What I Learned From Arranging Two Pandemic Funerals

Funeral Industry News August 9, 2020
Cemetery at Funeral Home

What I Learned From Arranging Two Pandemic Funerals

I am by no means a funeral or death expert. I worked in a funeral home for three years during college, and I’ve written for Connecting Directors for two. Each experience has brought me closer to the industry and deepened my respect for death care professionals. 

Meeting more of you, though, and delving deeper into your world each week, has set certain expectations. I know that many of those individuals I’ve met, interviewed, or written about are the best of the best in an incredible industry. So it’s possible that I went into my two recent funeral arrangement meetings knowing — and expecting— too much.

Two fathers-in-law in four months

My husband’s family is small and close — both emotionally and geographically. We see or talk to one another several times a week, if not everyday. Before this year, we had only lost a handful of (elderly) family members throughout our 30-year marriage. But as I’ve shared before, 2020 has been a year from hell for most people, including us.

In April, my husband’s father died after a long battle with emphysema, COPD, and mycobacterium avium complex, or MAC — a TB-related lung infection. His condition worsened at the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, so he spent a week on a ventilator in the ICU completely alone — no visitors allowed. When he was weaned off the vent, he demanded to be released to go home. We brought in hospice, and two days later he was gone.

In early July I tested positive for COVID-19, as did my mother-in-law, who lives next door to me. Her husband developed all of the same symptoms, so we all suffered together for more than three weeks. On July 28 at 1 a.m., he stopped breathing. Despite CPR by my husband (a career firefighter and paramedic) and efforts of the ambulance crew and ER staff, he passed away an hour later. We later determined he died of a blood clot caused by COVID. 

So in the course of four months my husband lost two dads. One death was expected, the other sudden. One died at home with hospice, the other was pronounced in the emergency room. Both were 72 years old — too young, in my opinion.

What I learned as my family’s funeral sherpa

Despite my limited real-life experience, my family considers me their funeral “expert.” Both widows asked me to go to the funeral homes and cemeteries with them to finalize arrangements. I gladly agreed, hoping I could ease the process for both and not add to their grief. Being with them in the arrangement room made me realize just how unprepared most people are for that meeting. 

We dealt with two different funeral homes (one corporate-owned) and two different cemeteries (one was owned by the same entity as the corporate funeral home). I’d never met the staff or directors we dealt with, and they didn’t know I wrote for Connecting Directors. Therefore, I feel we were treated like any other family suffering the loss of a loved one and muddling through the arrangement process. With that said, I feel blessed to have the opportunity to share my unvarnished opinions with you. Perhaps my experience will help to improve that of the next family you serve.

So here’s my advice, for better or worse:

Please take advantage of today’s technology

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, both services for our loved ones were held at the graveside with only immediate family in attendance. My stepfather-in-law’s out-of-town family asked us to livestream the services for them. Since the funeral home didn’t offer any livestreaming options (at least none were offered to us), the deceased’s only daughter used her iPhone to stream the service on Facebook Live. It was so unfortunate that she had to manage this task during the most difficult day of her life.

If the pandemic hasn’t yet prompted your adoption of livestreaming, Zoom meetings, electronic signatures, and all of the conveniences technology allows, please consider them now. I understand that a personal meeting and selection process is key to developing trust. However, easing the burdens and responsibilities on a family during this time may be more fruitful.

Don’t upsell me, but let me know what’s available

Both funeral home arrangement rooms had a few products and brochures on display. However, I didn’t see any of the newer or innovative products and services we’ve featured in Connecting Directors. For example, in one room I saw a lot of urns, but I didn’t see Parting Stone, Eterneva, or Passages

Like it or not, there’s a huge retail component to death care. When I’m shopping — in person or online — I like to browse, and I’ll ask questions when necessary, but I don’t like high-pressure sales. The funeral arrangement process could be like that. Make me aware of what’s available, and give me time to look around if I want to.

Don’t talk me out of something I want

When we made arrangements for my father-in-law in April, I had only recently interviewed the team at Thumbies about their thumbprint keepsake items. I loved everything about the company, their concept, and their product, and I vowed to add each of my loved ones’ prints to their database when the time came. However, in the moment, amid our suffering, that request never crossed my mind. I didn’t see a display to trip my memory and no one mentioned it to me. By the time I thought of it, it was too late.

At the next arrangement meeting in July, I spotted a display for another thumbprint keepsake company in a glass cabinet. I asked the director to add my loved one’s print to the company’s database. A simple request, I thought. However, he shared with us some concerns about the process based on his personal experience. He was wonderful in every other way, but I really wanted this and I didn’t want to hear that I shouldn’t do it. In the end, he did get the print for me. Bottom line, though — why promote a product you don’t believe in? 

Simplify locating burial plots

As a part-time genealogist, I’ve spent a lot of time in cemeteries. The bigger they are, the harder they are to navigate. Telling me to look in the “Everlasting Garden” or Section 306 means nothing when there’s no signage with those words or numbers on it. During one of our experiences, we were asked to locate — in the rain — the plots my in-laws had pre-purchased. The office provided two printouts to help us. With two grainy maps in hand, we plodded through the wet grass, counting off the rows and occupied graves until we thought we found ours. The next morning, we had to return to the cemetery to be sure the correct plot was marked with flags for the opening. We hope it was the right one. Either way, he’s resting there now.

To repeat an earlier suggestion, please invest in technology. Products like PlotBox and Cemetery360 create efficiencies and offer features that benefit both you and your families. We want a seamless, stressless, simple experience during our time of need. We shouldn’t have to do the work we expect you to do.

Dumb mistakes are extra hurtful at this time

A week after my father-in-law was buried, his wife called me in tears. She had visited the cemetery, only to realize he was buried in the wrong plot. They owned three plots: his, hers, and her sister’s, all in a row. She had specified during the arrangement process who should go where. Someone didn’t pay attention. She was devastated, and then absolutely horrified when they suggested exhuming him to fix their mistake. Instead, she had to call the monument company to rearrange the order of their names and just accept the burial error.

At the other cemetery, we were shocked to find my stepfather-in-law’s name misspelled on half of his paperwork. He had made the preneed arrangements in person, and we know his name was accurate on all of the original papers. Nevertheless, the final papers and the flag marking his plot were for someone named “Colen.” Of course, the attendant blamed another staff member, who apparently makes these mistakes often. Nothing about that exchange enhanced our faith in the cemetery’s ownership or management.

Encourage comprehensive preneeds

They main reason people make preneed arrangements is to save their families the stress and expense of making decisions while grieving. With our preneed death, we expected to walk into the funeral home, discuss a date and time for a service, and leave. We thought every other decision was made. But that wasn’t the case. 

They had picked a casket, but not the color. They had picked a gravestone shape, but not a style or color for the stone, vase, or granite. And you’ve already heard my rant about selecting burial plots. These are the tiny, yet necessary details, that grieving families often aren’t in a position to deal with. If at all possible, encourage your preneed clients to take care of as many decisions as possible while they’re at your table — so their loved ones won’t have to.

Don’t postpone facility upgrades

We live in a conservative small town in the South, so we expected the wood paneling, artificial trees, and oak armoires in the two facilities we chose. I don’t mind these traditional touches, and don’t necessarily expect a slick and sleek white-and-chrome millennial ambiance.

However, when I started talking to my husband about making our own preneed arrangements at one of these businesses, he simply said “No.” While I had focused on our loved ones, he had noticed peeling wallpaper, water damage under old windows, and other signs of old age. To him, this was a reflection of their level of service and care. Different people see different things, so you never know what will turn them off.

Create some simple checklists

In both instances, it was my job to help the widows understand what to expect after their husbands’ deaths. A hospice nurse assisted us with my father-in-law’s death. She contacted the funeral home for us and arranged for the home health equipment to be removed. At the hospital, though, no one told us anything. We left around 3 a.m. By 1 p.m. the next day we still hadn’t heard from the funeral home, so we had to call them to find out what to do next. It turned out we needed to talk to the cemetery first, but getting that appointment was a comedy of errors. If we weren’t still in shock from our loss, we would have laughed at the ridiculousness of it all. Or punched someone in the throat.

As the pseudo-expert, I fielded a lot of questions from the families — some of which I couldn’t answer. When do I bring clothes to the funeral home, and do I need to bring shoes? Why do I need death certificates, and how many should I get? Can we put a picture in the newspaper obit? Do I need a guest book if we’re only having a graveside? Who orders the casket flowers? Will we be able to open the casket for a viewing at graveside? Who orders the gravestone? When do I contact Social Security? What do his banks and retirement/investment/insurance providers need from me, and when?

Each death is different, as are the rules and processes of each funeral home and cemetery. You could easily help us, though. Create a simple “what to expect” booklet or “next steps” checklist for your transport person or local hospital to provide the family, or put this info on your website. Include FAQs, average timelines, etc. Knowing what comes next and your expectations of us would provide peace of mind and eliminate those scary unknowns.

Make us want to come back for post-pandemic services

Throughout the pandemic, most people have bemoaned the loss of public viewings and large funeral gatherings. After each of our family’s deaths, we fretted about not being able to invite people to the funeral home and/or church for a proper visitation and service. My father-in-law was a high school football star and a long-time football coach and teacher at his alma mater. Hundreds of friends and former students might have attended a public visitation.

In April, only eight of us gathered under the tent to say goodbye to my him. Cemetery staff acted as pallbearers, and we were allowed to open the casket briefly for our only viewing. In July, we were allowed a slightly larger group of 15 at the graveside of my stepfather-in-law. We wore masks and distanced by family group as several of us were still recovering from COVID-19. This cemetery didn’t want us to open the casket, though, so we had a brief family-only visitation at the funeral home.

To us, both services were perfect. They were intimate, touching, and incredibly emotional, but each of us left feeling we’d given our loved ones a beautiful, fitting farewell. In my father-in-law’s April obituary, we said we’d announce a public celebration of life at a later date. However, as more time passes, the idea of that event is losing its appeal. Though it would definitely be more of a party than a wake, we’re becoming less keen on reliving that initial grief.

Plus, no one at the funeral home asked us if we’d like to go ahead and pay or secure their services or facilities for that future event. We’d probably be more inclined to follow through if we felt obligated to do so.

In conclusion, I still love and respect you all

This may seem like a laundry list of complaints, and for that I apologize. Our overall experiences were good (not exceptional, but not tragic), and I admit I’m more critical than most. Every person we dealt with was kind and compassionate, and we felt they were doing the best they could with what they were given. However, I hope the owners and managers who might be reading this will take note, nevertheless. 

You’re in a difficult profession, and I know money can be tight. But most of the suggestions in this piece require only rethinking operations and processes, and any investment in software or upgrades will surely be repaid in convenience, efficiency, and customer satisfaction. I love and respect you all, and look forward to sharing relevant news and exciting innovations with you through Connecting Directors.