Improving the content of the funeral is a journey, not a destination so keep going

LAS VEGAS – Those who’ve heard Doug Gober speak know that he delivers energetic, emotional, passionate presentations. Those who have seen his most recent program, which he delivered at the 2011 NFDA International Convention & Expo and at the recent International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association Convention, know that this one takes a very personal bent as well.

The program included original research by Gober, some firsthand experience not only from his professional perspective but also from a personal perspective. The material was fleshed out and boiled down into one clear, concise message: “We must get better.”

In this particular program, Gober, senior loan officer with Live Oak Bank who was previously with Carriage Services and Matthews, shared more than six months of original research on the content of the funeral and his conclusions on how funeral service professionals can improve that content to increase the relevance of services.

“We will not solve the world’s funeral and cemetery problems this afternoon,” Gober said. “All we can hope to accomplish while we’re together is to have the opportunity for you to leave here with something you can go home and do something with.”

Gober said it is not uncommon for him to walk into a cemetery office, drive through a cemetery or walk into a funeral home (in the last year, he was in 700 of them across the country) and feel like he had gone back in time.

“It is unbelievable the difficulty we’re having communicating how important it is for us to recognize who the customer is and how to interact with them in a way that they get interacted with everywhere else and do it in an environment that makes sense,” he said. “We seem to have lost the possibility that there are ways to do this better.”

So what are the possibilities for funeral service professionals to simply get a little bit better? Gober asked attendees to think about how to address the simple challenges of the content of the funeral service.

“Somebody sees what you are doing, like your competitor, and they start doing the same things,” Gober supposed. “You take water to the cemetery and six months later, your competitor is doing it.”

So how do you consistently begin again and continue to differentiate yourself from anyone else that is out there. The challenge is to create customer experiences, and these are experiences people were not expecting. “When people walk away from your business, they’ll say, ‘Man, I am glad I came here today,’ rather than the elderly couple that gets back into their car and one of them looks over to the other and says, ‘I don’t know what we’re going to do when it is our time, but it is sure not this,’” Gober said. “And you have just lost another one because of how badly you did on the current one. This happens on a daily basis in the United States, and it is one of our biggest challenges. We need to understand what the opportunities are for us to be better and ask, how do we get better?”

Gober said that when he was at Carriage Services, he talked about creating healing moments.

In actuality, whether a family visits a cemetery or a funeral home, do the services they are seeking exist when a customer comes to purchase them? “No, they don’t,” Gober said, answering his own question. “What am I buying? I am buying your promise that this is how we are going to remember your mom over the next few days. How you deliver and how your people deliver on the promises and how you keep them determines the success or failure of their experience.”

One of the questions practitioners are asked regularly is, “What makes you different?” “If you say ‘my services,’ it is akin to saying that ‘squirrels would taste more like ice cream if goats were only taller.’ It means about the same thing. What does that mean when you say, ‘our services.’ How do you define it? More importantly, how do your customers define it? We have to be more specific than that. We have to really begin to define these things that do make us better.”

Gober noted that one of the challenges faced by funeral directors today is that when it comes to creating healing moments, the healing is outsourced. “And sometimes we outsource the healing to this guy,” said Gober, pointing to a photo of a clergyman. “We must be the catalyst for healing, and we have this challenge we’re facing,” Gober continued. “[It’s] this guy [the clergyman], who has never had the luxury of meeting the deceased.”

The hosts, funeral directors, who are creating this event want to be able to connect with this loss in the lives of the family with some kind of larger spirituality or some big-picture continuity that comes from the real connection. The problem is that this connection doesn’t mean the same thing to all people.

“We have this challenge because people don’t want organized religion; for whatever reasons, they have rejected that offer, and they do so in the same way that they have rejected our standard offer,” Gober said. “But that doesn’t mean these people aren’t looking for some kind of connection that goes beyond themselves and beyond just their family and even into the community. They want the connection and are trying to get it from the clergy, and it takes an exceptional priest or minister who can provide that spiritual connection for people outside his own faith. Everybody in the room wants it, but they can’t all get it from him.

“This is the problem and the challenge,” he continued. “If we are going to create healing moments, then you must be the responsible party in your place of business to take ownership of that. You must take responsibility for the content and the quality of everything your customer sees. You might even refer to this as a customer contact audit.”

Gober asked his audience to consider that when you look at your place of business, how does your message get into the marketplace? What do they see when they think about the name of your business? What comes to mind? Is it your name on the sign? Most of the time, the answer is no. In most cases, the answer is found in their most recent experience with you, which in the funeral service norm could be several years ago, and their experience might not have been as a member of the immediate family of the deceased but as a guest because they attended an event at your facility.

“You must be willing to take responsibility for the content of what they see at every potential point of customer contact – all the way from the website to your name on the sign to your letterhead to what happens when they walk in the front door of your place, and what does it smell like and what do I see,” Gober said. “When I walk in the front door of your funeral home or cemetery, what is the first thing I see? What is my first impression?”

Drilling down into the service, Gober focused on the content, which comes from three primary sources: the family, the funeral facility and the clergy.

The challenge is to think about what we as funeral practitioners can do better. “Think about how we can interact with the clergy differently and how to better interact with the family,” he said.

Gober divided the family content into three areas: raw materials, delivery vehicles and the idea of enabling.

Raw Materials

“From a raw materials standpoint, here is the challenge for all of us,” he said. “As you begin to interact with someone who has had a loss, one of the most difficult things that gets in our way is you make the assumption that everyone who is going to attend that event knows the story. You assume that they know the deceased and they know the deceased’s family well, and you are going to create something that sort of follows what you think they all think.”

Well, sometimes that is a swing and a miss. For example, Gober said, many people attend funerals where they don’t know the deceased. In fact, Gober suggested that the greater number of attendees at a given service in a funeral home or cemetery at one time probably don’t know the deceased. “What do you think is the larger group in the funeral home or cemetery – those who do know the deceased or those who don’t? It is those who don’t.” Gober said he might not have known an associate’s mom or dad, but he would go to the funeral home out of respect for his associate. “It is my relationship with [his associate] that I am going to the service and I have never met the dead guy in my lifetime. Do I have grief that day? I have no grief that day. The family who is dealing with the loss has real grief. However, on my side of this equation, I don’t have any grief. I am a friend. I am going to walk up to the casket and look at a guy I have never met and I am going to do two things at the moment: I am going to encounter my own mortality or [someone in my family] who is also not in great shape right now.

“I may be thinking about what I would do if it were my turn [to use the funeral home],” he added. “As a guest who has no grief, I am never more open to whatever your deathcare message might be than I am at that moment. You can do all the advertising you want about who you are and what you do, and I am never more open to any message than I am right then.”

This raised the question, “How can you impact me when I show up at your place of business to make sure that when I leave your place of business at the end of whatever I came there for that I know more about that guy I didn’t know than I did when I got there,” he said. “Your responsibility to me is to tell me the story. I am willing to pay you big bucks to tell everybody the story of whoever that person was. And if the visitors don’t get that from the funeral home, they probably will not be coming back.”

Video tributes are an example of things funeral directors have embraced over the last decade or so, but even these can be done better. “Video and music woven together but in photos that flash on the screen and roll by – what are you seeing?” he asked.

To illustrate his point, Gober showed the audience a photo of two people hugging. He asked audience members what they saw, and the answers ranged from “hugging” to “history” to “affection.” The correct answer, Gober said, is “You don’t know what you saw in that picture in the video tribute that rolls by, and unless you help me tell the story by legitimately telling me a story I don’t know… There’s a picture and you could stare at it for a number of minutes and make up in your mind what you saw there, but unless you tell me the story, I am not going to get it. You are responsible for the story, and in some cases, not in every case, you can tell the story by telling me the story.”

Back to the photo Gober showed of two people hugging. It was a mother and son who were hugging. The photo, it turns out, was taken by a friend of the son who was on the bus waiting for his buddy to say goodbye to his mother. He took the picture through the bus window, and it is the last time the son and the mother saw each other because the boy who was called up for military service never came back from Vietnam. “Tell me the story,” Gober said.

Most of the tribute videos that can be done today allow users to caption the pictures. “I am not suggesting that you caption every picture, but I am suggesting to you that when I did this for my mother, I had a picture in the video tribute when she was 12 years old,” he said. “Everyone assumed the picture was of my mother, but you still didn’t know the whole story until I captioned it and it said, ‘Peg at 12.’ And that is all you needed to know. Sometimes it is as simple as that and sometimes it is more complicated than that, but you must tell me the story.”

Another example Gober used was a photo of a boy and three adult males, all of them with their heads shaved. The obvious assumption was that one of the men in the photo was battling cancer. When Gober asked members of the audience which one was battling cancer, most thought it was the boy. But when Gober read the caption, it turned out to be one of the adults, and the other three had shaved their heads in support of his battle with cancer.

“Sometimes you can just add a caption to support what I am seeing in the picture,” he said. “You can even put something funny in the video tribute, just as long as you tell the right story. The best way to identify a good funeral from a bad one is to have people both laughing and crying within the same 15 minutes of time.”

Delivery Vehicles

The delivery vehicles, the method in which the raw material gleaned from a family and delivered to any and all visitors, are challenging. One of those challenges is eulogies and how to get better at using what a family has given you to create something important.

Sometimes it can be a bad eulogy. Gober used some video examples of good eulogies and bad eulogies. Taking a personal perspective, Gober used the example of his mother’s death two years ago. He said the story wasn’t about his mother but about what could be done. He admitted that he and his family were not prepared for this loss.

“As my stepfather, Harold, and I were beginning to plan in our heads what we were going to do, we started to think about the way my mother was important to a lot of people in her life, and so we made a list of some of those people who were not family,” Gober said. “We were expecting a big crowd at her visitation. We thought maybe 400 people would show up, and 650 came. But we had a small list of 12 names that only my step-dad, my four children and I had. On this list were the names of people who she went to church with and who she worked with.”

“We were all at the front waiting to greet visitors, and when somebody came in the door whose name was on the list, I would have one of my kids take them down the hall and into an empty visitation room where Paul Seyler, a friend of Gober’s who is president of Competitive Resources, a marketing firm based in New Orleans, had his video camera set up and a list of questions to ask those 12 people about what Gober’s mother had meant to them in their lives.

“At the end of the night, we had 110 minutes of powerful video about my mother,” Gober said. “Overnight, [Seyler] edited that video, and at her service the next day at 11 a.m., we showed a nine-minute clip of that 110 minutes and all 12 of those people who had participated at my mother’s funeral.”

Describing the overall context of his mother’s service, Gober said it could not have been a more religious service; that’s who she was. “But right in the middle of this very religious service, we mixed in a whole bunch of nonreligious stuff,” he said.

To give an idea of the service, there were four Baptist ministers and the service lasted 70 minutes. “There are simple ways for you to do this better,” Gober said. After the service, he said, a friend came up to him and asked, “How did you do that?”

“Isn’t that what you want – people seeing you and them telling you about a service?” he asked. “If we have any potential to save this business, that’s what it is.”

The point is that practitioners understand the best use of the raw materials. Don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. Instead, build a better basket.

“Have a place to click on your website that says ‘Building a Better Eulogy,’” Gober suggested. “Take advantage of the situations where you have someone [delivering a eulogy] where you’ve actually helped them. Have multiple short eulogies where you use a childhood friend, a fraternity brother, a best friend or a co-worker. Break things up. Give some opportunities for telling that story through the eulogy process.”

Of course, there are challenges in this aspect of the service. Too often, eulogies might disintegrate into an “open mike” night. “I would let encourage you, don’t let them wing it,” Gober said. “Don’t let somebody stand up during the course of a service without you knowing in advance what they are going to do. You must control this in advance.”

Printed material is also a way to deliver the story. At the visitation for Gober’s mother, not only was what was in the printed material important to delivering her story, its distribution was key as well. As mentioned earlier, the visitation drew hundreds of visitors, and people were given the program as they waited in line, allowing visitors to read while they waited.

And printed materials can and should deviate from the norm, says Gober, offering the example of a recent funeral of a former Major League Baseball umpire. Lohman Funeral Home in Ormond Beach, Florida, handled the service, and at its conclusion, Gober noted that all of the attendees sang, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” and were given a box of Crackerjacks with the photo of the late umpire on the box.

The Idea of Enabling

This is all about being willing and enabling,” Gober said. “Do you want 100 Cs or maybe would you want 97 As and maybe 3 Ds? We are so afraid of the three Ds that we are unwilling to go after As. And for those of you who subscribe to the notion that a closed mouth gathers no foot, this is not going to work for you.”

The C services, Gober said, are bland and inoffensive. “At the risk of making someone upset or rub somebody the wrong way, we don’t do all the things we could do because we’re afraid someone might not like it,” he said.

Take, for example, the family who sits across from you and says, “We don’t want any of your stuff.” Gober asked, “Are you bold enough to look them in the eye and say that your mother is going to have a visitation? I am not talking about stuff. I am talking about the fact that whether you choose to do it right here with me over the next three days in a controlled environment or she is going to have a visitation with one person at a time over the next six months at [the supermarket], the fact is she is going to have a visitation, and not having a visitation is not in your mother’s best interest. We cannot under any circumstances be that person.

“We can no longer be willing to be bland and inoffensive,” he continued. “We have to be bold, we have to do stuff that is meaningful, appropriate and affordable. That’s is how your consumer is going to respond to you. Our role is education and reassurance, but you must do some more. You have to be a little bit bold today. We can’t afford 100 Cs. It is important that we understand the challenge here, which is that most of you don’t like to be told ‘no.’ It is okay for a consumer to say no to something that you offered to them that they don’t want to do. It is not okay for you to not offer it. It is your challenge to step out of that box and do something different. The choice is yours – bland and inoffensive or bold and edgy.”

The next segment of Gober’s presentation focused squarely on the clergy. He posed the question, “How many of you subscribe to the position that a bad minister can ruin a good funeral?” Most agreed. “But if you look at service content, these guys have more influence on what occurs that people see than almost anybody else that is involved in that service,” Gober said. “All of you have definite ideas in your head on what is the definition between a good minister and a bad minister. The definition changes with the individual I am talking to.”

Then Gober asked, “How many of you have gone out into your marketplace and looked all of the ministers in the eye and asked them, ‘What is the difference between a good funeral or a bad funeral, or a good funeral and a bad funeral for you?’ How do you think they would respond?”

Another question asked by Gober: “What do you think the ministers think about you?” To answer those questions, Gober traveled the country and spoke with 10 ministers of varying faiths and geographic locations and asked them exactly that. Gober presented a taped montage of their responses. Among the responses:

  • “A good funeral would fulfill the expectations that a family had on whatever their ritual and emotional needs might be. A great funeral surpasses that.”
  • “A sense of security or a sense of well-being”
  • “The goal is to make it unique, one of a kind, rather than perfect.”
  • “A great service works best when the pastor, priest, rabbi, whoever has worked as closely as possible with the family and has given the family as many opportunities to help to design the service. To me, a great funeral is when I know the family has been reflected in that service. Yes, we celebrate, but sometimes we cry. What is important is that it gives the family or individual a socially acceptable time to fall apart.”

Said Gober: “Many of you view your business as a calling, and so do these guys. The one thing that is pretty much universally true about the clergy is they have a calling.”

So what does the clergy need from funeral directors? Again, Gober offered the videotaped results from his interviews with the clergy:

  • “I wish they had done a better job of getting inside the family’s heart and sharing it with me so I can craft a more meaningful service.”
  • “I wish they could have listened more closely to where their needs were and to whom they were interacting.”
  • “Just because I know what’s going on doesn’t mean that the funeral director knows what’s going on.”
  • “I wish they had done a more thorough job of personalizing that service and not taken the position of ‘Oh, here’s another funeral.’ I like to know what the family has requested and what they had planned for the content of that service. Who is going to be speaking, do we need special music? I would try to take all of those things and fit them together with a progression so that at least from my point of view, we could move from one point of beginning to a point of conclusion that gives a complete story.”

Gober asked, “If these people are genuinely committed to doing right, then why do we still have a problem with this? We’ve got a bunch of people who are, by and large, classically educated and highly motivated people with a divine calling to serve their fellow humans. So why are we still talking about this? Well, they are also human and they suffer from some common human problems. They are looking at this from the same perspective you would – they don’t know what they don’t know.”

Basically, the clergy Gober interviewed are asking for preparation and communication. “With the right amount of information and the right amount of commitment, we can arm them properly,” Gober said. “Give them information and ways to do this. Call them, and if anything interesting came up during the course of the interaction with the family, let them know. Don’t make the assumption that the clergy knows the individual like you and I know him. They don’t.”

Gober said the whole idea is to take responsibility for delivering all of this content. “From a delivery standpoint, we may be relying on someone who is no help at all,” he said. “If you know going in that [a clergyman] is not going to do anything other than one of those ‘insert name here’ kind of services, then it becomes your responsibility to do the ‘doughnut.’”

The doughnut, Gober explained, is doing things yourself before the clergyman gets involved, during his involvement and afterward. “A wedding planner does not allow a minister to mess up a good wedding,” he said. “There is always somebody directing people to light candles, when to say a prayer. Are you doing that? Are your preparing him? Are you working together or are you working against each other? If you know the guy is going to work against you, do the doughnut. Dilute bad content and multiply good content. Manage the event.

“We have to prepare these people. If we prepare them and give them information, it is amazing what they might do with it,” he added. “Some won’t do anything with it, and you know it. You all know that there are good ones and bad ones. We can simply do a better job of preparing them and they might be better. The key word is ‘might.’ You might have one of those preachers you simply cannot fix. In which case, you use the doughnut.”

One idea Gober passed along was when the first call comes in to the funeral home, ask the question “Is there a minister I can call for you?” and it might lead you right into a discussion. They may say no, they don’t, and you can suggest one, or as an alternative to that we have a certified celebrant on staff. “You start that conversation early and have it often,” he said.

In conclusion, Gober underscored the words of one of his interviewees, Michael Twohey, a Catholic priest. He said, “There is nothing sadder than that overwhelming feeling of saying goodbye to someone you will never see again… There is a sense that people need to have something more, whether you want to call it transcendence, that something that you need to feel connected. You have to be able to empathetically meet people with that so you can assist them, minister to them, spiritually and morally, in a way that allows them to know there is a connection they have to the community and that the person they loved is being honored and served. Anything less than that is not only a failure of personal vocation, it is just bad business.”

Said Gober said: “It is our responsibility to simply do this better. Create a new norm for your community over a short period of time. Our responsibility is to give you things you can go home and do something with as soon as you get home. Basically, his content is to suggest ways to get better, or even the things you are already doing, do them a little bit better.

“What you do is too important for our society to allow to let go away.”

 

Originally appeared in the April 5, 2012, edition of the Memorial Business Journal, a publication of the National Funeral Directors Association. Used by permission. 

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