Living Columns & Blogs

How a funeral home's work is really about honoring life

Before I began to work with Koch Funeral Home, I thought their work was about death. What I have learned since then is just the opposite. Their work is about honoring life. They honor life by caring for the body that used to hold life. They honor life by helping to create gatherings and services that help tell the stories of a life. And they honor life by guiding and companioning the living on their way to making life good again.

As part of Koch Funeral Home’s community outreach, and in conjunction with Elizabeth and Christian Brady, we helped create "Learning to Live: What’s Your Story?," a collaborative partnership between several Penn State units and Centre County community organizations whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation. This column was created to provide a forum for this type of sharing. The premise is everyone journeys through loss and hearing how others have done it can help. For me, my work with Koch Funeral Home has helped me learn to live with loss by witnessing how they honor life.

First, they honor life by caring for the body that used to hold life. When a deceased individual comes into their care, the funeral home staff cares for them compassionately. The funeral directors call the decedents by name, respectfully and modestly attend to their bodies, talk to them and sometimes even sing to them. Knowing of this care has helped me live with loss by affirming the continued importance of the vessels that carried life.

Second, they honor life by creating gatherings and services that help tell the stories of a life. Grief counselor, educator and author Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D., said, “The problem is that if we don’t acknowledge the significance of death, we don’t acknowledge the significance of life!” Ultimately, life is all we have on this earth, right? If we don’t acknowledge its significance by stopping our own lives to honor a life that is gone, we miss out on some of the tapestry of human experience. Because we grieve that which we have loved, much of what is shared by telling the stories is about love. As a celebrant, creating and officiating at remembrance, funeral and memorial services has helped me live with loss by witnessing the love that is always stronger than death.

And third, they honor life by guiding and companioning the living on their way to making life good again. F. Glenn Fleming, supervisor and funeral director, says that his work isn’t about closure, it is about helping individuals have healthy beginnings to new lives without their loved ones. When a life is gone, those who remain have a wilderness of grief to navigate. Much of my work through Koch Funeral Home is about walking alongside mourners in this wilderness.

I’m often asked how I can do that, the implication being that my work is depressing. To the contrary, it is life-giving. When individuals lose loved ones, they pay attention to what matters most. They aren’t worried about the trivial or superficial issues; they are resonating at a deeper level. That deeper level is where I like to spend my time. It is a gift to be at that place with them. When individuals lose loved ones, they also begin a process of transformation. Grief does not leave you where it found you. The people I work with would rather have their loved ones back, but even so, they are usually grateful for at least one thing grief has changed within them, sometimes as simple as making them more compassionate. This companioning has helped me live with loss by showing me the gifts of grief.

These are some of the ways they honor life in one funeral home in one town in the United States and how these ways have helped me learn to live with loss. Other funeral homes in other towns do things differently as do people in other communities and countries. To learn more about how other cultures honor life and how it can help you learn to live with your own loss, please join us for a conversation about beliefs, customs, rituals and practices around dying and death in China, Sri Lanka and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

The event will be held noon-1 p.m. June 29 at 107 Carpenter, University Park. Parking is available in the Nittany Parking Deck, and there are limited seats available at the free event, so please RSVP at https://bit.ly/2IGRgxQ.

This event is brought to you by Penn State’s Counselor Ed Program, Global Connections and Learning to Live: What’s Your Story? We hope to see you there — we have much to learn from one another.

Jackie Hook, MA, is a spiritual director and celebrant. She coordinates the Helping Grieving Hearts Heal program through Koch Funeral Home in State College. This column is coordinated by www.ltlwys.org.
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