The following chapter is the complete text excerpted from What to do When the Police Leave: A Guide to the First Days of
Traumatic Loss, by Bill Jenkins.
One of the great problems
of traumatic loss is that it catches us unprepared. No one expects to die suddenly, but
whether from sudden illness, evil intent, or accident, it happens.
When sudden loss strikes, wills may be unfinished or non-existent. No
discussion of the loved ones wishes may have taken place. Cemetery arrangements may
not be made. Family must travel from out of town on extremely short notice. The costs of
the funeral and medical expenses may create unexpected financial hardship. These are just
some of the problems which must be faced by those of us left behind.
Traumatic loss presents additional problems which complicate the
process of preparing a funeral. Sometimes, several people are killed, resulting in
multiple funerals. Young people are killed, requiring special provisions for teens and
peers. Violence done to the body or disfigurement may prohibit public or even family
viewing. Overwhelming sorrow can make it hard for us to function adequately when making
preparations for our loved one. The media may try to cover the viewing, funeral, or burial
without permission, intruding on or sensationalizing the grief of the family. And finally,
the circumstances, whether factual or rumored, surrounding the death may create social
difficulties for the family and friends of the deceased.
Through the next few days, you will have to prepare a funeral on short
notice. Short notice does not mean hurrying your decisions. Even though it is
important to have as few decision-makers as possible present when talking to the funeral
director, it is equally important to get as much input from as many sources as you can
Often, in the rush to make decisions someone is forgotten or
overlooked. Those with whom your loved one was romantically involved such as girlfriends,
boyfriends, or fiancÚs may feel left out of the family proceedings or awkwardly in the
way. Not being a legal member of the family may leave them in limbo regarding their input
and participation, though, depending on the relationship, they may be grieving as deeply
as any spouse would.
Sometimes, prior relationships or unresolved family issues can create
problems. Extended family relationships can cause strain, as well. Disagreements over
decisions and who should make them have been known to turn into ugly and embarrassing
struggles for power and authority.
Remember, a funeral is your final duty to your loved one. It is a time
for healing wounds, not opening them. It is a time for reconciliation, not resentment. It
is a time for everyone to begin working through grief in their own way while supporting
others in their loss as well.
Be kind and gentle to one another. Set pride and ego aside, it has no
place here. Compromise when necessary, and make this goodbye the best one you can give.
Planning the Funeral
|You should develop some idea of times, dates, and locations for the services before you
meet with the funeral director. If your church or place of worship is to be involved, you
should contact your clergy as soon as possible to discuss options and scheduling with them
before going to the funeral home.|
A "funeral service" is generally one in which the body is
present. A "memorial service" is generally one in which the body is not present,
for whatever reason. The location of these services may depend primarily on how many are
expected to attend.
Experience has shown that a public service for an unexpected death can
attract many mourners, this is something the family should discuss and consider. Some
families welcome this outpouring of sentiment at the funeral. Others prefer a more private
and intimate funeral service, followed by a public memorial service planned by close
friends and held some days later at a suitable location. Discuss your options and
preferences and make a decision with which you are most comfortable.
|Your next step will be to choose a funeral home. You may have one which has been
recommended by a trusted source, or with which you already have experience. If you are at
a complete loss for a funeral home, you may have to contact several and interview them
over the phone, or better yet, visit them in person. When choosing a funeral home, price,
reputation, services available, facilities, and location should all be considered.|
If you ask for a price list, the funeral home is required by law to
provide you with one. You should know that the only service you may not decline is that of
Professional Services. This category typically includes the normal administrative and
business expenses of the funeral home in providing their basic services. Your funeral home
director can provide you with details of these if you have any questions. Prices for
various additional services and options should be clearly itemized so that you can make an
informed decision about the overall cost.
|Once you have decided on a funeral home, set up an appointment to meet with the funeral
director as soon as possible. This is where you will discuss the details and arrangements
for the services and the funeral homes responsibilities. It is advisable to keep the
number of decision-makers at this meeting to a minimum. Too many people trying to make
decisions or provide input at once creates a great deal of stress. |
At your interview with the funeral director you should be prepared for
|You should be prepared to discuss financial arrangements and how payment will be made
for the services the funeral home will provide. |
|You will need to decide on burial or cremation.|
|You will need to provide information on what types of services you would like, elaborate
or simple, religious or non-religious, and where you would like them held a place
of worship, at the funeral home, or elsewhere. |
|Be prepared to provide the vital statistics of the deceased. These will be needed for
the death certificate as well as the obituary. Education level, Social Security Number,
and mothers maiden name may be required to process the proper forms. |
The funeral home typically handles composing and releasing the obituary
to the newspapers. Be prepared with any additional information you may want included in
the obituary. This includes information on memorial gifts, membership in organizations,
schools attended, occupation, significant contributions to the community, and surviving
relatives. If you wish to have a photo included in the obituary, bring it with you.
|You may be shown into a room to select a casket for burial. This decision can be
emotionally difficult. Take your time. If possible, have someone there you can talk with
about your choices. For cremation, you may wish to select an urn for the cremation
remains, or cremains, at this time, or wait until later. You should not be
expected, or pressured to purchase a casket or embalm for cremation, it is generally not
required by law. |
|Ask about the condition of the body. When will it arrive from the Coroners or
Medical Examiners office? When will you need to provide clothing? Will you need to
provide a recent photograph of your loved one for the preparation? |
Is the condition of the body such that an open casket viewing will be
possible if it is desired? If a closed casket is the only option, will you and your family
be able to spend some private time with the body to say final good-byes?
Experts in traumatic grief observe that it can be an important part of
the grieving process for parents, adults, and even teens and children in the immediate
family or circle of friends to spend some time with the body, even in cases of extreme
This is obviously not a decision you should enter into lightly, but
neither should you decide what is right for another in order to "protect them."
Often, not being able to observe the finality of the death leads to regrets, and even
emotional and psychological problems later. Though none of us likes to experience pain,
avoiding it is sometimes not the best direction to take. Sometimes we must endure it in
order to release our grief.
Even though it may be a difficult decision, especially for a young
person, the decision should be left up to them as much as possible. Perhaps you can ask
the advice of a grief counselor and your funeral director before you and your family
decide on a course of action. They may have suggestions regarding how such a viewing could
be carefully and tastefully arranged.
|The funeral director will give you an itemized list of charges for the services the
funeral home is prepared to provide. This will serve to help you estimate the costs of the
funeral. Be sure to discuss any charges you have questions about. |
The funeral home is generally responsible for, among other things,
transporting the body to the funeral home and elsewhere, preparation and embalming,
staffing the services, composing and releasing the obituary, making sure that the death
certificate is filed correctly and copies are transmitted to you, administrative and
ceremonial arrangements, and courtesy referral to other service providers as needed such
Even though there may be a base cost for the services provided, funeral
and related costs can vary widely depending on how elaborate the service is, cemetery
costs and care, grave markers and stones, distance to transport your loved one, the type
of casket and vault chosen, and so on. Keep track of absolutely every expense related
to the death in case you file a criminal injuries claim or write a victim impact statement
If you have financial problems with making arrangements for the
funeral, you should discuss your options with the funeral director honestly. They may have
some options available that may help. You may also be eligible for help with
non-reimbursed funeral and medical expenses through a criminal injuries compensation fund.
Your victim assistance advocate can help you with this.
|If the funeral is for a teenager, many friends and peers may attend. You will most
likely find that teens are remarkably good at comforting each other, but it is best done
out of sight of adults. |
If you can, request a side room off from the main viewing area where
teens can come and go, as they like. Place some special mementos there with which they can
interact. Try to spend some time with them as you can in order to make them feel that
their grief is important too. Spending time with them will most likely bring some comfort
to you as well.
|Many funeral homes have "After Care Programs." They may sponsor support groups
which meet regularly, hold special holiday remembrance programs, or provide a videotape
and book resource library. Ask your funeral director about these resources, as well as
information on other concerns such as legal and financial business which should be handled
after the funeral.|
|The funeral home will most likely maintain your guest book and give you the cards from
the flowers. Personalized "Thank You" stationary may also be part of the funeral
package. Cards should be sent shortly (usually within two weeks) after the funeral for
expressions of sympathy such as flowers, meals, pall bearers, clergy, etc. They are
generally not expected for everyone who sends sympathy cards or attends the viewing or
If, after the funeral, you find that you do not have the strength to
send acknowledgements, it is perfectly acceptable to ask another family member to help
you, or even take over the job completely. Remember, allowing others to help you helps
|Record the funeral for later review. While videotaping is usually not appropriate unless
done for a very good reason, you should definitely consider making an audio recording of
the service. People who miss the funeral may want to listen to it, and even some of those
who attend may want to listen to it again at a later date, as much will slip by them
during the service. |
For someone who has died suddenly, in good health, and with so much
life left, still photographs of your loved one discretely taken by someone in the family
or a close friend should also be considered. This is best done before or after public
viewing times or before the funeral begins, not during the service. Photographs of
the flowers are definitely in order. Carefully taken photographs of your loved one
prepared for burial can be very helpful weeks and months later as you deal with your
Think of it this way. Even if you never look at the photos, even if you
throw them away later, at least you will not have missed the one opportunity you will have
to take them. It is a prudent step to take and may avoid later regrets.
|If you want to do something special, or even out of the ordinary, dont be afraid
to ask the funeral director about it requesting a lock of hair as a keepsake or
placing items in the casket, for example. It is important that you begin to deal with your
grief as you have the need. There are few hard and fast rules when it comes to a funeral,
or the viewing for that matter. Dont be shy about making requests to the funeral
director. You may find that your request is not that unusual after all.|
Funeral homes pride themselves on making arrangements as easy as
possible for the family. Most have highly trained staff members who are compassionate,
caring, and honorable. Their experience is invaluable as they carefully walk you through
the process, trying to make this as gentle as possible for you.
Even so, even if you have no previous experience with planning a
funeral, you must still be an aware and informed consumer. Offering unnecessary services,
using overbearing sales tactics, or taking advantage of a family in grief is considered
unethical, and in some cases illegal.
Some of a funeral homes services are mandated by law, others are
individual policies. If you have a question about the way the funeral home is dealing with
your family, the services which are offered, or the costs involved, simply call another
funeral home and ask if your concerns are valid. You may also contact your states
Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers if you feel that you have not been given
satisfactory answers to your questions.
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