Explaining the Value of a Gathering

There are times when the line between your profession and personal life blurs. I’m going through one of those times right now.

My 89-year-old father-in-law is approaching the end of his life. He’s been an amazing patriarch for his family and has lived a great life. The doctors say he has days, maybe weeks, left, but the end is near.

His family has gathered in their hometown, and everyone is taking turns shuttling back and forth to the hospital and picking up more family members at the airport. I’m here supporting my wife and her family, lending a hand wherever needed.

Fortunately, I can work from almost anywhere as long as I have an internet connection and a cell signal. My work schedule has had to be flexible this week, but I’ve managed to get a lot of things done.

Most of the family knows that I work with funeral home owners to grow their businesses but are generally puzzled about what I do. I try to simplify it by explaining that I help owners meet the needs of today’s families, and when we do that, the business grows.

Normally my profession hasn’t been a big topic of conversation at our family gatherings. But this gathering is different.

Every day another family member pulls me aside and wants to discuss funerals. Many of them have either negative or indifferent views of funerals, but they are trying to understand what is coming next.

My in-laws prearranged their funerals years ago. At the time, I had asked them what they had planned and was told that they wanted to be cremated, they didn’t want a visitation or funeral, and they only wanted a small gathering at their home.

How typical is that?!?! A silent-generation couple doesn’t want anyone to make a fuss, so they plan for their disposition and nothing else.

Their four baby-boomer children are stuck trying to balance their parents’ wishes to “not make a fuss” and their own need to make a fuss. I’ve anticipated this problem for years, and now it’s here.

In my conversations with family members, I’ve tried to help them understand why they need to do something. Here’s how the exchange often plays out.

Them – Dad doesn’t want a funeral.

Me – You don’t need to have a funeral, but you do need to plan for a gathering of some sort.

Them – Why?

Me – Because the gathering provides a time for condolences. If you don’t offer a time, it will happen one at a time spread out over the next year. You might be out running errands when someone says they’re sorry for your loss, and you’re immediately anchored back to this moment again.

A gathering time gives you control over the time and place of condolences.

Them – Makes sense. What else do we need to do?

Me – You need a ceremony. It doesn’t need to be a church service, but we must plan something.

Them – Why?

Me – Because all important life events like weddings, births, and graduations have a ceremony. A ceremony will help you take the focus off of the way he died and put it on the life that he lived. It gives you control of the final message.

The key theme that I’ve been trying to emphasize is “control”. A gathering time gives you control over the time and place of condolences, and a ceremony gives you control over the final message.

Why do I emphasize control? Because when faced with the loss of a loved one, everything feels out of control. It’s human nature to want to return to a time when things are predictable again.

People generally know what a visitation is; they just don’t know its purpose. They also know what a funeral ceremony is; they just don’t know its purpose.

As people working in the funeral industry, we must be able to explain the purpose of a gathering and a ceremony. After all, if we can’t explain it, who can?

By the way, saying that a funeral is a tradition will rarely work with a Baby Boomer. Boomers don’t follow traditions; they create new ones.

My father-in-law has asked us to have a small gathering at home. The problem is that he was a high school principal for 30 years, and half the town knows him. He’s been active in a local church and civic clubs, plus he’s a veteran.

The family is starting to accept that a “small gathering at home” isn’t going to work. Fortunately, their local funeral home can accommodate a large gathering. I expect that I’ll be paying them a visit soon.

Until next time


PS: My wife just came in and said that he’s doing better today. Who knows, he may live to fight another day.

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