ASD Guest Blog Post: The Human Funeral Director
Apr 11, 2017
A Counsellor’s Perspective on the Funeral Profession
ASD is pleased to share this Guest Blog Post from Ben Wrigley, a humanistic counsellor working in Sussex, UK. In this post, Ben draws several parallels between counselling and funeral service, providing three principals that can help anyone serving in a caring profession. He offers some great tips on communication, empathy and the importance of self-care for those working in the funeral profession.
The Human Funeral Director
(ASD Guest Blog Post by Ben Wrigley)
During my life here in the UK, I’ve had the opportunity to attend a number of funerals and each has been a very unique experience; some were outdoors, some were in stuffy modern crematoriums, some have been in big open churches. Sometimes I only knew the deceased through stories of their close relatives and I other times I was the close relative. But one thing they all had in common for me, was that I found myself watching and wondering about the organizers:
“He does this every day, I wonder what he’s thinking. I bet he’s wondering about what’s for dinner tonight. He has no idea who is in that coffin, and I bet he doesn’t even care.”
I admit, this says more about my mood at these events than a fair view of the funeral profession, but I doubt I am alone in these wonderings and this might be a useful insight for those who are in the profession.
As a counsellor in Kent, England, I work with a number of funeral directors and I remember when I first went to introduce myself that, without exception, each of them opened their door with a sad, respectful, knowing air, anticipating my bereavement before they found out why I was actually there. And each time, I was aware that they must have to meet all clients in this way, to be respectful, but without actually knowing the experience or the feelings of the person.
I thought it might be useful to share with you three principles that are at the foundations of counselling. They can help anyone in a caring profession to offer a warm and supportive environment into which their clients can feel free to express their needs.
In my opinion, this is the most important of the three principles. To be congruent is to be genuinely you, true to your own feelings and instincts. Human beings the world over are very skilled at spotting incongruence and we can tell when someone is acting in a way because they feel they “should”. It’s how we’ve been trained; it’s how we train our kids to be. Yet as soon as we notice it, the connection is lost. I’m sure you already know that if you were to feign sadness at someone’s loss it would likely be noticed on some deeper level and create a barrier in your relationship. When people are met by the real you; serious, empathic and caring, and not a modified version of you, the connection that is made is often richer and deeper.
Often confused with sympathy, which, in England, we call ‘tea and a chat’, true empathy is actually putting yourself in someone else’s shoes to really understand how they might be feeling right now. I imagine that’s exactly what some people think they are doing when being “sad, respectful, and knowing” because this is how they “should” be. As soon as you hear that “should” in your own mind you know you are not being genuinely empathic. Empathy can only be real when the recipient experiences it as real.
Total acceptance of the other’s situation. There is no judgment here, there are no “shoulds”. There is no right and wrong in how they need to be and what they need to help them through this process. That is not to say that all their desires are achievable, just that they are acceptable. Very few of us can truly be this accepting.
You may believe you have no prejudices, but I’d be surprised if you have never experienced meeting someone with the same name as that person you never liked. Or someone who wore the same perfume as your old girlfriend. Or someone who sounds like your old boss. It’s nearly impossible to avoid it all the time, and on some level, you will put those feelings out to your client without even meaning to. The important thing here is to be aware and identify what is actually yours and nothing to do with this person in front of you.
So how do you convey these three pillars? Mostly by actually being them and being you! If you can be genuine, openhearted and empathic and your client experiences you as such, you will inevitably establish a relationship (if they are willing too of course). But to help even further we can show that we are truly listening.
Listening actively involves demonstrating that we are listening, by repeating keywords, by paraphrasing what we have just heard to show that we have clearly understood and by demonstrating our own genuine feelings in the moment. Noticing people’s body language and how they are responding to you and acting respectfully. If someone is folding their arms and crossing their legs and giving you a ‘stay away’ message, notice it and respect it.
Most people start thinking about what they want to say next while the other person is talking. As soon as that happens, they have stopped listening. Their own agenda has taken over, and most of the time, the other person knows this, even unconsciously.
These ideas above will really help to establish a genuine relationship and help your clients to feel held through the funeral planning process. Obviously for many clients this will not be enough, and for those I cannot stress enough the value of counselling, whether it is in-house or with someone you can find in your local area. So many people who are coming to terms with a loss are also faced with coming to terms with aspects of themselves before they can truly embark on the grieving process.
And please, along the way, don’t forget that you are human too with your own desires, feelings and limitations. I expect that whilst you are meeting new clients and making arrangements, you are also still helping earlier clients, and as with any caring service, this can spread a person very thinly. So I leave you with some questions that counsellors are expected to ask themselves every day to ensure that we are offering the best service to clients:
“How am I? How am I looking after myself? Do I need help and where can I ask for it?”
Ben Wrigley works in private practice and the NHS as a humanistic counsellor in Sussex, UK. He is driven to help people in and out of counselling to question why they do, think and feel about themselves and the world in the way that they do. Most of Ben's written work can be found here.
About The Author
Jess Farren (Fowler)
Jess Farren (Fowler) is a Public Relations Specialist and Staff Writer who has been a part of the ASD team since 2003. Jess manages ASD's company blog and has been published in several funeral trade magazines. She has written articles on a variety of subjects including communication, business planning, technology, marketing and funeral trends. You can contact Jess directly at Jess@myASD.com