I am officially a funeral director licensed in the state of Michigan to prepare the dead, process the paperwork and direct the final rites taking the deceased to his or her final disposition (our term for burial or cremation).
The public’s view of funeral directors comes from many experiences: family funerals, Jessica Mitford’s book, The American Way of Death, and, of course, HBO’s Six Feet Under. My favorite is from the BBC production of A Christmas Carol, done in the ‘50s. Scrooge goes up to the stairs to say his goodbye to his dying partner, Marley. On the way he encounters a well-dressed man in black, with a tape measure around his neck, waiting outside Marley’s bedroom. Scrooge asks, “Are you the doctor?” “No,” the man replies, “I am the undertaker. Ours is a competitive profession.”
The last rings true as people have the choice of many funeral homes in urban areas or one funeral home if they live in the country. Funeral homes haven’t changed much in the last 50 years or so. They are large or small buildings, with a series of separate rooms where the dead “slumber” (sometimes called slumber rooms) and families receive visitors paying their respects. The furniture is often dated, usually in Queen Anne style, dark woods, brass chandeliers, patterned sofas, lots of wallpaper and heavy curtains. More enlightened funeral homes have coffee rooms, where families can put out food, often sharing the room with other families, each warily watching so one family doesn’t inadvertently take food from another’s table. There is nothing wrong with these funeral homes. They do a competent job. It’s just that they often turn off people who haven’t been introduced to a funeral planner.
That’s what I am repackaging myself to be: a funeral planner. After all, funerals are a rite of passage, in the same category as weddings, graduations, baptisms, 50th anniversary celebrations, etc. But we don’t approach them as such. We wait until the last minute, after death has occurred, to drag our weary and grief-stricken selves to the local funeral home and, in shock, are asked so many questions about what we want that our head spins. We do the best under the circumstances. The funeral director goes through the motions and our funeral comes off like so many others: cookie-cutter but accomplished. Thinking about it afterward we can’t go back and change anything. It’s a memory we’ll live with the rest of our lives.
Can you imagine your child coming to you and saying, “Mom (or Dad), I’m getting married the day after tomorrow. Could you please book the church and hall, buy my dress, order flowers, print invitations, schedule the limo and the photographer, etc. in the next day? You would be appropriately horrified and tell your child to go to the courthouse instead while you offer to host a reception down the road,
And, yet, that is what funeral directors do every day when families come in after the death.
So thinking that the public has a dour view of the funeral director, the mortician, the undertaker, I’m going to repackage myself as the funeral planner, the final event planner.
We all know the event planners. We hire them for our weddings, our corporate events, our nonprofit fundraisers, graduation parties and so on. Event planners provide a valuable service. They have great ideas for events, because they deal with them on a daily basis. They can handle the details, schedule the players, envision the venue and work out in advance the game plan. All you do is follow their directions. You know your event will be unique and memorable. Your stress level goes down so you can truly be part of the celebration (yes, funeral is a celebration of life, the entire life lived). A good funeral helps to put you on a good path to healing, learning to live without the deceased and transferring your love of the deceased into memory in your heart.
That’s what I want to do with each funeral we plan. So call me the funeral planner and give me a shot when you are planning for death, yours or other person.