By Mark T. Higgins
Hall-Wynne Funeral Service & Crematory, Durham, NC
Have the Talk of a Lifetime® promotes fostering conversations within families in advance on the generally taboo subject of death. The aim, however, is to underscore life by eliciting individual wishes of how one wants to be remembered through discussion with those who matter most. It is a mining process of reviewing one’s chronological highlights, treasured occasions, accomplishments, and values, solidified and lived out along the way, combined to create an enduring legacy for surviving family and friends.
As a funeral director for many years, I’ve witnessed the changes and trends in memorial practices. Have the Talk of a Lifetime is a timely endeavor to help the public take seriously the impact various choices around end-of-life will have for better or worse. The program encourages a deeper dive with its emphasis on exploring ways memorial rituals facilitate our human need for honor and remembrance. In our death-averse culture I hear it frequently: “No fanfare for me, just scatter my ashes at the beach and raise a glass of champagne.” And, in fact this is what often happens as the newly bereaved ardently (and often mistakenly) cling to doing “exactly what Henry wanted.”
When people decide to have “The Talk” with family members or other pertinent ones, it’s essential to bear in mind that ultimately, your death or mine will affect others on an emotional level. When death comes, we are out of the picture, and it is up to the ones in charge to hopefully balance some of what you or I expressed as important, and the needs of the living party to take meaningful leave of you and me. The Talk of a Lifetime therefore is not just about you!
When making such decisions, we often act selfishly by neglecting the needs of family members – adults and children, friends, colleagues and the wider community/ies of which we have been a part. We cannot “feel the feelings” of grief in advance, and while planning ahead may relieve loved ones from the stress of making decisions under pressure, room must be allowed for survivors to take some ownership around choices when the time comes for their inner wellbeing.
This important “Talk of a Lifetime” conversation should not take place in a vacuum. Funeral service professionals deal in loss, grief and ceremony day in and out. We navigate through the most complex family dynamics, and we are at our best when open in heart and mind with listening ears. We bring vast experience, valuable resources and a range of choices appealing to our diverse communities.
The wisest step you can take is to invite your funeral director into this conversation. He or she can provide a useful framework and a comprehensive approach to moving what may begin as casual discussion to a pro-active plan that considers the relevance of all those who have a stake in conveying your story and mine, and sending what remains of us – whether to ground or fire – in a ritualized fashion that enables those we love to bear witness to who we were, what we meant and how our influence may endure.
By Mark Allen
Executive Director and CEO, International Order of the Golden Rule
A carpenter named George lived in my hometown for many years. George possessed carpentry skills that were widely regarded as nothing short of amazing. When he passed away, many people who attended his visitation asked his family why none of the memorabilia on display depicted his talent for building. It would have been easy to display his worn saw horses, carefully-maintained tools and old coveralls as a tribute to the life he lived. His widow replied, “George wanted to be remembered for something other than his sanding technique and his ability to install electrical wiring in tight spaces.”
Her comment caught me off guard at the time, but now I understand that even though he excelled at building things, carpentry did not represent his essence as a human being. At his visitation and funeral, his family chose to display symbols of his faith in God, his love for his family and his devotion to nature. They invited only those George cared about to participate in his funeral service. After the service, they gathered at a nearby nature preserve to share stories of how George impacted their lives.
Imagine what a different celebration his family might have created had they not known what George truly valued in his life. If we don’t know how loved ones want to be remembered, we can mistakenly celebrate their hobbies, vocations or casual interests rather than the core values of their lives. If we could observe our own funerals, I wonder how many of us would be surprised at the rituals and objects our loved ones would choose to represent our lives because we didn’t take time to communicate what’s most meaningful to us. My friends know I have a passion for vintage automobiles, but that doesn’t mean I want a car-themed funeral. I’d prefer to have people bring dogs from an animal shelter to my funeral. Guests will have furry companions to make them smile and a few animals might find new homes.
Talking about how we want to be remembered may feel intrusive to some people. We don’t want to burden those we love with details about our funeral preferences. But imagine the additional burden we place on loved ones when we fail to provide them with information that will streamline the funeral planning process and lead to ceremonies that help family and friends cope with their loss. Making your wishes known will make others’ lives easier and alleviate stress during their time of grief.
That’s a nice way to be remembered.
Director of Marketing
Wilbert Funeral Services, Inc.
IMSA Board Member
So here I am in the funeral service industry and still haven’t had The Talk of a Lifetime with my 85-year-old dad – or with my own children. It’s certainly not because I avoid thinking about or talking about death, like many families do. It’s not because I am unaware or in denial that death can come unexpectedly. I am reminded daily of the capriciousness of death and knowing that, I am anxious to have The Talk. So why haven’t I? Because of daily life. Work. Family events. Commitments. Sure, even some fun. Sound familiar? Of course it does…those of you who serve families directly hear it all the time. It’s called procrastination. But I’m going to beat myself up even further with a more blunt word: foolishness.
Last year, I lost a friend who received a sudden diagnosis of cancer and died within three months. Even facing a Stage IV diagnosis, he and his wife were so caught up with reckoning and treatments that they never had The Talk. The day he died, she called me in tears because she found she really didn’t know how he would like to be remembered, what his favorite childhood memories were and asked me if he and I ever talked about those things – as well as his preferences for final disposition and funeral services. You know, The Talk. The talk that he should have had with his wife. And the talk that I never had with him either, as I regretfully told her. She felt lost, her heart-wrenching loss of her husband compounded further because she had no idea of how he wanted to be remembered. Sure, she could draw on their 20 years of marriage, but there were 40 years before that.
So it’s high time I have The Talk with my Dad. Fortunately, we’re very close and I know many of his life stories, his passions and loves, the fact that his singular point of pride is that he raised seven children in an atmosphere of love and support and has lived to see how his grandchildren have been raised similarly, in large part because we all remembered how Dad and Mom did it. I guess you might say we have had the “pre-talk” of a lifetime. But there’s more. And I need to involve my brothers and sisters and step-mom (we missed the opportunity for The Talk with my mom who was taken abruptly many years ago). He’s not getting any younger…nor are we. His birthday is in a few weeks…what better time to hear his stories, share some laughs and memories.
And it’s time that I sit down with my own kids and have My Talk of a Lifetime. My wife’s Talk of a Lifetime. Enough procrastination. Enough foolishness.
But guess what has finally motivated me to take action? Have the Talk of a Lifetime®. Even working in the funeral industry for the past four years was not sufficient to place that bug in my ear that I need to have The Talk. I needed to be told in black-and-white. And that’s what we all need to continue to do with everyone we touch. It’s so important. After all, it’s the Talk of a Lifetime.
By Don Calhoun, CM
Monument Builders of North America
Experts say that communication is approximately 80% non-verbal. The reality is that what we say is not nearly as important has how we say it. The moment we walk into the house after a hard day at work, it is easy and extremely fast to ascertain if your spouse, or children are happy, mad, depressed or excited. When your love muffin says: “I’m fine”, it does not take a secret decoder ring to figure out their mood. All too often their non-verbal communication tells you that had best zip your upper lip and head for the fallout shelter!
Empathy is the ability to understand, share and communicate the feelings of another. Feelings are an emotional state or reaction and are not verbal. Compassion, empathy and the capacity to love are much more difficult than one would think. From an early age, we are actually conditioned to hide our feelings, be strong, and not be vulnerable. Feelings are all too often evaluated as a sign of weakness in our culture.
The important question to ask ourselves is what can we do to grow, develop and enhance in our capacity to show and demonstrate empathy? Based on common human observation we could easily conclude that either you have it or you don’t. Given the reality that the majority of empathic feelings are communicated by non-verbal behavior, it becomes nearly impossible to hide.
For wisdom on the subject, we only need to look to the teachings every Sunday in church, or to the great philosophers in history. The main lesson is “we get what we give.” We give love to get love. We must trust others to gain their trust. We must be a caring, loving, understanding, and compassionate person to be empathic.
The first step to developing stronger empathic skills is to start paying attention to others feelings and emotional states. The next step is learning how to better communicate that understanding. Have the Talk of a Lifetime® and listen with the intent to understand, and not to formulate an answer or solution. This requires that we are more open, receptive and vulnerable in our human interaction. We all want to matter in the world, to make a difference; especially among our family and friends. Remember that sometimes the best communication technique is silence, or a soft touch, or genuine eye contact.
Whatever we do, we should not get hung up on figuring out just the perfect words to say in moments of heavy emotion. We will only make ourselves nervous and self-conscious, and then as a result say the absolute wrong thing. When that happens, we are an open book of un-feeling, non-empathic, non-compassionate and non-loving idiots.
The goal should be about developing a genuine, honest connection with others, in the desire to improve the human condition. Dr. Stephen Covey called this interdependence. Jesus called it love your neighbor as yourself. John Lennon wrote the song “Imagine.” Personally, I just try to remember that the most precious gift that I can give any one, is my time. This present requires being present.
Have the talk of a lifetime. It can make the difference of a lifetime.
By Barbara Kemmis, Executive Director
Cremation Association of North America
One morning, my dad called me at work, which was a first. I was immediately concerned that bad news was coming, however it turned out my parents had made a resolution to “get their affairs in order.” They were starting the process of prearranging their funerals and updating all of their end-of-life documents. My dad’s plan was to have everything in order before I visited in a couple of months and was calling to confirm the funeral home he had chosen.
The funeral home my parents chose is well respected in the community and displays the Cremation Association of North America (CANA) logo on its website and door. The crematory operators are all certified, which means they had gone to extra lengths in professional education. So I asked the President of the funeral home why he sought this designation for his business and staff, and what it means to the community he serves. He said, “Our affiliation is important to me and to the families we serve, because it demonstrates our commitment to the highest standards of integrity and professionalism.”
When I visited my parents, we went to the bank and spent time reviewing documents – living wills and worksheets from the funeral home. Not surprisingly, my mom had planned a lovely funeral for herself at which her many friends from church and her social clubs, former students and others could gather together. My mom is a social creature known for her party planning.
My dad’s worksheet simply stated, “Just cremate me.” He explained that he didn’t want us to be sad or mourn him. He didn’t want a big deal made about his passing. He would be in heaven and we would see him again when it was our time.
How many times have you had the same thought or a similar conversation with your friends or loved ones?
My mom and I looked at each other and then looked away. I said what she couldn’t at that moment. “I love you, Dad, and I will mourn you and I will cry when you die. I need to be surrounded by family and your friends and former students. I need to hear about the practical jokes you pulled in the classroom and the stories of your leadership in the church and community. I want to respect your wishes, but I will mark your passing. I love you too much not to.”
It wasn’t until I was on the plane heading home that I realized we had started the Talk of a Lifetime. I resolved at that moment to continue the conversation, because my father deserved more than “just cremate me.” After a recent death in the family my father raised the subject again. I hadn’t attended the funeral, but my father’s impressions weren’t positive. My dad is still a modest man, a faithful Christian who lives his values and counts his proudest achievement as having instilled those values in his children. It was through a mediocre memorial experience that he realized in order for those values to be reflected at his funeral, we needed to talk openly about how he wanted to be remembered. This wasn’t prideful, it would instead be his last act of faith.
Using the wonderful Have the Talk of a Lifetime materials available on this website can help your family have the conversation. You won’t regret it.
Barbara Kemmis is the executive director of the Cremation Association of North America located in Wheeling, Illinois.
By Rob Paterkiewicz, CAE, MBA
Selected Independent Funeral Homes
In this day of Facebook selfies, viral video clips and trending Twitter Hashtags, it seems a bit ironic that we have built a consumer education program that encourages people to talk to each other about their lives! One might assume that these talks already take place. Sadly, in many cases, there is nowhere near enough discussion going on before a loved one dies. The “Have the Talk of a Lifetime” campaign encourages us to talk and share what matters in our lives with family and friends so that when we die they can tell our story; they can help others know more about us.
I’m not a funeral director but I work closely with hundreds of funeral professionals every day. They share stories with me about families and individuals who often know so little about the person who died, other than the basic information or perhaps their more recent activities. And yet the most meaningful funeral experiences are the ones where the deceased’s interests, hobbies, and life moments are shared and celebrated. My members tell me that a great funeral is one where attendees leave knowing more about the person who died than they knew when they walked in. Having the Talk of a Lifetime is a definitive nod in this direction.
So why is it so hard to get people to talk to each other? The world we live in today offers many opportunities to connect and share our story, even if that story is about our drive in to work this morning! Maybe the differences in generations play a role. The older generations may be on social media, but are they really posting updates on things going on in their lives? It’s up to us then to take that first step and invite a conversation that will hopefully lead to more knowledge, more insight and even more conversation.
One of the great features of the Talk of a Lifetime Campaign are the tools and conversation starters. They are designed to make it easier to start and ultimately capture the discussion. To see what’s available go to http://talkofalifetime.org/have-the-talk/.
What about those of us who share our lives on social media? Can we rely on this tool to ensure our messages are captured? Perhaps. Facebook recently announced that it will allow users in the US to designate a friend or family member as a “legacy contact” who can make one last post on our behalf when we die. That contact can respond to new friend requests, update the cover photo and profile, and archive our Facebook posts and photos. I’ve got to think this is one of many opportunities to come in this arena to preserve what we shared while we were alive. I’ll need to keep this in mind though the next time I post some silly update!
I look at the environment that my children are growing up in and I marvel at how wide-open their world is. School is a good example; I can easily access my children’s online portal which displays their daily schedule, what grade they got on that science test and if they failed to turn something in! While I’m glad as a parent to have this level of oversight, I do wonder what impact all of this may have on their generation. I’m hopeful that one of the more positive impacts is that they won’t have to remind each other to tell their stories.