Ben Oddo is a Nashville resident, writer and host of the senior interview podcast Me and all my friends. In his recurring feature film Conventional Wisdom, he will explore the many conventions and trade shows that Music City hosts, from the esoteric to the mundane.
Life is full of big decisions. Where we choose to live. That we choose to love. Whether we want to be buried or have our remains sent to space.
These are just a few of the things considered at the 2021 National Association of Funeral Directors Convention and Exhibition. It is here, when I turn 32, that I find myself. A year closer to the grave. Reflect on the finite nature of life in the back of a Coasson hearse. Nice vehicle, by the way. Camper style. MSRP $ 40,000.
This year marks the 140th time that the NFDA will come together to support each other in its mission to provide families with meaningful end-of-life services. With 20,000 members, the group is the world’s largest association of funeral service professionals, representing nearly 11,000 funeral homes in 50 countries. Topics of discussion among the self-proclaimed “last responders” include the impact of COVID on the industry, the decline in bodily presence services and, in at least one case, the Celestis memorial spaceflights.
Personally, I never really liked funerals. The irresistible smell of flowers, the silent eyes, the body. Then there is the issue of the funeral directors themselves. Still trying to come off as a normal, well-adjusted person, even though we all know they touch dead people for a living. Apparently, I am not alone.
âThere was a survey years ago – 80% of consumers when they hear the word ‘funeral home’ or ‘funeral director’ thinks something negative,â says Ryan Thogmartin, owner of Disrupt Media , a social media marketing agency that works to humanize the funeral home and shatter the stereotypes perpetuated by people like me. Thogmartin’s is one of the few companies present at the conference to push the industry into new innovative areas. There are alkaline hydrolysis specialists, green burial companies, cremation recyclers, artisans, grief therapy dogs. There is even a Swedish author who peddles his book Digital inheritance: take control of your afterlife online about what happens to our digital “stuff” after we die. He signs a copy with the personalized note âThank you and see you soonâ.
Walker Posey, funeral director and fourth generation owner of Posey Funeral Directors in North Augusta, walks me through the industrial funeral complex. SC Walker is young, smart and, like Ryan, represents a new wave of industry leaders trying to use technology to better communicate with families and make the funeral planning process less burdensome.
âThe general public doesn’t know how much it takes to schedule a service, and how much work it takes,â says Walker. “It’s like planning a wedding.”
Walker and I chat for over an hour, and he walks me through the process, from receiving the so-called “death call” to performing the service. It is indeed like a wedding, if the weddings were planned in two hours and had to take place in a few days.
At the planners meeting with the family, decisions need to be made about the location, who is going to do it (facilitator? Minister? Several ministers?), Whether it is religious or humanist, what kind of music and if it involves instruments. Is it going to be broadcast on the web? Is there a cemetery concerned? Is a public visit part of the event? Then there’s transportation, catering, check-in, flowers (I say skip them). Meanwhile, Walker has already contacted his stable of ministers to check their availability, arranged musicians or military honors, began writing the obituary, and submitted the death certificate. Inevitably, a complicated family dynamic will emerge, and he must navigate them as well. And that’s only the first of five or six events that he’ll do that day.
âEveryone who comes to you is having the worst day of their life,â says Walker. “So I’m taking this a bit, isn’t it?” You feel the emotion of it, even when they are not mad at you, you are dealing with someone who is grieving.
Taking care of the deceased comes next. âEmbalming is both an art and a science,â he says of the process, which simply replaces our blood with a preservative chemical – formaldehyde – to slow down the decomposition of the body. Walking through the convention, one realizes that not all embalmers are created equal and that some are better than others at the restorative arts. âWhen you do it right, it makes such a difference. Ninety percent of families in my area say, ‘My God, you made mom so beautiful. She looks 10 years younger.
At home that evening, I check out the Posey Funeral Directors website and study the smiley faces of Walker’s staff. What makes a man or a woman (70 to 75% of people entering the profession women) want to take up this profession? Obviously, family heirlooms are a big part of it. But you are constantly surrounded by grief. It’s macabre. By speaking with the participants the next day, however, the answer becomes clear.
âYou don’t come into this industry because you’re fascinated with death – you come into it because you care deeply about people,â says Justin Crowe, owner of Parting Stone, a company that makes decorative rocks from cremation remains. Added Keith Charles of Premier Specialty Markets: âIt is a privilege to sit down with a family on the worst day of their life and help them get back to normal.
More than being certified event planners and embalmers, funeral directors are people who live to serve. They help families honor and say goodbye to their loved ones so that these families can move forward in their grief. In more tragic cases – for example, when the body is not visible – their impact can be as simple but profound as allowing the family to hold the hand of their loved one one last time.
âIt comes out years later when, you know, a little kid walks in and says, ‘Dude my daddy died when I was a kid,’ Walker says. ‘I’ll never forget you helped me through. that and that really impressed me. “I mean, it’s really rewarding. We make a difference in people’s lives, and that’s the only reason you’ll be successful in this business is if you do it for this reason.
Walker explains that if you do it for the money – the average cost of a burial is $ 7,640, but can quickly rise to $ 20,000 once you factor in the graveyard and marker costs – you’re going to. exhaust you.
My folly in attending the NFDA convention is that I projected my own fears onto the profession. Granted, I haven’t experienced personal loss up close, so I’ve never seen that side of the funeral profession before – one that is a boon to a family in times of need.
But the next time someone uses the word âfuneral homeâ or âfuneral directorâ around me, I’ll be one of those 20% who thinks of something positive.
Below: Listen to excerpts from interviews with experts gathered at the NFDA Convention & Expo.