And We Wonder Why People Question the Need for Funerals...

by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D.

Have you noticed that there are still some people involved in funeral service who seem genuinely shocked and dismayed that the general public is questioning the need for the funeral ceremony? But we have to have funerals, they protest. It's always been done this way! People die and we have to have a way of honoring their life and death!

Perhaps we should remind ourselves that honoring a death and the life that preceded it is not, strictly speaking, necessary. We don't have to hold funeral services. We don't have to commemorate the person who died. We do have to dispose of the body, but more and more people in North America are questioning the need to participate in funeral ceremonies.

For many, traditional funeral rituals have lost their value and meaning. They are perceived as empty and lacking creativity.

So, what's behind this trend to devalue the funeral? In my book Creating Meaningful Funeral Ceremonies I outlined a number of factors that appear to be influencing the deritualization of our North American culture. Among those noted are the following:

The purpose of this article is to explore several additional and perhaps not as obvious influences on why many North Americans are questioning the value of funeral ceremonies.

We're Disconnected From Each Other

For starters, many people have lost a sense of community. Not long ago, people shared their lives with those around them. Generation after generation, families lived in the same town or at least the same state. Neighbors visited on the front porch, gathered for meals and took care of each other's children. People knew each other. People watched out for each other. People cared about each other. Now, like no other time in history, many people feel alone and unconnected to groups.

One recent study found that 71 percent of Americans didn't know their neighbors. Adults and children alike live among strangers. The number of people who report they never spend time with their neighbors has doubled in only the last twenty years.

And just this month Welcome Wagon closed up shop because no one's home to answer the door anymore. In 1968, this personal "welcome to our community" service logged 1.5 million face-to-face visits across the U.S. In 1997 that number had dropped to about half a million.

What's more, in the beginning of this century, only 10 percent of people lived in big cities. Now, over 40 percent do. The irony is that when more people lived outside the city there was a greater sense of community.

We have evolved from a country of primary relationships to one of secondary relationships. Primary relationships are ones in which people know each other in a variety of roles—as friends, neighbors, co-workers. Secondary relationships are ones in which people are merely acquaintances. We may sit next to someone at work, but often we don't know much about him—where he lives, if he has a family, what his hobbies are.

As we have connected to the Internet, we have disconnected from each other. Names on the Net aren't always even real names. Our state-of-the-art technology has created a new kind of person, one who is plugged into machines instead of fellow human beings. Some of us talk more to voice mail then we do to our own family members.

We're Moving Faster and Faster

The Industrial Revolution brought about mass production and with it an emphasis on speed, efficiency and productivity. Then came the Techno-Revolution, heightening our ability to work faster, travel faster, communicate faster. We have come not just to want but to expect instant gratification—overnight delivery, cellular telephones, e-mail in a second, microwave popcorn, one-hour photo finishing, instant credit and home pregnancy tests. Other time-compressed, mind-shifting technologies include instant, worldwide news, video teleconferencing and hamburgers in less than 90 seconds.

These examples of instant gratification change our frame of reference, our expectations, our values. Partly because we're busier and partly because we've come to expect it, we demand faster ways of doing things. And, unfortunately, we often confuse efficiency with effectiveness. When people get too busy, the first thing to go are rituals—from eating together to vacations to attending funerals.

We're Devaluing Life

Sad to say, but many children and adults have become desensitized to the meaning and value of life as well as death. I recently read about a new fad on school playgrounds. Children are bringing laser pens to school and using them for pretend "lasergunfights" at recess. The tragic and all-too-real school shootings of late only compound the irony of this violent play.

Television has presented a distorted image of the significance of a human life. Simply by turning on the TV, we are exposed to a multitude of examples of violent death each day. All too often, themes of violence take center stage in our books, movies and music, too. Internalizing these powerful images can result in a cynical view of life in general, let alone the need to have ceremonies when someone loved dies.

Many of today's kids are not being taught to value life. How are they ever to learn to value and respect death?

We're Forgetting Our Values

I don't mean to sound like Newt Gingrich, but many North Americans appear to be facing an enemy from within —a crisis of meaning and values.

The media teaches us to value consumerism, as if we can somehow buy our happiness. Many children would rather watch TV than go for a walk in the woods. Some children and adults have been coerced by the media into believing they should meet every want, buy every product, and do it now. As the Nike commercial says, "Just Do It!"

Many families have become disconnected from each other and the natural world. Did you know that 4 in 10 children today don't live with their biological fathers and that 40% of these children haven't even seen their fathers for at least a year? Values that were once taught by family, church and community are now, more often that not, taught through advertistements and mindless TV sitcoms. Our own president (who said, by the way, "Governments don't raise children, parents do") had to go before the grand jury and discuss his sex life and defend himself against perjury.

Our culture of immediate gratification, self-absorption, and deceit has confused us about what is right and wrong and good and bad. Many people don't have road maps for what family life should be like, let alone what a meaningful funeral should be like.

And we wonder we people are questioning the need for funerals...

Potential Implications for Funeral Service

Without a doubt, more and more people in North America are questioning the need to participate in funerals. If we put our minds to it, we can begin to understand why this is happening. But if you and I believe the funeral is important, what can we do about this frightening trend? Here are some ideas to contemplate:

  1. Funeral homes with the clearest understanding of why people are questioning the value of funerals will be best prepared to respond. For example, funeral homes that recognize that people are price-sensitive can break through the common rationalization that says, "Well, if we give them great service they will pay whatever we charge."
  2. Funeral homes that understand that the new customer not only expects but demands exceptional responsiveness will constantly question "the way things are done around here." Successful funeral homes will understand that people have been shaped to expect hyper-accelerated response, regardless of what service or product they are purchasing. The new customer will no longet tolerate having to wait. For example, "walk-ins" should be treated with utmost sensitivity and respect. In addition, funeral homes that use answering services with poorly trained personnel may decide to once again answer the phone in-house, like in the "old days."
  3. Funeral homes that respond to trends by integrating continuous planning into their daily operations will be a step ahead of the competition. Flexibility and responsiveness must be used for the purposes of comparative advantage. Funeral homes committed to successful futures, will, in many ways, be preparing for the eventuality of anything.
  4. Funeral homes that understand that each new family may bring unique requests through the door with them will be better prepared to serve the new customer. The new customer cannot necessarily be lumped into a large, monolithic groups. Patterns of interaction with families must shift from monologue to dialogue. Funeral directors of the future will be facilitators, not functionaries. Families will expect and demand customization and personalization of each and every funeral.
  5. Funeral homes that understand it's time to stop defending the "traditional" funeral will be better prepared to serve the new customer. Families are trying to tell you that they want creativity, uniqueness, and choices in what you offer them. An empowered family becomes a loyal family by virtue of being offered products and services finely tuned to their needs.

I challenge you to create a customer service strategy for your funeral home that addresses the trend to devalue the funeral. Examine how you have helped families in the past. Examine your strengths as well as your weaknesses. Look through your files and evaluate every funeral you've planned over the past year or two. Contact families and ask them what you could have done better. Ask yourselves what you could have done better. Be brutally honest. Encourage your staff to be brutally honest. The next time a new family walks through your door, break free of the old way of doing business and ask yourself how you can best meet the needs of this unique bereaved family.

Dr. Wolfelt's popular book Creating Meaningful Funeral Ceremonies further explores the trend to devalue the funeral and offers practical ideas for helping families create meaningful funeral ceremonies. It is available for $12.95 through Companion Press.