Cheryl Grossman and her husband used to laugh together about all the "rigmarole" that most funeral services involved. So when he died suddenly in October 1997, Cheryl knew that he would want the arrangements to be simple. Grossman, with a friend to support her, went to a funeral home to arrange a direct cremation. The funeral director kept "upselling"--pressing her to consider more expensive alternatives.
"Had I not had a friend who went with me, and had I not had a firm resolve, I probably would have signed anything," she says. "To be manipulated in that way at that time was one of the most obscene things I'd ever experienced."
Cheryl Grossman's funeral home encounter is a common one. Not so common is how she took her experience to church--and how her church embraced it. Cheryl's Catholic parish, St. Catherine of Siena in Austin, Texas, has offered a diverse array of practical and pastoral supports to the grieving for some time. Last year Grossman and two other parishioners helped create a death and funeral resource booklet that gathers information on all applicable parish ministries and other area resources in a convenient portable form. It includes specific information on affordable funeral options, planning sheets, and step-by-step advice for those dealing with a death in the family.
Most ministers work with the dying and grieving and officiate at funerals. But they don't necessarily know more than people in the pews about the ins and outs of funeral arrangements. The standard seminary education usually doesn't cover this level of nitty-gritty, nor do ministers usually accompany people to meetings with funeral home representatives.
"When a minister has to deal with a death in their own family, they are often shocked at the cost," says Terri Dalton, associate director of pastoral care and counseling for the East Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church. "They have no idea it can be so high." Most pastors slowly learn the details of death and burial on the job. Some find a local funeral director they trust to guide them through the process.
The relationship between clergy and funeral homes can be good or bad for the person making funeral arrangements. "Unfortunately the funeral industry tries to network itself with many organizations that refer business to them. Their trade publications encourage volunteering with hospices, hospitals, and AIDS programs, for example," says Lamar Hankins, board president of the Funeral Consumers Alliance. Some funeral homes give donations to churches or gifts to clergy to encourage referrals. But, adds Hankins, "There are at least an equal number of clergy who are concerned about funeral industry excesses. They believe, as I do, that for people of faith, these things need to be returned more fully to the oversight of churches and religious groups."
Not every pastor is eager to become a funeral crusader, and not just because of church politics. "Clergy are like other people--they are often really uncomfortable talking about death," says Dalton. "They don't necessarily want to bring up the topic of caskets, for instance." They are not alone. The spread of the hospice movement is evidence that American society slowly is becoming more open and knowledgeable about death and dying, but talking freely about funerals and burial arrangements is still often greeted with discomfort.
Whether you are behind the pulpit or in the pew, there are practical and spiritual benefits to attending to the logistics, liturgy, and legalities of death.
There is not a single "smart buyer," correct and reverent way to hold a funeral. Culture, family situations, religious traditions, circumstances of death, and the practicalities of what is available in a given location all come to bear on the type of funeral a person or family might choose. For example, increasing numbers of Americans are choosing direct burial or cremation, with a memorial service afterward. But others, whether for theological or cultural reasons, aren't comfortable with these options. Fortunately, a wide range of funerals can be meaningful, fairly priced, and honoring to both God and the one who has died. The best life-out-of-death experiences happen when education and forethought come together with practical support from a community of faith. Some church people have found profound comfort and power in the work of caring for their own dead, including preparing and moving the body. Others don't want to even think about being that hands-on, but through a local memorial society or consortium of churches they've researched local funeral homes and found one with reasonable prices that's willing to negotiate a special group rate. Endless variations on these approaches are possible, depending on local resources and the unique gifts of your congregation.
Getting the word out on funeral planning and consumer rights can be a unique justice ministry for a church. "The communities that need this information the most are the ones that are least likely to have the financial and educational resources to stand the pressures of the funeral industry," says Cheryl Grossman. Means of outreach include printing up fact fliers, offering a funeral-planning workshop, or negotiating affordable services with a willing local funeral home for those in your area who are struggling financially.
Bodily death is an inevitable transition--not much choice in the matter. What the living can
decide is whether that transition is one controlled overwhelmingly by commerce and the extremes of grief or one guided and supported within the community of the faithful.
Excerpted with permission from "We All Have to Die: But Does it Have to Cost so Much?" originally published in Sojourners Magazine, May-June 2000.