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Page A22



S ec t i on A

Todd Van Beck is a person who has had a half-century love affair

with both funeral and cemetery service. He willingly admits that he is

no “expert!” but also quickly admits that there is nothing about this

work and life that he does not enjoy, and have intense interest in.

Todd says: “I have never done a day’s work in my life, it has all been

fun and interesting.” Todd has been an active writer and speaker

internationally for many decades covering most every topic that is

relevant to our profession. Mr. Van Beck grew up in Southwestern

Iowa, and declared at the young age of 5 years old that he would

become a funeral director when he grew up. He is still growing up,

still learning, still trying to make some kind or worthy contribution to

his beloved profession. Todd has operated funeral homes, cemeteries

and mortuary colleges, and confesses that he has been a vagabond

throughout his career, simply because he wanted to see the world.

Todd is the Director of Continuing Education for the John A. Gupton

College in Nashville, and his wife, Georgia, R.N., is a Clinical Director

for Alive Hospice also in Nashville.

By Todd Van Beck


Have you ever poured your heart out to somebody and they

did not understand you? If this has happened to you then you

will understand that one of the sterling qualities in the charac-

ter makeup of the helping funeral professional is to understand

other people to the best of our abilities.

In this article I am going to cover three aspects in the process

of human understanding.


The first way to start to understand other people is to understand

yourself and this most times is a painful exercise in character build-

ing which usually starts with our taking a long hard look in the mir-

ror; not an easy assignment.

The funeral professional ideally is a student of self-improve-

ment and about death, loss, about the values of rituals and cer-

emonies, about life realities and life challenges, about grief. This

is indeed time well spent.

This article is not centered exclusively around the funeral pro-

fessional becoming more acquainted with their own personality

per se, but it will suffice to say that of the three types of under-

standing we are addressing self-understanding, self-awareness,

and self-realization are the most difficult to embrace.

Personality inventories, attitude surveys, and personal assess-

ments are on the internet in abundance and free to help jump

start a beginning attempt for an individual to start answering

the question “Who am I?” Another way to find out information

about who you are is in simple conversations with trusted fami-

ly, friends, and professional colleagues. These interactions can be

an effective approach in our process of looking hard and long in

the mirror. All of these avenues are readily available and for the

serious life student should be taken full advantage of.

Here is a

case study

. For several years I played host to a group

of nursing students who came to the funeral home I managed

to take a tour. The nursing students did this twice a year. It has

always fascinated me to watch people take a tour of a funeral

home and the nursing students were no exception. The process

is usually predictable: the group hesitantly enters the building,

sometimes giggling, bumping into each other, trying to act ma-

ture, but then defy their act by laughing at inappropriate times

and over inappropriate subjects.

Then I introduce myself. Any reader who knows me knows

that I am a “big boy” and have a shock of white unruly hair, and

a deep bass voice, that one of my speaker associates dubbed as

“the voice of Todd.” In other words I am innocently intimidat-

ing – I don’t mean to be, but that is the way it is, of course until

people get to know my loveable personality (that is a joke folks).

The nursing students, naturally don’t know or understand any-

thing concerned with anything about our beloved profession, ab-

solutely nothing, and even if they “think” they know something

the odds are always on the side that what they think they know is

wrong. They also know absolutely nothing about TVB, so I know

they are not looking at me as a feeling human being, but as an odd

and strange fellow who is working in this odd and strange place.

So off I begin, and you know there is absolutely nothing I love

to talk about more than funeral service and just how bloody

great this career path truly is.

I move them across the threshold of funeral anxiety into the

world of funeral interest, and once that happens watch out, be-

cause the young nursing student’s, as most people do, move quick-

ly into an arena of active interest and then questions start coming

fast and furious. I believe this is the premier reason why funeral

home tours are so important. It is the best way to move anxious

people from funeral and death anxiety to funeral and death inter-

est –

I firmly believe, since the death rate is a perfect 100% that this

activity is always a good thing!

I have also discovered on these tours that while the different

groups are interested in embalming, caskets, vaults, and such me-

morial items, what they really are interested in are themselves,

and their own personal understanding of the world of death, dy-

ing, bereavement, and grief, their personal relationship to this re-

ality, and how it makes them feel.

And this is always a good thing,

and happens most authentically inside of any funeral home anywhere

on the globe.

The nursing professor always requires each student to write an

assessment of this experience, and truth be told the nursing stu-

dent’s written words, after their experience of standing in the

presence of death is simply astounding to read, and this happens

on tour after tour after tour. Their writing reflect their new found

introspection, discernment and maturity concerning the most

certain event in their life after their birth – their death. The gig-

gling has stopped and true understanding has happened. It is a

marvelous thing to witness and be a part of.


The second way of understanding is to understand the other person,

not through the eyes of others, but through our own eyes. Since this

is the method by which we most frequently understand others, it de-

serves further scrutiny.

When I understand you or fail to understand you, I use the re-

sources at my own command – no one else’s: my perceptual ap-

paratus, my thinking, my feeling, my knowledge and my skills.

I understand you or do not understand you in terms of myself,

my life space, my internal frame of reference. If we do not speak

the same language – although we may both be speaking English

– I may not understand you at all. This happens constantly and is

most often the causal agent for wars between nations, relationship

breakup, and interpersonal conflicts.

In brief, when I understand you or when I do not, it is in terms

of my background, my experience, my imagination. Most often,

I suppose, we cannot do otherwise and at best can only be aware

that this is what we are doing, but even a sensitive awareness that

this is what is going on is a great start in improving our ability to

understand others. Let me give a short example to clarify: “I don’t

understand you. It’s so hot in here, and yet you keep complaining

that it’s cold.” This is simple and obvious. I cannot understand

that you are cold when I am warm – this “stuff” happens con-

stantly in human interactions.

Interestingly for our profession grief is universal human emo-

tion. It is true that “pain is pain and grief is grief” the world over.

Hence one binding connection that members of our great pro-

fession possess that eludes many other vocations is that no matter

what you and I can probably understand the most difficult per-

son by connecting with them in empathetic grief counseling, and

we are very good at this.

While this deep connection is a valid and real possibility yet many

times some in our profession continue to tend to understand these

deep emotions only in terms of themselves instead of the person

expressing them.

Because of this authentic understanding of another

person takes a tremendous amount of good old fashioned work, and this

is also just possibly why veteran funeral directors seem to possess magi-

cal understanding of a myriad of grief situations because they have just

worked at understanding this emotion and communicating with peo-

ple experiencing this painful emotion for so long.

Understanding another person can be exhausting. For this rea-

son lazy people usually fail at understanding others very success-

fully. The most un-ambitious expression which indicates a lazy

person’s interest in working to understand another is this phrase:

“I don’t care.” Ever heard that one?

Such an internal attitude as “I don’t care” is anathema to every-

thing which we hold near and dear in our heart concerning our

love of funeral service. Here is a haunting question: Have you ever

heard anyone in funeral service say “I don’t care?”

Another helpful and wise step in our understanding of others is

that if we do not understand people, we may well want to find out

what is causing the barrier. In some rare instances in funeral ser-

vice, we may have to accept lack of communication as inevitable

under certain circumstances with the result being that the client

family leaves and engages another funeral home – this happens

but fortunately it is rare.

As distasteful as the “lost call” can be at least we can attempt to

cope with what we do not understand in losing a client family and

take some comfort in the fact that if the family had stayed it might

well have been worse with days of repeated failings to communi-

cate and hence understand them time after time which results in

stress and turmoil for everyone involved. In a very real sense true

understanding of certain situation results in the blunt realization

that this client family in truth should be using another funeral


The upside to awkward situation is that although the barrier (why

the client family left) will not have been removed with their absence

neither will it have been fortified.

The situation of the lost client in

most funeral careers is so distasteful and stressful that the third

way of understanding deserves our utmost attention.


The third way to understand another person is the most meaningful

but at the same time the most demanding. It is to understand


another person.

This calls for putting aside everything but our common human-

ness and with it alone trying to understand with the other person

how they think, feel, and see the world about them. This way of

understanding means it is ALL about the other person – it is self-

less pure and simple.

This means ridding ourselves of our internal frame of reference

and adopting the other person’s internal frame of reference with-

out any mental reservation or compunction.

This skill is rare indeed.

Here the issue is not to disagree or agree

or even like or dislike the person but to

understand what it is actu-

ally like to be that other person

. This sounds quite simple though in

reality it is extremely difficult if not impossible to achieve in life,

with years of practice and discernment, let alone have it present

within the boundaries and limits of the funeral conference.

Feeling what it is actually like to be another person requires

training and extended education in the skills and procedures of

the empathetic relationship. Customarily this skill is relegated to

licensed therapists who form and maintain longtime working re-

lationships with their clients.

Keys to

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Directors Advantage,

a funeral technol-

ogy and marketing company, announced the launch of



a subsidiary wholly dedicated to helping busy

funeral homes stay in touch with their families following

a loss. Despite truly wanting to provide some kind of fol-

low up, most funeral directors admit they can’t get it done.

currently offers the popular Aftercare

Card Program which is fully automated and sends four

cards plus a follow up survey during the first year follow-

ing a loss. The program includes a sympathy card as well

as cards on the birthday of

their loved one, during the

holidays, and on the first

anniversary of the loss. The

funeral director can enroll

a family in less than a min-

ute and everything is taken

care of from that point.

Ellery Bowker,

CEO of Directors Advantage and

founder of

stated, “The real benefit is fu-

neral directors are able to focus on their at-need families

and still show previous families they care and are there for

them. That’s important as competition is increasing.” He

also stressed that “Funeral homes not providing aftercare

consistently are missing a great opportunity to strengthen

relationships and drive preneed sales. Preneed and after-

care are the bookends of funeral service and yet only one

gets any attention.

is changing all that.”

In addition to their popular card program,

will be offering other aftercare support options to funeral

homes in the coming months. More information is avail-

able through the company website,

is a subsidiary of Directors Advantage,

Inc. Headquartered in Clinton, NC the parent company

has provided technology and personalization services to

the funeral industry nationwide for over ten years.

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