The Common Mistake Funeral Directors Make When Communicating with Families

Posted June 7, 2016

5 min read

Imagine you are helping a widow during an arrangement conference. Near the end of your conversation—a meeting in which you have started to build a good relationship—you tell her how you hope that “this service will bring you closure.”

It’s a mistake that you might not even realize you are making as a funeral professional,” says Dr. Jason Troyer, Founder of Mt. Hope Grief Services. Dr. Troyer helps funeral professionals ensure that they are speaking the same language as the families they serve. He is also a psychology professor at Maryville College, and is a published author and former grief counselor. He regularly provides presentations, grief publications, pre-need products, training seminars, and consulting services to the funeral industry.

What you had intended by this statement was to communicate how you wanted to help deliver a well-planned, personalized funeral that could support the grieving widow in this process. However, by using the word “closure,” in this particular scenario, your words could be taken the wrong way.

The Various Interpretations of “Closure”

“As I began working with funeral professionals, I heard the term ‘closure’ come up again and again,” explains Dr. Troyer. “It really jumped out at me because within the grief research community, we really don’t use that term. Part of the reason we don’t use it is because it’s a very imprecise term,” he adds.

Funeral professionals may use the word “closure” when talking about the benefits of an open-casket funeral or when describing personalized merchandise, but if you were to ask 10 families about what closure means to them, you might hear 5 different definitions, explains Dr. Troyer. And that’s part of the reason why using the word closure carries a bit of risk. “In many, if not most cases, the family does understand what a funeral director means when they use the word closure – but in some cases, they don’t,” adds Dr. Troyer. It can be a mistake that many funeral directors don’t even realize they are making when they are trying to support the family. “Of course, anyone in a very painful state like acute grief will remember those types of statements, fairly or unfairly, and they’ll remember those moments when words hit them or are perceived in the wrong way.”

If you ask funeral professionals what they mean when speaking of closure, they will say how they use the term in a positive sense, related to healing. But families can interpret it to mean they should already be done grieving or it can inadvertently suggest that their grief will soon be over. Dr. Troyer says that often times, he sees families interpret closure to mean “I acknowledge the death of my loved one” or “I do not feel any remaining grief,” as just two examples he’s seen. At the same time, when other families hear closure, they hear, “You need to forget your loved one” or “It’s time to move on.”

Use Language That’s More Precise

To become more sensitive to how words are being interpreted, Dr. Troyer says funeral directors can be more precise in the language used with families. “If you mean to suggest that something will help a family get over the shock of the loss, or it will help them grieve, or something will bring them healing, then say exactly that.”

For example, you could say, “Mr. Jones, I’m sorry that you have to be here planning your Father’s funeral. However, I believe that we can help you create a service that will honor your Father’s legacy and bring healing to your family.”

Other phrases that tend to be more precise include acknowledging how something may “support the healing process” or that “…healing can begin” or how a product or service can “bring you and your family comfort.” Each of these phrases get the intended idea across without suggesting someone should no longer be grieving or that they are grieving in a way that is not normal. “Funeral professionals can give consideration to the words being used, and be much more specific about what is meant, and what the benefits might be of certain funeral rituals or services you are discussing,” adds Dr. Troyer.

Choosing Your Words with Care Means More Compassionate Service

Dr. Troyer suggests funeral professionals approach and treat each relationship as a unique one, and this will help reduce any confusion or misunderstandings that happen due to communication. “For funeral professionals who are faced with grief and loss, and for those who deal with grieving people every day, the challenge is recognizing that, for this person, this is the first time they have lost that loved one. Always put yourself in the position where you remember that this is a new, unique loss for that person.”

He knows it isn’t easy, but he says “do whatever you can do in order to bring yourself back to that point. I think that mindset helps funeral professionals slow down and it helps you to be as empathetic as possible.”

About Dr. Jason Troyer

Dr. Jason Troyer is the Founder of Mt. Hope Grief Services and a psychology professor at Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee. Dr. Troyer is a published author, former grief counselor, and provides presentations, grief publications, pre-need products, training seminars, and consulting services. Find out more at

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