Funeral professionals know firsthand how rituals and ceremonies can benefit the bereaved. In fact, much of the training provided in mortuary science programs is directly connected to preparing for and facilitating funeral rituals. But did you know that rituals are beneficial for funeral professionals too? I’m not talking about grief-related rituals; I’m referring to rituals that can help funeral professionals by providing motivation, staying grounded, and being mindful. I will provide three examples of funeral professionals using rituals, including an embalmer before preparation of the body, a preplanner before setting appointments, and a funeral director before an arrangement conference.
But before that, I want to share a few thoughts about rituals. Usually, we think of rituals as large events such as baptisms, weddings, and funerals. I define rituals very broadly; rituals are any meaningful action with symbolic intent. In my opinion, most rituals are small, private actions. For example, the widow who says “good morning” to her husband’s picture, the stone placed on their grave marker, or playing their favorite song on their birthday are examples of rituals the bereaved may use to feel connected to their loved one. With that in mind, let’s examine three examples of funeral professionals using rituals to help themselves with difficult funeral-related tasks.
1. Embalmer Before Embalming
Most embalmers I know say that they must find some balance between being respectful of the deceased, but not overwhelmed with emotion as they perform their craft. I can imagine it would be easy for a burned-out embalmer to begin thinking of the deceased as “just another body”. To combat this and maintain a sense of reverence and respect for the deceased, embalmers may use a variety of rituals to remind themselves that this is not “just another body,” but is someone’s loved one.
Kellen Strosnider, a funeral director, provides a lovely description of the ritual she uses:
“How I keep a peaceful energy in the prep room: First, I say in my mind I guess what you could call a prayer. I tell the deceased what I’m about to do and why I’m doing it to help their family move on, and apologize in advance for anything I might have to do that is less than graceful. Next, I pretend the decedent is under anesthesia while I’m working. If you were operating on an unconscious person, you could do things that would hurt if they were awake, but you still have to be conscious of their pain level when they wake up. Of course I know my people won’t be waking up, but that mindset a) keeps me mindful to be gentle and precise and b) helps me feel reassured that I’m not hurting anyone.… Kind of a random thought to share, but I thought maybe someone might find comfort knowing that many embalmers not just myself are very caring about the dead.… Our job may be scary to some, but we are not scary people. None of us could do this work without a lot of love.”
(Quoted from her Facebook page post, used with permission)
As an outsider, I can see how this ritual of talking to the deceased and imagining that they are under anesthesia helps remind the embalmer of the sacred importance of their task and keeps them in the right frame of mind.
2. Preplanning Professional Before Appointment Setting
One of the most difficult parts of being a preplanning professional is setting appointments. This task requires confidence and resilience but also empathy and patience. It is difficult to start a task that has a relatively high rate of failure associated with it. When people turn us down, it’s hard not to take it personally.
However, setting appointments is a key part of helping individuals and families prearrange their funeral services and having more options for paying for those services. So how can you face this challenging task? Let’s look at how Sarah* uses a ritual to help her tackle this part of her job. First, Sarah has a regular schedule for when she does appointment setting – certain times on certain days of the week are reserved for this activity. Therefore, it is much less likely that she puts it off.
Second, Sarah reviews three documents just before she starts. She looks at a single piece of paper that shows her sales goals for the month. This is a reminder that her income is largely based on how many appointments she can set; this is the income that pays her mortgage, buys Christmas presents for her grandchildren, and keeps the fridge full – important stuff! She also looks at another piece of paper where she wrote her total sales for her best year (last year) and her first year (her worst year of sales). This reminds her that she used to be really bad at appointment setting and sales, but that she has learned a lot of techniques and strategies to improve. Finally, Sarah looks at a card she received from a widow. The widow wrote Sarah a thank-you note sharing how helpful it had been to preplan her husband’s funeral and how she knows that it will be helpful to her children when she eventually passes away. This reminds Sarah that even though many people don’t want to talk about their funerals, preplanning is a valuable service.
Together, the process of sitting down at a specific day and time and reviewing these three documents helps put Sarah in the right mindset to be successful in setting appointments.
3. Funeral Director Before the Arrangement Conference
After conducting more than a thousand arrangements with families, Jeff* realized that he was beginning to become too detached from the process. As Jeff would say, “It felt like I was an operator on an assembly line. The families would come in, I would fill out the forms, and send them on their way.” He realized that something had to change.
Jeff began using a specific ritual before meeting with families. The ritual had felt awkward at first and has changed over time, but he is comfortable with it now. His ritual consists of two parts. First, he takes the small pocketknife out of his pocket and places it between his hands as if in prayer. The pocketknife had been his grandfather’s – who was the first funeral director in the family. The pocketknife reminds him that the arriving family has just lost a father, mother, sibling, child – someone important. He tries to remember what it was like sitting in the arrangements for his grandfather.
The other part of the ritual is saying a silent prayer for this family. He prays for them to receive strength to deal with their emotional pain and receive compassion regardless of the circumstances of the loss. He ends the prayer by asking for strength, patience, and empathy for himself. Despite this, Jeff still has families who are frustrating, and sometimes he is the target of their misplaced grief and anger. But Jeff has found that using this brief ritual before meeting with families puts him in a better frame of mind.
I encourage you to find rituals that can help you with some of your most difficult tasks. Look for job duties that are challenging and think creatively about how you can better prepare yourself to be fully present in these moments. I hope these examples have provided you with a starting point for creating your own professional rituals.
Do you have conscious acts, or rituals, that you perform prior to certain job tasks? What are some rituals that you use in your daily life, and how do you think they have helped you?
* Sarah and Jeff are profiles based on a blending of several different professionals.