Helping Family Members Find Balance in Funeral Service

“I’m worried about my dad. He’s been pushing himself too hard and he won’t take a break,” said Tom.*

Tom was concerned about his father, Frank. I learned that Frank was 74 years old, a second-generation funeral director and owned the family firm. Despite having three younger family members working for the funeral home, Frank continued to work long hours and go for weeks without a day off.

Tom’s concerns were rooted in Frank’s increasing health problems – something Frank’s longtime physician had confirmed. Despite a worsening heart condition and other challenges, Frank refused to slow down. He wanted to meet with most of the families and continue with his demanding schedule.

Funeral professionals are fond of saying that they are called to their profession, and I agree with them – most funeral professionals see their work as much more than a job. They see it as a personal mission and service to the community. But this mindset creates a problem: How does a person give up their calling when the work is hurting them? Not only is it a challenge to stop serving others, but it can be difficult to slow down even a little.

To help with this, I am a big proponent of phased retirement instead of going from full steam ahead to full stop. Phased retirement allows people like Frank a chance to continue to fulfill this calling while also taking care of themselves and guiding the next generation. While not ideal in every situation, the process of working less and less over time has many advantages for everyone involved. With that in mind, here are some tips for Frank and Tom’s situation.

What Frank Can Do:

  • Adjust the workload.

    Because working full-time is contributing to Frank’s health issues, he should primarily work with families with whom he already has long-term relationships. This can be helpful because it allows the next generation of the staff to build their own relationships with families in the community, and Frank can continue to meet with families who request him.

  • Set a manageable schedule.

    Frank should pick a set work schedule (such as working on Monday, Wednesday and Friday) and rarely deviate from that. It can be difficult to know how to cut back a little. One of the easiest ways to do this is to have clear, self-imposed rules – like simply not working on certain days.

  • Embrace development opportunities for others.

    Remember that it is helpful to give less experienced colleagues opportunities to improve their skills. It’s like a parent who only sits in the driver’s seat to teach their teenager to drive. Eventually, the teenager must be allowed to get behind the steering wheel.

What Tom and His Colleagues Can Do:

  • Offer understanding and support.

    Recognize that staying connected to funeral service and working could be very helpful both physically and psychologically. Remember that Frank gains a great deal of satisfaction from his role at the funeral home. It would be torturous to ask him to give it all up immediately (and he would likely reject this suggestion anyway).

  • Help adapt work responsibilities.

    Look for lower-stress ways Frank can stay involved in the business. There are specific roles and duties for which Frank can be very helpful, and yet not experience as much stress. For example, encourage him to take on fewer removals and spend more time greeting families.

  • Leverage relationships and experience.

    Tom and his colleagues should look for ways to benefit from Frank’s relationships that have been built up over decades. This includes relationships with local families and funeral suppliers and vendors. Likewise, Frank should focus on making important introductions and facilitating these new relationships.

It is normal to want to fulfill your calling, but it is also understandable to be concerned about a family member’s health. Having honest conversations and taking specific steps to a phased retirement can help both the retiree and the next generation.

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*Note: The names and details have been changed to preserve confidentiality, but this is adapted from a real conversation I had this summer.

This information is not intended to replace information from a mental health or medical professional. The reader should consult an appropriate professional in matters related to his or her physical and emotional health.

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