Dr. Alan Wolfelt: The Value of Funeral Home Education

The Value of Funeral Home Education in Conveying the WHY of the Funeral



Dr. Alan Wolfelt is the Director of the Center for Loss which serves "to compassionately support both mourners, by walking with them in their unique life journeys, and professional and lay caregivers, by serving as an educational resource and professional forum."

In a phone interview with Director On Call, Dr. Wolfelt explains what he teaches participants at funeral home education conventions, the value of this education, and why it's important.

About Dr. Wolfelt

Dr. Wolfelt provides public education sponsored by funeral homes across North America. He explains: "Very frequently, one of my involvements with the funeral service is they’ll bring me into their community and they’ll sponsor me to do grief education or death education if you will."

He provides this education to 60 cities a year. He speaks at State and National Conventions about different topics related to creating meaningful funeral services, aspects relating to meaningful funerals, and aspects of customer service issues. He writes a 'Customer Care' column for The Director Magazine which is published by the National Funeral Directors Association in the United States.

"I do a lot of speaking and teaching about various topics primarily related to creating meaningful ceremonies, death education, customer service related to funeral homes and then I do some teaching about self-care for funeral directors – how do you take care of yourself? How do you care for the families you serve?"

"I do a lot of teaching about the WHY of funerals right now [which] is my most popular speaking engagement for associations."

He will be a keynote speaker for the Australian Funeral Directors Association next March [2015] on that topic.

Training in the WHY of the Funeral

Dr. Wolfelt provides training to funeral directors that relates to the WHY of the funeral.

"[I’m] teaching them how to better convey the value of elements of ceremony - i.e., what’s the function of things like visitation, symbols, and music because many funeral directors - through no fault of their own – just never got trained to clearly help families better understand why they should consider the use of an element of ceremony and yet it’s a combination of the elements of ceremony that creates what I call in my writing: 'the sweet spot of a meaningful funeral'."

Dr. Wolfelt points out a famous quote by T.S. Eliot that says: “You can have an experience but miss the meaning”. He explains: "as I was attending funerals I was noticing people come and leave and at times didn’t even know who died so I do this training to help Funeral Directors change their model for an arrangement conference so that they use education. I help them educate families as to the WHY of the elements and the overall functional value of the funeral."

On his website there are posters that Dr. Wolfelt uses as part of that educational process that teach two things. "One teaches 6 major functions of the funeral and the other one teaches them the value of elements of ceremony. Then they have a brochure they also provide to the family but they have to come and learn how to convey that information. It’s one thing to have it, it’s another thing to learn how to convey it to the families."

His manual titled: ‘Educating the Families You Serve About the “Why” of the Funeral A Guide for Funeral Home Staff’ is the training manual that he uses. "We first explore the trends: people having more and more questions about the funeral, they don’t understand why they should have a funeral, they eliminate elements of service. Things like: visitation - what used to be called the calling hours, the use of symbols, the use of actions like procession, the use of committal ceremonies, there’s various elements that go into a funeral."

‘De ritualization of North America Surrounding Death’

"The trend we’re facing in North America is more and more people are chipping away at elements of ceremony. An example being: 'I don’t need the visitation, don’t play music I might cry, or we don’t need a procession'."

Dr.  Wolfelt explains that more and more families are not understanding the WHY of the use of the elements. "They're chipping away at the use of those elements. It’s okay to change them in some way to more contemporary times but to do away with them all together is what we’re facing. More and more people don't understand the value of the body, they get rid of the body."

To do away with an element like music simply because it might make you cry is exactly why it's important, says Dr. Wolfelt. "One of the reasons we use music is to facilitate emotion from knowing something in your head to your heart. When people don’t know why they’re doing what they’re doing, they tend to eliminate it. So, the big theme of the educational process is educating them [the family] about why to consider using the elements of ceremony and then honouring the choices that they make."

"I don’t think we’ve done a good enough job in funeral service to help families potentially make decisions that are good for them." Dr. Wolfelt explains that families don't know the value of elements because "we live in the world’s first death-free generation meaning that many people are 40 and they may never have even been to a funeral. 100 years ago by the time you were 10 you’d been to 100 funerals maybe or 50 at least and you learned the value of them. Now people come naked to the experience, they don’t know the value of it so it puts the obligation on the Funeral Director to teach the value and then let people make their choices as to what they’re going to do."

Dr. Wolfelt explains that the trend we're currently facing is called the ‘De-ritualization of North America Surrounding Death’. Meaning, that "we don’t use ceremony or that we decide to throw a party instead of having a funeral. I think the funeral service is played into the hands of some families not understanding why we’re having funerals. Funeral Directors shouldn’t be party planners they should be Funeral Directors and they’ve gotten caught up in thinking that that’s what families want but families don’t know what they want so we have to teach them the value and let them choose."

Bridging the "Performance Gap"

According to Dr. Wolfelt: Funeral Directors need to assume more of an educator's role. "Instead of thinking we’re just helping [families] make decisions, we’re helping them make informed choices. If I just sit there as a Funeral Director and say: 'Do you want to have a visitation or not? Do you want to go to the grave? Do you want to spend time with the body?' that’s what we call the ‘Order Taker-Under Taker’ and my writings and my customer service body are calling a ‘Functionary Funeral Director’ – the one who gets through the job and then goes on to the next family."

Dr. Wolfelt is teaching Funeral Directors is help families make a 'transformation': "decisions that are good for them."

"In my experience, many Funeral Directors – through no fault of their own – have never been taught how to better convey the value of a meaningful funeral experience." Dr. Wolfelt explains that many (not all) Funeral Directors through no fault of their own, have never been taught how to convey both the overall value of why we have funerals and the value of various individual elements that make up a funeral.

Here's an example he provided: "If I’m just sitting there asking a family a series of closed-ended questions, I’m not doing my job effectively because the family comes naked to the experience. They don’t know why they need to receive friends, they instead say things like: 'a lot of Mom’s friends died so we don’t need to have a visitation or receive friends'."

Dr. Wolfelt uses a model in his training of information combined with education and that very respectably honours the families choices. "Never shaming a family for the choices they make but instead doing my job of stepping up and educating the family about why funerals are helpful."

Funeral Directors: The Gate Keepers of Ceremony

Dr. Wolfelt explains that Funeral Directors are "gate keepers of ceremony in a culture that lacks an understanding of ceremony."

"If a Funeral Director says: 'As a gate-keeper I’ve got to step up into my responsibility to better convey the why of the funeral, then I’m doing my job in a way that helps families potentially make transformations and transformations are decisions that are good for them. So then [families] come back and thank you because you taught them the value of things like receiving friends or making sure they personalize the elements of the ceremony that families tell us they do want, they just don’t know how to do it so they need [a funeral director] to give them various choices in how to do that."

"I’m passionate about making meaningful funerals and to me Funeral Directors as well as Clergy are gate-keepers to what’s happening in our culture related to ceremony. They need tools to know how to affectively be advocates for the value of funerals that have been with us since the beginning of time so that we stop this trend toward people going: “well just get rid of me”. They’re just deciding not to have meaningful funerals."

Why It's Important

"I’m helping Funeral Directors gain knowledge, learn skills, and close performance gaps as it relates to helping them understand how to convey the why of the funeral."

Why is it important? "[Because] we as a culture are continuing to move away from having funeral ceremonies. Hopefully in teaching the value of funerals [I'm] helping maintain something that’s been part of our culture since the beginning of time that is now at risk of going away and so to do that I’ve got to help those representing funeral service have the skill base and the knowledge base to convey the value and then carry out meaningful funerals."

More Information

Dr. Wolfelt will be the keynote speaker for the Alabama Funeral Directors Association. The title of his talk is: ‘The WHY of Meaningful Funerals: Helping Families Make Transformations’. 2-hour keynote address to their membership laying out how to convey the value of funerals.

His training has become quite popular, he currently has a waiting list for his next training in Colorado coming up in 2 weeks (June 24-26 2014) where he has 35 funeral directors going to Colorado where he teaches and it will be offered again next February 2015 in Scottsdale, AZ. The training will be held every June in Colorado and every February in Scottsdale.

He's written a number of books that relate to funeral service that you can find on his website www.centerforloss.com by navigating to the Book Store.

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