The Benefits of Funeral Service and Hospice Partnerships

Creating a better world by acknowledging our own mortality seems a lofty goal. That said, during the years I worked in hospice care I heard many stories of people who considered their terminal diagnosis a “gift” which brought into perspective those things that most mattered to them and forced them into open, honest conversations about what they wanted to achieve in the weeks and months before their death. My co-workers in hospice were passionate about helping patients along that journey.

During my time with hospice, long before I joined Homesteaders, I learned that funeral home owners and funeral service professionals share that passion when it comes to encouraging those in their communities to have open, honest conversations about death and dying. To this day, that understanding leads me to encourage funeral service professionals to explore the many options for collaborating with the end-of-life care providers in their communities to spread the word.

Simply put, no one in your community shares your interest in starting conversations about death and dying in quite the way hospice professionals do.

Certainly, there are differences of opinion and even occasional conflict between funeral service and hospice professionals. But let’s look at some core philosophies in hospice care and determine how they correspond to funeral service.

Core Philosophies in the Hospice Profession

Hospice professionals believe:

  • The patient and family should direct care.
  • The patient and the family are the “unit” of care.
  • The grief and bereavement process should be honored.
  • It’s vital to honor, recognize and celebrate the patient’s life.
  • Planning ahead for the end-of-life experience is beneficial and allows wishes to be honored.


Core Philosophies in the Funeral Service Profession

It seems clear that if you take out the word “patient” and instead think about the families you serve, each of these statements could be made about your philosophy of care. Now more than ever, funeral service professionals are striving to meet the unique needs of families. Your efforts include:

  • Personalizing services through activities such as hosting memorials off-site, creating video and photo tributes, staging personal memorabilia in the funeral home, etc.
  • Focusing on aftercare for surviving family members.
  • Hosting grief support groups and establishing bereavement libraries.
  • Growing your preneed programs to provide families with options for making their wishes known.

How to Create A Partnership

This “common purpose” shared by hospices and funeral service providers creates opportunities and occasional conflict. While most of the stories I hear are about positive, productive relationships, there are times when funeral service professionals fear their local hospice may be overstepping or becoming too involved in guiding families through the funeral planning process. Other expressed concerns include that the local hospice is referring families exclusively to a competitor, encouraging families to forego funeral home services or trying to negotiate discounts or no-cost services on behalf of patients.

Reach Out to Local Hospice Organizations

How can you take advantage of the opportunities and overcome or even prevent the occasional conflict? Take the first step and reach out to your local hospice organizations. Those relationships will not only help increase your reach in the community but also build a foundation for open and honest discussion when conflicts do arise.

The best way to start is to pick up the phone. The hospice CEO, community relations manager or development director is typically open to developing relationships. Here are a few ideas to consider discussing with hospice professionals:

  • Funeral home tours and educational opportunities for hospice staff and volunteers.
  • Shared bereavement materials and other resources.
  • Co-sponsored activities or events.
  • Volunteering as a hospice board member or in other roles.
  • Hosting "meet and greets" for funeral home and hospice staff members who are most likely to be working together.

Hospice care professionals sometimes serve as “gatekeepers” for a significant number of families who need funeral services. Instead of seeing this as a negative attribute, think of this as an opportunity to forge lasting professional relationships and identify clients who will benefit from your services.

Perhaps more importantly, gatekeepers can help you identify changing needs and preferences among your potential client base. Hospice care providers have a direct line to the very families you hope to serve and can provide insight into their attitudes, beliefs and desires. With this information, you can better develop products and services to meet needs and grow your business.

Understand the Hospice Perspective

Creating meaningful relationships with hospice takes time. Like all good relationships, they start with mutual understanding. What follows are some key hospice perspectives based on my experience as a hospice professional. I would encourage you to view these as simply a starting point and remember that like all perspectives, they will vary from organization to organization. That’s why it’s so important to “seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

Hospice caregivers are advocates for their patients and families. Caregivers feel a strong sense of responsibility for ensuring their patients and families receive the best care and the highest levels of respect. Any sense, or perceived sense, that the patients and families they are working with are being treated badly, unfairly or are being taken advantage of will result in that protective instinct kicking into high gear.

This presents both great challenges and opportunities to the funeral service professional. It takes effort, but once you’ve put in the time to develop a relationship based on mutual trust, you’ll find hospice caregivers will consider you a great partner in serving their patients and families.

Hospices fought a long, hard battle for respect. While it may seem like hospice is everywhere, this wasn’t always the case. When I began my career as a hospice professional, many parts of our county experienced hospice usage rates of less than 20% of all deaths. The service was considered “fringe” by many healthcare providers who assumed there was little actual medical practice in hospice.

Hospice professionals have long tenures and longer memories. It doesn’t take much to activate that old “fight” response. When hospice professionals perceive their expertise isn’t respected, they will see little value in the relationship.

Hospices value collaboration.

“Continuum of Care” is a phrase often used in senior care, and hospice is no exception. The concept is one that encourages significant collaboration on the part of the various healthcare professionals working with an individual patient. When a patient enters hospice, these caregivers are responsible for coordinating all the care required for that patient’s end-of-life needs. The multi-disciplinary care team oversees basic needs like pain and symptom management, psychosocial and spiritual needs, housekeeping and volunteer support, but also extends to complementary services such as music or massage therapy. In addition, the team will work with facility staff should the patient reside in long-term care or assisted living. Collaboration is key to achieving top-quality results for patients and families.

In my experience, hospices most appreciate working with funeral service professionals who take a collaborative approach. Having meaningful conversations about the transition to funeral care will likely be appreciated and might include everything from how the removal might take place to what the family dynamics are to whether the funeral home will provide bereavement support.

Planning—with a lot of flexibility—is key to a successful outcome. 

Much like funeral service professions, hospice care providers understand they only have one chance to provide a patient with the best possible end-of-life experience. The care team works closely with the patient and family to understand any goals or desires the patient has. They do their best to anticipate any challenges which might arise and plan ways to overcome those. Most importantly, they understand that time is limited. If they have to change course or if an unanticipated issue arises, addressing it will be the top priority.

A willingness to go above and beyond is valued by hospice professionals. 

That might be as simple as agreeing to meet with a family in their home because they are unable to get to the funeral home or as difficult as helping honor an unusual memorial request on short notice.

How can funeral professionals form better relationships with hospice? The key is to more completely understand hospice care and the families they serve. Only then will we have the information and tools needed to create meaningful partnerships and join together in a mutual passion for serving families.

Kim Medici Shelquist is the Senior VP – Planning & Development for Homesteaders Life Company. In her previous position as a hospice professional, she encouraged people to discuss their wishes to ensure they had the best possible end-of-life experiences that reflected their values. Click here to learn more about the leadership team at Homesteaders.

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