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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.

Funerals and
Funeral Homes

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 one’s 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 beforehand.

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


bulletYou 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.


bulletYour 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.


bulletOnce 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 home’s 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 the following:


bulletYou should be prepared to discuss financial arrangements and how payment will be made for the services the funeral home will provide.


bulletYou will need to decide on burial or cremation.


bulletYou 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.


bulletBe 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 mother’s 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.


bulletYou 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.
bulletAsk about the condition of the body. When will it arrive from the Coroner’s or Medical Examiner’s 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 physical damage.

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.


bulletThe 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 as florists.

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 later.

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.


bulletIf 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.


bulletMany 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.


bulletThe 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 funeral.

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 them.


bulletRecord 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 grief.

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.


bulletIf you want to do something special, or even out of the ordinary, don’t 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. Don’t 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 home’s 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 state’s Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers if you feel that you have not been given satisfactory answers to your questions.

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