The Emotional Cost of Being a Funeral Director
Article from Kate Hamilton, Mourning Cross and The Funeral Ladies
Having worked in the industry now for over four years as well as attending literally hundreds of funerals, I have experienced both pleasure and some misfortune when meeting Funeral Directors. As a result of my experience, I now am able to categorize Funeral Directors as belonging to one of two groups: The People over Profit Director, or the Profit over People Director. (I will outline how I distinguish between the two below.) Thankfully for me, I continue to work in the Funeral Industry as a result of my positive experiences and dealing with the People over Profit Directors whom I now consider to be friends and esteemed colleagues.
Much has been written about the multi-billion dollar Funeral Industry over the years including exposés providing the evidence of deceptive and unprofessional practices. Inflating costs of goods by hundreds of percent, over-selling, poorly trained and inexperienced staff, a general lack of sensitivity and empathy, and a host of other charges have been leveled at the industry. The latest contribution, an article written by Perianne Boring of Forbes Magazine, is called, Death of the Death Care Industry and Eternal Life (http://www.forbes.com/sites/perianneboring/2014/04/25/the-death-of-the-death-care-industry-and-eternal-life-online/ You can also view it on The Harbeson Group website:www.theharbesongroup.com.)
In the U.S., even with Federal Trade Commission and State Government regulatory oversight, the funeral industry is still plagued with a negative image to consumers. The advent of internet websites, social media and funeral blogs have provided a platform for funeral professionals to provide consumers with information about the value of funeral service. Sadly though, many funeral homes do not take advantage of the platform.
The ”Profit over People” Funeral Directors
I believe these practitioners to be hard-nosed business people whose first priority is the bottom line. Many of these funeral directors work in publicly-owned or “corporate” funeral homes, where profit production in the focus of the business. They have become cynical and functional in their approach with families, having been pressured to meet sales targets by extracting as much money from a consumer family as possible. Using the sustainability continuum of death as the catalyst to drive their business, these funeral practitioners are viewed as greedy and desensitized. Although this group is deemed “professional,” their ability to fake compassion while dressed in a nice suit is at best worthy of an Oscar nomination, and at worst, indelibly affecting the ways families view our profession as a whole.
The ”People over Profit” Funeral Directors
These practitioners are genuine, honest, family-oriented, and caring with almost a “minister- like” quality. These funeral directors are easily distinguished from others. Going the extra mile for their families without hesitation and compassion for loss, these directors walk with the family treating them with genuine respect. They define their job or business as a labor of love and professionally balance family desires with necessary revenue, many times placing their work before the monetary remuneration. They are also business men and women who give more in service than they receive in financial benefits generated or recognition and are very successful as a result.
I have learned so much about the industry meeting so many wonderful funeral directors, who I believe give their lives 24/7, 365 days a year. They display similar traits of honesty, care, and sincerity. I have the utmost respect for these good funeral directors and believe that they, like other front line care givers, personally sacrifice so much emotionally. Social media expert and owner of Disrupt Media Ryan Thogmartin reports that directors perform at least one hundred fifty tasks when making a single set of arrangements for a funeral. (http://connectingdirectors.com/articles/44074-150-things-most-consumers-dont-know-a-funeral-director-does)
As a result of my interest in the people behind the job, I embarked on a mission to give Funeral Directors the opportunity to share their emotional cost experiences in this very dark and emotion-driven industry. I used social media and in particular, LinkedIn and Facebook to ask six open ended questions. I received a total of 57 responses from Funeral Directors from all over the world, including the United States, South Africa, England, Ireland, New Zealand, and Australia. Respondents came from a variety of backgrounds; generational family operated firms, employees of corporate organizations, and funeral directors who, as a result of working for bad companies, have set up their own businesses.
The findings as follows:
Do you believe that being a funeral director is a vocation, a calling to serve?
The vast majority of directors who responded (90%) confirmed that yes, being a funeral director was a vocation and a calling to serve, to minister to families in their hour of need. 5% described the profession as being, “a good fit with their personalities,” citing being sociable and compassionate by nature and having specific personality traits key in getting into and staying in the job. 5% said that chose to work in the family business.
Is there an emotional cost of being a Funeral Director?
Without exception, all respondents agreed that there was an emotional cost of being a funeral director. A number of people also highlighted the physical cost to their health in terms of sleep deprivation and in some cases a lack of self-care. The exhaustion of being available 24/7, 365 days of the year and the sacrifice to family life. The stress associated with trying to deal with the multitude of external professionals (e.g. Clergy, Doctors, Coroners), not to mention dealing with the politics within families who are devastated, possibly dysfunctional, angry and emotionally charged who resent needing and paying for the services of a funeral director. They also highlighted the emotion of profound sadness when dealing with certain deaths, such as gruesome circumstances, children, young people, and suicide. A number of respondents highlighted the stress of working in a family-owned business, the inability to collect outstanding balances on accounts, emotions between family members/business partners as an added tension. Others noted the difficulties being employed by larger firms, their ethos and lack of support within the job.
How does that emotional cost manifest in your daily lives?
When asked how the emotional cost manifested in their daily lives, respondents reported that sometimes it is hard to separate work from home life. One respondent admitted they had become paranoid at how quickly life can be taken, and how it had affected their outlook on life. A number of people explained factors such as guilt, arguments, sacrifices, compromises, mental and physical challenges, anger, and stress can overtake a person’s life and lead to burn-out. Several respondents said that it takes a unique person to deal with the grief of others on a daily basis. Others highlighted how difficult it is finding ways to let go and stop talking constantly about the business.
What are your coping mechanisms to keep yourself balanced?
The majority of Directors highlighted the importance of their faith, prayer, spouses and family, and being able to share their experiences. One director highlighted laughter as being important in getting through the day. Many highlighted that having a hobby, getting outdoors even for a walk, yoga, sports, working in their garden, relaxing with family, taking time off to get away from it all, church activity, spiritualism, networks and speaking to other directors as coping mechanisms. One director said that after a funeral he prefers to take a nap. He described it as, “sleeping away the sad emotion.”
Do you as a Funeral Director get support of any type?
The majority of respondents said they had not received any support, other than relying on their own coping mechanisms highlighted above. One respondent received regular supervision and another talked to a therapist. A number of respondents did say that there are times when they can’t help getting emotional, and noted the difficultly of remaining professional when that happens.
Several directors did say that they would be very interested in some form of staff care support if it were confidential. They highlighted that they thought it would be beneficial to speak to someone outside the industry.
The research highlights the variety of emotions that a funeral director will suffer as a result of their profession. It also demonstrates the personal traits and social intelligence skills that they need to possess when dealing with families. I personally do not believe all of these skills can be learned and concur with the majority of respondents who say that for them, the job is a vocation, calling to serve and a ministry.
It is also interesting to note that funeral directors, as front line care givers, are exposed to very distressing and sometimes traumatic circumstances. Most funeral homes do not have staff care programs in place for support of their employees. Funeral directors could benefit from staff care support in the form of coaching/counseling and in safe place where they could download the stresses of the job in a confidential way. This particular gap needs to be addressed immediately particularly for those directors who do not feel their work is a vocation.
Funeral Industry Changes
Technological, social media advancements, coupled with the increased number of negative exposés, are impacting on how consumers make their distress purchases. The increase in number of expert funeral resource blog websites, now provide consumers with access to information on all things Funeral. Google analytics provides the evidence to support the increased number of consumers who now search online for information as more and more people become price conscious.
The Funeral Industry is a multi-billion dollar business world-wide. Corporate and profit-driven companies see the “sustainability” of the industry as a cash cow for shareholders. As a result of rising costs and the increasing inability to pay over $8,000 for complete burial, families increasingly have no other choice but to cremate their loved one. This is evidenced by the increasing rate of cremations, which in the U.S. is 42%, and expected to rise above 50% in next few years.
Coaching at End of Life training has helped me identify better ways for us as a society to mourn our losses and to help others who are grieving. She has partnered with her tutor and grief expert, Dr. Don Eisenhauer PCC, Coach, Counselor, Pastor, Hospice Chaplain and Bereavement Coordinator, National Grief Awareness Day Board Member and highly respected author of two books, Coaching at End of Life and Coach Yourself Through Grief. Don works together with the funeral homes in his community, conducting services regularly for those who do not have their own spiritual leader. Don not only has a passion for those who are dying and grieving, but also for funeral directors and others who care for those at end of life. Therefore he has developed a caring, confidential support system for Funeral Directors, to help them work through, in a helpful and positive way, the Emotion Cost I write about in this article. You can find that support at http://coachingatendoflife.com/coaching-funeral-directors/
I would like to sincerely thank all of the funeral professionals who took time contributing to this research. To thank them for their vocation to a primarily care-giving industry, and to acknowledge those directors who have not deviated from this ethos and who continue to serve with respect, dignity, compassion and a professionalism rising above the negative press, those families within their communities.
Research compiled by: Kate Hamilton
Managing Director Mourning Cross Bereavement Pins
The Funeral Ladies
Coaching at End of Life Student.