Poems and Reflections, The Road Less Traveled

The More Traditions We Let Slip Away, the Less Valuable We Become

by Dennis Hamilton
Memorial Park Funeral Home

Editor’s Note: I am very happy to call Dennis a good friend. After I graduated from mortuary school in 1989, Jimmy Dilday, my boss at the small, rural funeral home in Tennessee, sent me to Memphis several times to get a taste of working for a huge, metropolitan funeral home. Dennis took me under his wing and paired me up with one of his employees. Not only did we do death calls, but I got to spend time in the prep room embalming. Those early days in my career are among my most memorable.

Over the course of my career, I have come from the “funeral home ambulance” days to the era of website search engines, email, cell phones (for our children!), all manner of memorialization and the rising surge of the rate of growth in cremation. All of these are enhancements to the services and products that we must embrace to grow as a profession. Indeed, the days of the “cookie cutter” funeral ceremony are long gone. But along the way, we have fallen off the track and are quickly becoming our own worst enemy, by taking the path of least resistance. The changes that we are witnessing have come upon with neck-snapping acceleration within the last two years. The damage that I am witnessing is the elimination of the visitation that has always occurred the evening prior to the funeral service.

Now I am not naïve enough to believe that a “one hour prior” visitation is not the best option for some families. But in the grand scheme of things, a one hour visitation is not in the best interest of the family or the funeral home. I am not a psychologist but from sheer training and experience I can assure you that there is no way a family can absorb the ramifications of the loss of a seeing a beloved family member in a casket in a matter of minutes. Add to that, the need for any adjustments that may need to be made to the decedent, admiring floral tributes, and greeting family, friends and coworkers. All in a 60 minute time frame. It lessens the impact of the loss, as well as the impact that the loved one had on their family and community. Families call upon us not only to serve them, but to direct them as well. We have funerals every day, but the families we serve do not. They rely upon us for guidance in making the decisions that will impact them, in some cases, for the rest of their lives.

For example, a mother dies leaving four children. One hour before the appointed service time, three of the family members come in for a final viewing. There are friends lining the halls of the funeral home, along with other family members. The children decide to wait until all of the family is present to go in to view. In the short time left before the start of the service, the funeral director is frantically trying to make adjustments per the family’s request. “Place a ring on her finger. No, it looks better on the other hand.” “Her lipstick is too dark.” “Her hair needs to be teased a little more to the left.” All the while, flowers are being delivered and need to be placed in the stateroom. The crowd grows larger. The minister arrives to have a prayer with the family. The DVD is skipping. The pallbearers need direction. The minutes are flying by….and suddenly it is time for the service and the committal. You come back to the funeral home, exhausted but pleased that everything went well and the family was satisfied…and then you get the phone call that every funeral director dreads receiving. Mother was buried with the ring that the children decided at the last minute that they wanted returned to them.

Suddenly, the family is unhappy. All of the hard work you’ve put in is for naught, because one little direction was not carried out. You realize that retrieval of the ring is necessary, so you must begin to explain to an already distraught family that you will have to begin the process for disinterment. The Health Department is notified, because the state requires that a court order is required to open the grave and the casket.

Of course we are all saying, “I’m organized. This could never happen to me. My staff is on top of it.” Believe me when I tell you that communication suffers when there is a time restraint. So you are now dealing with the fallout from a family that is growing more upset, plus you are incurring legal costs, vault replacement costs and overtime payroll issues. Yet the most damaging of all is the beating that the funeral home will be accused of because of poor service, poor planning, and improper time management. The community will declare that “you were the experts. You should have made us aware of the hazards of not having enough time before the funeral to prepare our family and your staff.” Now everyone is mad at the Funeral Home and holding them responsible.

You know what? They are right.

It IS our fault. We are licensed funeral DIRECTORS. It is incumbent upon us to direct the family, and to anticipate their needs. We are not choreographers. And we do not need to just roll over and follow along.

The more traditions we let slip away, the less valuable we become.

My location is a combination funeral home and cemetery, so I am beginning to note a rise in the concept of the funeral close out. We hold the funeral ceremony in our chapel, but we immediately dismiss the congregant and a funeral director drives the remains directly to the gravesite for a burial with no one present. This used to be offered only in the most extreme and inclement of weather conditions.
The more traditions we let slip away, the less valuable we become.

Years ago, I assisted a friend of mine upon the death of her mother. She told me from the start that she wanted everything done in one day, both the visitation and the service. I understood that she was tired, as she had been caring for her mother for a long time during her final illness. But I could also see a little farther down the road than she could. My friend was a lifelong Memphian who had a lot of friends and business associates in our community. I took it upon myself to insist that she have a visitation on the evening prior to the service, even for a few hours. She trusted me, and was overwhelmed by the number of folks who came to pay their respects; from schoolmates to former neighbors. What began as a simple visitation ended up as a great celebration of her mother’s life. To this day, whenever our paths cross, she will always thank me for “making” her have a visitation the night before the funeral ceremony.

The more we let traditions slip away, the less valuable we become.

About the Author: Dennis Hamilton, a graduate of John A. Gupton Mortuary College, serves as the General Manager of Memorial Park Funeral Home & Cemetery in Memphis, Tennessee. He has also had the distinction of being elected President of the Tennessee Funeral Directors Association in 1993 and President of the Tennessee State Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers in 2010. My personal motto is that for Memorial Park serving the Memphis Community, “no cause more noble, no land more sacred, and no care more important”.

Dennis Hamilton
Memorial Park Funeral Home & Cemetery
5668 Poplar Ave.
Memphis, TN 38119


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