Problems With Death

 

“When you’re at Death’s door, ring the doorbell and run away. He hates it when you do that.” – Anon.

Funny, isn’t it? Thing is, not a whole lot of good comedic material on Death. It’s a shame. Laughter is very freeing and breaks down walls.

No, instead we erect more walls and reinforce them, as death is a “taboo” subject in society. Don’t talk about it. Keep it to yourself. Do your grieving personally, quietly. If you talk about it, you give it a voice. It’s uncomfortable, awkward. Reminds us, every day, since birth, we are one step closer to the grave. And when I tell a grieving individual “call me if you need anything,” DON’T! I didn’t really mean it. It’s just a traditional, convenient way to end an awkward conversation.

Since we don’t talk about it, it’s tough to exorcise the fears, the Boogeymen who own the space. There are some pockets, such as “Death Cafes” in progressive communities [NYC and Seattle], where people sip coffee and talk. I tried it, unsuccessfully, in South Florida, despite my experience in marketing and promotions. Couldn’t “get that dog to hunt.”

No, that “taboo” cloud cover is heavy indeed and instead directs people into isolation, grief and often depression, treated with self-medicating drugs and alcohol. Addictions grow – the root cause of separation through physical death, never treated or understood. A great metaphor, used in the HBO series “6 Feet Under” showed hands separating in the opening credits of the show.
Yes, death is about separation, the physical end of the tangible as we know it and replaced by something with unknown distance and location. It’s very similar to divorce, fights and moving cross-country. Reports indicate divorce is the most painful because it is intentional. People don’t mean to die. It just happens.

Another problem – everybody in the death category works in a silo. Most notably, the Association for Death Education and Counseling [ADEC], National Funeral Directors Association [NFDA] and Hospice Organizations. No cross-industry leadership, communication or interest. No agreement or discussion on the critical issue of “doing death.” Instead, we [I am a funeral director] botch it, rush it. Misunderstand it.

Don’t get me wrong. As a society, we do a LOT of “stuff” – philosophy, literature, art, religion, science, research and spirituality. But we don’t know what works best and why. Nothing is integrated. Meta-analysis can make sense of all the “stuff” the various disciplines generate. The goal is to understand how to bolt things together, and how to be successful “doing death.”.

More specifically, the goal of the death process must be on HEALING, through understanding. This includes the material and process to get started and keep growing. To help manage the separation – the eternal questions are: What’s next? Where do we go? By doing that we shrink down the fear and the pain.

Step #1: WE GO ON. Sounds vaguely familiar. Then why do people reject this premise and choose to wallow in grief and continually post about “how I miss my mother”? I often see these on social media and view these as opportunities, hoping not to come across as preachy. Just a supportive sentence or two and maybe a book reference.

If you go to religion, literature, science and spirituality you will find answers. Man has been wrestling with this for an eternity. Collectively, they are four push pins that hold down the handkerchief topic of “ongoing life.”

In religion, especially if you are Christian, you must be familiar with the death and resurrection of Jesus. Eastern faiths stress reincarnation. And despite remarkable similarities, practitioners love to dwell on differences and what makes one religion “better.” God must observe this and shake His head. It isn’t a contest. Just a variety to broaden the appeal. Like Baskin-Robbins 31 flavors.

Literature is full of stories about successful changes between death and life. Pinocchio goes from marionette to “a real live boy.” Sir Gawain battles The Green Knight who is resurrected in a springtime ritual. Art includes sculptures and paintings, replete with visions of heaven and The Other Side.

Science teaches us the Conservation of Mass – nothing is created or destroyed, it just changes. In junior high we measured the parameters of a peanut then set it on fire, capturing the gas, light, heat and residue. And the “before” and “after” data balanced! If true for a peanut, why not for a human? Also, tons of accounts of near-death-experiences [NDEs], most famously by Harvard scientists.

Finally, spirituality focuses on personal relationships and “the unknown.” Some use the label “paranormal,” which is often disparaged and includes distractions such as UFOs and Big Foot. That aside, nothing is more powerful than personal experience. One “unknown” phenomenon is use of technology to connect between our world and The Other Side. Shortly after my father’s death, the phone rang at my mother’s and a faint, staticky connection said “it’s Frank.” [my dad’s name]. I never did the math to figure the odds on it being a telemarketer with the same name as dad. I didn’t want to [or need to] do the math.

Maybe all four categories, or a subset, will speak to you. Rock you to your core, moreso than the blathering of any third party “expert.” If you DO get all four categories working together, in integrated fashion, the “life after life” case is pretty compelling. Accept it. Embrace it. Start healing. Eliminate the fear and pain.

Rule #2: How do we conduct ourselves?

As an observer, and one who often arranges these flawed approaches [based on family insistence and putting a governor on my own suggestions], first determine WHAT TO AVOID. The tired “Celebrations of Life” [COL] are so incredibly bad and offer so little, that it raises the question – why bother? For example, playing “Dueling Banjos” [because the decedent liked it] or passing out Hershey’s foil wrapped treats [as a “last kiss”] were so bad as to be embarrassing. BUT, COLs are socially acceptable, fast and to some extent, cathartic. Better than nothing. But I’d submit, 18 months after the event, recall and healing impact is zero.

Church [or any house of worship] services are traditional, but Pew Research reports membership in ALL denominations [except Megachurches and Latin Catholics] are flat or declining. Churches lack relevance and people walk away feeling empty.

Enter Olson-Zaltman Associates [OZA], hired by the Funeral Service Foundation to get at the real, sub-conscious feelings consumers have about death and traditional services. Then use those findings to correct declining revenue the industry faces. OZA is a fine firm used successfully by blue chip manufacturers to understand their consumers. Just a step away from the psychiatrist’s couch, subjects use imagery to reflect their fears and desires in decision making and product needs. Our minds use images [and subjects make collages out of magazine photos, which are then analyzed by trained researchers] to get at the main messages. A lighthouse is an example – a beacon [of hope or understanding] cutting through the darkness of grief and depression.

OZA identified three critical needs: the “performance of a lifetime,” connectivity and transformation. In my work, performance is “where memorial service meets dinner theater.” I actually write a script, with light and music cues and cast the family into the show. And at its core, the “life after life” message, supported by the four push pin disciplines.

And just as new approaches need adoption, there are traditional things to be avoided. Dark, depressing funeral homes, using closed boxes [caskets]. The research sponsors rejected the project – “shot the messenger” — as it prescribed significant changes they were unwilling to make. Now, new players, from outside the industry/profession, are willing and able to provide leadership. Milennials and even Baby Boomers, to a certain extent, are rejecting the traditions of previous generations that were more social norms. “Disruptive Innovation” [led by Clayton Christensen of Harvard] is alive and well in the death-care business.

Step #3: Follow-up; “Quo Vadis?”

So, if you handle things correctly, according to real consumer needs, how do you follow through after delivering the “performance of a lifetime,” connecting people [with the decedent and one another] and transforming them [from depressed to hopeful]. In The Bible “quo vadis” [“where are you going?”] is a key question – to those travelling the earth as well as heading to other, lesser known destinations.

One way to handle this is with gift bags. Yeah, you heard me. Same idea as in birthday parties, baby showers, weddings and other celebrations. In the gift bags are books [“Hello from heaven” by Bill Guggenheim on After-death communications], other reading lists, votive candles, music – materials to launch the self-study process. People like the privacy and flexibility in self-study. But also popular are groups, counseling, and church attendance. As well [as in all decisions] – “what if I do nothing?” Often, time is the great healer – despite intervention attempts, just letting the clock tick sometimes returns things to “normal.” Whatever that might be.

What we DON’T know is: among this wide array of options, what works best and why? Through interviews, say 18 months after death, determine how a person is doing and why. Rank/order the findings and do more of what is working. Redirect funding from less effective methods. Practical, logical – and soundly rejected by academics. It threatens their specialization. It breaks down silos. They LIKE silos and lording over their fiefdoms.

IN CLOSING.

My dad’s physical, earthly body died in 1995. But he is far from dead.

That same year I attended a course “Affecting Change,” offered by the Center for Creative Leadership [CCL – Greensboro, NC]. Hard-hitting Corporate stuff. We were warned many participants become enlightened and phone in their resignations. At the end we were asked “Why were you put here? On this earth?” Most answered the obvious – be a better husband, father, executive. I went last: “To help people understand about life after life.” The stunned looks said it all.

After 22 years, I figured out that, like most things, the world wasn’t too interested. Or ready. Or both. Especially when you operate under a grey overcast “taboo” sky amid a landscape dotted with silos.

Maybe, at best, I’ve affected 100 people. Audience members. Read something I wrote. One-on-one. Small, but it matters. Especially for those 100 people. And for me. Sometimes, in everything we do, the educational moment isn’t for others. It’s for yourself. And in that CCL revelation as I stood in a solarium collecting my thoughts, the sun cut through the grey sky and sunbeams hit the December poinsettias making them glow electric. And a thought entered my head, as clear as day: “Nobody said this would be easy.” True that. So I soldier on, given that I accepted my assignment. All the reason in the world to quit. Committed, or just stubborn I guess.

“I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” [2 Timothy 4:7]

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