Leaders to Watch In Funeral Service

Posted July 29, 2020

12 min read

Right now, many leaders in funeral service are adapting and changing course.

The people highlighted in this post are leading by pivoting, pioneering and innovating. They offer memorable and impactful messages about strategies they are using to impact the future of funeral service.

Danielle Thacker

Leadership Role: Executive Vice President of Sales, Thacker Caskets, Inc.

Q: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

A: Looking back to myself at age 20, I would tell myself to be more patient and often times situations work themselves out.

At 20, I was very eager to solve every problem that came to me right away. I didn’t want it to be perceived that I was not on top of something.

However, in time, I have learned that many issues work themselves out, especially those that involve other people. The majority of people inherently want to do the right thing, and if given the time and leeway to make the right decision, most of the times they will.

Q: What’s something you’ve learned, “unlearned” or recognized in the last 4 months?

A: Disruption shows character, adaptability and strength. The past 4 months have been a period of disruption for the entire world because of COVID-19.

For our business, the virus had very specific and measurable impact especially in the hardest hit areas that we serve including the New York metro region.

Throughout these last four months, it was refreshing to see how each individual on our team stepped outside their normal scope of duty and rowed the boat as a team – each individual helping the next to achieve the end goal.

Without the disruption of the last four months, I am not sure that we would have seen this character, adaptability and strength from our team. While disruption can be typically viewed as a negative, often more positive comes from disruption than negative.

Gail Rubin

Leadership Role: Certified Thanatologist, pioneering death educator, A Good Goodbye

Q: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

A: When I was 20 years old, I had my own unique style of dressing and sense of humor. These assets weren’t always understood or appreciated. I would tell my 20-year-old self, “Hold on to your uniqueness. These traits will become your greatest strengths and assets.”

Q: How do you see technology benefiting funeral service or our profession in general?

A: Ten years ago, when I first wrote A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die (published in 2010), I wrote about emerging trends that included alkaline hydrolysis and webcasting of funerals. Since then, interest in alkaline hydrolysis and webcasting of funerals has grown enormously.

The use of funeral webcasting has skyrocketed as the coronavirus pandemic forced social distancing upon funeral services. While it’s not the same as being there in person, it does offer a way for people to participate virtually. I think this use of technology, both in funeral homes and in cemeteries, will continue to grow. Businesses may be opening up, but many people remain wary of exposure to a deadly virus. The funeral homes that offer streaming services will have an advantage over those that don’t.

Many in the general public like the “Aquamation” approach. It seems like a gentler disposition that uses less energy. It appeals to those who support eco-friendly causes. This technology could make pre-need funeral planning more appealing, especially to those who want to “green” their final arrangements.

One new technology that did not exist 10 years ago is AFTR. I’m excited to see this app and new technology providing cemeteries with a way to generate new income from existing burials. It allows families to stay connected with their loved ones through video and audio connections to the final resting place.

Q: What’s something you’ve learned, “unlearned” or recognized in the last 4 months?

A: I’ve learned that I’d rather make YouTube videos than write my next book. But I think my Coronavirus Cinema Collection of film and TV recommendations for funeral planning makes a good contribution to our death denying society while we continue to hunker down at home. A number of the film recommendations highlight lesser-known movies that can provide additional home viewing options for those who have burned through their Netflix queue.

Sara Thompson

Leadership Role: General Manager and Licensed Funeral Director, Indiana Funeral Care

Q: What’s the greatest advice you’ve ever received?

A: Always remember that you never know what someone is going through so always be kind and SMILE.

Q: What’s something you’ve learned, “unlearned” or recognized in the last 4 months?

A: That social media can cause a huge disruption in this world. More and more people believe what they read and/or see and judge quickly.

Wendy Smith

Leadership Role: Office Manager, A Natural State Funeral Service

Q: What’s the greatest advice you’ve ever received?

A: I believe the best advice I was ever given was by my 11th grade teacher Mrs. Booth. She was teaching about business processes and she said, “No matter the office and no matter the businesses, always stay true to you, be honest even when it’s bad news, be thankful for your co-workers, and most importantly be honest to yourself, especially when it hurts the worse.”

Over the years, I have tried hard to remember that advice and there have been times when it has been hard to be honest with myself and to be thankful for my coworkers, but overall, it’s very sound advice.

Q: How do you see technology benefiting funeral service or our profession in general?

A: WOW, technology changes everything and every aspect of any business, but it has made some dramatic changes in the funeral industry. I can really see the benefits of technology in the process and manner the funeral director meets with a family.

Before technology, when the funeral directors met with a family, it was all pen and paper; now it’s online, and immediately entered into the computer. I can see that same technology being applied in several other areas, especially in the financial aspect, and in the record keeping aspect. The days of the hardbound red book being handwritten—it is now computer generated, with a great deal of ease.

Another extreme benefit would be in the management of cemeteries, pre-need insurance contracts, and the application of pre-need to at-need contracts. Also, making it mandatory that all physicians use the ERAVE, Electronic Registration of Vital Records and Events; this will speed up the death certificates by at least 3-5 days.

Q: What’s something you’ve learned, “unlearned” or recognized in the last 4 months?

A: In the last 4 months, with the COVID-19 pandemic I have learned a lot from both families and fellow employees.

The funeral industry has been hit hard during this pandemic simply because up until the last couple weeks the concept and idea of a funeral was out of the question. We are the last responders; we see the families that have been devastated by this virus, we see the time with families who have not seen their loved one for hours, days, weeks or even months, who have passed away and now they want their time to say good-bye.

These families want to celebrate the life they had with their loved ones, and we have to be the bad guys and say, “we can’t allow a gathering for your family to grieve.” I am sure being in this industry you have had to share bad news to a family but every single day for months we had to say this, and some of the family members understand, and others do not understand at all.

Then the people here in Arkansas, entering into Phase 1 of the reopening process, and we are happy to tell each family you can only have 50 closest friends and family attend a service. Then we have to stand at the door and count people. That means that not all family or friends may get to celebrate at the same time. This also means that we are limiting the number of people in the service. That makes the loss of a loved one or dear friend all that much harder.

Q: How are you looking to lead in new ways in the coming months and years?

A: In the next couple months and even the next year, I would love to streamline and reduce the amount of paper used to cremate, bury and organize a funeral or gathering. Moving toward a paperless system will help with that streamlining.

Lacy Robinson

Leadership Role: Speaker, trainer, virtual coach specializing in customer service skills, hospice relations and living funerals

Q: What’s the greatest advice you’ve ever received?

A: The greatest advice I have ever received came from my dad. Throughout high school and college he would check in with me regularly about my future career plans to ensure I was on track to achieve my goals.

He wanted to make sure I felt supported and empowered to dream big. When I expressed early on I wanted to work for a supplier in funeral service, he recommended I stay on track with graduating from Mid-America College of Funeral Service and plan on pursuing my funeral director/embalmer license then think about moving on to a supplier.

I remember just like it was yesterday my dad saying, “You will be more valuable to a company like Aurora Casket with a funeral director’s license.” He also strongly encouraged me to work on my speaking skills to build my confidence and differentiate myself in the workplace. Those speaking skills have certainly been the gift that keeps on giving!

Q: What are you looking forward to right now?

A: I’ve been collaborating with Worsham College on their new customer service course available for online students. I am really looking forward to getting to the know the students and teaching effective communication skills and ways they’re able to enhance the customer experience.

Cole Imperi

Leadership Role: Founder of the School of American Thanatology, dual-certified thanatologist, writer, podcaster, speaker, and one of America’s leading experts on death, dying and grief.

Q: What’s a piece of advice you’ve heard that is resonating with you or that has helped shape you?

A: As I’ve gotten older, the saying “The loudest voice isn’t always the correct voice” has been something I’ve paid close attention to. It’s important to not mistake a ‘loud voice’ for a shortcut you’ll regret taking. Listen for the quietest voices.

A friend of mine gave me a piece of advice years ago—“If you aren’t sure what it is, it’s probably jealousy.” One of my mentors put it differently a couple of years after that, “We reject in others what we don’t allow in ourselves.” This helps me remain compassionate towards others and to not take things personally.

Q: How are you looking to lead in new ways in the coming months and years?

A: I started my anti-racism work at the end of 2017 and, like most people, have realized I need to be doing more…now. The pandemic drastically changed my business, and I now have a school called the School of American Thanatology. I have students from more than 15 countries in our first 3 months of existence. I’ve discovered a lot of my own blind spots, ways I’ve contributed to systemic racism, and how important it is to me to take responsibility and do better. I’m trying to do what I can with what I have where I am. My students are providing me with a new layer of accountability and I am working hard to create an educational experience that meets everyone where they are. Part of that means being transparent about my own growing edges, pain points and weaknesses. In deathcare, I think we need more leaders willing to share mistakes and missteps rather than just big wins and perfect scenarios. 2020 carries with it a great opportunity, as a community, to develop greater empathy, resilience and presence. I look forward to that.

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