By Carla Harvey, Parting Stone Partner Success Manager

When I was in my mid-twenties, I was an actress and musician in Los Angeles. I had moved across the country from my native Detroit to pursue entertainment, and I was confident that was my life’s path. A lot of people quit their day jobs to pursue entertainment, but I quit entertainment to pursue a day job…as an embalmer. The truth was, the entertainment world had quickly lost its charm and left me craving purpose. I had always been fascinated with death and dying since I was a kid, so when I discovered Cypress College’s Mortuary Science program, it felt like a perfect fit. Well, almost a perfect fit; trading in partying on the strip ‘til dawn for dawn chemistry classes didn’t feel great at first. I trucked along in my studies, not thinking much about grief when I started Mortuary College, even though I had experienced my fair share of it. I didn't want to deal with emotions—mine or anyone else's. That’s why I chose Mortuary Science in the first place. I envisioned my future in a sterile prep room, quietly searching for a carotid artery, indulging my love for science. Mortuary College taught me anatomy and physiology, embalming, how to reconstruct facial features, and even mortuary law, but it didn’t educate me on loss. No one taught me how to comfort someone who had just lost a child or life partner. Though I have since obtained multiple certifications in Grief Coaching, back in 2004, there was simply no classroom for compassion.

While many in the death care profession are drawn to it by an innate empathy, it doesn’t always awaken naturally. During my time at school, a professor suggested I volunteer for a local hospice group. Though I had aced Embalming 1 and 2 and was hard as nails while autopsy tech-ing, my first hospice assignment filled me with sheer terror. I struggled to enter the nursing home, driving around the block twice before finally mustering the courage to go in. How could I face someone who was DYING? Why would they want ME invading such an intimate time? When I finally entered my patient's room, I found a teeny, tiny woman with a fluff of white hair in a hospital bed. There was a Maybelline bullet on her nightstand and a card that read, "I like to wear my red lipstick." I was surprised at how easy it was to know what to do next. I applied her lipstick, sat with her, and held her hand. This life-changing moment helped me understand what my purpose in funeral service would be. Many people are empathetic, sure. But those of us who choose death care have a light bulb moment wherein we realize our most important duties aren’t confined to a prep room. Rather, our purpose is to hold space for others during the hardest time of their life…because we can. That light bulb moment for me also came with the weight of the idea that my actions could significantly impact someone’s grief journey; either positively or negatively.

In my early days of working in funeral homes I felt strongly about the POSITIVE impact I made on families. However, things have changed significantly in our industry in the last 15 years. Direct cremation is on the rise, saving is king. Families routinely seek out the cheapest funeral service provider. Do you blame them? We’ve kind of devalued and outsourced ourselves. How can that ideology comfortably exist with providing a service that will inevitably affect the beginning of a family’s grieving process? How do we put the value back into our services and help families understand that we are essential professionals during the hardest time of their life? Here are a few ways we can continue to make a positive impact on the grieving process in the digital age through funeral service.

Provide A Safe Space

We are not online. We provide a physical safe space in the immediacy of grief; the one place where families know they can go with swollen faces, broken hearts and not be gawked at. This may be the only environment where some mourners can freely express their emotions. We meet people where they are in their grief and that can run the gamut from shock and anger to relief; all of which we have learned to be stoic and present for. Practice compassionate listening and facilitate conversation about the decedent’s life, while navigating the often confusing decisions that need to be made. It’s ok to not have all of the answers or words for someone. In this digital age, let’s not forget how powerful human touch can be. A hug or holding someone’s hand can be more powerful than words.

Creating Memorable Ceremonies

As funeral service professionals we always speak of the importance of a ceremony. We stress that it is a necessary part of finding closure, that a funeral service that is both meaningful and memorable should be as unique as the individual being. Then we offer the same basic visitations and viewings that we always have. While a traditional funeral may be perfect for some families, as our worlds expand, it’s time for us to think outside the box to create unforgettable experiences. Ceremonies that invite conversation about the deceased by truly reflecting their life, values and beliefs positively affect the grieving process. Companies like SendOff outside of Minneapolis, Minnesota are doing just this by encouraging people to plan their own non-traditional funeral party in unconventional places like barns and bars. Ceremonies that encourage participation such as pressing the button that ignites the cremation chamber or simply witnessing a cremation can also be helpful in dealing with grief, giving families a sense of control in a situation wherein they usually feel powerless. I had the opportunity to visit Bradshaw Funeral & Cremation in Stillwater, Minnesota and spent a moment in their spa-like witness room. A waterfall invites you into a serene space to meditate while you say goodbye.

Offering Varied Memorialization Options

Today, we can offer a variety of memorialization options so that families can remember their loved ones in a way that is meaningful for them. From memorial jewelry to solidified remains to shooting cremains into space, we should be looking for the moment our families’ eyes light up and say, "That is so mom. She would love this.” Yes, that means offering everything and not deciding what value families should put on anything. At Parting Stone, we recently received a letter from a family that was thrilled when their funeral director told them about solidified remains because their mom who had passed away was a fossil collector. Parting Stone embodied her spirit. Born in 1933, they were over the moon when, by chance, they got back exactly thirty-three stones. A director recently told me that a family he had helped choose solidified remains excitedly told him a year later that their son sleeps with one of grandpa's stones every night and brings one on every trip. A California director just shared with me that a family he helped had chosen to taxidermy one of their mom’s tattoos along with solidifying her remains. When people find meaning in memorialization, their grief process is facilitated.

Need fresh ideas? Before you bring out the price sheet skip the traditional 365 days of grief email system for an in-house grief coach who blogs and offers online support groups. Try bi-weekly grief circles. Get families comfortable with walking into your funeral home by hosting community events. Learn, learn, learn! Take advantage of one of the many grief certification programs out there such as The Creative Grief Studio or the University of Wisconsin at Madison’s Grief specialist certification. Host death cafes at local spots where you can answer honest questions about the grief and the death and dying process. Hire young blood and watch how old school and new school directors can learn from each other.

In my eyes, the most important impact we can make on the grieving process as directors will always be through that initial contact. There's no “online version” of a removal. On my last removal, I had a whole family watching as I not so gracefully commandeered a cot down a staircase and back to the removal van in 90-degree heat. As I closed the removal vehicle, a gentleman ran up, visibly upset, saying, "I'm too late." Sweating profusely through my clothes, I assured him it wasn't too late. I unlatched the door, took the cot back out, and unzipped the bag for him. He talked to his mom for a few moments and then helped me reload her. Before he left, he said, "I'm going to miss talking to her." I replied, "You still can. When I miss someone, I just talk to them." He smiled and said, "I like that. I’ll do that."

In the end, it's not about helping folks to forget or let go. We are facilitators not of closure, but of the journey into a new normal. We empower. We are empathetic. We’re pretty darn cool.


About Carla Harvey:

Carla Harvey

Carla Harvey is a Grief Specialist, end-of-life Doula, and Thanatologist with over a decade of experience in funeral service, hospice, and coaching. She holds degrees in Mortuary Science, Funeral Service Business and Management, and holds multiple certifications in her field as well. Carla is also an accomplished artist and published author.

In 2017, Carla founded Good Grief LA, a bereavement center, and has worked with hundreds of clients including veterans, young adults, and the terminally ill. As an advocate for the Death Positive movement, her goal is to normalize the death and grieving processes and to assist her clients in finding some beauty in this difficult aspect of life.