The Benefit of Having, “The Talk”
By Mike Walden
Advanced Planning Consultant
Locke Funeral Home
1519 West Fourth Street
Waterloo, IA 50702
My family members have said it. Many people who have come in to plan and preplan funeral arrangements have said it. I am willing to bet you have family members who have said it. You may have said it yourself. “Just cremate me and throw my ashes to the wind,” or “Just throw me in the ground and be done with it.”
It is a way of saying, “don’t mourn for me. Just move on with life.” I believe those who make these types of comments honestly think they are helping their loved ones. They don’t want anyone to worry about them, when their time comes. They are attempting to minimalize things, in order to protect their surviving family and friends from the pain and suffering. It is a natural instinct to protect others from this type of agony.
What are they really saying to us? Does it really help the family? What if you followed their instructions?
It is telling us two things. One, I am trying to protect you. Two, it is saying, I don’t want to talk about it. This type of commentary protects them from it, but it leaves a burden for the loved ones. It does the exact opposite of what is intended. It does not help the family. There are no instructions to follow. You have not been told what to do, except for maybe the final disposition.
Having “The Talk,” can be as easy or as complicated as you chose to make it. It can simply be looking through photo albums and remembering the good times. It can be talking about services previously held for other family members and friends. This includes the good and the bad, what to do and what not to do. It does not need to be a formal meeting.
It can be a formal meeting where you express your wishes. You can do it with family or close friends. You could have this meeting with a pre-need professional at your funeral home of choice. The key is to have the discussion. Leave your family with a sense of direction. Your survivors want to properly honor you. They want to celebrate your life. Give them the tools to make this happen.
The funeral, memorial, or celebration of life is about the deceased, but it is for the family and friends. Gathering together of family and friends to share stories is the primary value of any service. When we meet and talk, we laugh, smile and remember. We remember the long forgotten stories, the funny stories, and even the sad stories. It allows those who gather the opportunity to begin to cope. It is the point where they begin to move on with life. Isn’t this what we really want for them?
We have all heard Benjamin Franklin’s quote, “if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” Do we want to set up our loved ones to fail? I think not. We want them to move forward and succeed with minimal pain. Having “The Talk,” may be painful in the short term, but it allows for less pain in the long term.
Every Life Has Meaning
By Christine Pepper
Chief Executive Officer, National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA)
If you’re like me, chances are you caught the movie It’s A Wonderful Life during the recent holiday season.
In the familiar story, George Bailey grows up with big dreams of traveling the world and becoming an architect. But life, as it often does, intervened and, following the death of his father, George steps in and takes over the family’s building and loan business. He settles down, marries his sweetheart and has four children. He never leaves his hometown or becomes an architect but, by the estimation of most, George lives a good life.
On Christmas Eve, we find George and the Bailey Building and Loan on the brink of financial ruin. Overwhelmed by his current situation and, looking back on his abandoned dreams, George believes he is a failure and thinks the world would be better off if he hadn’t been born.
George’s guardian angel Clarence grants his wish.
As George wanders through his hometown, he sees that it’s no longer the idyllic place in which he’d grown up; the world without George Bailey is full of squalor and vice. The friends and neighbors who led good lives were struggling because George Bailey hadn’t been there to help them when they needed it.
George begins to understand that his seemingly unimportant existence was actually quite important. George implores Clarence, “I want to live!”
Clarence restores things to their natural order and George returns home to his family and business knowing that his life was important and wonderful.
I think most people are a little bit like George Bailey. Our parents, grandparents and other loved ones don’t realize the impact that they’ve had on lives. (In fact, I’m not sure I fully understand the ways in which I’ve touched my family, friends or co-workers.)
Deep down, most of us – myself included – want to know that we’ve made a difference in the world and that we mattered to someone.
While we may not have a Clarence in our lives who can offer the kind of transformative experience that George Bailey experienced, we can use the Have the Talk of a Lifetime materials to start a conversation about what matters most.
Having the talk isn’t a one-way street. Yes, you want to allow your loved one to share their life story with you. But you should also take time to tell your loved ones about your memories of them. The family celebrations you’ll always remember … the advice and life lessons you carry in your heart. Fond memories of your mom or dad helping you learn to ride a bike or how to bait a hook … the guidance your grandfather or grandmother offered when you were contemplating life after high school … and the delicious chicken soup your aunt or uncle made whenever you were sick.
Having the talk is an opportunity for you to be a “Clarence” to someone – to let them know how much you love them and that your life wouldn’t be the same without them. It’s a chance for you to thank them for all they have done so that they, like George, can understand that they do matter and that life is, indeed, wonderful.
T.M.I. verse T.L.I.
By Don Calhoun, CM
Monument Builders of North America
Do you ever have someone tell you: “That’s T.M.I. Too Much Information”? Unfortunately, I hear it with extreme regularity, at the checkout register at Sam’s Club, in a meeting with a client, in the middle of my physical exam with my Doctor, or even during confession with my local priest! Somehow in my life’s journey, I decided that it was best to be open and honest with myself and others. “Have the Talk of a Life Time” means that we must have a certain degree of courage and bravery in bringing up important subjects with our loved ones.
While it may seem that we could be labeled an “odd duck” if we don’t play along with the traditional societal norms of digging deep in our relationships, we should challenge the logic. We don’t all have to behave in predictable ways, to be just like everyone else, and blend in with the flock. Each of us has it with our capacity to grow in our relationships.
Our lives are like an original piece of art. We are meant to paint the masterpiece of our authentic self, and not some cheap imitation, knock off version. This is true in terms of our parents, siblings or our friends. We need to start by not being afraid of fully discovering and revealing who we really are. When we do that, we will realize that we will always want to learn and discover more about our loved ones. T.M.I. should not be a part of our love language for those we really care about.
“Have the Talk of a Life Time” requires the ability to listen, probe and grow deeper into our most treasured and meaningful relationships. Without that desire, we will be left with a life of T.L.I. Too Little Information? There would be no greater tragedy that to leave this earth with no meaningful connection to our family and friends. The world is our paint brush and there is an original piece of art that needs to be revealed in all.
Wind and Rain
By Don Calhoun, CM
Monument Builders of North America
In the book “Dance with the Elephant” I wrote: “As the winds and rain slowly erase the tangible aspects of your life, your major contribution to humanity will be measured by the stories you created in the hearts of the people you’ve touched. There will be no moving van to haul your earthy possessions to the grave. “
Have you ever thought about what is going to be your legacy? What are the most important aspects of your life story? If you had the option to engrave your story into stone what would it say? Is your story worth remembering or telling?
Memorials are a part of our history, from the cave walls of the Stone Age, to pyramids of the Egyptians, to the granite sculptures lining our Nation’s Capital, we have always taken the time to remember the people or events that have shaped our lives. For centuries we have told our stories in stone. Your story is not worth less or worthless. If you held a secret pole within your family and friends, I bet they would most likely say your story is priceless.
How much would you pay to spend one more day with someone who you loved who has died? The term “priceless” is not much of an emotional stretch when it comes to mother, father, brother or sister who has died. We probably would give almost anything to see, hear, or to touch them again.
While writing the stories of our loved ones in stone is a woefully inadequate method to express the depth of our love and connection; it is non-the-less a very important process to our human experience. We are built to remember people or events that defined us. One example of this is expressed in how important it is for us to remember the sacrifice the members of the military have made to ensure our freedom. Monuments are an important tangible reminder of our story and history. Expressing the legacy of those closest to us in a permanent form will stand the test of time. Their stories will always be worth telling and remembering!
They’ll Thank You for Telling Your Story
By Alyssa McNab, for the Pre-need Insurers Group of the Life Insurers Council
Funeral directors tell me they’re often asked why they choose to do what they do. In spite of the emotionally taxing situations, long hours and unpredictable schedules they face every day, one concept surfaces again and again: “Funeral service is really about telling the stories of the person who has died, in order to help their loved ones through the most difficult times in their lives.”
In her article “The Storytellers,” industry expert Kim Medici Shelquist echoes their sentiment: “How can it ever be depressing to ensure that the stories get told, that lives are made significant through the stories? … I have the privilege of encouraging people to share their wishes and stories with their families so they will be honored in the way they choose and their lives will have significance long after they are gone.”
This is what funeral directors really do best: Plan events that celebrate the life of a person in the way that will provide lasting comfort for the loved ones they’ve left behind. But truly creative and memorable funeral services require an understanding of an individual’s personality, interests, milestones and beliefs. Are you equipping your loved ones with stories that create memories today and will help them remember you after you’re gone? Will they know…
These are the types of questions that can spark valuable stories. Questions like these can also take some thought – you may be surprised by what you recall and discover about yourself in the process of considering how you want to be remembered. Imagine how much more vivid your story will be when you take the time to share these thoughts with your loved ones!
It’s both touching and inspiring to encounter stories of unique memorial celebrations that truly capture the personality of the person they’re intended to honor. The people who were responsible for these events clearly had a strong connection to their loved ones, and knew how to honor them in the ways that best fit their unique stories.
One recent memorial that fits this description was for a man in California who loved the ocean. Some of his fondest memories were of visiting tide pools and abalone hunting with his family. When the man died, his loved ones scattered his ashes in the ocean, and then placed his photo in a bottle with a message: “Today my family is laying me to rest in a place that I love … the ocean. So, this starts my journey.” The family also set up a Facebook page, where people who find the bottle can share about where they found it before sending it back on its travels. This man’s story had a far-reaching impact, making headlines across the country and touching the lives of those who found the message in a bottle.
Every person has the potential to be honored in a similarly meaningful way: a balloon release on the spot where your spouse proposed; bound collections of the poems you wrote, to be given to your loved ones as cherished keepsakes; a funeral service at which your loved ones wear your “signature” color or accessory and hear your favorite songs. Significant memorial events like these help families remember the lives of their loved ones and create new memories in the process.
When you Have the Talk of a Lifetime, you’re doing more than easing your own mind and helping to prepare your family for the inevitable. You’re also bringing to light stories that otherwise may have never been told, and that will help your loved ones celebrate your one-of-a-kind life – long into the future.
- …what your childhood was like?
- …your favorite place in the world?
- …how you met the love of your life?
- …the funniest thing you ever experienced?
- …what motivated you through tough times?
International Order of the Golden Rule
Executive Director and CEO
Jacqueline Kennedy once famously wrote that her aim was to be the “art director of the twentieth century.” Little did she know that some of the most enduring images she would help create would come from her husband’s funeral ceremonies after John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. These images were so striking that they are etched in people’s minds as vividly today as they were 50 years ago. Those who have only seen photographs—many who weren’t born yet–feel as though they witnessed the proceedings: Black Jack the riderless horse with boots positioned backwards in the stirrups; six white horses pulling the caisson upon which the President’s flag-draped casket rested; John, Jr., donned in blue coat and shorts on his third birthday, saluting his father’s casket on its way to burial.
Mrs. Kennedy wanted to send a clear message to the world that her husband deserved to be remembered. She wanted people to come together to grieve a lost life. Drawing upon her art background, she recognized that people would be more likely to follow a path of healing and remember the President longer if visual images relating to his death stayed with them.
Countless educational presenters preach the need to morph the traditional funeral into a more personal ceremony. Perhaps it’s not so much the lack of personalization, but rather, the lack of memorable imagery that has become the traditional funeral’s Achilles heel. Unless we take away meaningful experiences from funeral rites, why should we think of funerals as anything more than a formality, or even worse, as a burden to get through as quickly as possible?
Having said that, use of imagery to create ways to surprise mourners–to jolt them into focusing on the present–for the purpose of joining others in paying tribute to loved ones by itself isn’t quite enough to put grievers on the road to healing. Thomas Lynch and Thomas Long recently defined “The Good Funeral” as one which strikes a balance between the “extrinsic” (caskets, memorial tributes, flowers) and the “intrinsic” (feeling loss, acknowledging grief, remembering a life) value of funerals. Mr. Lynch said that mourners circling a casket while blowing bubbles is okay as an extrinsic expression of grief (if bubbles held significant meaning for the deceased), but a meaningful and regenerative funeral must deal with mourners’ deep emotions.
Funerals provide an incredible opportunity to honor the life of a loved one and acknowledge the impact the loss has on survivors. Creating meaningful imagery is one part of the mix. So are ritual, connection to the deceased, and a dozen other elements that funeral professionals are experts at creating. But each of us must start the process now. We must identify how we want to be remembered and reveal the “signposts” of our lives that will connect loved ones after our deaths.
In the case of JFK’s funeral, the riderless horse not only created a vivid image, but also brought a deep feeling of loss to the surface for millions of people. Young John, Jr.’s salute is an indelible image, but more importantly, it drew attention to the fact that a young boy had lost his father. That’s what Having the Talk of a Lifetime is all about.
A Grand Send-Off
International Memorialization Supply Association
I have a life-long friend and we attend a lot of funerals together. You see, we both grew up in the funeral business and that is what we were taught to do. The greatest takeaway I’ve learned from my time in this industry is that it is important to take time to pay respects to the family of someone you know! Whether it is in person at the visitation, a hand-written note, a floral arrangement, a donation to a charity or, in this day-and-age of the internet, a heartfelt message on the funeral home website, Tributes.com, Legacy.com or Facebook, it is an important part of life. Today’s world is fast-paced; it is important to stop and reach out to let someone know you are sad for them, and that you care.
When each of our fathers died, we were right by each other’s side. As sad as we were, they both had grand send-offs: long lines at visitation and packed churches. They had good – no, they had great funerals.
I remember the stories from those coming through the funeral home, all experiencing the same feeling of loss that I was in one way or another. I was hugged and kissed. I cried. I laughed. But in the end, I was amazed to know how many people loved me, my family and especially my Dad. What a tribute that I cherish to this day! Yes, there is such a thing as a great funeral.
Funeral are for the living. They allow you to relive the good times. They let people express their sympathies, to hug you and cry with you, to rejoice in the lessons learned and take time to pause in this fast-paced world to be thankful that your life was better for knowing the deceased. My Dad and I, we had the talk. My family- we have all had the talk and shared our wishes. We all know that no matter what happens, we will make it a grand send-off!
Why Everyone Should Participate in “Having the Talk of a Lifetime”
International Memorialization Supply Association
Recently, a group of funeral suppliers in Cleveland, Ohio hosted a “Have the Talk of a Lifetime” event. The people who attended enjoyed a great presentation which addressed the benefits of becoming involved with this campaign. I have to admit though, what truly inspired me were the discussions that took place after the presentation during our roundtable sessions.
The most touching story told spoke to the power of having a funeral. One funeral director shared the story of a family that was recently served. This family came to the funeral home because their son had tragically died at a young age. The son had always told his parents he wanted to be cremated, so by having a part of “the talk,” he gave his parents a path to travel. Because it was tragic, many family members and friends tried to encourage the family to cremate their son and have a private service.
The boy’s mother, when meeting with the funeral director to make the arrangements, made a comment that he had never heard from a family before. She said that she did not want to relive the nightmare over and over. She felt that if they did not have a full visitation, and if they did not have a funeral mass, she would be running into people everywhere for weeks who would want to repeatedly talk about the tragedy. It was her hope that by having it all, they would give the family, his friends, their community and others the opportunity to mourn with them and celebrate the life of their son.
As hard as it was, after everything was over she remarked that it was the best thing she could have ever done. She felt so loved by all and knew that her son was loved as well.
Having the Talk of a Lifetime gives those left behind a starting point. It lets them know what is important and what is not…and leaves the door open for discussion about what is going to make the survivors feel loved and comforted.
Having the Talk of a Lifetime. Which Voices Count?
Mark T. Higgins
President, Hall-Wynne Funeral Service & Crematory, Durham, NC
Over many years as a practicing funeral director, I have been privileged to serve a wide spectrum of the human family – people from many cultures, religious traditions, lifestyles, generations and stations on the socio-economic spread. It is fascinating to consider the factors influencing the engagement of rituals and practices around a death in the family. Everyone has their own story, blending characteristics of the person, his/her relationship to others, the circumstances of loss, and how best to amplify remembrance and meaning in the face of death. Memorial practices have changed significantly in recent years, owing largely to society’s mobility, shifting religious beliefs, a desire for convenience and evolving technology. Funeral service personnel have had to become conversant in the various backgrounds within their communities, more creative and willing to accommodate unique and non-traditional requests.
I am continually struck by the equalizer of grief’s vocabulary – that across every culture and religion there is a universal response to loss and intrinsic need of the human species to take leave of those they love, employing some form of ritual. Encoded into our being, as recorded throughout the history of civilization, is the intentional care and disposition of the dead and the signing of such an event with symbol and custom. Many reading this may think, “Well, this is no longer relevant anymore. Funerals are really about “life”, therefore the dead no longer occupy any necessary role at memorial occasions.” Within many North American circles there has indeed been a movement away from ceremonies at which the dead are present. Some of this is tied to cremation, eclipsing burial in many places, but just to set the record straight, unlike the time-honored practice of cremation in other countries, Americans have mostly opted for it as a substitute for a funeral rather than an alternative to earth burial. On other continents, where cremation follows the majority of deaths, mourners gather at the public venue of the crematory to bid farewell and commit the departed onward in like manner of standing at the open grave to commend one to the earth.
“Just dispose of me promptly, avoid any fuss and have a party.” I hear the remark leveled partially in jest when in conversation about my vocation. Often it comes through when clients, bent on honoring their loved one’s wishes to the letter, end up making such choices, inwardly conflicted though feeling duty-bound. Humans and animals alike grieve when faced with significant loss, and we do well to keep in mind how funerals benefit society by providing a venue for remembrance, support and love, taking leave and being revitalized with hope amid sadness. Having the “Talk of a Lifetime” is a gift one can leave their survivors within the right context and with appropriate intention. To wit, it is one thing to express desires within the framework of, “here’s what’s important to me” yet quite another to either script every detail and nuance of your own memorial, or dictate dispensing with all of it, without regarding the feelings of who we leave behind. Our own preferences must be balanced by the claim made on each of us by our family, friends, co-workers or faith community – those left to put forth the labor of getting on with their lives. Those who have a stake and deserve some say when the time comes. It is wise and thoughtful – a normal part of estate planning – to do two things in advance. First, sort out the logistics of such details as cemetery property, location of vital documents and insuring adequate funds for when the need arises. Secondly, share with loved ones the highlights of your life’s journey; your favorite causes, places, music, books, etc.; and deeply-held beliefs, as perhaps reflected in biblical text or other sources. At the end of one’s life, memorial ceremonies to have any enduring worth, must be more substantive than, “I did it my way” a la Frank Sinatra.
Finally, I would advocate that funerals at their best culminate to anchor survivors in meaning and hope for something beyond this life. They come up short if only a celebratory vignette at which you and I are the “star of the hour” with our particular little history as the centerpiece. Many memorial occasions today sadly avoid the fact of death and any evidence thereof. The proverbial elephant in the room. Confronting death honestly and authentically rather than ignoring it and trying to do an end run around grief is not helpful. Celebrating a life and recalling memories are uplifting and sustaining, but healing begins when we acknowledge genuine loss and make a physical separation with solemnity and reverence. When we stand before the body or even the coffin of someone who mattered, it is that pivotal moment of getting our heads around the vexing emotions of grief, saying our goodbyes, expressing gratitude and honoring someone who counted. Some may declare this a downer or passé vestige, but to the contrary, it’s human instinct. Rituals at life’s end enable a time to pause and pay tribute, celebrate, laugh or cry, and ultimately point to life not death having the last word.
By all means, have the “Talk of a Lifetime.” Doing so can spare those you and I love the unfortunate outcomes of, “make no fuss, save the money and just swap stories” to instead finishing our days strong, underscoring what we have believed and valued, how we mattered, and accommodating the privileged, sacred task of the earth-bound to tender us to the ground, fire or sea with their eyes beyond the horizon. We have been at this forever and know in our bones how fundamental it is.