Hardest interviews of all time.. the funeral preparation meeting

Crematorium Last week I was at a meeting where our topic was the preparation for and conducting of .. wait for it a funeral service in a crematorium. I am a lay reader (in plain English this means I am a lay minister) and one of the duties we are licensed to carry out is the taking of funerals – the most pressured being the 20 minute industrial turnaround in the local crem before the next funeral party comes in.  This is new territory for me but Sharon Cooper has been doing this for some time.  Running a service on such a tight schedule is as you can imagine full of pitfalls not least because usually you don't know the person involved. So the meeting with the family to prepare for the funeral is absolutely key. Sharon took us through a questionnaire she had designed to ensure that she asked every relevant question senstively to make sure that she had sufficient infomation for the next occasion when she would see the family.

Writing discussion guides and research questionnaires is my stock in trade but I was full of admiration for what she had designed. The questionnaire has to work in two different directions simultaneously. It has to furnish essential information for the person conducting the funeral. But it also needs to help to bring into words the grief and other feelings of the family who may not have permission to express these feelings and memories to themselves let along to articulate them to one another.

Here is as simply as I can summarise it the main questions in the questionnaire – notice the 2 directions in which the questionnaire faces.

What was her name?     What were she known as?

How old was she?

Was she married? What is/was her husband's name? How long was she married?

Did she have children? Grandchildren? What are their names?

Where did she grow up? Where did she live for most of her married life?

What was the date she died? Where was she?

What is the name of the undertaker?

Do you have a date and time for the funeral? Where is it taking place?

Has her death sunk in yet?

The funeral ceremony is an important rite of passage. Its your chance to say goodbye

Thinking back to when she was alive, how did she spend her time?

What were her favourite hobbies? What was she good at? Where did she go for her holidays?

What special thoughts and memories do you have of her?

Its important that I can reflect back the real person so you can say goodbye and thankyou. And we can let God do the rest.

You have permission to cry, don't bottle it up – its all right to grieve in whatever way you want.

You may feel that you are acting oddly at times. This is normal. It will pass.

Thinking of the service do you want to say something or read a favourite poem?  If you do want to say something then it will help to write it down

Is there any special music that you want. There is normally enough time for 2 pieces of music.

If not the crematorium will provide something.

I'd like to check with you the readings which I have in mind to use for the service.

What are the plans for after the service?

I want to explain that if you wish then someone will come round to see that you're all right in a few weeks time. Are you happy for that to happen?

Every November we usually organise a service of remembrance which a lot of families appreciate. We will write to you in September with an invitation. We will also have a book of remembrance  which we can put her name in if you wish. A memorial for the place where she spent her last years.

We will be praying for you in the next few weeks.

Recap in case anything has been forgotten. Is there anything else you want to mention or are concerned about?

Would you like me to say a prayer before I go?

You may find this a completely bizarre topic to be writing about but this blog is all about communication. And this is one of the most important meetings. So few people are prepared for death whether their own or that of a loved one. My perception was that this interview while giving the minister vital information was also constructed in such a way that the family if they were not already doing so could start to talk about the person who had died. Note that it doesn't make assumptions that either the person or the family are religious nor does it try to impose an overtly Christian perspective. Very impressed I was. Great work Sharon.

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