By Glenda Stansbury
Published in the May 2022 Issue of Memento Mori
How many times do we all hear that phrase uttered from a family? It has almost become a reflexive response.
- We don’t want a funeral, just a graveside.
- We don’t want a funeral, just a cremation.
- We don’t want a funeral, just a party.
- We don’t want a funeral.
When you analyze the foundational causes of this reaction, the reasons are myriad:
- A bad previous funeral experience.
- A fear of judgment and religion shaming.
- A divided family with too many voices and opinions.
The family that we are going to follow for this article fit that mold. This is a “blended” family. Dad, we’ll call him Billy, divorced Mom, we’ll call her Jane. They had two daughters. Billy remarried and adopted the three children from his second wife.
When Billy died, all the children were adamant they did not want a funeral, just a gathering at the graveside. But there was a much deeper reason for the extreme avoidance of entering into a funeral experience.
Shelly, one of the daughters from the first marriage was killed in the 1995 Murrah Building bombing, known to most around the country as the Oklahoma City bombing.
For those of you not familiar with that history, this was the first true domestic terrorist attack on U.S. soil when a man parked a Ryder truck packed with fertilizer in front of the federal building in downtown Oklahoma City. The explosion killed 168 innocent people, including 19 children.
Shelly worked in one of the federal offices and was crushed by the building crashing down from above. Since that time, we have certainly become more experienced at mass casualty loss, but this was truly the first.
For this family, however, this was not a tragic public event, this was the death of their 25-year-old child. She left behind a 4-year-old daughter who Shelly’s mom and sister, Samantha, committed to raising.
At the same time, Billy’s mother was on hospice. Ten days after the bombing, Shelly’s body was found in the rubble. At almost the same moment, the grandmother died. This family experienced two tragic and heartbreaking funerals, both of which were typically traditional and religious services that implored the grievers not to be sad because their loved ones were in heaven.
Not very healing or helpful.
When Ties Are Broken
Billy divorced Jane, sadly a predictable reaction to such life-changing events, and married Susie and took on her three children. While Samantha remained close to her dad, the pain and betrayal was always right there under the surface. Meanwhile, the kids from the second marriage resented this tough and gruff guy who came in and expected them to work hard and grow up.
Then Susie died. Her youngest son, Rick, who had been raised by Billy, continued to be part of his life; the other two went their own ways.
There was a begrudging sense of appreciation and love for this guy who was an interesting character and self-made man, but it was complicated. He lived hard, and it ultimately took a toll on his body. Billy died at the age of 71.
So, here we were, with all the kids and Jane, the first wife, sitting in the arrangement room saying to the director, “We don’t want a funeral, just a graveside gathering.”
An Educational Moment
Here is the pivotal point in every arrangement process. You, the director, could nod your head and go along with what the family is saying, take care of the details of the burial of an urn, and go on to the next family.
Or, you can continue the conversation and ask the next question, “What would that look like for you?” Help the family explore what their decision means and what options are available to them.
The funeral director, Tom, says to the family, “You have a pretty big family; some will be coming from several hours away. How comfortable do you think they will be driving all that way only to have to stand outside in the elements with no bathroom or place to sit?”
The family responds, “Well, you have a point. But we don’t want a funeral.”
Tom responds, “That’s fine. Let’s talk about what a gathering might look like. In a room where everyone can be comfortable, where we can offer a reception with food and beverages, where everyone can access a restroom, where you can greet people.”
“That would probably be better, especially for those family members coming in. But we don’t want a funeral,” continues the family.
“I understand that completely,” Tom says. “So what are the elements of Billy’s life that were important to him and that you will remember most?”
“He was a striper fishing guide. He built storage buildings at the lake. He was a lifelong mechanic,” they tell him.
Then, the son, Rick, said, “You know what would really represent his entire life? A Snap-On toolbox.”
Tom picked up on that immediately and said, “If you can get one, we’ll put it at the front of the room and put his urn on it.”
The children all laughed and said that would be perfect.
Now, here’s a little bit of information for those of you, like me, who are not familiar with Snap-On toolboxes. This is not your little toolbox that you put some screwdrivers in. This is a huge, red, 500-pound case with multiple drawers on wheels.
“But, Dad was not religious and we don’t want funeral,” the family continues.
Then Tom, the director, suggests using a celebrant. “Let me explain to you what a Celebrant does. She will sit with all of you and gather the stories of Billy, his strengths, his loves, his challenges, his successes, and put together a tribute that will perfectly exemplify his essence and his life. You can have any of the elements that are important to you to truly make this a celebration and honoring of his life.”
“That sounds better than a funeral.’ The family offered. “Let’s do that.”
“I know you are not sure how many people will attend, but let’s go ahead and rent the church so we’ll have plenty of room,” Tom added. “I know that is the church where you had the other services, but I promise that this will be a much different experience.”
Now at this point of the narrative, usually the Celebrant would meet with the family, put together a service, and conduct the service. Happy family, happy funeral director … end of the story.
But this article is about the power of partnering—what can happen when the funeral director and the celebrant truly work together to create something more than they could have done alone.
Doing It Together
I met with the family and we spent two hours telling stories about Billy, reliving yet again the pain of 27 years since Shelly died, laughing at how frustrating and infuriating and endearing Billy was, giving this divided yet blended family an opportunity to sit at the table together for the first time in decades. It was a wonderful family meeting and I was looking forward to writing this service.
And then, I get a phone call from Tom. We’ve worked together on services for over a year and we approach each one in a collaborative and brain-storming session. We both come up with ideas or ceremonies and settings that we think will fit each family. Two minds are better than one.
Tom said, “You know, this family still feels pretty separated from each other, so can we find a way to offer them a ceremony that they could do together, to represent that they are bound together because of this dad? How about we give them some of Billy’s tools and they come up during the service and put them in the drawers?”
Of course, I loved it. Part of that reaction was because I was still unsure what a Snap-On toolbox was, I didn’t even know there were drawers. So I was relying on his knowledge. But I knew it would be perfect.
He called the kids and they were excited about it. Rick said, “I know exactly which tools to bring.”
As I crafted the service, Tom was busy making everything exactly right for this family. A family reception was prepared to greet everyone as they arrived at the church. He suggested that Samantha lead the family procession carrying Billy’s urn in and place it on the Snap-On toolbox. She was honored and decided to wear Shelly’s watch to make sure that her sister was also part of the day.
The family had a three-hour catered visitation the night before. Tom explained to them that this was the perfect opportunity for a relaxed and special time of sharing and visiting before the service, and they thought it was an amazing and healing experience.
Making It Unforgettable
The day of service, 200 people showed up to honor this unforgettable man. The family was touched and a little surprised. They wouldn’t have had this outpouring at a graveside service for sure, and they knew it.
Tom always serves as Master of Ceremonies for our services, so after he escorted the family in and seated, he came up and introduced the day and welcomed everyone. Then he said:
You see that we have Billy’s urn sitting on the most appropriate item the family could think of—a Snap-On toolbox. Why Snap-On? Because they were the best and Billy was always searching for the best. During our time together, members of Billy’s family will place tools in the drawer to honor this man who could fix anything, representing their love and affection for Billy’s mantra—work hard and play hard.
Then I began the service:
Billy Tucker. A man who lived his life with fierce focus, intention and hard work.
A man whom you could love and admire.
A man who could make you roll your eyes into next week.
A man who believed in working before you play.
A man with a restless mind and busy hands who was always looking for the next project, the next business, the next hobby.
A man who modeled determination and an indomitable spirit for his entire family.
A man who always did things his way.
A man who you are going to miss each and every day.
So, let’s spend a few minutes capturing all those stories about this man who defied description and gave you so many times of laughter, admiration, and, sometimes, exasperation.
We talked about his early years, his family, and his work ethic. As we talked about the different areas of his life, Tom escorted the children up to place their tools in the drawers. Samantha and Shelly’s daughter, Eve, placed tools together, again making Shelly a part of the day. The three children from the second marriage came up together, united for the first time in years. Each of them had tears in their eyes as they completed this simple ceremony. Then we honored the deep losses that the family had experienced.
April 19, 1995. A date that every person in this state has branded upon their hearts. Whether you were alive and aware at the time, or you were born into the telling of the tragic events and the memorial that stands to honor it, everyone knows the darkest day in the state’s history.
For the Tucker family, this was not a universal grief of a community in mourning. It was a shattering and heart wrenching and very personal loss when Shelly lost her life when the walls of the Murrah building exploded into tragedy. How does one recover from that?
At the exact same moment, Betty was at home on hospice within days of the end of her life. This was just more than a soul could bear. On the 10th day, Shelly’s body was recovered and Betty took her final breath.
The family could only rely on the hope that Grandma Betty scooped her granddaughter up into her arms so they could be together for eternity.
Not Just a Graveside Gathering
After the service, we gathered graveside, with over 100 people joining us, as we placed his urn and the family gave their final farewells.
The family looked around in awe, realizing what they would have missed if they had gone with their first intention. Just a graveside gathering. So very grateful for a funeral director who was willing to guide and consult and shepherd them.
So amazed that they could have a Celebrant create a service that told the story, allowed them to laugh and cry, and gave them the first steps to grieving this loss. Jane said, “I think this is the first time I’ve grieved in 27 years. I never had permission to mourn Shelly, so today was my moment to tell both of them goodbye.”
Tom always creates three-minute montages with pictures and videos of the day and posts them on Facebook within hours after the service. After the first day, this montage had 1,300 likes—because it looked and felt different, but also because it looked and felt important and meaningful.
Taking the Time to Care
This is an example of what happens when a funeral director asks the family the next question, “what will that look like for you?” and then provides creative and caring guidance to get the family where they don’t even know they need to go.
This is an example of what happens when a funeral director truly believes in offering celebrants to families with the full trust that the family will receive the life tribute they deserve.
This is an example of what happens when a funeral director and a celebrant work together, partnering to design life-changing and touching elements for everyone who attends the service.
How do you respond when they say, “We don’t want a funeral”? We can make such a difference in family’s lives if we ask the next question.
Glenda Stansbury has been the marketing and development director for InSight Books for 24 years and dean and training coordinator for InSight Institute for 20 years. Along with Doug Manning, Glenda has co-trained more than 4,000 Funeral Celebrants across North America. She is a certified Funeral Celebrant, a licensed funeral director/embalmer, a certified funeral service professional, and a full-time instructor with the Department of Funeral Service, University of Central Oklahoma. Glenda also serves on the board of directors for Thanexus. She holds two bachelor’s degrees, one in Special Education from Central State University and another in Funeral Service from the University of Oklahoma, along with a master’s in Administrative Leadership.