by John Kroshus, Ph.D., FEA Guest Author
Interest in funeral ethics is increasing, as indicated by a recent survey in which funeral directors identified Ethical Conduct and Practice as the highest rated of the 404 task statements included in the study.¹ The ethical conduct and practice task statement rated a grand mean score of 4.88 on a five point scale, when considered for its importance, frequency and criticality. The mean scores contributing to the grand mean included 4.85 for importance, 4.94 for frequency and 4.85 for criticality. In short, this would indicate that responding funeral directors were of the opinion that ethical conduct and practice should be ingrained in funeral directors, with little or no room for lapses or liberties.

Why would funeral directors respond so strongly to this particular task statement?

I believe the reaction is the result of a very successful movement to increase awareness of ethical practice in the funeral service community. The American Board of Funeral Service Education requires programs and colleges of funeral service to teach ethics content. The creation of the FUNERAL ETHICS ASSOCIATION, and its publication Undertaking Ethics, is evidence of this movement. In addition, major publications in funeral service regularly devote space to the examination of ethics, and have even dedicated entire issues to the topic.²

Experts have expressed the view that few professionals offer opportunities to impact the lives of others in quite the same way as the funeral profession. Within funeral service lies the opportunity to create life-long memories for bereaved family members and friends. With that opportunity comes an obligation to practice in a manner that assures the memories are comforting and healing. Those in funeral service who recognize this notion also recognize that funeral directors need to lift each other to and hold each other to increasingly higher standards of practice.

Funeral service has been the target of a number of extremely negative stories in recent years. National news magazines in both the print and electronic media have blasted funeral practices by making sweeping accusations based on the transgressions, or alleged transgressions, of a few funeral directors. This type of media coverage has not only raised the ire of funeral directors, it has also raised ethics consciousness.

Those media reports, however, appear to be in conflict with a recent poll which indicated that the public ranks funeral directors eighth out of twenty-six professions with regard to being honest and ethical.³ None-the-less, when critics judge funeral directors, they do so by judging what they view to be the weakest among them.

The rift between independently owned funeral homes and acquisition companies has played a role in the increased attention to ethics within funeral service. The question of whether this attention to ethics has increased standards of practice is debatable, but there is no doubt that more attention is being paid to ethics. The exchange of rhetoric among funeral directors suggests that a significant number of independent funeral directors have the perception that their corporate colleagues practice in an unethical manner. And, some independently owned funeral homes cling to an ethical persona with the notion that doing so serves to separate them from what they believe to be the unethical practices of corporate funeral service. I think this type of activity is counterproductive and, in fact, may be a prelude to disaster, but it has raised ethics consciousness.

What is the role of education?

Funeral service educators ought to consider moving away from prescribing solutions for given situations, and start teaching students how to engage in critical thinking and problem solving. The application of ethical solutions to complex problems requires an ability to reason, analyze and assimilate. Rote learning and prescriptions for action have never been an effective way to prepare future funeral directors to deal with the types of problems that will confront them in funeral practice. Under-prepared graduates will have greater difficulty dealing with situations that are morally and ethically complex.

Stanley Mason, who has demonstrated his ability to think, reason and solve problems by inventing such things as the disposable diaper, air freshener and microwave cookware, expressed this thought by saying:

In school, we were taught to accept what teachers and other authority figures told us was “the truth.” As a result, we fell into the trap of thinking that there’s only one right answer to a question and that the person in authority knows what that answer is.4

I believe it is a mistake to teach funeral service students that problems and issues can be addressed by the application of predetermined responses which have been taught in school. It is impossible to anticipate the complexity of the problems that will challenge graduates out in funeral service practice and, therefore, impossible to anticipate predetermined outcomes. In the real world there may be several viable solutions for any given problem, and graduates who cannot assess circumstances and make judgments based on the situation will be sorrowfully under-prepared. If graduates lack problem solving skills, their recourse is limited to ignoring a problem, or attempting to make the problem fit the predetermined outcomes they were given in school. Funeral service graduates must be armed with the skills necessary to identify problems, analyze them in a logical way and develop options for their ethical resolution.

1. Kroshus, John. “Building Funeral Service Curriculum with Task Analysis: The University of Minnesota Project.” The Director, Volume LXX, Number 4, April 1998, 50-56.
2. See the July 1997 issue of The Director which was devoted entirely to Ethics.
3. “Gallup Poll Ranks Funeral Directors In Top Ten,” Funeral Monitor, May 4, 1998, 5.
4. Bottom Line/Personal. “Knowitall,” Volume 19, Number 11, June 1998, 9.

FEA thanks Mr. Kroshus, Ph.D., Director of the Program of Mortuary Science at the University of Minnesota, for his contribution.

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