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goodbyeI have seen it in the eyes of family upon my arrival for the removal/transfer of their deceased loved one.  Exhaustion, sadness, disbelief that death has arrived for the person they cared for and loved.  Many of us in the funeral profession have made home removals to see the look and feel the tone of those that have given so much of their lives over the recent past.  For the next 48 to 72 hours, these saints must muster even more energy for the funeral activities that will take place.

I have been part of and talked with many that shared their experiences with the exhaustive “death watch” which may last months.  In their wonderful mission of making the transition from life to death as comforting as possible, I also know that hospice and senior care workers now must move to their next assignment, exhausted as well.

Similar to bringing a newborn home, caring for a dying loved one uproots routines.  Sleep, work, personal time, meals, care visits, laundry, etc. all change.  In most cases, babies at some point get settled and find a routine similar to our own, but the transition to death has no routine.

An example and the inspiration of this post is one of our associates lost his father just last night.  Several weeks ago we were made aware that hospice care determined that the death of his father was imminent, which meant that as his funeral home family we are on standby to assist and serve.  The agonizing weeks, days and hours that followed took an emotional toll on their family.  It’s interesting that at our funeral home we have been notified by family that life sustaining procedures have been stopped on their loved one, and death may occur at any time.  I have personal knowledge of people surviving without life support and living for over a month…incredible testimony to our human design.

For some, plans for the funeral have been made for their deceased loved one. The details of contacting others, dates, times and locations are pretty much all that has not been secured.  For others, even more exhaustive days are ahead.  Funeral decisions made under the cloud of grief coupled with exhaustion only exasperate what is considered one of life’s most stressful events, the funeral of a loved one.  On top of this, finances, frayed emotions and unresolved family issues are not unusual during funeral events.

Death is often exhausting…for those that are dying, for family that is tending and caring for the dying, for those that make the transition more comfortable from life to death, and for those that serve the families in their darkest of days.  I have witnessed, deal with and ultimately know that I too will personally experience exhausting death of a loved one.  My words are from my heart to encourage all of us to continue to have empathy, provide comfort and serve those that are experiencing exhaustive death.  At some point, we’ll want to be served as we serve.  Cheers y’all.

Hospice worker holding elderly man s hand UKI was recently visiting one of our funeral home locations when the firm received a death call.  There was quite a bit of activity already going on, so I volunteered to assist on the home removal.  The opportunity to participate in what I consider one of the most delicate actions taken by our profession, is actually a privilege.

The transfer and removal of a person that dies at home is quite an interesting part of the funeral profession.  When developing our funeral home, I spent time with hospice care workers and owners inquiring about what they do, how they do it, and how funeral homes are perceived from their point of view.  I asked several times “what don’t you like about funeral directors?”  The resounding first answer was the way many funeral homes conduct home removals.  “Funeral homes take too long to respond…from the time we call, many times to an answering service, then a funeral director finally calls back, and waiting for the people to get there often takes a long time.”  The problem they shared, was that the family now had a deceased loved one in their midst…and families are often worn out and uncomfortable waiting.  “When the funeral home people finally show up, it’s often really impersonal.”  Meaning, the transfer staff/people generally were there just to get the job done and leave some information for the family to read until contacted by the funeral home.

So, when we developed the Family Choice brand and it’s operating platform of TouchPoints, transfer/home, home removal was a big deal.  Such a big deal, that there are 59 specific steps of how to perform this process.  I happened to be with our Executive VP of Operations, which basically meant that I was certain the process should be flawless.

Upon arrival we were met by the hospice nurse, one that apparently was not familiar with us, nor us with her.  She met us outside prior to beginning our process at the removal vehicle.  After introducing our selves, she stated “well, I haven’t worked with you and I guess you’re just like everyone else.”  That’s when the pro (our VP) took over.  He shared how we are different…not the old “we care more speech or we’ve been here since Sherman burnt down the South” rhetoric.  And then, he asked her “how long did you serve this family and  would you share with me your experience with them?”

She told us that the woman suffered from cancer and that she was on home hospice 4 months. The hospice nurse went on to share how sweet family is and how they cared for her at home.  Additionally, and most important to me sharing this with you, she said “and I am going to miss her (the deceased), she was like family to me.”  That’s when the pro, our VP reached in his pocket and took out a white Mourningcross Bereavement Pin and asked the hospice nurse if he could give it to her and pin it on her collar.  Being a bit stunned, she allowed him to do so.

He shared with her that although her chosen profession is a job and that’s how she makes a living, she also develops relationships and mourns for the loss of her patients…because she is human.  “So this pin is to remind you of your relationship with the deceased and to publicly show that you are grieving the loss.  When people ask or notice this pin, share with them the story of your patient, or in this case, your friend.”

After wiping some tears away, the hospice nurse stayed with us to observe our process of caring for this family, and “the last time she leaves home.”  Needless to say, we have a new friend that cares for others.  Just remember, hospice and senior care workers mourn too…

Modern Undertaking

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Not all days are going to be good days. Life is full of ups and downs and days themselves can become microcosms of the roller coaster that is our brief time on Earth. It was the Shirelles who sang, “Mama Said (There’d be Days Like This),” and all of us can relate to that set of lyrics.

But today was a good day. Yes, I’m a funeral director. Yes, I deal with people in the worst times of their lives. People often tell me that they, “couldn’t do what I do.” There is a certain satisfaction to my ego when I hear that. To an extent, I agree with them. God has enabled me to have a certain sensitivity – to walk the tightrope between tender compassion and confident guidance. To experience deep sadness as I walk with a family – and yet be removed emotionally enough to shepherd them…

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This is a beautifully written blog by a funeral director, father and husband.

Modern Undertaking

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Being a funeral director gives me a unique laboratory to study human nature.  We in the business are passionate about telling the life story of the deceased.  We use buzz words like, “Celebration,” and “Tribute.”  We encourage brining food and posting family photos on video tributes.  Sounds like it should be something for the public to look forward to, and yet they don’t.  Ever wonder why funerals and visitations are dreaded so much in our society?  The obvious reason is that there has been a loss, and that loss leads us to confront several uncomfortable truths. 

One is our own mortality.  We are inherently reminded by seeing someone else’s casket (or urn, or photo) that we too will travel a similar road.  While many of us have varying amounts of faith in what comes after this life, the truth is that none of us have proven that faith.  We prefer…

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Recently, I was part of a marketing project by conducting a secret shopper program in three distinct markets.  The results were not really surprising, but certainly worth sharing with my fellow funeral professionals.  A “family member” visited in person or called funeral homes seeking information for their relative and death was imminent.  The scenarios were not random, but carefully scripted not to create any assumptions by those being solicited.

The best description of what took place would be “race to the bottom”.  In every situation (there were over 10 locations contacted in each market), the funeral director directed the “family member” to the least of services without provocation.  Now, before reading this and getting “all high and mighty” thinking that this would never occur at your funeral home, think again.  We talked to owners and employees alike.

What struck me most was when it was revealed that we were simply gathering information and comparing firms, not mentioning costs, we were provided with the lowest of prices for both burials and cremations.  Not one time were we provided any attributes of the vast array of services, ideas for memorialization, comparison of burial to cremation; just simply either discounted packages or a direct cremation quote.  The most discouraging was that there was virtually no engagement with the “the consumer” about their dying loved one, just “are you looking at burial or cremation”…and perfunctory questions.

I personally conducted a phone call inquiry for a funeral home owner to competitors as well as two of his own locations asking for the same information while on speakerphone with the owner present.  The owners’ assumption of what competitors did or did not do was of great concern.  The competitor quoted verbatim the same direct cremation components as this owner, and compared the owner’s price with theirs while saying to me “why would you pay more for the same service?”  But, the response from his own funeral directors was, as he put it “disheartening”.  The owner actually said “based on what I just heard, I would choose the competitor over my own firm.”

If you are an owner that reviews your P&L statement monthly, you may be wondering how you are maintaining your call level, but not keeping pace with the net profit per call in comparison to prior month or year.  If this scenario is exasperated with loss of market share; you’re going to be in a race to the bottom.  I continually prod and bring to light the necessity of training at funeral homes, but find a consistent training program rare.

Our industry has a tremendous amount of chatter about “meaning of ceremony, creating experience, and value of a funeral”.  But in practicality, when a family walks through the door or calls on the phone (at least in the project mentioned above), it’s a race to the bottom.  Training staff on the message you desire to be conveyed and their listening skills should produce positive results…if not, just keep underestimating the savvy consumer and overestimating your staff.  The race to the bottom is quick and a difficult trend to reverse.

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What is old and lost, is found and new again.  I am continuing the innovation blog series I started a few weeks ago about people that have created a product or service in the funeral industry that is closely defined, “improve something with a new idea or procedure, or produce a product using a new or better way.”

In many of our cultures and societies of years past, when a death occurred we outwardly displayed our mourning with jewelry, black mourning arm bands or buttons.  Many people also wore black for a period of time. An Irish mother and her three daughters that experienced the loss of so many of their loved one’s has revived this old tradition as a result of a conversation between them. Recalling their own family wake of their father, some visitors had walked past them not realizing that they were daughters and how uncomfortable that felt.  They talked about the embarrassing whispers of people asking who was who and the stories that are lost about him as a result of missed opportunities to share cherished memories.

From their very personal experience, Kate Hamilton along with her very traditional Irish mother and sisters created MourningCross Bereavement Pins www.mourningcross.com as a modern outward display of mourning and in particular to support attendees at visitations wakes and funerals, identity and sympathize with, all of immediate grieving family members.

The MourningCross Bereavement Pins have many applications for not only the families, but for Funeral Professionals:

Identification of Family Members:  At funeral service activities such as visitations, wakes and services, immediate grieving family members are easily identified by wearing MourningCross Bereavement Pins.

Grief Continues After the Services:  A family members mourning does not cease at the conclusion of services.  Much like customs of the past where black arm bands or clothing were worn, wearing a MourningCross Bereavement Pin during the time of mourning is an outward display for the immediate grieving family members to “share the story of the life lived.”

Removal Leave Behind:  Upon removal of the deceased from the place of death, many firms leave a MouringCross Bereavement Pin on the pillow of the deceased.  Hospice, nursing home and hospital workers also experience grief of the people they have cared for.

After Care Groups:  Funeral homes offer or support surviving family member’s aftercare programs in their communities.  MourningCross Bereavement Pins are a perfect symbol for those to identify with each other as they walk through the grief process.

Either provided to the direct survivor, sold individually or offered for sale as part of your funeral home’s packages (register book, memorial folders, acknowledgement cards, etc.), the MourningCross Bereavement Pins will provide the families you are serving with a modern display of a lost tradition…and as Funeral Professional, you will assist the family with their walk through grief.

I have personally talked to a mother that lost her daughter that was a recipient of a MourningCross Bereavement Pin at our funeral home, and purchased additional Pins for her family as a modern outward display of mourning their loss.  Trust me, MourningCross has meaning, significance and is cherished by those that choose to wear them.

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Earlier this week, I contemplated expressing my thoughts about receiving news that stuns…words that come to us that we never forget.  Unexpected news that alters the path of life we were traveling, perhaps changing us forever.  My friend and Pastor, Quigg Lawrence recently received news that his oldest daughter Annie, a young woman in her early 20’s had a massive cancerous tumor.  Aside from the obvious, my thoughts were how such a man that is in continuous support mode of others, is now in need of the blessings he has brought to so many.

However, I was prompted to write this morning because last night, my wife received the news that her father, who lives several hours away, had a stroke.  As with other times in our lives when we have received such news, we are temporarily stunned.

Everyone at some point in their life will receive news that stuns.  What follows the stunning news is a myriad of emotions, and then reality starts to settle.  We never forget the words delivered, the location we were at the time, and often the look on the face of the person delivering the news.  Several years ago my wife received a phone call that she had Melanoma and was scheduled for immediate surgery.  I vividly remember her face delivering the news and in my mind searching for words to comfort her.  Even further back in time, during the Thanksgiving holiday, my wife and I delivered the happy news to our families that we were going to have our first child.  In a matter of a few minutes of delivering the happy news, I received a phone call:  Deployment for Desert Shield/Storm overseas, going to a foreign land for war.

When we receive the news that stuns and reality begins to set in, it is human nature to envision the worst of outcomes.   But I have learned by experiencing such events that the best immediate reaction is   “keep calm and pray.”  I personally believe that once we receive the news that stuns, the event has already taken place, we can’t change what happened.  But what we can do is reach beyond our own understanding and have faith…In God, in our family, in our friends and in those people such as doctors, our leaders and decision makers.

In many of the events when we receive the news that stuns us, we don’t always envision positive endings.  In the personal examples above, Annie had the cancerous tumor removed and is diagnosed now as cancer free.  My wife, Jacque survived the Melanoma surgery and is cancer free.  My oldest son is 22 and, 21 years later, I am a Veteran of Desert Shield/Storm and all of the soldiers that deployed with me came home alive after a successful mission.  Yet, this morning, we are headed to a hospital with a relative in serious distress…but I have faith.

So, I solicit your thoughts, experiences and outcomes when you received the news that stuns.  After all, it’s the season for sharing and giving.

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Why be efficient at something that does not need to be done in the first place?  The answer is often: “we have always done it that way.”  At the beginning of my funeral service career, I used to work with funeral home owners on their product displays, how to present the products, merchandising, etc.  Beyond that, I had absolutely no experience of funeral home operations, processes and costs.   I often posed a question; “if a family did not buy a casket or vault, how much profit would you net from services alone?”  The reason I wanted to know was if there was a deficit, then the pricing of the casket and vault needed to be proportionate to the profit margin of services (or lack thereof).

Most of the time, I received a benign answer which meant that the person I asked the question did not know.  Along that same line of questioning I would ask “how much does an embalming or a cremation actually cost?”  When I asked “if you charge $450 for embalming and the cost to open and close a grave is $700, are you shortchanging your firm?  Embalming can only be conducted by an educated and trained professional in regulated conditions, yet someone with a backhoe on a tractor gets paid more for their services.”  I often got the response “well, we’ve just always done it that way…”

Alan Creedy (www.funeralhomeconsulting.org) wrote a fantastic piece recently and referenced declining profits.  By taking your total funeral home revenue (minus cash advances) and divide that number by your total number of calls over a three year span, comparing year over year, Alan would bet that the overall average revenue per call has declined.

This is the time of year when many funeral homes update their GPL’s and product pricing.  Does your firm perform the serious work of evaluating every aspect of operations, overheads, cost of goods to retail price, and revenue generated per director, etc?  If you use Alan’s suggestion, conduct realistic evaluations and compare, the exercise should reveal the necessary changes that need to be made for profitability and viability of your business.  Then the real hard work begins of implementation, training staff and measuring the results.  Now as a funeral home owner/partner, I can’t fathom any other way doing business.

Or, does your firm just take a look at how much a vendor raised their wholesale prices and raise the price (just a little) of a few services offered on your GPL?  Of course not adding too much because it’s not about what you need to charge and additional revenue needed, it’s more about what the other firm charges. Then you can be proud and say “we’ve always done it that way.”  Please share what your firm is doing do stay on top…

Happy Thanksgiving!

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On any given day you can find someone wearing a pair of running shoes.  I suppose that I would like to clarify that since the athletic shoe market is so broad and specialized, the shoes I am describing are those that are manufactured for the wearer to actually use them to run (exercise).

My thoughts are how many people actually use the running shoes for their manufactured purpose?  There are those that wear running shoes as a fashion statement; although I personally think by doing so the wearer has no sense fashion whatsoever, especially if worn with jeans.  There are those that wear running shoes because they are comfortable.  Of course, but the shoes were made to be comfortable while actually running.  What I find hilarious is many that wear running shoes in both these categories can’t or don’t run anywhere.

The analogy I want to share from my point of view is about our professional life.  There are many that put on their “professional shoes” to just be fashionable.  Basically, this person always looks the part, but frankly is just window dressing…never contributing other than showing up, much less creating something or actually leading others in their field.  However, the fashionable wearers are usually the first ones in line seeking advancement or praise.  Then we have the people who wear their “professional shoes” for comfort.  This person just goes through the motions, doing the minimum to get by, often complaining about the fashionable ones, but never stepping up for their “intended use.”

Finally, there are those that wear their “professional shoes” for the intended use…actual “professionally working out,” doing what fashionable and comfort could not fathom accomplishing.  Similar to the general populace, the funeral industry profession has “fashionable, comfort and intended use” wearers.  So take a minute to look down at your shoes, or in your closet; and use the analogy to self identify your type of shoes…do you wear your “funeral professional shoes” for fashion, comfort or intended use?

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I am continuing a blog I wrote earlier this week on the subject matter of stepping out from a comfort zone and into a space where innovation is created.  The intent of the written thoughts are to generate discussion about others that have “stepped out” in the funeral industry to innovate, and explore the results of their efforts.  There has been good feedback about this topic and I solicit your thoughts.

Refreshing the point, I am blessed to travel extensively and meet many funeral industry professionals, both licensed and not.  A definition of innovate is “improve something with a new idea or procedure, or produce a product using a new or better way.”  This actually defines G2 Funeral Group www.g2funeralgroup.com and their truly innovative brand of funeral service utilizing a proprietary operating platform.

G2 Funeral Group developed, owns and manages the Family Choice Funerals & Cremations brand of funeral homes www.familychoicefunerals.com . What’s unique about Family Choice is the brand was created from scratch utilizing Lean/Six Sigma principles for every aspect of its operations, named TouchPoints.  Family Choice opened its first location January 2010 in Roanoke Virginia and it’s second in Virginia Beach May of 2010.  The distance between the two locations is 4 hours…purposely to prove the TouchPoints operating platform. Serving over 280 families a year, the brand has gained consumer acceptance, recognition and loyalty in a very short time period.

Unequivocally, one of the best franchises in the United States is Chic-Fil-A.  Their operating platform, training and culture, the service and product is the same from each location…always ending with “my pleasure.”  So why do funeral homes with multiple locations under the same name/brand have such operational differences from each location?  If a large firm has multiple funeral directors, why is there such a disparity of outcome in arrangements?

G2 has perfected the process with TouchPoints by each location functioning operationally the same making management simpler, training as a daily part of the culture, the proprietary arrangements provide that every family receives the same information, and that the entire process can be duplicated…anywhere.  The Family Choice brand is now working with funeral homes that want to expand in their own or other markets in a quasi “franchise” type operational agreement, with the first new location opening in early 2014.

 

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