If you’ve never had to help plan a funeral, your idea of a funeral director’s job is probably a little vague. They arrange the funeral, right? They handle the burial or cremation, and are at the visitation and the funeral service to make sure everyone’s in the right place at the right time. Is that it?
Funeral directors do manage the logistics of funeral and burial arrangements. But, in fact, there’s a lot going on behind the scenes at the funeral home that you might not be aware of — and the best funeral directors go above and beyond to make things easier, or more meaningful, for a grieving family. Funeral directors think outside the box to create the perfect remembrance for your loved one, and they do everything they can to help you navigate the legal, practical, and emotional hurdles you’ll face after the death.
Here’s what the best funeral directors are doing:
• Creating unique, personalized funerals that truly reflect a loved one’s life
• Connecting families with professionals who can help every step of the way
• Going wherever the family needs them to be in order to make arrangements
“I try to troubleshoot for families,” says Brooke Benjamin, a funeral director with the Cremation Society of Illinois. That could mean finding the right legal advice for a family, or reaching out to a local reporter when she thinks the deceased was fascinating enough to merit a news story — or coming up with the perfect location for a very special memorial service.
Creative locations for unique services
“People don’t always want to go to a formal funeral home to celebrate someone’s life,” she says. For instance, when one local family lost their dad, the family explained to Benjamin that “he was a total geek, he was really, really smart. He had a personality that was off the hook.” She could tell by the way they were talking about his life that neither the funeral home nor a church would be the best place for his final send-off.
But she had an idea about someplace that would be a good location to honor that father’s life: Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African-American History, a stately building packed with exhibits celebrating centuries of heritage and culture. Benjamin suggested it to the family, and they loved the idea — so she made it happen, planning a memorial service in the museum’s theater. By thinking creatively and making sure she really understood what the deceased was all about, she was able to facilitate the kind of service that will always be remembered by everyone who was there.
Unique celebrations with individual themes
Buddy Phaneuf, of Phaneuf Funeral Homes in New Hampshire, is on the same page. He’s always working to avoid the “cookie-cutter funeral,” the one that follows the same script as yesterday’s funeral other than the names and the details.
“I’ve always empowered all my funeral directors to use company money to create a meaningful ceremony and think out of the box,” he says. One example: “We had a lady who came down with cancer, and one of her bucket list things was to go to Hawaii. But she never went to Hawaii, and she died under hospice care. My funeral director worked with the spouse, and they went out to a paper goods store and created a whole Hawaiian theme, where people had leis and we were playing Hawaiian music. They made little fruity drinks with the little umbrellas.”
Another family using Phaneuf Funeral Home mentioned that their loved one had made dresses. The funeral director brought in dress forms and mannequins, arranging the deceased’s handiwork on them and displaying them around the room at the funeral. “It almost looked like you were going through Nordstrom’s or something, with all the little displays,” Phaneuf remembered. The added touch made the funeral as personal and unique as the deceased.
“It’s not something we ever charge the family for,” he continued, “but the people coming in say, ‘That was a wow experience.'” It’s a little thing for the funeral home — some additional planning work, maybe a few hundred dollars — but that effort makes a big difference for a family devastated by grief.
Helping families when things get tricky
“The little things” are what Christy Chiappone, a funeral director with Rago Brothers Funeral Homes in Chicago, emphasizes. She remembers one woman her funeral home served, whose husband had died at a nursing home. Chiappone went to pick up his body and learned that his wife hadn’t made any funeral arrangements — she was feeling lost and had no idea what to do next. So Chiappone took 30 minutes out of her day and sat down with the widow then and there, to get the funeral planning started right away.
Later, after her husband’s cremation, the widow wasn’t feeling up to traveling to the funeral home to pick up his ashes, but she was also uncomfortable having them sent through the mail. So Chiappone stopped by the house to deliver the husband’s remains. “Her granddaughter was there to hold her hand through the whole thing,” Chiappone remembered. “She was so appreciative. She just did not want to have to come and get him.”
On another occasion, Chiappone helped make connections for a far-flung family: The father had died in Arizona and needed to be returned to Chicago. His daughter, who lived in Massachusetts, had traveled to Arizona to put her dad’s affairs in order when she ran into a snag — she was told it would take six to eight weeks for her to get the death certificates, but she needed them as soon as possible in order to take care of things like selling her dad’s car.
The bureaucracy involved in something like obtaining death certificates can be completely overwhelming to someone who’s grieving a death and unexperienced with the system — and far from home on top of that. But Chiappone was able to step in, make a few phone calls to figure out how things worked in a different state, move the process along, and tell the daughter she could pick up the death certificates at her convenience.
“I know it’s all part of our job and it’s what we’re there for,” Chiappone said, “but the less [the families] have to do, the better, as far as their relaxation and trying to start the mourning process.”
Connecting families with the community they need
That’s one of the goals of Brooke Benjamin’s troubleshooting, too. Whatever she can do to smooth the way for the families she serves, she wants to do it. It helps to have the broad network she’s developed over a lifetime in her city — so when a family needs help, Benjamin is likely to know someone who can provide it. Maybe the family doesn’t know what to do with their loved one’s stuff: a couch nobody wants, a sewing machine nobody knows how to use. Benjamin has a friend who knows a guy who works with refugees being resettled in Chicago, and she knows those new residents need all the basics for their new lives in America. She makes the connection, and the deceased’s furniture finds a new home where it will be used and appreciated.
Sometimes it’s less material. Benjamin might be making connections between a family and an attorney who she knows does good work. She might be networking with companies who can provide unique methods of body disposition, like she did for the gentleman whose life was celebrated at the DuSable Museum: his cremated remains are being shot into outer space.
In one of her proudest moments, the first one she told me about when we began talking, Benjamin found a new home for two pair-bonded dogs after their owner, a widower, died. “I found a home for Happy and Kiki,” she remembered. “With a young couple, and they were very much loved. And I think one of the dogs has since passed away, but I kind of consider that a feather in my cap. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, I did something useful for someone.’ That makes me cry when I see beautiful things like that happen.”