Developing Healthy Attitudes in the Arrangements Conference Room
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As funeral directors, we often approach the at-need arrangements planning session with a client family carrying a variety of motives and ideals. We may be in a hurry to get to some other obligation or commitment. We may have a preconceived idea of what this particular family will or should buy. We may ourselves be physically and/or emotionally exhausted. We may be working through personal issues that may cause us to be anxious, uncertain or fearful of the future. Or, we may just simply be what I call, "out of gear", or just not "tuned in".

Whatever the baggage we may be carrying with us that particular hour or day, it is important to know how to temporarily defuse all of that so that the arrangements session cam flow as smoothly as possible.

One thing to keep in mind is that the arrangements session is a much more important time for the family of the deceased than it is for you as a funeral director or funeral home manager. That statement may not seem right at first, but if you truly stop to think about their circumstances, you will see that they are dealing with a part of life they have very little control over and have very little experience with. The average citizen of the United States will attend the funeral of a close family member (parent, sibling or child) once every fourteen years and will only participate in the making of funeral arrangements personally about three times in their life (on the average).

They are not experienced with the language of death like you are. Words and phrases like "opening and closing charges", "half couch", "cash advance" or "casket spray" could mean something totally different than it does to you or your firm. Their focus is generally not on the financial transaction of the funeral, but rather on obtaining comfort for themselves and the ones they care about. That is ultimately what they may perceive you to be a source of. The real question is this. Will you be a source of comfort and strength to the grieving family, or will you be a polite and refined sales representative of your funeral home? The answer to this does not mean that you shouldnt have a good product knowledge and be able to effectively help a family select services and merchandise that will be the most effective for them in the memorialization process. The answer does lie in the approach you make in the arrangements session.

The approach is not just an initial approach at the beginning of the conference, as important as that may be. The approach process is continuous throughout the various stages of the arrangements session. Each approach should be made with sensitivity, compassion and in a professional manner. The focus should always be on providing help, care and a satisfactory service.


If your funeral home facility is set up logistically to have a private arrangements conference room, you might want to consider a few things first before ever entering the room with a family. The way a room is arranged or decorated can have a tremendous affect on the way arrangements sessions flow. The psychology of the room adds very much to what you want to get accomplished in the session. Unfortunately, many funeral homes overlook this aspect completely. There are three basic rules for the room that may help those you are serving fell or sense more comfort from you and your firm.

The first rule is to seat everyone (yourself included) involved the session in a circle. Circles represent unity and security. Visually, everyone can see everyone else and observe their facial expressions and body language. This is to your advantage as a funeral director as well. It will aid in everyones ability to hear what is being said and who is saying it. The circle also helps eliminate possible suspicion and potential misunderstandings. It is best to be seated around a table if possible. This is better than the funeral director seated behind a desk and everyone else facing him or her. It creates a level experience between the funeral director and the grieving family. It also provides the opportunity for the family to see (if so desired) what you are writing down as the interview progresses. This helps to eliminate some of the "secrecy factor" that surrounds the profession.

Death, by its very nature is an "unknown" or "non-discernable" entity. It is shrouded in uncertainty, and thus carries a very mystical aura or image about it. Anything we can do to eliminate or dispel some of that will make the client family members a little more relaxed.

The second rule is to make sure the arrangements meeting/conference room is well lit, properly furnished and decorated, and clean and free of distractions. The chairs around the table should match in design and size. Again, this keeps the room "level". No one has a better seat than another. It makes a statement that "We are all in this process together". The room should be decorated in calming colors such as pastels, earth-tones or various uses of wood. Avoid decorations or upholsters that use dominate reds, pinks or other potential neon style colors or black. Those colors can be irritating, over stimulating or psychologically depressing. This also plays into the aspect of distraction. The colors used in a room can be distracting, especially when used in access or poor taste. The simpler the décor the less distracting or intimidating the room becomes. There is a lot to be said for tidiness and cleanliness. A clean well-organized room portrays a sense of security to someone. This could very well translate into amore confident trust in you or your firm. You can almost guarantee a lower sale if you keep the merchandise selection room crowded and cluttered with excess equipment and furniture and sales materials.

The third rule is to keep the room free of as much "technology" as possible. If you can work with a normal worksheet or notebook it will enhance the ability to communicate on level ground. Most grieving families dont bring their lap-top or calculator to the arrangements. It is very easy to become consumed with the technology that can help make our lives and jobs much quicker and easier. With technology can comes a confusing or frustrating attitude for some people. If you need to print out an obituary or total a purchase agreement, it might be better to step out to the business office and do so. Again, all of these concepts are to help maintain a level and warmer compassion filled experience for the family that is being served.


The family has been seated in the arrangements room and you are about to enter and begin the meeting. If you need a drink, get it now. It might be better not take it in with you, unless of course you plan to offer and supply beverages for everyone in the room. If necessary, run a brush through your hair and straighten up your clothing. Image is not only important in the sense of first impressions, but also in the area of confidence and self esteem. There has been a lot of debate about the type of clothing a funeral director should wear in the arrangements session. A lot can be said for dressing in casual clothing to make the arrangements. It can make the environment more comfortable and homelike. However, the vast majority of the general public does perceive the funeral director as a licensed professional and thus may have certain appearance images that they expect of him or her.

Quickly review in your mind who you are going to meet with and create a synoptic mental picture of how you anticipate the session to go. If you know the family or have met them before, you will obviously have more information and experience to go on. If you dont know them, then draw that deep cleansing breath, release it and walk on in.

Remember, as you walk in that they are here to make funeral arrangements out of necessity, not preference. As a funeral director, your primary job is to be a facilitator and coordinator for their memorialization needs. They are here to enter into a cultural ritual which will help them start to express the grief they are beginning to sense from the loss they have just experienced. They are not at your facility to become your best friend or join the funeral home fan club. Less than 30% of the people directly involved in making funeral arrangements can remember the name of the funeral director that met with them after 30 days. You are not the ringleader or the center of attention. You will probably play more of the role of a "travel agent" that will help them journey through these initial experiences of grief. They probably wont comprehend all of the details that will be discussed, but at the end of the arrangements conference they will either have a positive or negative image of the service they will expect to receive.

Some good opening greeting lines would be as follows, "Hello, my name is John Doe, Ill be assisting you throughout the next few days. I want you to know that Im here to help you in any manner I possibly can. I really appreciate the trust you have placed in our firm."

This type of introduction focuses on the important issues of starting a professional relationship and potential friendship. It introduces you by name and states what your intentions of providing care are. It also initiates a potential long term relationship by thanking them for their trust.

Avoid opening lines that ask them "How are you doing?" You know how they are doing. They are in the initial stages of grief. They may be suffering from acute grief, which is the traumatic grief typically experienced from a sudden unexpected loss. Or, they may be suffering from anticipatory grief which is a more calculated staging of grief generally experienced in a process of anticipating or expecting a loss to occur over a period of time. There may also be family members enduring complicated grief. Complicated grief is defined as two or more causes for serious loss which may bring about the grieving process. These may include other types of loss like divorce, job loss or lay-off, or declining health. When these other losses come into play in a persons life that has just experienced the death of a close family member it only complicates the grief process that much more.

Never bring the focus on you or your personal issues by saying things like "Its been real busy around here this week." or "Ill do the best I can - but Im really tired. Ive been putting in a lot of overtime since I just got back from vacation last week." They probably dont care. Theyre hurting and they really just want your professional assistance, not a partial biography of your personal recent history. Always keep the conversation focused on their issues and needs.

As you become acquainted with them, allow them to introduce themselves personally to you if you have not known them previously. This will help you as you compose the obituary in a little bit. It may also be to you benefit to start recognizing who the family players are.

It is very important to understand the dynamics and relationships within the family grouping you are dealing with. Sometimes these positions within the family setting are blatantly obvious and other times some basic verbal and non-verbal "probes" will quickly reveal the position or role of certain family members. If you are willing to identify these people only to yourself, it will help you coordinate a much more effective arrangements with the family.

The first such person in a family group setting is the "dominant authoritarian" (the "DA"). The dominant authoritarian has the final word on all issues in the family and is generally the prime decision maker and spokesperson for the family. Ironically, they are usually very goal oriented people. A good dominant authoritarian will be an excellent communicator and actually make others in the family feel as though they are helping to make decisions. An excellent dominant authoritarian actually lets the other family members be productive and participate in the activities and decision making processes at hand. Then that person simply summarizes and organizes the results into a statement which everyone, including the funeral director can understand. Usually this person is fairly easy to spot in the group and may even identify themselves in some other synonymous description to you as such on the front end of an encounter. There is the occasional "want-to-be" that might try to position themselves as the dominant authoritarian. Most of these "want-to-be" s tend to be related only through marriage and are easily eliminated from the mix once this meeting gets going. You will almost never be able to "de-throne" the "DA" and shouldnt really try to. If that is ever going to happen, it must happen within the democracy of the family unit. You must obviously find creative ways and thoughts within the conversations to garner the aid of the DAs authority to accomplish your desired goals.

Occasionally you will encounter a family where there is a noticeable struggle for ultimate authority between two potential "DA"s. Never try to assist either one in this battle and never try to be a mediator between them. Instead, allow them to speak and react in the family setting on the same plane as everyone else included in the conversation. Let the other family members deal with the results of this struggle in their own way. You are not the "Shell Answer Man" and the arrangements room is not an appropriate arena for such family issues to be solved in.

The second person to look for is the "person of positive influence" (the PPI). This person will almost always see the bright side of any situation. In some family settings this person may not emerge until there is an actually need for someone within the family to see the bright or good side of a certain circumstance. They are generally very "low maintenance" people who once identified, are easy to gravitate to in a conversation. It is not uncommon for them to be related to the family through marriage, but it is not a rule etched in stone. They are usually emotionally sensitive to the needs of others. However, just about anyone can handle this position. When the person of positive influence is also the dominant authoritarian you generally have a very comfortable and easy family situation to work with, and you should be able to experience expected results fairly easily.

The third person in the family setting to look for is the "person of negative influence" (the PNI). Again, this person may not identify themselves immediately, but if they do, they usually have a very pointed and narrowed agenda. There are some family settings that this person is so well recognized by the other members of the family that they (the PNI) never have to say a word the whole time. Their facial expressions and body language are so discernable by the family, and their influence is very overwhelming. They tend to be very analytical and/or task oriented people. However, it is not uncommon to see others not so gifted assume this family role. In a family setting, in-laws and oldest children tend to fill this role more readily then other family members. This however should never become an assumption on the funeral directors part. If you are unable to detect who this person is early in the arrangements setting, start watching the eyes of the other family members in that particular arena. Watch who they gravitate to when a sensitive or negative subject is being discussed. Many times it will be to the person they fear undesired results from.

Sometimes other family members will help you identify the PNI, if their presence is not obvious. They (the other family members) do this by asking the PNI for their opinion. Many times the family member asking the PNI such a question could be a rival or enemy of the PNI. Because the PNI is generally a "high maintenance" person that requires a lot of personal attention, they may not be comfortable in a family group setting and thus, may not remain long in such an environment. Their influence on the family may feel threatened by an outsider such as a funeral director. This is especially true in female PNIs. Male PNIs tend to be able to endure this setting longer and are usually more quiet in such groups. If the person of negative influence is also the DA, "fasten your seatbelt" you may very well be in for a "wild and crazy" ride through the memorialization process.

The ideal family group for an aftercare setting is five or more, where the DA, PNI and PPI are all individual people in that number. Ideally, the PNI will be virtually non-existent or without any measurable influence. The DA might be the PPI, and that is usually a good arrangement. Judging the possibilities and amount of influence that the PNI will have on the other members of the group will be key to the results you are attempting to achieve.

Using good judgement and a ground level or common approach to knowing who the family is on a personal and a group basis will make the arrangements conference exceptionally more successful.


As you initiate the first parts of the arrangement session you will probably be gathering information for two major documents. They are the death certificate and the newspaper obituary, should they opt to publish one.

As you ask the necessary questions make sure that you tell them why you are asking for such information (either the death certificate, obituary or some other document). You may have to repeat yourself several times. Always remain calm and polite, understanding that there are many other things on their minds beside the deceaseds mothers maiden name or Uncle Johns city of residence.

If they are unable to produce certain information, never pressure them to find a source for it immediately. Encourage them to call you back later in the day or tomorrow. Or you may offer to call them back later on.

Sometimes family members may even refuse to yield much needed information. This usually isnt because they dont like you or because they are not trying to be cooperative. It might be because the information brings back too many painful memories. I was making arrangements one time with the mother of a young girl in her twenties who had been killed in an automobile accident. When I asked the mother for her daughters fathers name, the mother refused to tell me. I knew she knew who it was. But instead of pressuring her there on the spot to tell me I simply moved onto the next question. A couple of days later after I had obtained the coroners signature and cause of death on the death certificate, I called the mother back and very calmly explained the necessity for having accurate information on the death certificate. She very readily gave me the fathers name and we were able to file the death certificate. That particular issue was just an issue of timing. Other things that might hinder the obtaining of necessary information could be that there are people in the arrangements room (other family members) that they dont want to have access to the information. This may become more evident when values of life insurance policies are discussed.

Never try to impose precise deadlines like "no later than 4:30 PM" or "the newspaper deadline is 10:00 AM" on a family. If you need the information to procure a document by that time, think ahead of them. Make a suggestion to them something like this, "If you could call me around the lunch hour with that information, well make sure everything is processed on time". This allows a little cushion for the process to take place. If they dont call you by 1:30 PM, then you can phone them saying, "Im just following up on our earlier conversation. Did you happen to come across the information we discussed. Im working on the paperwork right now and thought I could help you get this done this afternoon". Never use phrases like "I was waiting on you to call me back" or "Did you forget to call me with the information I need to get this done?" Such language can be suppressing and intimidating. These mentalities do not assist in the grieving process.

Remember that even in the arrangements stage of gathering information and processing the necessary paperwork, the funeral director must remain compassionate and understanding to the process of grief that the family is enduring.


It has been said that there are only two ways to handle a family in presenting the various options and merchandise necessary for the funeral process. Either the family fits the mold of service options and product availability that the funeral home offers, or the funeral home fits the mold of the familys needs and desires at pretty much any level.

The extreme of either of these two philosophies can be a potential disaster. The most ideal and probably the hardest balance to achieve would be the meshing of the two philosophies. Lets look at some examples of these various presentations of options.

Issue: Where the funeral service is to be held?

Family fits the funeral homes mold:

"We do have an extra charge to conduct the funeral at your church"

Funeral home fits the familys mold:

"We can have the funeral service where ever you would like it to be."

Balanced perspective:

"If youre expecting a larger gathering it might be easier to have the funeral at your church."

Issue: What time of day should the funeral service be held?

Family fits the funeral homes mold:

"All of our funerals are held in the morning"

Funeral home fits the familys mold:

"We can have the funeral service whenever you want to-day or night."

Balanced perspective:

"Weve noticed that most families have been scheduling services in the late morning or early afternoon hours."

Issue: The merchandising of register books and memorial folders.

Family fits the funeral homes mold:

"This is the register book and memorial folders (or prayer cards) we supply for the service"

Funeral home fits the familys mold:

"Here are the ten different selections you can choose from. Feel free to mix or match them as you so desire, or allow us to personalize your choice"

Balanced perspective:

"Here are the three sets of memorial products we are currently offering. "

Issue: Casket selection options

Family fits the funeral homes mold:

"This 20 gauge sealer is our least expensive casket."

Funeral home fits the familys mold:

"If you dont see anything in our selection room that you like, feel free to look through these nine different catalogues for additional selections"

Balanced perspective:

"Weve tried to put together a good cross section of what is available in the various qualities of endurance and also across the spectrum of price range."

As you present the various service options and merchandise selections, you must be aware that your wording of a sentence can be very important. Each phrase can imply many different things to the various different family members participating in the selection process. Depending on where you or your firms intentions may be, you can steer a family very easily by how you word each and every phrase. This is why you must be very careful at this stage in the arrangements process.

Using neutral and unbiased phrases tend to give a family more room to make their own choices. This usually produces more satisfied families at the end of the arrangements session. There are times however when you should exercise some professional advice influenced ethics. If you see a family displaying tendencies to overspend or select service options which may be a blatant offense to other members of the family or members of the community, you should minimally bring the consequences of such choices to their attention. Again compassion and tactfulness should blanket all of these communications thoroughly.

It could be possible that the grief they are currently beginning to experience has tainted their perception of the reality of things and just some basic simply put caring comments can realign their thoughts to properly achieve the desired affect.

If a family should ever divide over important issues such as the type or quality of casket or even the day of or location where the memorial service should be held, it may be necessary to make some professional evaluations. Mediation of such divisions is rarely successful by the funeral director. You may want to leave them alone for a couple of minutes to "discuss the matter" while you go to the office to "check on something". Or if you see the situation is more serious than just a simple private discussion amongst family members will cure, you may want to casually dismiss them and have them return to the funeral home later. A sentence like "What would you think if we took a break and got back together tomorrow morning to finish making the rest of these decisions?" might be a way to communicate the need for further communication between the factions that be. Notice the use of the word "we" in that sentence. This is preferred far over the use of words like "both of you", "you all" or "you two" . "We", as it is used in that sentence, is a word that implies unity. Unity is what you should be desiring to maintain or at best restore in that family situation.

If a family remains at an impasse in the decision making process, ultimately the person who Is legally responsible for the deceaseds affairs (which is typically the next of kin) may have to make the final decision.


After all of the information has been gathered and the necessary choices and selections have been made, and the purchase agreement has been presented and agreed to, it is very important to know how bring the session to a close. How you draw this meeting to a close will leave a lasting impression with them as to how they perceive you evaluated this session. Your facial expressions and body language will say as much as the words you use. Remember the vast majority of all communication is silent.

A statement of gratitude for the trust they have place in you and your firm is appropriate. A reassuring remark that indicates that you will follow through with all that has been discussed will help remind them of the things accomplished in the arrangements session that are especially important to them. They may ask a few simple questions to either remind themselves of the details that have been established or to see if you are still alert to their desires.

One of the last things you should say to them with your "good-bye" should be a subtle reminder of the next time and place you will connect with them. Example: "Let me thank you again for the trust you have placed in us. Let me assure you that I will take care of everything we have discussed this morning. I'll see all of you tomorrow evening at about 5:30 PM, just before the public visitation starts at 6:00 PM. Feel free to call at anytime if you have any questions or concerns. Take care, God bless you." You may feel comfortable to walk them to the door or even to their vehicle. These extra moments display extra care and concern on your behalf.


Above all remember to keep the communications focused on the care of the grieving family. Take time and make time to listen to their issues and needs. A successful funeral arrangements session is not about the promotion of your business or the degradation of another local competitor. It is about being an effective coordinator and facilitator for their needs and desires in the memorialization process of their family member. It should be an expression of care and compassion by you and your firm, as well as a time when the facts of the memorialization rituals are established. Your verbal responses and projected attitudes will determine much of the success that is achieved in this process.

If you are willing to practice healthy attitudes and develop compassionate and caring communications in the arrangements conference room, you will produce many satisfied families.



Central Institute for Educational Advancement
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Dayton, Ohio  45475-0491