“The Dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise to the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and we shall save our country.”
Abraham Lincoln, Message to Congress 1862
We are held captive to our own dogma: “The only good funeral is a ‘traditional’ funeral.'” (Except, we no longer know what a traditional funeral is.) “Healing can only occur when the body is present.” is yet another. We hold so tightly to these truths that we consider them to be self-authenticating and sustaining. If people would just accept these things as we know them they would see the error of their ways. While Our dogma may, in fact, be true and accurate it is “now inadequate to our stormy present.”
Instead, we must see our role as expanding the world view of our clients. In their world view the evidence is not self sustaining. After all: “Jim Smith’s body wasn’t present when we went to his memorial service and no one seemed to be hurt.” It is our job to understand that we must begin with their preconceptions. My friend, Paul Seyler, points out that the best way to disrupt someones preconception is to surprise them. But we make another mistake when we imagine that we know what their preconceptions are. In listening to funeral directors it seems that there is widespread belief among the profession that the public sees funerals as irrelevant, too expensive, unnecessary, etc. But, in truth, at the individual level, we don’t know that. So, preparing a defense along those lines will frequently fail.
When we encounter resistant people it is always tempting to tell ourselves stories to explain what is happening. Our failure to verify those stories is what leads us down unsuccessful paths. Second to the apologists command of his subject matter is his / her ability to listen and probe. To set the context and lead the conversation by introducing insights that his audience may not have considered. All of this while making sure that he is creating and protecting a safe environment. By listening we uncover both preconceptions and real needs.
A word of caution:
I think the reason we are where we are today relative to the decline in memorialization is our fear of creating tension and awkwardness in the arrangements conference. That is why I believe our problem is cowardice. If you are really trying to help people it will frequently be your job to create tension, to risk a relationship. Learning and undoing false knowledge is sometimes awkward. That is why creating a safe environment is so critical. You are to teach not tell. You are to facilitate enlightenment not judge. You are offering options to meet a real need, not force-fitting people into some kind of standardized system.
I think the mistake we all make is that we think everybody in the arrangement conference likes us and that we need them to like us. Heretical? yes. But look at it this way:
If you are an order taker and later they have regrets it is highly unlikely they will like you for being a doormat. People rarely accept the blame for their own mistakes. On the other hand if you help them explore options that enable them to find an alternative or compromise that mitigates regrets you will not only earn their respect but they are much more likely to like you.
People don’t know what they know or don’t know, they only know what they think they know. We are all wrapped up in our prejudices, preconceived notions and biases. The job of an apologist is to allow his audience to become aware that their biases may be “inadequate to the occasion.” Jesus did this through the use of parables, questions and stories. Those same devices work today.
For example: A family may enter the arrangement conference believing you are going to try and sell them something. (I wonder where they could have gotten such an idea?) They also may believe that they must follow dad’s wishes and simply dispose of his body with no service whatsoever. So, they begin the process in a resistant frame of mind.
As an apologist you must be sensitive to their emotional state but you must also remember that you have a purpose linked directly to your value system. I won’t pretend to tell you what your value system is. But, for me, it is the fundamental belief that every life deserves to be honored. I have a lot of ideas how that should be done, but, in the end, that is an individual decision. I am not the person making that decision I am only a guide.
An apologist must care more about the needs of his audience than he does his own.
“And the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful” 2 Timothy 2:24
What you say must be part of your DNA. If you are attempting to manipulate for your own purposes there is a high potential for backfire. But, if you truly are trying to help…to teach, people will allow you to be far more assertive than you might imagine. This is where the professional is separated from the tradesman. Professionals take responsibility and that responsibility sometimes entails risk but their purpose is their goal not some imagined relationship. They have no predetermined outcome except that the client is better off than they were before. The conscious thoughts people bring to a high stress / high risk situation are rarely their real thoughts. They are only reacting to what they think they know.
Pool of Shared Meaning: Creating an Opening Framing Statement
Patterson, Grenny, McMillen and Switzer, in their book “Crucial Conversations,” refer to the necessity of creating a “Pool of Shared Meaning.” What this means is that when engaging in high risk conversations the leader (you) must first establish something that everyone agrees on. For instance, a marriage counselor might gain agreement from a couple that the most important thing is preserving the marriage. That becomes a pool of shared meaning.
This is especially effective when you are working with more than one person. You develop the “Pool of Shared Meaning” by beginning with a framing statement. This is, effectively, a “trial balloon.” If it were me, once rapport were established, my framing statement would be something along these lines:
“Before we begin, I want to share with you that it is my belief that every life is sacred (I would use that word even with atheists) and that everyone deserves to be remembered. But, at the same time, I don’t believe that everyone needs or wants to do that in the same way. So, it’s an important part of my job to help you explore ways in which you can honor your ??????’s life. I am fully prepared to help you figure that out whether it includes our services or not. Is that alright with you?
Notice that I make an affirmative statement: every life is sacred. I realize some of you may not like using that word. But, please understand that it is my personal belief that no matter how resistant a family is to the idea of a funeral, the vast majority consider the body of their loved one to have a sacred quality. Regardless of your religious perspective I see it as both a cultural archetype and a personal unconscious belief. You may not agree, but I emphasize it because it is part of my DNA.
I have also declared my role as expert and guide and finally I have asked permission which gives them the opportunity (if I pause for a moment for response) to redirect me if I am off base.
The framing statement is critical to the process not only because it sets a tone and expectation, but, if things get tense, it enables you to calm it down by going back to it: “Remember, the most important thing for us today is for you to honor your ________ in a way that best meets your needs now and in the future.”
Remember, also, I am not attempting to persuade but to inform. You know hundreds of ways to honor their loved one. They know only what they have seen, experienced or imagined. You also know the pitfalls of decisions they might make. As a professional you have an obligation to help them work through those choices. Even if they still choose something not in their best interests there is a chance they may remember you told them it wasn’t a good idea. Again, sewing seeds for the future.
If they ignore me that’s ok. I have sewn a seed that may bear fruit in the future…and maybe not. But if I don’t sew it it will be definitely not. This is NOT a win / lose encounter.
Tune in next week for “Don’t Confuse Me With the Facts”
See other “Funeral Apologetics” posts in this series: