Partners in healing? The perceived roles of the clergy and funeral directors

If you ask the average man or woman on the street if ministers and funeral directors work well together, the answer will almost always be yes. The public perception is that both are necessary to the funeral experience. So naturally, it's in the best interest of both groups to maintain cordial, productive relationships with each other. And clearly, families win when funeral directors and ministers work as a team.

But if you ask funeral directors and even some clergy about that relationship, the answers are likely to be all over the chart. Some view each other as unavoidable characters or just necessary evils to get the job done. Others will express a gratitude that they are both there to support each other and the family. Still other funeral directors and ministers care little either way. They just see each other as part of the process and give little thought as to their roles.

There are three reasons this issue – and this relationship – needs more review and discussion. First, funeral directors and members of the clergy each share the responsibility to make end-of-life events meaningful, so that survivors come to terms with the death experience and have some guidance as they begin the new journey forward. Second, each professional brings unique skills to this event that meet the requirements of official government bodies or religious traditions. Third, each can affect the reverence for human life and the way life can be celebrated.

The obvious question, then: Why wouldn't funeral directors and the clergy look forward to and welcome strong relationships? The first answer is a simple one. EGO. Each profession believes it can act in isolation. This becomes clear when we hear funeral directors and clergy talk about the ownership of the family of the decedent. The funeral director refers to the survivors as "my family" or "I listen to the one who pays my bills". The minister insists family members are primarily his or her parishioners, and that the church values some things over others when it comes time to memorialize the dead.

We don?t like to think of a person who is called to God as someone with a large ego, but I recall a professor telling us in seminary, "In what other profession can an individual expect 300 or more people to sit for an hour and listen to you tell them how to live their lives?"

The only profession I've found in which egos are just as big is funeral service. The first time I spoke on funeral-director clergy relationships, I remember a friend of mine saying, "Just tell those ministers to stay out of my way." This funeral director didn't mean to express any lack of respect for the clergy, but he had just helped plan a couple of arrangements in which a minister had influenced the family to choose a direct cremation or other minimal service. He encouraged this by saying that "the church service did not require a casket and they are overpriced anyway." It affected that funeral director's bottom line and he felt helpless to change it. He then began to rant about how we have left our traditional values behind and how ministers are not helping the situation. He even began to quote scripture (out of context) to make sure I understood his point clearly. The irony: This same funeral director will complain if the family wants a church service where the preacher or preachers "go on" too long.

At the same time, some ministers tell me, "There is no need to spend $4,000 on a casket when it is only going in the ground. It isn't going to make the funeral anymore meaningful." But the same ministers will encourage their congregations to purchase upgraded furniture or liturgical symbols for their sanctuaries that cost thousands more. It could easily be said of those church upgrades, "They will not put you any closer to God."

In this series of monthly features for FuneralWire, I hope to explore the traditional roles of the clergy and funeral directors to see if we can discover the roots of perceptions that work against better teamwork. We will look for renewed ways in which to look at the complementary roles both play in the healing process. And I hope we will discover how, at a time when so much has changed about churches and religion in America, funeral directors need to revisit their understanding of liturgical models that guide how they can direct the funerals of those who adhere to a particular faith.

We will take a look at whether the emerging role of the "celebrant" is seen as a renewed commitment to ceremony or as a threat to traditional clergy – someone who might not adequately consider the family or the decedent's religious tradition and instead, replace it with a tradition of his or her own. In upcoming features, we?ll also look at ways to improve relationships, and at how some funeral homes are enjoying success by renewing their relationships with local pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and other religious leaders in ways that go beyond, "lets have lunch" or "let's buy a suit once a year for the minister."

I hope this series will become a dialogue in which you share ideas and participate. I believe this is a timely conversation that will remind us that funeral directors and ministers are meant to be "partners in healing."

The Rev. Michael Fronk is an ordained Baptist minister and the chaplain of Stetson University in DeLand, Florida. He has worked with funeral homes for 20 years on pre-need marketing and improving relationships with clergy. He can be reached at 407-718-4596 or