Using the Senses to Create a Personalized Funeral Experience
Posted August 11, 2021
7 min read
Creating a personalized funeral service was especially challenging during the pandemic.
But as restrictions are lifted, Funeral Directors must now be asking: “How can we create a memorable experience—a mood—for our families now? How can we get the mood back?”
In our last blog post, we uncovered insights from Danny Jefferson, Managing Leader at Pierce-Jefferson Funeral & Cremation Services in North Carolina, about what it means to create an outstanding, customized service for families. Part of that, Danny explains, is about setting the mood—that is, carefully designing every element of the experience to ensure it’s a meaningful event that promotes healing for families.
As a Funeral Director who has been named the National Funeral Director of the Year by American Funeral Director magazine, Danny Jefferson has nearly 50 years of experience serving families. As an author, speaker, coach, and trainer dedicated to the profession, it is no wonder why Danny has such deep reverence and admiration from his community and colleagues.
Keep reading part two in our blog series with Danny to learn actionable tips on how you can continue to design memorable, highly personalized funeral experiences for your families.
Examine Every Interaction with Your Families & Guests
A starting point is to examine every interaction a family has (as well as guests) with your firm. “When we get the first call at the Funeral Home, are the people taking that call the most qualified to receive that call? Can they answer the questions effectively?” says Danny. After all, that’s one of the first chances your Funeral Home has to foster and cultivate the desired experience with your family.
The focus is always on your family, but for the guests, look at pre-arrival, how they are welcomed, the service itself, but also the farewell, and any reminders of the loved one. Every interaction and touch point should be thought out.
Danny emphasizes how now is the time to be proactive and re-consider all the elements that make up the mood you foster for families. Many families are going to want the mood more than ever coming out of the pandemic. “They realize how empty they have been during this time. I think they’re going to realize that the funeral experience is way more than they expected it to be, and they’re yearning for something that they couldn’t have. Now is our time to give it to them,” adds Danny.
Use the Senses—In Particular Sight, Scent & Sound—to Create Your Mood
Our senses are extremely powerful in evoking memories and in telling stories. That’s why Pierce-Jefferson has a ShareLife experience room, a multi-purpose room that uses video and other multimedia on an HD widescreen, music and sound effects, and various scents to help guests think about, remember, and honor their loved one.
A few examples how sight, scent, and sound have been used to foster a specific experience include:
A memorial service for a farmer. Everyone wore bib overalls to the visitation to honor him. They also had other elements that brought out the theme, including a bale of hay placed near the casket.
A memorial service for an avid baker. Photos of apple pie and rolling pins were projected on the large screen at the funeral home.
A memorial service for a man who loved golf. The smell of freshly mown grass was used. (The sense of smell is so linked with our memory, it “forces” our brain to think about certain things—possibly more than any other sense we have). His clubs were in the front of the room, and his favorite floppy hat he would always wear was present, too.
A memorial service for a woman who loved the beach. The subtle scent of the beach (the salty air!) and the sound of waves crashing in the background were used together to set the mood.
Asking Questions to Learn About a Lost Loved One
What’s the secret in being able to uncover these meaningful stories that capture a life lived? “The secret is in asking questions to find out what people knew and loved about this person,” shares Danny.
Here are 3 key tips to help you in this process:
1. Realize the importance of the arrangement conference. During the arrangement conference, be sure you are asking questions. “How are you going to know if you don’t ask?” explains Danny. “Anything that doesn’t end in a question mark, probably means you are talking too much,” says Danny.
Questions allow a family to tell you what’s on their heart about a loved one. Without any notepad or legal pad in front of him, Danny will start simple. “Tell me what’s going on. What happened?”
From there, families will open up. Follow up with more questions, and practice active listening. “How long had she been sick? How do they interact with their grandchildren?” Or, “So when she was well, what did she enjoy doing? What was the most fun she had?” Aim to use open-ended questions which invite discovery and dialogue. “It’s important, because when you ask these questions, they want to answer them. And they will. But they’re going to tell you what they want to tell you,” says Danny.
2. Don’t rush the process. The arrangement shouldn’t be about getting information for a death certificate in a rushed manner. It also shouldn’t be about getting one family’s paperwork completed because you have another family coming in shortly after.
This process of asking quality questions provokes deep conversation and it should take time when done the right way.
Danny says when you follow this approach, families see how genuinely interested you are in their loved one. They understand your desire to tell their loved one’s story to friends and family. That’s an important shift that allows the service to become something much more than a number to them. “When you do it this way, families don’t ask for the price list when they walk in the door. They don’t want to look at the price list,” he says.
“This is about helping people, and I love helping people…This is so important to the public. And it’s important to who we are as a group, too,” adds Danny.
3. Empower staff through training. Providing training and resources to staff helps you ensure staff have this mindset and approach with all families. “People tend to learn more through motivational training, as opposed to educational training because a lot of times the smartest person in the room is not going to be your best Funeral Director,” says Danny.
Danny has had 23 apprentices in his career. To this day, he loves to teach other Funeral Directors who have the heart for the profession. “It takes training, and it takes the motivation to want to have this approach,” he explains.
Opportunity for Impact
Ultimately, Danny says that Funeral Directors can shape and positively impact so many people and communities through their work. “How much do you want to give as a Funeral Director? You pour out, you fill up your cup, you empty that cup. We, as Funeral Directors, pour our cups out regularly. Some pour out everything they have; some don’t care about pouring too much out,” says Danny.
But for those who are dedicated to the profession and devoted to serving families, there is great opportunity—right now, says Danny. “We have to understand the impact that we have on people’s lives, on group gatherings, on setting the mood, and on making our place inviting when people come in. What you do at your location is entirely up to you,” he says, “but just remember you have this great opportunity to tell these wonderful life stories.”
Spend More Meaningful Time With Your Families Thanks to CRäKN
“One of the reasons that I am such a proponent of CRäKN is because it cuts [my time to do my work into] probably a third of the time. If you are in a busy funeral home, it is critical. It’s just the simplest thing you’ve ever done. I can do everything seamlessly and notify staff…anytime I want to, from any electronic device…” —Funeral Director Micah Dobbs
CRäKN was designed knowing you want to spend less time on paperwork and data entry, and more time engaged in meaningful activities with your families and in your community. Plus, with CRäKN, prioritization and accountability are now “virtually guaranteed” which means you can have greater peace of mind each day knowing no ball has been dropped.
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