I expected, it grew into a sort of national experiment. The question – and how you answer it – betrays an important understanding about modern funeral service.
“Is there a right way to grieve?”
Usually I wait for a moment in the conversation when they’re expressing frustration with social trends, or complaining that direct cremations are up, or arguing about whether deregulation in the industry is a good thing.
In other words, I wait for the moment when they’re talking about families doing it wrong. I’ve asked the question from coast to coast, of dozens of funeral directors, from tiny 100-case firms to nationally recognized major players. Is there a right way to do the process of death?
To this day, no one has ever told me that there is.
Usually, there’s palpable awkwardness as they try to answer diplomatically. A few will answer with an outright “no,” or “of course not.” Some will furrow their brows and think deeply, as though they’ve never consciously contemplated this before. But one hundred percent of the time, the answer is in the negative. The tragedy is the timing. I’m sitting in a room full of competent, skilled professionals with decades (if not centuries) of experience amongst them, who had just been discussing with detail and expertise all of the consequences of doing death wrong. And yet they’re hamstrung, whether by guilt, political correctness, confusion, or something else, absolutely unable to admit that there is a way to do it right.
Obviously, it’s the word “right” that holds people up. Nobody wants to appear too rigid, too audacious, or too prejudiced. We’ve strayed from saying that there is a right way to do anything, from parenting to religion to career paths. Inclusion, tolerance, and open-mindedness are the watchwords of our culture. A century ago, pounding your fist on the table and proclaiming a right way might have been expected; today it just feels rude and narrow-minded.
There is a right way to conduct almost every professional process. If I’m going to have a cancer removed, I want my surgeon to believe firmly and confidently that his approach is the best way to do it. If I’m spending a few thousand dollars to have my transmission replaced, you better believe I want it done right. Even in more subjective practices like interior design, marketing, or art, there are well-established norms for producing and critiquing good work. You would be hard-pressed to find a creative director or an architect or a museum curator who tolerates the notion of absolute subjectivity in their employees’ work. There is bad art, bad design, and bad advertising.
I suspect that funeral directors have been so pigeonholed as rigid, cold, and unaccommodating that after decades of being browbeaten, they’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater and are afraid and unclear about what constitutes right grief at all.
There is a right way to do death. And there is a wrong way. Avoidance, nonconfrontation, fear of emotion, suppression—all of these are wrong and will result in a stunted grief process. You know this as a professional, you were taught it in mortuary college, and you have seen it borne out in experience. Confronting, communicating, gathering, memorializing, processing, reflecting—these are healthy. This isn’t about picking one tradition or another, or one venue over another. You can do a funeral “right” in a place outside of a funeral home, and every culture on earth has rituals and norms in place to shepherd the bereaved through loss and back into routine.
Today we pretend that passively disposing of Mom without any ceremony is as valid a path as mourning her. We have accepted the ridiculous notion that someone who has never been to a funeral is equipped to decide for a person’s entire extended community that the funeral isn’t important. The comfort of the moment (“funerals are creepy”) is inexplicably considered to bear equal weight to the health of the long-term (“I just wish I’d had a chance to say goodbye”).
All of this is unprecedented in human history.
When COVID-19 or 9/11 deny us the opportunity to mourn together or with the body of our deceased, it is considered a tragedy, and tomes are written about grieving in strange times. But when unintentionally harmful decisions on the part of a few uninformed family members deny that same opportunity to themselves and to others, not a word is said—and those who have the most valuable perspective and the greatest expertise find themselves under the most strongly imposed gag order.
In “The Death of Expertise,” Tom Nichols argues that the United States “is now a country obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance.” Nichols paints a sobering picture of a society crippled by the misguided view that the opinion of someone with ten minutes of online study is just as valid as the opinion of an expert with decades of experience. He tells a true story of a college sophomore arguing arrogantly with a revered astrophysicist. At one point, unable to convince the expert, the student shrugs and huffs, “Well, your guess is as good as mine.” The astrophysicist wisely reminds him, “No, no, no. My guesses are much, much better than yours.”
Funeral directors are experts, and it is high time they said so. You cannot serve thousands of grieving families without picking up some clues about what works and what doesn’t. If you help a couple scatter their son’s ashes twenty years after his death, and then hold them as they weep with relief after finally being able to say goodbye, you’re not wrong to advise the next family you meet that they should reconsider taking their child’s remains home with them. If you see the changed expression in a young man’s face after he’s able to sob over the open casket of his brother, you’re more than entitled to tell the next family that a viewing might be the hardest thing they ever do, but it will be worth it. And if you watch from your office when a young widow returns to visit her husband’s grave, you’re not obligated to sit quietly by when the next family in your office says that memorials aren’t really important.
There is hardly a psychologist alive who has spent more time studying mourning families than the average American funeral director. Your profession is licensed, trained, and regulated. You have dedicated schools to learn your craft, and you spend decades honing it. You likely have personal experience with death yourself. All of this adds up to a trade that far surpasses the threshold of what constitutes expertise. And that itself constitutes an undeniable moral imperative. You do know what’s going to help, and what isn’t. You do know what is healthy and what’s not. You do know which families are going to be okay, and which are going to struggle.
You have to be willing to say so.
Adapted from “The Right Way of Death: Restoring the American Funeral Profession to Its True Calling,” by Eric Layer. Available this October on Amazon and at www.therightwayofdeath.com.
About the Author
Eric Layer has spent his entire life around funeral service. His parents were married in the chapel of the mortuary where they both worked, and his childhood was marked by firsthand experience with the funeral homes and cemetery where his family built their careers. Today, he leads the death care division at McKee Wallwork + Co., an internationally recognized marketing advisory firm that specializes in generating momentum for stalled, stuck, and stale industries and brands. There, he has consulted for a number of globally recognized funeral brands and has played an integral role in their campaigns, products, and research efforts.