In our next installment of Ask the Owners, Stephen and Diann Anderson, formerly of Anderson Funeral & Cremation Services discuss strategies funeral home owners and cemetery operators must take in order to create a lasting impact and legacy:
Forging a Lasting Impact: Crafting Your Enduring Legacy Through Your Mission
“I don’t know if we each have a destiny, or if we’re all just floatin’ around accidental-like on a breeze, but I, I think maybe it’s both. Maybe both is happenin’ at the same time.” Forest Gump
It started very subtly, the first sign happened when I visited my hairdresser, and she asked me if I wanted to put a few highlights in my hair to help cover the gray hair that was starting to grow instead of my natural color. And it continued; one day I noticed when I tried to read a book the words seemed a little fuzzy. I could not believe it, I needed readers! And it didn’t stop there; wrinkles and lines on my face started showing up overnight. Thankfully, not often, I started to have to use a recurrent phrase “I’m losing my words – You know… that thing you use for…”, a phenomenon due to age called brain fog. These changes kept surprising me but at the same time reminded me of the reality I have always known; life on earth is brief.
My first lesson that life is brief happened when I was in second grade and my father suddenly died from a heart attack. In that instant I realized how fragile life is and how quickly it can be gone. Then as an adult I dove into studying God’s Word, and I learned God’s perspective on this idea. The scriptures are crystal clear concerning God being infinite and humans being finite. The reality that our time on earth is short is conveyed all throughout the Scriptures. “You do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). Perhaps the most well-known example of this idea is found in Psalm 90 “From Everlasting to Everlasting – A Prayer of Moses, the man of God.” Psalm 90 marks the beginning of Book Four of Psalms. It is the oldest psalm written by Moses by the year 1440 BC. There are five sections in his prayer and in one of section Moses asks God to help man “number our days”. This psalm is written in a poetic genre and is written so that the reader will take notice of a great lesson. Moses isn’t asking that we keep a count of every day, but he wishes that each of us would focus on living every day for maximum impact and not waste the time we have on this earth. When I started working at the funeral home, the brevity of life was the continual daily lesson that I navigated through every day. I could no longer forget because the phone would ring, and the death call would come in, and we would start the triage of help that the grieving family needed.
It doesn’t matter if death comes very early in life or very late in life; life is very short. This idea is not a morbid thought. This is the reality to which each of us moves through life. We have the choice to ignore it or embrace it and use it to help us achieve a greater and more satisfying purpose to our life’s work. This reality is from the grace of God that He has given you the ability to understand that your time is limited. I’m speaking about this because it relates directly to the most crucial step in your ability to become a practitioner of Strategic Evolution for your business. God has placed you in this timeline of history for a purpose. As a business owner of a funeral home, you have the magnificent opportunity to fill your moment in history making an impact by providing and caring for your business, your care team, the families you serve, and your greater community. The questions are, “What’s your mission?”, “How will you accomplish this?”, and “What is your vision for your business, your care team, the families you serve and your greater community?”
Last month you were given the homework assignment to think about your vision for your business – a journey of purpose. A journey of purpose is the definition of mission. Today, with intentionality, you can shape, design, and implement changes in your business that will set your funeral home apart from all the other funeral homes in your market.
A Brief Statement About Mission and Vision
Pablo Picasso said “The meaning of life is to find your gift, the work of life is to develop your gifts and the purpose of life is to give it away.” Mission and vision are terms that are often thrown about and mixed up. Mission is the core reason for your life and for your business’ existence. Your definition of your mission will drive the primary activities of your life and the life of your business. Vision is an inspirational picture of what you want your business to achieve in the future. Mission is the reason and Vision are the goals you wish to attain.
It is perplexing to me how much our profession has gotten mission and vision mixed up and even side stepped it. It seems counterintuitive for funeral practitioners to miss the importance of having a clear idea of the mission they are fulfilling. If you search out different funeral home websites and look to see if there’s a clear defining mission statement you will find that very few have one. Most funeral homes use phrases like “service with excellence”, “We provide value”, “Our funeral home has a 100 plus year legacy in the community.”, and “We care for your family.” These kinds of statements do not give the consumer a compelling reason to use that funeral home.
Our Backstory Developed Our Mission
Life really is a winding road, and everyone has a backstory. Some of you reading this article have been in this profession literally your whole life because you now own and operate a business that was established by your family. Being in this profession is as normal to you as putting your pants on one leg at a time. I have a different perspective of the profession because I “married” into it. Steve and I are a second marriage. Both of us have a back story of loss. Steve lost his beloved wife Patti to colon cancer in 2009. My loss is similar but very different. I experienced loss at the very early age of seven when my dad died suddenly of a heart attack. That loss shattered my life and profoundly changed the trajectory of my life. The beautiful thing about loss is that it can be used to help others if you allow it.
I never thought about funeral homes and my only experience with a funeral home was when my father died many years ago. John Lennon said “Life is what happens when you’re making plans.” I would say that’s a very wise observation. Steve and I met in March of 2010 and married in May of 2011. Fairly soon after we met, Steve asked me if I would join him at the funeral home and help him with a visitation so we could spend time together – this was definitely not a date. As you know very well, time is a premium for a Funeral Director and especially an owner. Our first official “date” was a graveside service at a cemetery in Chicago which was about sixty miles away. After the graveside service, Steve took me on a cemetery tour of Queen of Heaven followed by lunch. I admit that at first, I was surprised by his enthusiasm to take me on a cemetery tour. I didn’t know anyone my age who would suggest such an excursion, but to my amazement it was truly interesting and fun learning how much history and stories are tied to that famous cemetery. Our next “date” was a trip to a body donation repository in the Chicago Land area to bring a decedent there for anatomical donation. In truth, it was a startling experience for me but not because of the decedent who rode in the vehicle with us. I was not prepared for the reality of how the bodies were treated.
After we were married, Steve asked me to join him on a full-time basis to help manage the business. This is where the story of our mission and vision started. The first project I took on was a total renovation of our facility. It was during that process that Steve and I started fine tuning our mission. It was an exhilarating process and a breath of fresh air for me to take on that project. As I started to design the renovations, I researched the psychology of color and chose colors that would positively affect a person in grief. We also took into consideration our neighborhood and community when designing the renovations. Our goal was to provide an atmosphere that would promote a feeling of wellbeing, safety and security, and comfort to the grieving families that would utilize our facility. This is when my past experiences of loss turned my focus on helping others who faced loss. My loss fostered a deep desire to do something different for the families we served and provide meaningful ceremonies that would help direct them to hope for their future and the best footing for their grief journey.
Out of that mission, I crafted all our systems and procedures, our branding, the programming for funerals, for transfer services, for family viewings, and for special events. All of the training of our Care Team was developed from our mission. From the moment someone stepped foot into our facility, everything they saw, touched, and experienced was crafted with the purpose of helping them in their grief journey.
A Career Half-Time Sweet Spot
“If the first half was a quest for success, the second half is a journey to significance.” Bob Buford
Steve and I are thankful that our mission’s journey started during our so-called half-time in our career. What’s half-time? We were at the point in our careers where both of us had a lot of business acumen and experience. We were at the halfway point of our careers, and we were reassessing everything. Both of us had experienced life changes that were not even remotely part of our Plan A for our lives. We were personally living out Plan B so to speak so it wasn’t a far stretch for us to rethink how we wanted to redirect our funeral business together. I am thankful that it’s never too late and we didn’t miss the opportunity of the journey of deepening our mission of service even though It would have been better if we had known what we now know at a younger age.
Legacy, and Living for Significance
We made changes in our business to dedicate our mission to having greater significance in the lives of others. We wanted to make meaningful contributions to others and leave a legacy in the world by helping grieving families move into their grief with a sense of hope for their future. We had a great desire to make the grief journey better for others than what we experienced when we had to travel that journey. When I speak of a legacy, I’m not speaking of it as the world thinks of legacy, but as an eternal legacy – helping others as I would want to be helped – treating others as though they were the most important person in the whole world.
In the next installments I will dedicate whole articles to teach you the specifics of how to design and develop programming that will have the qualities to foster healing in the grief journey. For instance, a Service of Remembrance should never be done with the thought that it will provide preneed planning leads. Preneed planning is not legacy programming. Preneed planning is extremely important, but it is totally different programming for a totally different reason.
A legacy Service of Remembrance tells a story. It is thoughtfully and purposely designed to foster a sense of gratitude in the griever for the life God created in their loved one. The goal is to paint the idea of a much bigger picture that the decedent is now living in to and one that we will live in to as well. It is a picture of hope the way God has designed it. A message of hope points the griever to healing and support within their new reality of life without the physical presence of their loved one.
A legacy Service of Remembrance will have a central theme of “We are in this with you, and you have others around you who are also grieving and understand your pain.” Sitting shoulder to shoulder with people whom they may or may not know but who are there for the same reason is very comforting. God created each person, you and I included to be in community with others. During the grief journey it is particularly important to not be isolated. This service allows the griever to publicly acknowledge they are filled with sorrow and their sorrow is their own unique grief journey that only they can travel. The experience should be designed to give the griever permission to feel and express their sadness in public without feeling like there’s something wrong with them. This service also provides a visible example to them that others are carrying a grief of their own and we all need each other.
A legacy Service of Remembrance incorporates the healing aspects of food; every celebration we experience in life is celebrated with food. If there’s one place to be extravagant and generous it is with the food that you plan to serve. Remember the theme you are creating. It is one of hope and abundance – extravagant love. The Service of Remembrance is a celebration of a life that God created and sustained and redeemed, extravagant love.
The programming should also include a subtle incorporation of grief education – ways to help the griever cope with their grief. There are many ways to incorporate that into the event. Every aspect of the service needs to be well thought out and planned so that all aspects flow together for the ceremony to be impactful – starting with the invitations and announcements of the event. This is crucial for setting the stage for anticipation of a legacy event. Put yourself in the griever’s shoes. Your world has been torn apart and people treat you as if your grief is not normal and they don’t know what to say so they choose to distance themselves from you. The holidays approach and prior to the death of your loved one there would be invitations for gatherings. This year, however, there’s nothing until you go to your mailbox and find a beautiful invitation to a very special evening that has been designed specifically for you. How would you feel?
There are more details; choosing a certain specific date to bring a more impactful experience, planning for the “look” of your facility for the event; setting the stage to give the proper feel to this very special evening. There are many important details such as the music and songs that will tell their own story and bring deeper meaning and experience to the event. Making sure that the ebb and flow and the transitions of each segment of the program flow into a crescendo that then fades to the proper closing of the program. Designing and writing the words and message that will be given, choosing the best person to give the message of hope, designing the event program that will be given to every attendee. This is another area where there should be extra thought and expense. For the griever to see their beloved’s name printed in the program is another nod to the impact their loved one had on this earth. I would design programs that were booklets because I believe it is important to have as much about the evening in the program booklet as possible for the griever to take home. One of the most common and normal side effects of grief is a foggy brain. Grief is extremely taxing on the body. It affects the griever’s physical, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing. During grief the brain is in overload processing everything that is happening with all the changes that are taking place. Foggy brain happens because the brain literally needs a break in thinking.
And finally, designing a meaningful parting gift for each attendee to take home as a reminder of their experience is another detail to plan. Then there is execution of the planned details and program rehearsals to ensure as much as possible there will not be a glitch with the technology used for the program.
Do you see the difference between legacy programming and the kind of programming most funeral homes produce? Which program would you like to attend if you were deep in grief? Which program communicates to the griever that the care team of the funeral home truly cares for their wellbeing? Which program is the best use of the funeral homes resources? Both kinds of programs use the funeral home’s resources of time, talent, and money but both programs do not garner the same result. Which program would give you energy and joy to produce? Which program would you like your funeral home to be known for?
It’s no secret there’s a lot of funeral providers that come in all shapes sizes and forms. It’s also no secret they are all competing for a so-called piece of the pie. The secret is most of them are competing for the wrong reason. If your main goal is focused solely on the dollar, you will never reach a sense of well-being and contentment with your circumstances or achievements. If you are not offering the families you serve a product of substance, you will always be looking over your shoulder to see how close the other providers are nipping at your heels.
When you craft your mission to be focused on a legacy of service to others, you will find a level of joy in your business that’s not possible when you are solely focused on chasing the dollar. You will gain a sense of confidence because you will have true brand differentiation, and an offering that’s highly desirable to the consumer. I am not advocating ignoring the financial aspect of your business, but I am advocating that your company’s mission be focused on serving and then you can craft the financial aspect of your business to match the level of service you are offering.
I began this article by talking about the brevity of life. In our American culture, we do everything to avoid growing old and it’s not okay to talk about the brevity of life. There’s great beauty in the wisdom you gain as you age. I would not trade my age to be younger if I also had to trade in my wisdom that I now have. Steve and I decided that we would hold ourselves to the importance of mentoring and passing on wisdom to future generations of Funeral Directors. The experience and knowledge we have been blessed with is nothing if we don’t use it to help make our profession better. The next generation is looking for careers geared toward leaving a legacy. They want to make a positive difference in the world. We believe in what we provided a grieving family to the extent that we want to help the next generation of care takers live into their mission and purpose of providing legacy care for the grieving. We want to “Pay It Forward” as a part of our living legacy.
Join Us Next Time
Thank you for going on this learning journey with us. We are so excited to share our ideas and expertise with you. Next month we will talk about the importance of understanding consumer needs and challenges. You have but one life to live and you have been placed in this timeline of history for a purpose. What you do each day matters and has the potential to make a positive difference in the lives you touch. If you have a question or need a boost in moving forward, please call us as 815-601-3247
With warm regards,
Steve and Diann Anderson
Anderson Funeral Consulting
Do you have a question for Stephen and Diann? Email firstname.lastname@example.org today for a chance to have your question spotlighted in their upcoming blogs!