Vol. I, Issue X
by Pat Hollick
Sunset Memorial Gardens, Richland WA
The Last Word
As the Director who gets the last word in 2012 I am going to say a few provocative things about our Association and profession as a whole and hopefully start the necessary conversation I believe we all must have in 2013. How do we in the Death Care profession survive let alone thrive in the 21st century? This is the question of our time and we'd better start asking this question now or there won't be many of us left around to care about it in the future.
If we are to be the "Go to" Association in the state of Washington I think there are some tough questions we need to ask. Questions like, "Why does a person need to have a license to sit with an at-need family to arrange a funeral?" I was told once by someone in this profession that "we're licensed so that we can control things, you have to control it!" he said. And I would say, "How much control have we lost already trying to protect ourselves?" Does owning a license suddenly make you more compassionate? I think not. Shocking fact: Golf pros and yacht club managers have been arranging funerals for years now and doing it all without a license.
Here's an oldie but a goodie. Is it finally time to combat with a state-wide ad campaign some of the negative press this profession receives from various segments of society? We complain year after year about how people perceive us in a negative light but do absolutely nothing to defend ourselves against it. What, if anything, is an association for if it does not defend its membership? Outside of the legislature, we've failed in this regard.
Why do we continue to push the same old tired funeral home model of operation at the consumer when they are clearly dissatisfied with it? We don't have a captive audience any more in the way of a casket and we're not going to excite the consumer by taking that model, inserting the term "cremation" and make it work. The model too often places the consumer last in the equation when in reality they should be first. We too often price to cover our overhead and then try to convince the family of the value we're providing. Somehow I don't think they're seeing it.
The cemetery has its hang-ups too. For instance, why do cremations slated for ground burial require an outer encasement? If the family signs a scattering document before burial then the cemetery is protected legally and the family is taken care of their way without the additional charge for the encasement. What about shutter fronts regarding color and letter fonts? Do you let families mix and match, or do you confine them to the old cookie cutter look because you think their way looks too messy to the eye? Why can't a cremation shutter be as unique as a lawn level marker?
Our families are educated like never before and they're tired of additional charges for goods and services that are really not necessary or that they can provide for themselves. More and more families are taking control of the process and I think that can be a healthy thing. Don't punish them for buying a Costco casket. Just be glad you got the service and take care of them.
As an association, what, if any, influence or direction regarding curriculum or real world experience are we giving to the schools who may produce our future employees? Why for instance are funeral directors not certified Celebrants when they graduate from school? Do they get any event planning training? How about retail sales training? Sales is not a dirty word! We need to sell like never before - especially in style and substance. It's a new age out there, how come many of us are still fumbling around in the past when families are begging for something different? The consumer is telling us where we need to be, but are we listening?
Regarding services for pet owners, should we as an association be proactive with regards to legislation and consider using our influence to amend current law and allow cremated pet remains to be placed with humans in our cemeteries as long as it is done in new developments only and disclosed up front to the public? It's a billion-dollar-a-year industry! Why not endear ourselves to that segment of society? The general public is ready emotionally to accept the idea and besides we all know that it's happening already. Why not give it the recognition it deserves? Why force a family to sneak their pet's remains into somebody's casket? Why not let them honor their pet's memory with care and respect?
An effective, influential, and relevant association should be about more than just membership dues, budgets and networking. It should be about big ideas, leaping from the airplane and packing the chute on the way down. I believe we risk fragmenting as an association if certain dogmas of the past are not forgotten and we do not stop suffocating the innovators and risk takers with regulation, tradition, and suit and tie. The WCCFA should ultimately be about the families we serve. Isn't that why we're all in this business? Not for ego, nor tradition, but for the simple beautiful human experience of helping someone grieve the loss of something that can never be replaced, the mortal soul. We as an association should not be dragged kicking and screaming to preserve that.
I hope the new year will allow us as an association some time to explore some big ideas and confront bigger fears. I respect you all and your contribution to this association and I wish for you the best in 2013. I'll see you next year! Until then I'll be leaping from a few airplanes.
Access the minutes of the Washington State Department of Licensing's Funeral and Cemetery Board 11/6/2012 meeting here:
(link) November 6, 2012
The WCCFA Governmental and Legal Affairs Committee recommends you attend these meetings if at all possible. Here is a schedule for forthcoming meetings. You can also see minutes of past board meetings.
Mortality: How do you talk to kids about death?
For Lindsay Fisher of Vancouver, Wa., talking about death is a part of life. Fisher works as a funeral director at her family funeral home, Evergreen Memorial Gardens, and often brings her sons, five-year-old Jack and two-year-old Will, to work.
"Both boys have grown up with words like 'died,' 'funeral' and 'cremation,'" says Fisher. "One of Jack's earliest words was 'casket'!"
It shouldn't. Experts say that discussing mortality with children early and often promotes a healthy approach to loss. But most parents aren't as well versed as Fisher in the delicate topic of mortality. In fact, few topics inspire more parental hesitation that death and dying.
"We talk to our kids about sex, their bodies, and stranger danger, even though those are tough conversations, because we know the benefit to kids is huge," says Sarina Natkin, L. C. S. W., a Seattle-based parent educator and coach. But when it comes to mortality, she says, parents falter.
Well-meaning moms and dads dodge the topic because they don't want to scare young children or dwell on the morose. But avoiding the subject can actually do more harm than good, especially children sense the topic is off-limits. After a loss, the worst thing that could happen is for there to be no discussion, says Jill Cole, D. S. W., a family therapist in Seattle. "This leaves the child to fantasize and imagine the worst, with nobody to talk to."
Talking the talk
The good news: many parents do attempt to talk with kids about death and mortality, says Matkin. Unfortunately, the "talk" may be an ambiguous two-step, with parents dancing around the issue with verbal inventions ("Rover lives on a beautiful farm now!") or murky euphemisms such as "he went to sleep" or "we lost him."
The desire to gloss over the grisly realities is natural and normal, says Natkin.
"As parents, we have an innate desire to protect our children, and that's a good thing." But in this case, parents' protective instincts can lead them astray. The best approach, she says, is a straightforward one: "I encourage parents to talk about mortality using words like 'died' and 'dead' in a very natural way. Flowers die, insects die, and so do people. Using factual language from early childhood on builds a cognitive model that frames death as a natural part of life."
When parents trade euphemisms for plain, straightforward language, children are more likely to grasp the situation. Common expression such as "passed away," "gone" or "lost" can confuse and scare young children, who lack the worldly context needed to decipher these phrases.
"Kids hear the word 'lost' and think losing a person is like losing a toy," says Fisher. "It makes it difficult for them to understand what really happened." Never tell children that a loved one "went to sleep," she says. "It's terrifying to a young child to think he might go to sleep and never wake up. In this case, the easy answer isn't the best one."
Grief, age by age
How parents approach the topic - and how children respond - depends on each child's age and developmental maturity. Natkin tells parents to begin the conversation in toddlerhood. "I don't think there's an age that's too young to start using the words 'death' and 'dying.' The more we normalize those words, the less taboo they are."
Toddlers and preschoolers have a shaky concept of permanence and may not understand that a loved one is gone for good, says Natkin.
To communicate the concept of "forever," parents can use phrases like "he's dead, and we're not going to see him anymore" and accept that it may take months for children to fully grasp the idea that their friend, relative or pet isn't coming back.
Grade-school children are often fascinated by the biological aspects of death, such as burial, decomposition and cremation, and may ask questions parents deem gory ("Are worms eating her body?").
Teens may act indifferent, hiding emotions, or talk to friends and teachers instead of parents.
No matter what kids ages are, Donna L Schuurman, ED.D., executive director of the Dougy Center - The National Center for Grieving Children and Families in Portland, Oregon, recommends bringing up the topic instead of waiting for children to ask about it. This lets kids know that the topic is fair game for discussion. Schuurman advises parents to start with a phrase such as 'grandma died, and I'm feeling sad. I'm going to miss her very much.'"
Focus on sharing your own feelings, instead of telling children how they "should" or "must" be feeling, says Cole. "You don't really know how children are feeling. Talking about your own experiences or generalizing the family's experience (for example, saying, 'this is a hard time for all of us') draws a child out, opening the door for questions and conversation," she notes.
What about over-sharing? Is it possible to say too much about death with a child?
Generally speaking, if a child asks a question, he's ready for a straightforward answer, says Schuurman. "Don't answer questions they're not asking. Developmentally, they're asking what they feel they need to know." To keep information age-appropriate, answer kids' questions naturally and factually as they arise, without embellishing or adding extra information.
At-need solutions integrating cremation burials
It's no surprise that the slow economy has affected preneed sales in many cemeteries. An increasing number of people are delaying their cemetery purchases until the need arises for a crypt or grave. This reduced preneed revenue has ultimately affected capital development projects such as mausoleums columbarium and guarded Crete structures. As a result, these projects are now being developed on at-need basis.
The slow economy is not the only issue affecting decision-making in regards to cemetery buildings. With the rise in popularity of cremation burial options, a unique challenge has arisen for many cemeteries. There is a need for an economic design solution to integrating cremation with full-body burials, without disrupting the fluidity of the existing site. Not only is this an issue for in-ground burials but for mausoleums and crypt complexes as well.
The shift from traditional belief systems to more modern approaches has allowed for new options in cemetery planning and design. While from a size standpoint, combining full-body and cremation burial into the cemetery is challenging, a successful outcome can be achieved. You just have to plan for it. This shift has also given the cemeteries an ample opportunity to offer many new cremation burial choices that formerly did not exist.
With the demand for more options, cemeterians can see an increase in return on investment with cemetery buildings that offer the integration of burial types. More importantly, there is an opportunity to create a new identity within a cemetery for cremation.
A successful and budget-conscious design solution should increase inventory options, lay the groundwork for future expansion, and provide for strategic preneed and at-need sales plans.
When planning for a mausoleum or garden crypt complex, choosing a phased construction approach is an economic option that allows a cemetery to build space as it is needed. While the entire project is designed up front for all future needs, it is constructed in phases on an at-need basis. Each phase of the construction process should be completed as a fully finished piece to prevent an "added-on" or unfinished look. This strategy allows construction to progress as budgets and revenue allow while providing a coherent design every step of the way. Phased construction also offers the flexibility to plan for a variety of inventory options (singles, tandems, companions and couch) to be built at each phase, contributing to a strong preneed sales program.
When the Catholic Cemeteries of Chicago decided to build a new chapel and garden crypt complex at Holy Sepulchre Cemetery in Alsip, Illinois, a phased construction plan was chosen. The overall project was designed in full, and the construction plan was divided into three sections or phases. The first phase will add 1100 new crypts and 1200 new niches. After all phases are complete, a total of 3600 crypts and 2400 niches will have been added. In the first phase, the grading of the site and foundation walls were completed to accommodate the future expansion, allowing for a seamless transition. Although the first phase takes on these additional upfront costs, it allows for less expensive future phases.
To accommodate the rise in cremation rates, the client was focused on traditional clientele as well as those desiring new cremation options. The single garden crypt complex was to provide for both, but it also presented the opportunity to take the Holy Sepulchre complex a step further.
The design team found a solution that divided the building intersections. The south end of the building would honor full-bodied burial, while the north end would honor cremated remains. The separation of the two worlds within the whole of the building was intentional this was done to create a sense of place and new identity dedicated to cremation. A variety of cremation options will now be available in the north section that includes columbarium walls, in-ground cremated remains, in-ground cremation family estates and cremation memorial walls.
With multiple cremation choices designed and built into the garden crypt building, the cemetery can offer a premium cremation option. This prime space allows for increased price points and, in turn, an increased return on investment in the building. Memorial walls mimicking the circular form of the building also denote the in-ground cremated remains and family estates. Memorial walls are also a great chance to incorporate an art element into the cemetery.
With the phased design plan, cemeteries can prepare for the future. The successful integration of tradition burial and new cremation options also brings new opportunities to create premium cremation areas.
Putting the innocent to rest
Elissa Davey's calling is not an easy one. Most people would not do, or even be able to emotionally handle, what she has dedicated much of her life to accomplishing. Bus as she says, "We just have to do the best we can."
Davey's journey started in 1998, after she read an article about a dead baby boy who was found in a trash can on a local college campus in Chula Vista, California. The thought of the abandoned remains stuck in her minds.
Some time later, still plagued with curiosity, Davey called the San Diego County Medical Examiner to get more information about the status of the baby boy's remains. According to the medical examiner's office, the baby boy's body was still there waiting to be claimed, and if they weren't, they would go into an unmarked grave at Mount Hope Cemetery in San Diego.
Davey wasn't OK with that option, and she was adamant on claiming the body, naming him and finding a dignified place for him to be buried. She asked the medical examiner to explain to her the proper procedures on claiming the baby's remains. According to Davey, he said, "Show me you have a dignified place to put him."
That push for information from Davey - about the remains of a baby boy that no one wanted - was the beginning of Davey's new mission in life.
A new mission
After that experience, Davey, along with Pastor Dr. Netreia Carroll, started Garden of Innocence National, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization that provides dignified burials for the remains of abandoned and unidentified children. The organization's goal is to start up each state's own Garden of Innocence. But according to the organization's website, "We don't do the work for you, we help you set it up and run this service yourself. We have all the teaching guides to help you get started and guide you every step of the way."
All of the gardens under Garden of Innocence work under the organization's main umbrella and follow its guidelines. The donations that are given to Garden of Innocence are shared with each other to help all the gardens raise money, especially since volunteers do the work.
"Once a child is found either abandoned or unidentified, we take over its care. We give the child a loving goodbye," the organization's website states. "The moment the county tells us they have a child for our garden, we stop forward and do what is right."
The interest from cemeterians has been growing. There are already several gardens in California; one is being worked on in Arizona, as well as one in Las Vegas. Davey hopes to eventually have gardens in every state. Amazingly enough, her mission has gone international - a Garden of Innocence has already been established in Poland.
However, because all of the parts of the burial (from the child's clothes to the casket to the plot) have to be donated, it hasn't always been easy for Davey and her team. But once Davey explains to companies and cemeterians the positive feelings that this act can provide, "they see it's a really good thing," Davey said.
One of the comments she hears often is from people who cannot understand the desire to bury the remains of unclaimed and abandoned babies. "I say, 'How can we not?'" Davey said. "They didn't ask for this. They didn't deserve this. They deserve better."
She added, "Every baby has a story that's meaningful and deserves to be told."
Because these deceased babies and young children are often abandoned at hospitals (some found outside by passersby), Davey and her team will name them and provide a day they were buried - the day they were born and died is not always known.
For a baby or young child who is found by an individual, Davey will invite him or her to the memorial service and even offer that he or she name the deceased. In addition, she assures anyone involved that the baby's remains will be taken care of with dignity and respect when the hospital allows the remains to be released to Davey.
These services are attended by garden volunteers, and often by members of the community who have nothing to do with Garden of Innocence. According to Davey, having memorials like these can give a community some semblance of peace inside - knowing that the remains of a baby or young child have been taken care of, the deceased have been named and put to rest in a dignified fashion. "It's from the goodness of our own hearts," Davey said.
In addition to the donated services, a poem is read at every memorial service. "We focus on the baby (in the poem)," Davey said. "Not the mother, not on the abandonment."
A few of the monetary donations to Garden of Innocence National have been significant amounts. Most often, however, the organizations gains volunteers and donations through word of mouth. Some of these volunteers included local Eagle Scout troops, which have come together to build baby caskets for the organization.
One of the projects was organized by Stephen Packard. Packard, a teenage Boy Scout from San Marcos, California, called Davey and said that he wanted to build her 11 caskets for babies that are taken care of by Garden of Innocence National. "They have no idea what they have accomplished. They are giving a major gift of love to children that had none by creating a gentle, loving place for them to rest," Davey said on the organization's website.
Davey's grandson, Mikey, has helped with Garden of Innocence National's Facebook page. Another one of Davey's grandsons, Jacob, also tried to get his Boy Scout troop involved to help with flowers and other services that are needed at the funerals. "We do what we can, and (towns) are usually very appreciative," Davey said.
However, Davey has had some town problems when trying to start new gardens. "One of the problems I have when I try to start another garden in another area is politics," she said. "They didn't care yesterday where the child went, as long as it was taken to a mortuary and removed from the morgue. They didn't care how or where it was buried. But when I come onto the picture, then suddenly everyone has to get involved from the coroner, medical examiner, public administrator, board of supervisors, county council, county lawyers and the list goes on."
"The counties are covering themselves, if there is a lawsuit of some kind, or the child's parents come back and get angry because it was a Christian burial when they were Buddhist, or their religion doesn't approve of cremation - something like that," Davey added.
In her heart, however, Davey believes that Garden of Innocence is providing a needed and important service - both to the community and to the babies that were forgotten and discarded. "The babies...they know what we are doing," she said.
Article by Tanya Kenevich for the September 2012 issue of Ameican Cemetery Magazine, reproduced in its entirety with permission.
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Looking for people motivated to train for a second career
Bob Gordon doesn't sit around bemoaning the lack of qualified people who want to work at his cemetery, funeral home and crematory. He always has business cards with him to hand out to anyone he sees providing superior customer service, whether it's a waiter, a store clerk or someone shining shoes.
With so many people who have been laid off, are unable to find a job or are working at a job that offers little in the way of pay, benefits or satisfaction, funeral homes and cemeteries that traditionally have trouble overcoming people's preconceptions about the work they offer have a good pool of potential second-career workers available, Gordon said.
Gordon has been the ICCFA representative to the American Board of Funeral Service Education and is passionate about updating the curriculum at mortuary schools. Though he does not frequently look for employees in the schools' graduating classes, he does send people to mortuary school for training to be funeral directors, and he wants to get his money's worth.
Looking for second-career people
"We want to hire somebody who wants a career," Gordon said. He runs a lean operation in which employees must be flexible (mechanics who work grounds at the cemetery also learn to embalm at the funeral home) and self-directed (everybody works on commission), so he prefers older employees.
"I don't want to hire kids who have no work ethic," Gordon said. "Embalming schools were set up to trade C-grade high school students who need a lot of hands-on mentoring.
"I want to hire somebody who has been out in the workplace in the real world, has been involved in their community."
He figures that in today's economy, in which so many people who thought they had careers have been laid off, it's a great time to find good people willing to learn the funeral-cemetery business.
"I pay for their education, and it's not cheap," Gordon said, "but I'm willing to do that to get the best people, the ones I want to hire."
One of his top priorities is encouraging more mortuary schools offer online training. "Someone who's 35 years old and married with a family can't afford to relocate in order to attend embalming school, or to support their family back home while they're living in another state at school. Online is the only way this works."
There are about a half dozen schools that offer an online mortuary science degree, and he wants to see more add this option.
"If the average age of funeral directors today is 57, if we don't get more people through mortuary school, we're not going to have enough licensed people to serve the needs of the baby boomers," Gordon said. He believes online mortuary education is part of the answer, since it makes it easier for people to make a career change to funeral directing.
But how does online schooling work with teaching embalming?
"The way PIMS (Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science) works - and we've sent a few people through - is that they do it all online and then once or twice a year, we fly the student to the school to show they know how to do it.
"The last two people I hired right out of embalming school didn't learn anything anyway. I mean they got the book learning, but they had absolutely no practical skills. They couldn't raise a vessel, they didn't know how to embalm. We had to teach them how to do it anyway."
If he's going to have to teach new people how to embalm, he'd rather hire the second-career people he prefers and have them get their degrees online, Gordon said.
"I'm a college graduate. I can read the textbook, and I can teach it. Tim (Lancaster, the manager) and my embalming people are licensed embalmers and have done it for years. They can mentor people in the prep room.
"In working with the mortuary schools during the last few years as the ICCFA representative, they admit that they graduate entry-level people and it's our job to teach them how to embalm.
"They may have passed their courses, they may have passed their National Board Exam, but that doesn't mean they know how to embalm."
He also thinks mortuary schools should teach students that part of the job will be to generate revenue. "The schools have to change the attitude that the people they turn out aren't responsible for generating revenue," Gordon said. "Their attitude has been, 'you are the owner; it's your job to take care of revenue. We're just here to take care of people. We're there to serve families, not to generate revenue.'"
"But if you're going to wait on families and sell something, it's part of your job to create revenue.
"It would be nice if the schools started teaching how to make an arrangements presentation. It would be nice if they didn't say preneed is bad. We've gotten people who take the attitude that an embalmer is not a salesperson. Well, the only way we survive is revenue, which means you got to sell.
"So if the schools want to serve the needs of employers who hire the students, then they need to be on the side that sales and revenue are important, and how you get there could be teaching them to make an at-need presentation.
"If we want to hire somebody with value, we've got to teach them how to help generate revenue. I understand the time constraints, but they're trying to educate somebody to fill the industry need. The only way those people are going to be getting jobs as if they fit the needs we have."
What would Gordon's priorities be if he were designing a curriculum for mortuary schools? He wants them to teach students:
- how to make a presentation to today's new customer;
- how to talk to clients leaning toward direct disposition about a meaningful service and place of remembrance; and
- how to embalm to a higher level.
Oregon Memorials completes another amazing GLASS ART image
Artwork by OM laser department associates John Bronleewe and Brian Romo, who continue to do the impossible with the latest most durable color imaging of personalized memorials available. This scene is of Mr. Curtis's favorite beach, featuring a heart-shaped flower lei.
Coping with loss
Does grief follow a normal path for children?
Yes and no, says Cole. For a month or two after a death, parents may see some typical grieving behaviors: social withdrawal, moodiness, change in appetite and a seeming fascination with death and the deceased. But don't assume that all kids will experience a loss in the same way or process grief on a predictable timeline, she says. "There is no normal pattern for grief, and it will look different for each child."
For most children, these behaviors resolve themselves within three to six months, but 10 to 15% of children experience bigger problems after a loss, says Natkin. If children start lashing out, sleeping poorly, experiencing nightmares, losing or gaining weight, or talking about harming themselves or joining the deceased, it's time to look into professional grief support, she notes.
When grief seems troubling or excessive, the first step is talking to a child's pediatrician, says Cole. "A family doctor or pediatrician who knows the child is a good sounding board for concerns over grief. From there, appropriate recommendations can be made for the next steps. Excellent grief support is available, and it would probably be helpful for the family or the child to see a professional."
Whether the deceased was a relative or a cherished pet, the key to guiding kids through grief is offering real choices about their involvement in death's aftermath. Allowing kids to choose how involved they want to be and whether to attend memorial services or rituals is empowering and include them in the family's grieving process.
Young children who opt to attend funerals should be prepared in advance for what they'll experience, notes Natkin. "If mom and dad might be sad or crying at the service, tell the children what they'll see." Grieving parents who worry about their ability to comfort their child at the service can bring another support adult or "buddy" to stay by the child's side.
Of course, not all families choose to hold funerals or memorial services. But Schuurman says that rituals like these are especially important to children. "I think it's a mistake to not have some kind of punctuation of major events in children's lives," she says. "It's not closure, but it's punctuation. It's saying, 'we're in this together. It happened. He mattered.'"
After a loss, children may crave answers to big picture, existential questions about life and death, from "where is he now?" to "what happens after death?"
"By age 15 or so, children totally 'get' death cognitively, but they are only starting to grapple with spirituality and the bigger meaning of life," says Natkin.
Most religions have rites and rituals around death, with good reason - spiritual beliefs and rituals can help children cope with a loss by creating vital context for grieving children, says Natkin. "Rites and rituals elevate our daily lives to something bigger. They connect us to our past, our future, and help us identify who we are in the present."
But nonreligious families can still address kids' spiritual needs by creating their own unique ways to memorialize a loss.
Families can explore how different cultures deal with death; perhaps a ritual from another culture will resonate. A small, private ceremony can consist of lighting a candle and allowing each person to share something about the person (or pet) who died, releasing a balloon, paper boat or message in a bottle, or planting a tree.
Carving out regular time to remember the deceased with a monthly or annual ritual - such as dining at the person's favorite restaurant or hiking his favorite trail - can be helpful to children, says Natkin. "It's acknowledging that the loss doesn't end when the initial grief process does, and that there'll always be a place and time for remembering, even when time has passed."
|Jack Fisher and Grandpa Will Carlson hard at work|
Fisher's professional life in the funeral industry became personal two years ago when her grandfather Will, a fixture in the family business, suffered a massive heart attack at work and died. Jack, then 2 1/2, had a special relationship with his great-grandfather, says Fisher. "We all worked together, and Jack passed many hours in his office sitting on his lap."
"Jack was at the hospital when he died, and he attended the funeral with the family," says Fisher. But for weeks afterward, Jack would run back to Grandpa Will's office to see if he was there and asked when he was coming home. "Each time, I would tell him that grandpa died and was in heaven. Having a conversation over and over again was painful. But I could see the contented look on Jack's face when he finally understood."
Talking about life's end isn't easy, notes Natkin, especially when death comes on suddenly or when a child's grieving doesn't follow a standard path. But the payoff is infinitely rewarding. "In the end, talking about death gives children a fuller experience of life."
Author Malia Jacobson is a Tacoma-based freelance writer and mom of two. This article appeared in the online blog parentmap.com. Thanks to Lindsay Fisher for sharing the article.
Finding enough people
The top priority is getting enough people through mortuary school in order to replace the people who are retiring, Gordon said. "I would say we need quantity and then quality will work its way out. Right now, there aren't enough replacements for those who are retiring. And the death rate is going to climb."
The mortuary schools need to promote themselves, and funeral home owners need to get out into the community and convince people to consider a career in funeral service, Gordon said.
There are also regulatory issues that need to be addressed, he said. "I've been a licensed funeral director in three states, but after I passed my state licensing test in Oregon, I had to wait a year before I could have an apprentice, and according to the state, I'll never be smart enough to be able to manage more than one apprentice at a time.
"The federal government says to be a manager, you have to have at least two people you can hire and fire. The doctor, as long as he has enough business, can manage 10 people. But as a licensed funeral director, I will never be smart enough to manage more than one person at a time. You've got to change that law, which is designed to limit how many people can get in the game."
Gordon believes in recruiting all the time. "Right now, I'm driving around talking to churches, telling pastors and church groups that I'm trying to find a 35-to-45-year-old bilingual Hispanic person to work for us as an embalmer, funeral director or salesperson, or even administrative/accounting staff.
"Every time I'm out in a restaurant, if I see somebody who waits on somebody well, I tell them they need to talk to me, I may have a better opportunity for them to work as a salesperson.
"I was in San Diego getting my shoes shined, and the guy doing the work had been a schoolteacher and had worked for hotels before being downsized. He was trying to put together a business where he goes to law offices and shined shoes for a group of people. I talked to him and gave him my son's number (he works in preneed in California) and said, 'call him.'
"Every place I go, if I see somebody I think is giving good service, I say, 'take a look at our industry' and hand them a business card."
"I probably upset my staff because I recruit like hell and a lot of my recruits don't pan out, but my thing is bringing in as many people as possible."
He has a sign painted on a four-by-eight-sheet of plywood posted on the edge of the company's property. All it says is "employment opportunity," and the company's phone number.
"It costs me virtually nothing, and it gets me more people than running a full-time add in the newspaper," Gordon said. "Everybody laughs at me, it's tacky, it's ugly, it needs to be repainted, but it works. It gets us grounds people; it gets us salespeople.
"It doesn't say Eternal Hills; it doesn't say funeral home; it doesn't say cemetery; it just says employment opportunity. Probably once a week someone contacts us because of that stupid sign."
Because of the number of people who have stopped looking for work or who are working at fast food places just to get a paycheck, the unemployment rate is "really closer to 20%," Gordon said. The challenge is to find these un- and under-employed people and get them through mortuary school.
Funeral director? Embalmer? Both?
Gordon also feels states need to offer two separate licenses: one for embalming and one for funeral directing.
"You're just an embalmer, you're just going to prep bodies; or you're just an arranger and just going to make funeral arrangements; or you're going to do both," Gordon said. "Our state has two licenses, but the funeral industry as a whole thinks there should be only one license and you should be both.
"But I know that there are two different skill sets involved, one's mechanical and one's people. My embalmers are primarily my ground staff, my cemetery grave-digging, lawn-mowing people, because I look at it as a mechanical skill, not a people skill. To be a funeral director and wait on families, that's a people skill. It may or may not be a mechanical skill. Can a person be both? Yes. Is it harder to find a person who can be both? Yes.
"When I worked in the state of Washington, Buck Thompson, the late Dave Daly and I had college degrees, but none of us took chemistry - we had taken courses like psychology and sociology. Washington law for a long time said you could not be a funeral director unless you took chemistry.
"We opposed this because we refused to go back to college to take a chemistry course - chemistry had nothing to do with waiting on families. It had something to do with being an embalmer, but we weren't trained to be embalmers; we were waiting on families. Washington has finally done away with that requirement, but it took a long time.
"The embalmer-funeral director believes that only the embalmer-funeral director is a real funeral director. I've been a funeral director for 40 years, in three states, and the majority of the industry does not consider me a funeral director, because I'm not an embalmer. It doesn't matter what I've managed, what I've done.
"We can take people off the street and train them to embalm within 60 days, and they do a good job and have a passion for it. Now, can they do the most difficult cases in 60 days? No. But they can't come out of mortuary school and do them, either, because it takes experience, it's a learning process. You've got to have leadership in your organization to help them learn the more difficult procedures.
"The person who can tear an engine down and put it back together with their hands can probably learn to embalm. That's really radical thinking for the industry, but I've proven it over 47 years of hiring people, having them taught how to do it well and then sending them to mortuary school. And later, I send them to the Fountain Institute to really learn how to be an embalmer. Vernie Fountain doesn't want them until they've been in the industry for a while, and he teaches them fabulous work. I have had four people who were embalmer of the year in California."
Interview and article by Susan Loving for the January 2012 issue of ICCFA Magazine, reproduced in its entirety with permission.
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