By Ryan Helfenbein

What Exactly Do You Do?

A few weeks ago I returned home from an out-of-state conference. While traveling I had conversations with individuals on the plane, at the airport and even in the cab. Undoubtedly, the common question would come up, “Are you here for business or pleasure?” The answer was business and that I was in town for a conference. “Come on Ryan,” I’d say to myself, “why say that?” You know you are now going to have to answer the very familiar follow-up question: “So what do you do?” Fellow readers, I’ve been around the funeral industry all my life. I have gotten pretty creative when answering this question, since it often ends up eliciting the same reaction, followed by numerous questions. But over the years I’ve become very proud of what I do, and I almost say it with a smile: ”I’m an undertaker.” As peoples’ eyes become as big as softballs, they would take one step back and reply with a “What?” or “Ewww” or my favorite, “Are you serious?”
So, to answer that last question, “Well, I am serious, it’s what I do. Yes, it’s definitely not an occupation that small children are running around the yard pretending to be and they’re not asking their parents to buy the latest “Undertaker Man” action figure, but I am proud to say I help people heal through the most difficult time of life – losing a loved one. I guess one could say that the scientific aspect of the funeral industry could be viewed as being a bit morbid, but there is so much more that undertakers can provide for a family today that they never did before.
My industry has changed over the years. Technology is moving us toward more personalized service and merchandise. Pictures resting on a table in the visitation room are now being saved on DVDs, which can be shown throughout the funeral home or uploaded to the Internet. Services in a funeral home are now visible to family and friends through webcasting. Recently a funeral home that had a relative of the deceased participate in a serve through webcasting and a speaker phone while he was on active duty with the military. Today we see food and refreshments being provided, and families can participate in the service through balloon and teddy bear ceremonies. Even themed rooms are now available. In Michigan one funeral home offers different rooms for families to choose from such as a man cave with leather recliners and the deceased’s favorite sports team playing on a TV. Others include a 50s diner theme, or an elegant living room setting with grand fireplace and even an “outdoorsman” room.
The old days of selecting a casket and a cemetery lot are now being enhanced with selections of memorial jewelry, customized cards and register books, as well as personalized keepsakes. Who would have thought we’d be going to the local undertaker to buy jewelry? The keepsakes that funeral homes are offering families today are everything from acrylic works of art, Nambe designed mementos, to formal portraits made from beloved family photos. And remember the smell of flowers in a funeral home? Not anymore! A funeral home in Ohio now cooks fresh baked cookies every morning in the foyer of their funeral home, creating an aroma that reminds visitors of fond memories when visiting their facility while paying respects to their loved one.
The point here is that most reputable funeral homes today are training their staff to truly become the wedding planners of the death industry. Our job as undertakers encompasses so much more than preparing a loved one for a visitation, cremation ceremony or burial service. Our job is now to walk a family through the process of developing a meaningful celebration of the life of their loved one.
Ryan, a licensed funeral director and certified planning counselor, can be reached at [email protected] or 410-758-3987.

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