Is “Bereavement” tougher and less healthy in the digital era?



I’m no expert on this subject so this column will ask a lot of questions but probably won’t answer many.  It’s an exercise that I like to do once in a while because it really causes me to think deeply.  I hope it does the same for you.


In my days as a funeral director we used to talk about “Seeing is believing”.   That many times dealt with a relative who was not in attendance at the death but was able to see their loved one in their casket.  It was thought that that “seeing” was proof and the process of viewing, in most cases at the visitation, helped one to realize the finality of the situation.


Even when that process was in place many times our minds can play tricks on us and try to rationalize the situation to believe it wasn’t true.  My father died in April when I was a college freshman.  I saw him in the casket and attended the funeral and visitation for him.   Yet, in the ensuing months I thought of going home for weekend visits from college to see “mom and dad”.  I still remember to this day having to continually tell myself, “You won’t be seeing dad”.


So, last week in the realm of visiting with a cremation provider who does thousands of cases annually I asked him about the “functionality” of death calls in today’s cremation world.  He told me that they still get almost all of their death calls via telephone, but what has changed is the “arrangement” or “documentation” phase.  He said that about 50% never come into the business and complete everything online, including authorization and payment, without ever seeing the deceased.


He also opined that simply coming into the business to see the deceased or sign the documentation led to some discussion on services or other ways to memorialize their loved one.    And he said that that would lead to some additional sales by the cremation provider, but it also served a purpose and was helpful in the grief or bereavement adjudication of the family.  In the complete online world, he said that never happens anymore.


Tom Anderson
Funeral Director Daily

Some choose to stop by for the cremated remains, but most, he said, just ask us to mail them or deliver them to their home.  My thought was, wow!!  Do these people ever have those situations like I did?  They never saw their loved one deceased.  They never had others send flowers.  They never had the opportunity to laugh, even if it was  through the pain of death and bereavement, with people telling stories of their loved one at the visitation.


Maybe these people are just tougher than I am.  Because that reinforcement of a death, not to mention the tribute that comes with a “life lived” through some type of service or stories, is really necessary in my world.


I couple this with the fact that on Friday of last week I ran into a retired County Attorney at the coffee shop.  We talked about some of the antics happening in our world today and questioned a seemingly lack of a foundational knowledge of “right and wrong” that permeates our society today.  And, we wondered if many just don’t know “right from wrong” or simply don’t care.


A college student joined our discussion at the coffee shop and we talked about “digital learning”.  We wondered if that was part of the problem.  He seemed to think not. . . and loved digital learning because he could do it from anywhere, at virtually anytime without communicating with anybody else.


But does doing things digitally change us?  Can we still have that human “High Touch” interaction in a digital world?  And, as John Naisbitt extolled in his bestselling book, Megatrends, (and I’m paraphrasing)  “If we are going to live in a “high-tech” world, we will have to live with a “high-touch” humanity”.  He meant, by that statement, that the more we live in a digital world, the more we have to have human interaction simply to stay on an even emotional keel.


As business owners, and that includes funeral homes and crematories, we have to provide the services in a fashion that the consumer will accept and use.  Our businesses seem to be moving to an online, high-tech, world more and more preferred by our potential clientele.  And, if we don’t offer online cremation our competitors will and we will lose that business.


I think that is pretty much a fact moving forward. . . . .but how will that leave the tender ties and emotions that grieving families will have with grief and bereavement?


Will the world be a better place with that lack of human touch that funeral homes have so compassionately served out to client families when we become an online death care world?  Will the pendulum eventually swing back to making that human interaction necessary again? . . . . . That remains to be seen.


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  1. Peter Bygrave on April 12, 2023 at 10:50 pm

    I agree with Josh Harris that the loss of the personal aspect within the funeral service is definately mentally harming those grieving.

    What is a funeral service for, but to reverently dispose of the physical remains of the deceased and to assist the mourners with the grieving process.

    I am seeing more and more loved ones everyday, unable to handle the the loss for their loved one especially when instructions have been left by the deceased for a totally unattended cremation or burial.

    Yes, the family maybe performing the deceaseds wishes, however was the deceased knowledgeable about the mental ramifications that could occur to the grieving family members.

    Here where I live in Australia it can take months and months to obtain an appointment with a psychologist/psyciatrist and by that time it can be too late. The rate of suicide as a cause of death is going up and up.

    Recently a 14 yr old boy’s mother came to me to undertake her son’s funeral after he had suicided. She, a teacher by profession, had been tryng and trying to obtain help for her boy through the education system and mental health system. All to no avail.

    The mental heath crisis is here already.

  2. Josh Harres on April 12, 2023 at 8:06 am

    A fantastic post.

    As an incredibly young funeral worker, I am more digitally savvy but have been raised to not rely on it (e.g. I still have no social media and plan on continuing the peace of that). Though I spent over half of my high school remote, graduating in an entirely different state than where I “went to school”. Those 2-3 years were some of the loneliest I have encountered, and part of that was I wasn’t connected to people in the stereotypical way. I relied on the deep personal connections of real human interaction. And I hold the belief that digital interaction cannot replace physical, in person communication.

    You bring up an interesting point about “feeling the bereavement”. Though there still are services, I think we are going towards a massive mental health crisis. In the past, a family would have multiple services in a week and would dedicate that time to grief and mourning. Now, having a one hour memorial service is debatable. Humans are not mourning like they used to. They are putting their grief inside and getting back to work. I believe in the near future we are going to face a mental health crisis, people are not feeling their emotions like they used to and it’s going to add up.

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