For nearly a year we have wrestled with the world wide pandemic, and as long as we have witnessed the struggle we have celebrated our health care community. These doctors and nurses have been on the “front lines” of dealing with the most severe cases that require hospitalization. Our health care workers have been honored in various ways and have been highlighted on newscasts with frequency. I join those who celebrate them, for it is deserved.
But there is a vocation among us that has equally labored during the pandemic who remain largely anonymous. They have worked around the clock, dealing with COVID-19 decedents and their families without attention as they go about their essential work. Who, you may ask, is this group? It is our nation’s funeral directors.
People usually don’t think of funeral directors and staff until absolutely necessary. Yet, they remain on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, bypassing weekends, holidays and paid time off because death doesn’t wear a watch, keep a calendar, or respect anyone’s plans. This is the responsibility that funeral directors signed up for. And in most cases, they serve quietly, faithfully, and for far less remuneration that one might think. For example, the average starting salary for a funeral director in my state (Iowa) is around $36,000 per year.
The pandemic has placed our funeral directors at constant risk. The burden of embalming or cremating a COVID positive case requires directors to utilize the same PPE that any hospital professional would require. Funeral directors also have to creatively help families grieve the loss of their loved one, working within the boundaries of masks, limited gatherings, and the stipulations of local churches that permit funeral services in their houses of worship. Like churches, they master live streaming to allow friends of the departed to attend services virtually. In addition, they stand alone during arrangements to provide counsel, support and understanding, compassionately listening to family members who are in the initial stages of grief.
So what can pastors, churches and church volunteers do to support this important act of service provided by our local funeral homes?
- Commit to cooperative service that makes the family’s needs the priority. In other words, endeavor to come alongside the funeral director to provide support for the family through the ongoing process of bereavement from the death notification, through the arrangements, during the funeral and interment, and toward the coming months of follow up. While I personally do not advocate directly participating in the arrangements, the pastor’s availability to answer funeral director’s questions about service arrangements, dates, times, music, etc. is helpful.
- Communicate clearly the expectations and regulations your congregation has put in place during the coronavirus pandemic, and then own them. I did a funeral this past summer where the church had established rules about wearing masks and social distancing that the pastor expected the funeral directors to enforce. That was unfair. If you have guidelines in place, communicate them to the funeral director and, at a minimum, help police the behavior of attenders.
- Extend hospitality to the funeral directors and their staffs. Make sure they know where restrooms are located. Inform them of your church’s customs and preferences. Let them know where the family gathers prior to the service. And perhaps, offer them a cup of coffee or a bottle of water.
- Treat them as the professionals they are. It takes four years of education, a year long internship and a passing grade from the state board of examination for them to be qualified to do the job. They have an incredible amount of experience and are fluent in every faith tradition in your community regardless the size. They know what they are doing, and deserve to be respected accordingly.
- Finally, lead your congregations to include them in their pandemic prayer lists alongside first responders and health care professionals. Their work involves incredible exposure and personal risk, and in many cases, will leave the most long lasting impression upon the family.
If you’re a pastor, I encourage you to have a conversation with one or more funeral directors in your community. Ask questions, and learn the stuff you didn’t learn in seminary. It will benefit you as you serve the people in your congregation. If you’re not a pastor, feel free to forward this along to the person who you would ask to attend to your final wishes.