A wonderful send-off

My Gramma Brose lived in Broken Arrow, OK, when she died at the home of her daughter. She had lung problems and moved there from Minneapolis, MN, to get out of the cold, harsh winters. As her health deteriorated and it got to the point her son-in-law had to change her diaper, she decided that was enough. She went to bed and slipped off her oxygen mask and died.

The Oklahoma family had a family visitation led by her pastor, and then she was shipped back to Minneapolis for burial. The family came to me, the family funeral director who “knows what to do” and asked, “We’re not going to have a pastor; what should we do?” If there was ever an opportunity for a funeral director/trained Celebrant, this was a golden opportunity. Due to funeral home scheduling, we had a two-hour period in which to get this done prior to departing to the cemetery.

We met at the funeral home at our starting time, and after a brief period of visiting and getting reacquainted, we gathered to the chapel. Luckily, this funeral home had individual chairs instead of long, wooden pews. The funeral home staff helped me align the chairs in a giant “U” shape with my grandmother at the top of the “U.” This configuration takes the pressure off and allows for better interaction during the family sharing time than if the rows are rigidly facing the front.

I read a poem that was reflective of her life. “Gramma lived a good, long life; let’s share the many memories we have of her.” So many neat stories were told: my grandmother had a leash for one of her sons when he was little; he liked to run off in crowds. My grandmother always sent us cards for birthdays, Christmas, Halloween, etc. and there was always a few dollars in the card. But they weren’t just any dollar bills, they were always crisp, brand-new dollars; it was her trademark. We remembered the many times she would accompany us grandkids to the swimming pool and watch us for hours on end. After returning to her apartment, we were treated to a bottle of RC Cola. My grandparents had a naugahyde chair with an accompanying foot stool that spun. All of us grandkids recollected how we got into trouble for spinning ourselves on the footstool. My aunt spoke of how my grandmother always looked like a million bucks; she was always dressed to the nines. At Christmas time, my grandmother baked dozens and dozens of Christmas cookies. I remembered how she tried to get me to eat grapefruit. I don’t care how much sugar you put on it, I still hated it. Before she went to bed each night, she enjoyed one can of beer while watching the opening monologue of Johnny Carson; that was her routine. We shared many more fun memories; we laughed and cried.

My grandmother was a church-goer. My aunt and grandmother went to church each Sunday, but split their time between my grandmother’s Lutheran Church and my aunt’s Catholic Church. For a “Sermon” I shared two bible verses: John 14:1-6 (In my Father’s House are many rooms…) and II Timothy 4:7-8 (I have fought the good fight; I have finished the race…). I spoke of how Gramma was an inspiration in how she lived her life, how she always saw the bright side in things and never complained. I encouraged all of us to continue to remember Gramma and continue to share the memories that we shared earlier. For through that, she will continue to remain alive in our memories forever. I closed with a poem and then it was time to go to the cemetery. The funeral home staff came forward and gave us instructions on safety during the procession to the cemetery.

At the cemetery, we grandsons carried her over to the graveside to be buried next to her husband, our grandfather. I read I Corinthians 15:51-56. Each of us had a rose to lay on top of the casket. I had everyone gather around her casket and lay their roses on top. I then asked them to place their hands on top of her casket. “Each of us is unique, so unique that no two of us have the same fingerprints. I think it’s fair to say the Gramma touched all of our lives. That touch, those memories, will stay with us in our hearts and minds as long as we shall live. Now, as you lift your hands from the casket, and if you look just right in the sunlight, you will see that a little part of you, your fingerprints, will always be with her.” We closed with The Lord’s Prayer. Following the graveside service, our family gathered at a restaurant that was one of my gramma’s favorites. My dad called ahead and had them reserve a section for our family. What a wonderful send-off. It was a very fitting tribute for my grandmother’s life.

What really happened…

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Some of the above story is true. If I had to do it all over again, what you just read is exactly how I’d do it. But it didn’t happen that way. You see, my grandmother died in early October of 1996. I hadn’t quite stumbled across Doug Manning’s columns in The Dodge Magazine. I hadn’t been to Celebrant Training.

The first few paragraphs are true: my grandmother died in Oklahoma, was shipped back to Minneapolis, we had a visitation time and then went to the cemetery. My family did come to me and ask, “We’re not going to have a pastor; what should we do?” After all, I was the “professional.” But my mode of being a “professional funeral director” meant meeting with the family, filling in the blanks and then, like playing football, throw the ball to the clergy and then stand in the back. I really didn’t know what to do. I said, “Well, after the visitation, we’ll gather at the cemetery and share a few stories and then go to lunch.” Bad advice, bad advice.

We gathered for our two-hour visitation and we just talked amongst ourselves and got reacquainted. It was like there was a white elephant (my grandmother) in the room. We all took our turns viewing her, but we never talked about her. Then it was time to go to the cemetery.

When we got to the cemetery, my bright idea of sharing memories went over horribly. It wasn’t the time or the place. We all stood there, in choked-up silence. We never even said The Lord’s Prayer. It was absolutely awful. Then we went to my grandmother’s favorite restaurant.

At the time, I thought I’d done an OK job. I’m sure the funeral home staff thought they’d done a wonderful job: the chapel and cars were clean, their shoes were shined and ties were on straight. I failed, but I didn’t know any better at the time. I can’t go back and re-do my grandmother’s send-off.
What do we funeral directors have to offer if a family doesn’t want a minister? What do we have to offer if a family isn’t religious? What do you do when a family wants something and the minister won’t do it? Do you have more to offer than a rolodex of rent-a-minsters? If all we have to offer is the awful experience I shared above, don’t question why people opt for simplicity, cremation, and no service.

My grandmother looked beautiful in her casket; the embalmer did a wonderful job. Suppose my grandmother was cremated and it was an urn there instead of a casket. It would still be an awful experience.

When you say, “Everyone needs a funeral,” what’s your definition of a funeral? My mom died in 1976 from brain cancer. Her death is what got me interested in this business. She was just 36 when she died. She was embalmed, casketed, had a visitation at the funeral home, funeral at the Lutheran Church, and buried in a vault at the cemetery. In other words, it was every funeral director’s dream. Is this your definition of an ideal funeral?

Fast-forward 42 years. My dad is still alive and well. For the past 20+ years, he’s been telling me he wants direct cremation and then have a gathering at the country club. I’ve argued with him for years, telling him he “has to have a funeral.” In other words, like my mom’s funeral.

I used to drink the Kool-Aid that if we’d just hone our embalming skills, we’d get people like my dad to change his mind. My dad is not going to change his mind. And for the record, poor-looking bodies has not once been his rationale for his wish for direct cremation. To those of you who think that’s the reason, you’re delusional.

The mode of funeral service I’ve been raised on is to meet with the family, fill in the blanks, and then (like playing football) pass it to the clergy and let them take over. I’ll stand in the back and drink coffee/smoke/check my phone.

A few funerals, among many, many years ago that started to change my thinking: the Lutheran pastor dutifully read the liturgy in the green hymnal word-for-word. For the sermon, she said, “Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I didn’t know Alice, but I know Alice’s God…” Poor Alice was never mentioned again. I went over to my then-employer and asked, “Who’s in the box?”

The second funeral that comes to mind: the minister was a friend of the fellow who died; the minister’s wife died nine months prior. The minister went on-and-on about his wife’s death. I went over to my then-employer and asked, “Are we at the wrong funeral?” I started thinking there has to be more to it than this: fill in the blanks, embalm, casket, throw it to the clergy and stand in the back.

The-late Ron Hast wrote in Mortuary Management, “Simplicity, cremation and the declining role of organized religion.” I’m seeing it with my own family; I’m seeing it in the families I serve. I recently emailed the statistician at our State’s Division of Vital Records (North Dakota). The cremation rate in our state is 43%. It’s been rising 3% every year.

We are not exempt from “change.” With Amazon and online buying, what’s the future of the shopping mall? (Think Sears/Herbergers/Toys R Us). My children won’t subscribe to a newspaper (they’re not getting any less news). More and more people are dropping their hard-wired home phones (Was it a failure of your telephone company to educate you of the value of a hard-wired phone line?). Pay phones aren’t coming back to airports. Fur coats are no longer a part of the Miss America Pageant. Remember the waterbed rage of the 1980s? Try and find one now. We aren’t listening to any less music; we’re certainly not doing it on 8-track tapes. Take a moment and read about Kodak, then ask yourself if you’re taking any fewer pictures. With the above examples in mind: we are not experiencing any fewer deaths; we are experiencing less “traditional.”

I know you are knowledgeable in serving traditional families; we all are. The fastest growing religion in America is “none.”

My dad still brings up his wishes. I no longer argue with him and his wish for direct cremation. There is no way I’ll get my dad to come around to my old way of thinking; it was me who had to come around and see reality. I’ve come to the realization that people not only know what they want, they also know what they don’t want.

My dad doesn’t want a clergy/high church funeral. So what do we have to offer him? The last time my dad brought up his wishes, I asked him, “Who’s going to lead your gathering at the country club?” He replied, “You know, that’s a good question.” What do you have to offer that family that isn’t religious? I know of a lady who does not believe in God. When the time comes, what do we have to offer her as a way to honor her life? If all we have to offer is retired Pastor Frank down the street, that’s not what she’d want. These families will come to you for direct cremation and leave. They’re not interested in what you have to sell.

Our world of “traditional funeral service” has changed. When one door is closed, we so often look long and lovingly on the closed door that we don’t see the new door opening for us. Fellow funeral directors: there is opportunity there. There is an opportunity to take the “funeral” back and remain relevant. There’s an avenue to serve families with services meeting the needs of the family and creating services tailored to the life of the deceased. Step out of the back, put your coffee, cigarettes and phone away. Attend Celebrant Training. There’s opportunity. I have never regretted attending Celebrant Training back in 2007. The future is bright.

Jeff Brose

Jeff Brose is a licensed funeral director in North Dakota and owns Brose Funeral Home in Mohall.

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