The Growing Threat of Complicated Grief

By Tracy Lee
Special to the Sun

I taught a continuing education course at a University in a neighboring state this morning. My course was centered on grief, in particular, the role of funeral service within the grief recovery experience.

When I was a funeral service student, my professors would always talk about the need for funeral service to evolve into something more modern; otherwise, they said, it would become obsolete. There were ideas about celebrations, facilitations, new methods, and new products. It was somewhat apparent that some instructors had forgotten that the profession was funeral services, not retail funeral merchandising.

Now that I have been a funeral director for a good while, I have seen what some of my teachers could not. They understood that the funeral service needed to update something, but the something eluded them.
As a licensed funeral director, certified grief counselor, and funeral homeowner, my perspective on funeral service is broad. I function daily as a funeral home employee. After hours, I function as a business owner, analyzing numbers and products, and economizing here, while expanding there. Working in both capacities has opened my eyes to many opportunities for improvement within my profession.

During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, families lived centralized on family properties. On those properties, families would expand across generations. Quite often, you would see great grandparents, grandparents, parents, and children all living within the same house. The houses were large in order to accommodate the generations of offspring.

When great grandparents and grandparents began suffering illnesses, their children and grandchildren would take shifts caring for them. This care was most often offered through the females within the family as the males were out working, farming, and ranching. When death would strike, those same family members would wash and prepare their loved ones for burial. The decedent would be placed for viewing in the parlor, and family and friends would travel to participate in laying the loved one to rest.

As the twentieth century dawned, the world experienced a revolution in technology and urbanization. The younger generations moved away from the “home place” and into big cities where work was offered for skilled and unskilled laborers. Birth control was developed so homes began decreasing in size.

Back on the “home place” when a great grandparent or grandparent fell ill, there was no longer a caregiver structure available, so they were moved into nursing facilities. The younger generations suffered embarrassment over their lack of participation in the care of their loved ones. This increased generational separation and younger folks began ignoring the reality of their dying loved ones.

As the life cycle ended, we saw the necessity for funeral homes to emerge. Nursing homes would call funeral homes as there were no family members within the area to collect and prepare the loved one for burial. Due to the demands of work, extended families were also short of additional days necessary to arrange, prepare, and offer services.

Now that the twenty-first century is upon us, we see that people are seeking options to traditional burials. Green burials, cremation, and an array of fringy options are seeing an increase in popularity. We see a new movement of isolation brought on through the extreme application of device usage. Families that once resided within the same household barely even know each other and modern contact is generally through electronic communications rather than person to person. Human beings, however, are innately drawn to heritage and require the basic needs of Maslow’s Theory of Hierarchy. Technology and a tiny urbanization footprint interfere with the realization of our needs. Self-actualization is more challenging to attain as families no longer support the progression of subsequent generations. Esteem is diminished as virtual profiles grow in falsehoods, and virtual friends dissipate according to viral trends. Loving and belonging are based upon pseudo online celebrity and therefore vanish at the drop of a faux pas. Safety no longer exists as privacy is obsolete. Lastly, with the ever-shrinking livable footprint allotted to individuals, physiological needs are less and less sustainable. The disappearance of fulfillment for our basic needs creates all sorts of physiological, psychological, emotional, and spiritual pathologies. And right there is where we find the absolute growing demand for funeral service. It is human isolation that has created the increases in complicated grief scenarios and social psychological pathologies brought on by today’s trends of virtual existence.

So now, we have identified the change that my professors were grappling to identify. With the dissolution of reality trying to coexist with the survival needs of isolated human beings, how does funeral service adjust itself to provide the necessary care required by survivors sinking under a mountain of complicated grief?

Funeral directors are those who have the most experience with death and its aftermath of grief; therefore, without familial support for survivors, funeral directors are the ones to whom the responsibility of grief recovery has fallen. The problem exists in that funeral education has not caught up with the needs of the profession. Funeral practitioners are receiving credentials while being ill-equipped to understand and provide for the psychological, emotional, spiritual, and physiological needs of their clients.
Funeral homes are realizing that more is necessary as they are pressed upon by survivors for assistance and direction for recovery. The lack of familial support and human to human experiences is that more and more survivors are suffering exaggerated, extended, and complicated grief.
The funeral profession must expand educational requirements if they expect to provide for the expanding needs of their clients. Funeral professionals need academic instruction in grief and complicated grief, recovery psychology. Without adopting these fine arts into the educational requirements of funeral professionals, survivors will continue to suffer increasingly complicated recoveries.

Psychological and psychiatric therapies fail survivors as they do not encompass the science of pathological grief nor incorporate the vast knowledge and experience of the funeral profession. Research studies show 70 percent of complicated grief sufferers obtain improvement with the assistance of certified grief counselor and licensed therapist knowledgeable in complicated grief treatment. (Columbia University, School of Complicated Grief Therapy) With those facts in mind, it seems evident that the funeral industry needs to increase the educational qualifications of its professionals.

A baccalaureate degree in Funeral Arts with a minor in Grief Psychology studies would most likely be necessary to obtain the additional educational requirements. Currently, we see that only Minnesota and Ohio require a bachelor’s degree in funeral arts. Iowa is considering upping their requirements to a bachelor’s degree as their educational requirements have not changed within the last 60 years. (Des Moines Register May 2018) While the majority of states require at least an associate’s degree in being licensed as a funeral director/embalmer, some states do not. There are no educational requirements for funeral directors in Hawaii or Alaska.

Additionally, states like Texas, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Arkansas have opted for a director’s only license where a student may sit for the Conference exam after obtaining a lower portion of funeral arts credits. Decreasing or stalling the educational requirements for a licensed human services profession seems counterproductive; however, some states feel otherwise.