An Op-Ed Republished with Permission
As a provider of psychospiritual care to the bereaved, as a professional bereavement chaplain, theologian and thanatologist, I firmly believe that some things just have to be delivered locally and face-to-face; these include sex, making friends, spiritual care, funeralization services. Not necessarily in that order or priority ranking.
Grief work is not achieved in three days nor with an online consult. That’s purely and simply idiotic.
The saying goes thus: “Death is the great equalizer.” We are all equal in death. Presidents, kings, supreme court justices, movie stars, athletes all die, all decay, all go the same way as the homeless man on the corner. But would you think of direct burial or direct cremation for a president, a queen, Mohammed Ali? So why skimp on grandpa? We celebrate the deceased’s achievements in life, not the fact of his or her being dead. And we do it with pomp, ceremony, rites, ritual, tradition, dignity and respect. Virtual mourning is none of the above and the grief work is not achieved in three days nor with an online consult. That’s purely and simply idiotic.
Furthermore, a death is a social, political and community event. The emotions involved in the acute grief experience are far too complex and idiosyncratic to be amenable to one method, one technology, one dose. As a social, political and community event death care requires real community involvement, hands on, and that means a local group understanding the local cultures, a “neighborhood,” if you prefer. This is a physical community, complex, deep, involved, alive; not a virtual make-believe, conjured up community.
One more thing: We have to stop giving Jessica Mitford and her estate post-mortem kudos for a book and a sequel book that was not only self-serving and conflicted in its interests, but a masterpiece of biased muckraking appealing to the titillation lust of the masses and their denial of death anxieties. Mitford couldn’t attack Death itself nor could or would she attempt to attack institutionalized religion, so she went after the next best thing, the funeral services industry. I’ve cited Mitford several times on my various blogs so I won’t waste bytes on her here.
I place Mitford in the same category as Kübler-Ross in that neither of them can claim any objective or scientific credibility but their main contribution to Western, particularly American society, was to get people talking about death and deathcare services. That, my friends, was a big step in a society frozen in preadolescent fascinations, psychosocial pathological denial, anxiety and narcissism, steeped in materialist humanism and addicted to corporate-fed consumerism.
It’s progressively gotten worse with the public health problem of Internet Addiction Disorder and the pathological subset, Facebook Addiction Disorder, and the emergence of the multistate funeral services groups like Newcomer Funeral Services Group, Service Corporation International and their alter ego Dignity Memorial, and StoneMor, who have all added greed and indifference to the corporate mix of tastelessness and deception of the consumer public. and their dead Again, I’ve commented extensively on these ghouls of the funeral services niche so I won’t waste time or words on them here.
Like it or not, death is inevitable for every mortal creature from cockroaches to presidents and kings. No matter how you define or think about it, you will have to some day deal with death so get a grip. How you deal with the death of a significant other in your life, whether that loved one is a pet or a parent or a child–or your own death is a matter of what I will term befriending death. No, I don’t mean the superficial, make believe, virtual “befriending” most of you are addicted to on Facebook and other social media. I mean the kind of be-friending that involves learning about, nurturing an intimacy with, even trusting, welcoming into your world, and frequent contact. Being at ease with, acknowledging, being aware of death is key. That may sound a bit bizarre so let me explain.
Technology has evolved faster than we as human beings have done. We lag far behind technology in our understanding of it and our ability to wisely and prudently steward it. In fact, technology has overrun us and has taken over our lives; this can’t be denied. This fact has been used to the level of Dr Strangelove proportions by corporations and big business, and even by individuals with pathological ambitions like Donald Trump on Twitter and Mark Zuckerberg with the Facebook phenomenon. The medical, psychological and ethics journals are full of reports on the so-called Internet Addiction Disorder, which was described back in the 90’s, and now there’s a subset of that disorder termed the Facebook Addiction Disorder and the Internet Gaming Disorder, which all share the same symptoms as alcoholism and street drug addiction like heroin or the like. Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it, just go to Pubmed and plug in a couple search terms and you’ll get all the proof you’ll ever need of this fact.
Editor’s note: For those of you who are not familiar with Pubmed, it is the database and search engine maintained by the United States National Library of Medicine (NLM) at the National Institutes of Health; it provides access primarily to the MEDLINE database of references and abstracts on life sciences and biomedical topics. (Access Pubmed here. )
The stimulus for this editorial, however, is not Newcomers or SCI. Nor is it Twitter or Facebook. The funeral service corporations and the social media and networking evils do figure in the theme of this communication, however.
If presidents and perverts have discovered social networking and social media, neither of which are social in the benevolent meaning of the word but serve a more sinister, asocial purpose of getting people hooked and then controlling them, just as the word “service” is used deceptively when used in conjunction with such greed mills as Newcomers or Service Corporation International.
The stimulus for this commentary is, in fact, an article that appeared in Forbes online, “Customer Service In Deathcare: How The Funeral Home Industry Cares For The Living” (contributed by Micah Solomon, MAY 26, 2017).—
Mr Solomon describes himself as a “customer service consultant” and “consumer trends expert,” — he doesn’t say how he got those credentials, though — catchy phrases but a bit too catchy to inspire any confidence or credibility. I’m a bit at a loss not at the What? but at the How? when Mr Solomon then goes on to say:
While some of my own work with the death care industry as a customer service consultant and consumer trends expert has been on innovation in the deathcare customer experience (methods for serving today’s far-flung bereaved customers by using connectivity, videoconferencing, and recording technologies to allow them to take part in memorial/celebration of life service) most of the work I do in this industry and that matters the most, in my opinion, is simply aimed at improving the customer experience, which, of course, is for the living.
Likewise unclear is Solomon’s terminology “far-flung bereaved customers” and “connectivity, videoconferencing, and recording technologies” to involve them in the “memorial/celebration of life service“. Maybe it’s Mr Solomon’s sense of compassion that is represented by his use of the term “far-flung” to describe the unfortunate mourners who are separated by distance from the event. Describing the bereaved as “customers” further chills the atmosphere he’s creating. Technical jargon like “connectivity, videoconferencing, and recording technologies” somehow put a damper on my sense that this guy has any clue about the nature of bereavement, acute grief, mourning, tradition, spirituality, cultural sensitivity, or even the characteristics of the vocation of funeral director. I’m therefore at something of a loss how he, with his frigid and disconnected technospeak, can improve the customer experience! This he leaves to the funeral directors he’s interviewing. Wisely so.
But even more poignant ar the three phrases caught my attention in that unimaginitive and deceptive title: “customer service,” “deathcare,” “funeral home industry.”
We alone, as moral agents and social actors, are responsible for what we do and how we do it
Inserting a bit of Kantian deontology that I’d like you to keep in the back of your mind while reading this, I’d like to say that we are not measured by what the other guy or gal does, but by what we do; we alone, as moral agents and social actors, are responsible for what we do and how we do it. It’s the quality of our values, morals and ethics that govern our behavior. As moral free agents we alone are responsible for what standards are used to guide our conduct.This applies not only to our inner forum, our conscience and how it guides us, but to the external forum, the community in which we live, work, and may disinterestedly interact.
Human service becomes “customer” service when an goods or services transaction forms the basis of the interaction
Customer service is at its most basic human service, service to human beings, human interaction, relationship building. By human services, I mean a broad range of interdisciplinary services whose commitment is jointly and individually to improve the overall quality of life in diverse populations through guidance in meeting basic human needs and support remediating real or perceived social challenges. Human service becomes “customer” service when a goods or services transaction forms the basis of the interaction but it is still a subset of human services. Accordingly, customer service cannot separate itself from the humane aspect, the relationship aspect of its nature. The problem I have with the Forbes article is that, true to the materialist consumerist interests of Forbes, the article defines customer service purely in terms of selling and purchasing relationships but in the context of the so-called, malapropism, funeral service industry. Customer service must be human service, especially in the funeral services professions. Human service and hence customer service in this framework is near impossible on a corporate or industrial scale for reasons I’d be happy to substantiate in another article, if required.
The second term that raised my suspicions is “deathcare.” We can defined death care as the care given to the dead or as post-mortem care. This would involve respectful and dignified custodianship and preparation of the dead body for whatever funeralization rites and rituals are appropriate as defined by the deceased individual during his or her life or as requested by the survivors. We must not oversimplify deathcare with the deathcare services businesses and industries that commonly provide services related to the dead body and death traditions, that is, preparation of the dead body (removal, embalming, cosmetology, etc.), funeral rituals, disposal (burial, cremation, etc.), and memorialization. The deathcare business includes for example funeral homes and their operations, including transporation services; containers like caskets, coffins, urns; accelerated decomposition services such as alkaline hydrolysis, cremation, etc.; cemeteries and burial plots, and headstones, markers, etc. What we most neglect in the discussion of deathcare services is psychospiritual care, and here we must include the professional bereavement chaplain and some but not most clergy.
The phrase that most raised my hackles is “funeral home industry.” First of all, the funeral home is not an industry. It may operate like a business but it is a professional operation requiring very specific training and licensure in most places. Most states require a trained and licensed funeral director to at least oversee the operations of a funeral home. The term “funeral home industry” is grossly misleading and deceptive because it creates an image of the traditional funeral home with all of its warmth and amenities together with the dignified and compassionate professional funeral director at its helm. Nothing could be farther from the truth if one looks at the funeral services industry, the more correct designation for the funeral services groups and corporations such as Newcomer Funeral Services Group, Service Corporation International (Dignity Memorial) or StoneMor, who operate more like waste disposal business than funeral homes. Remember corporations operate according to policies, procedures, protocols and most of all the bottom line and shareholder satisfaction. No room here for stuff like compassion, empathy, much less “human service”.
Their focus is twofold: dignified care of the dead and compassionate care of the living.
The role of the funeral services provider, more accurately the funeral services team, is just that: to provide human services. Those human services are provided by a team of specialists that range from the funeral home cleaning and maintenance person(s), to the housekeeper, the groundskeeper, the funeral home assistants, the behind the scenes professionals (the cosmetologist, the hair stylist, the embalmer), to the front of house staff (the assistants, the funeral director(s)), to the psychospiritual care provider (the funeral home chaplain or associated clergyperson). Their focus is twofold: dignified care of the dead and compassionate care of the living. The human services aspect persists far beyond the care provided with the first call, the removal, the arrangements conference, the chaplain visit and consultation, the visitation or the funeral; what happens at any of these milestones significantly affects the survivors during, immediately after the services, and well into the future, perhaps for years. That’s what the funeral services industry, the large groups, the corporations can’t provide but what the local family-owned funeral home pride themselves in: the human side of funeral services. So be clear on this point: once you start talking “industry” you are not talking “human”. Period.
So far I’ve taken issue only with three phrases that occur in the title of the article alone. But what about the remainder of the so-called article at issue? Well, there’s not much to say about it because the bulk of it is made up of questions put to three selected funeral directors and their responses. Their responses are totally acceptable in terms of the language, and to be honest I can’t find much with which I’d tend to disagree. The funeral directors seem to have their acts in order and say the right things. They are in a highly competitive business and have to be realistic, not necessarily traditional. Read into that what you like.
It should be clear by this point that I do not advocate virtual or technological or corporate solutions to anything as profound as the death experience or any occurrence of acute traumatic bereavement. Electronic signals, bits and bytes, virtual compassion just do not and cannot replace the warmth of human spirit, the compassionate embrace of a friend or loved one, the immediacy of the death experience, the real-ization of the death and its sequellae. The funeral home and its resident and on-call team members are the experts in offering compassion and comfort and no social networking scheme, no corporate disposal package, no virtual event and no DVD can replace the authenticity and true empathic response of face-to-face, human-to-human, verbal and non-verbal communications, the symbols and rituals that give meaning to this most mysterious of life events, death.
… some things just have to be delivered locally and face-to-face; these include sex, making friends, spiritual care, funeralization services.
Editor’s Note: Solomon’s self-description reads line a narcissist’s mini-bio: “I’m best known as an author, keynote speaker, consultant, and thought leader in customer service, customer experience, company culture, leadership, hospitality, innovation, entrepreneurship and consumer trends. I travel nationally and worldwide, and home base is metro Seattle. Reach me at 484-343-5881 or firstname.lastname@example.org or http://www.micahsolomon.com” We’ve contacted him for a comment on this editorial.
Acknowledgement: I’d like to extend my special thanks to my colleagues on LinkedIn, Ms Linda Williams M. Ed., M. Th., who describes herself as an Entrepreneur, Virtual Event Planner and Facilitator, Instructional Designer, Educator, Inspirational Speaker”.” Ms Williams describes her business, In-Person Away Virtual Events, as an operation that provides “our clients, their families, and friends with a virtual alternative to come together in an engaging, realistic and meaningful way, as well as host and attend social events, without breaking the bank on travel expenses.” Ms Williams does not advocate virtual resources as a substitute for real presence but only as a valuable alternative affording an opportunity to share where no other viable options are available. I agree.