In the unprecedented losses we’ve suffered so suddenly as a country, a large part of the burden, both logistical and emotional, has fallen on the funeral industry, sometimes called deathcare. These professionals–funeral directors and their employees–often serve in small, customer service-focused family businesses that have been an element of their communities over the course of multiple generations.
Cemetery workers prepare to bury a casket from McLaughlin & Sons funeral home, without any family … [+]
Suddenly, they have been called on, in some regions, to do as many funerals in the course of just a week or two as they would more typically carry out in an entire year–and to do so in the face of limited facilities and essential social distancing restrictions.
This week, I caught up with two professionals serving on the front lines: Walker Posey of Posey Funeral Directors in North Augusta, South Carolina and David Lee Hernandez, Jr. of the Jersey Memorial Group of New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia. Anthony Kaniuk, a 20-year veteran of the funeral profession, also contributed his insights to this article. Kaniuk is the Senior Business Development Executive at the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), an industry organization that provides a support, training, and a shared code of standards for its members, who include both of the funeral directors contributing to this article.
Micah Solomon, Forbes Senior Contributor, Customer Service Consultant and Keynote Speaker: When I consider the industries that have a customer service focus at their core, the funeral industry is certainly one where you’re serving customers at a moment that is both high-stress and emotionally sensitive.
David Lee Hernandez, Jr., Principal, Jersey Memorial Group: Being a funeral director is a lifestyle choice, attracting people who are by nature caregivers, who will drop everything to rush to the aid of the family in need. Death care is about putting that family and its priorities first. One of the positives of this job is that during difficult loss and hardship you will truly develop friendships with the families you serve.
Walker Posey, Owner/Director, Posey Funeral Directors: Customer experience is at the center of our profession. Many times, this begins before a death has occurred and extends to well after the service is over. At the end of the day, simply treating our customers as we would want to be treated is the golden rule that stands the test of time.
Anthony Kaniuk, Senior Business Development Executive, National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA): You will not find a group of people who are more compassionate and dedicated. Funeral directors serve families in their communities 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. I tell my own children: if you ever need help and there is a funeral home/funeral director nearby, ask them to help.
Solomon: In what ways has the COVID-19 pandemic made providing service particularly challenging?
Hernandez: The most difficult part has been the delays in disposition at the cemeteries and crematories, so we have provided opportunities to visit and keep families connected. Sadly, services in the funeral home have been limited and clergy and families have not even been permitted in the cemeteries, so we’ve constructed mock “gravesites” on our grounds where we could still provide, in cars, the feeling of a service, which families have been very grateful for.
It has been very difficult for us as professionals to not have the personal interaction with families face to face. There’s just something about a dialogue in person, a feeling for their needs that you learn to pick up over time that is lost.
A woman passes a fence outside Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery adorned with tributes to victims of … [+]
Posey: In “hot zones,” the case load has been so overwhelming that it has presented real logistical challenges for funeral homes. In these areas, such as New York and Detroit, funeral directors are to be commended for the valiant way they’ve risen to the extreme challenges placed before them.
In areas of the country where the caseload has not been as severe, our challenge has been helping families understand that while, due to social distancing, we may not be able to have the presence of their friends to support them, we can provide, via alternative means, the same elements of ceremony and ritual that make the funeral experience meaningful, and provide the healing moments that will be so beneficial in the difficult days to come.
Kaniuk: in some areas, including New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, the sheer volume and the speed with which the deaths have occurred is incredibly challenging. Some funeral homes in those areas did a year’s worth of funerals in a few weeks’ time, and the overwhelming numbers and speed of the deaths in some locales has had a huge impact on cremations at local crematories; some families are waiting weeks for a loved-one to be cremated due to limited crematories. I’ve personally had two close friends who have lost family members: one lost her sister and the other lost his father. It was very difficult for me being in funeral service yet not being able to be there for either of them. PPE (Protective Personal Equipment) has been very hard for funeral directors to get as well.
Solomon: Has your organization, the NFDA, been stepping up here to offer crisis support to your members?
Kaniuk: Yes, including via the efforts of NFDA’s affiliated foundation, the Funeral Service Foundation and its COVID-19 Crisis Response Fund. This has two pillars of support: emergency assistance and grief support. Designed to be flexible, the fund provides grants for immediate needs within funeral service, including emergency response to significant loss of life; grants to organizations providing services and resources to families with unresolved and complicated grief due to loss during this crisis; and grants for other important needs as funeral service continues to serve families during this rapidly evolving crisis.
Solomon: Even pre-COVID, there have been multiple technological developments affecting the nature of funerals, correct?
Posey: In addition to being a funeral director myself, I serve as a consultant for companies that are working to provide better tools needed to improve the experience around funerals today, so this is a subject close to my heart. Today’s technologically-delivered solutions, like virtual tributes, live streaming of services and virtual grief tools, are important developments that are valuable in less stressful times and are certainly even more so as a result of the gathering restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Another area where technology can be transformational is when it can assist in planning services. We are working to create a virtual environment where families can work with our directors to plan services from the comfort of their own homes with the same level of care and professionalism they receive in person at our location. Our goal is never to replace human interaction; rather it is to help families have a more manageable experience around funeral planning so that they can worry less about logistics and spend more time being supported by those they love.
Kaniuk: A member of ours [a funeral director] recently told me about a service he did for a family on Facebook Live that was viewed by 4,800. This wouldn’t have happened in the traditional way, even pre-COVID. We also see funeral directors share enhancements to memorial video with apps like Tukios’ Send Hugs, where a family and friends can send “hugs” to a family that has lost a loved one during this time. We also see more funeral directors using online research and planning tools. As Walker mentioned, families have been able to do planning in the comfort of their own homes with services like efuneral. The National Funeral Directors Association also has a central resource, Remembering a Life, where families can find resources, tools and answers to questions to help their own families or friends during the loss of a loved-one.
Solomon: I know this can be personal, but would you share a story of you or a colleague going the extra mile in providing customer service?
Posey: There are so many stories to share where our directors have done something for a family or family member that has turned out to be so meaningful and healing to them, but what sticks out in this moment is an experience I had not long ago: A young mother of three had died unexpectedly and tragically. At her service, her young son, who had been with her when she died, came over to me and unexpectedly gave me the biggest hug. Soon his brother came over and I was blessed to spend a few minutes simply explaining what all these things at the cemetery were: the casket, burial vault, the device that lowers the casket into grave, etc. As I took those few minutes to help them understand what we were doing and why, you could see a small glimmer of understanding come over them. My heart was so full of concern for them that I could not hold back the tears. While I don’t consider this going an extra mile, I do think it illustrates the importance of being observant and just being there for those we serve, both young and old.
Hernandez: A woman lost her husband of 60 years unexpectedly at home in the middle of the current pandemic. It was then that I realized just how much more difficult it must be to grieve in solitude: alone in the home they’d shared for 60 years, all his things around her, his smell, the photos, no place to escape, no human interaction; just her and her grief.
She would call in multiple times a day asking for him back and if we were taking good care of him. We went grocery shopping for her and sending food to her house, and I left her a card that said, “We are taking just as good of care of your husband as of you.” Now, the phone calls of pain have gone; now I receive a call every other day just asking how my day is going– she’s checking in on me, to see how I’m doing! Odd times, but friendships and connections are still possible.
Solomon: Do you have any thoughts for those of my readers who might consider going into this industry?
Posey: The job can be demanding, so make sure you love what you do. It is also crucial that you understand that our social culture is rapidly changing and we must prepare to meet the consumer where they are. Find a progressive, service-oriented firm and go to work.
Hernandez: It’s a ministry. If you don’t understand what that means, it’s servant leadership. If you don’t know what that means, it’s putting people first. If that resonates with you, you might not have the biggest wallet, but you’ll be in the richest person in the room.
Kaniuk: If you want to make a difference and add value first without expectation, the industry will welcome your passion and drive for doing so. Conversely, I would caution you to remember that it is a business, so don’t get caught up only in working in the business, but remember to be working on your business as well–including by staying in tune with your cash flow statements and doing SWOT [Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats] analysis frequently.