News updates for the week of July 3, 2012

Tumultuous Funerals

“When the Deceased Can’t Rest in Peace…”


By Robert F. Granzow III, MS

For most persons, funerals are meant to be a time of solemn reflection, a dignified celebration of a deceased’s life. All too often, however, the decorum and sanctity of these ceremonies are irreparably marred by hostile confrontations, disruptive behaviors or even disorderly altercations erupting amongst family members, friends and those who have ostensibly gathered to pay their last respects.

While these situations are relatively infrequent in comparison to the millions of funerals held each year without incident, the consequences and liabilities associated with what may be considered “tumultuous funerals” can neither be ignored nor denied. Albeit unfortunate, funeral directors can no longer assume that the historical sanctity of viewings, funerals or burials will be respected or perpetuated to the degree they once enjoyed. This observation may be further validated by a growing trend for secular, contemporary and even theme services that many times celebrate the “lifestyle” and not the life, of the deceased. A funeral director’s failure to identify or act upon these or other “foreseeable” risks is all that may be required to allow the unthinkable to occur with unspeakable results.

A Proactive Approach
It is interesting to note that many funeral directors appreciate the risks of fire, burglary and even natural disasters, yet fail to recognize or address the threats posed by a family feud turning violent, an inebriated visitor becoming disorderly or a despised employer deriding the deceased in the presence of grieving friends and family. While many factors may contribute to “selective risk management,” an absence of perceived need, coupled with the lack of a cost-effective and time-efficient solution, are two of the most common reasons for not assuming a more proactive posture.

Premised upon the generally accepted emergency management principles of Prevention, Detection, Response and Recovery, funeral directors seeking to minimize the risks and liabilities associated with tumultuous funerals may begin by establishing initiatives to “prevent” confrontations, “detect” warning signs of volatility, “respond” effectively to identified risks and “recover” from critical events should they occur. This four-part program provides funeral directors with a viable model that promotes individuality and enables flexibility in design.

Step 1: Prevention
Preventing tumultuous funerals necessitates both awareness and understanding, an awareness of the problem and an understanding of what is required to prevent, detect, respond to and recover from an incident, should it be realized. Specifically, prevention requires funeral directors to establish a zero-tolerance mind-set for any acts by family, friends or visitors that may be deemed raucous, confrontational, hostile or otherwise intimidating.

Additional opportunities for implementing a climate of “prevention” may include: 1) the production of a mission statement that emphasizes respect, dignity and decorum; 2) assignment of adequate professional staff at all viewings, funerals and graveside services; 3) documentation and assessment of risks associated with volatility; 4) prohibition of weapons on mortuary property; 5) establishment of professional guidelines for non-traditional services; and 6) the communication of expectations for all to “enter with love, and depart in peace.”

Step 2: Detection
Detecting tumultuous funerals before they occur, not after, is the ultimate goal of detection. While tumultuous funerals often erupt with seeming spontaneity, in actuality, these situations seldom occur without the benefit of warning signs, or what may be considered the “red flag indicators” of volatility.

Specifically, red flag indicators of volatility may be categorized as being either “individual” or “situational,” depending upon whether or not the basis for the indicator emanates from a particular individual or the circumstances surrounding the deceased’s death. Red flag indicators of individual volatility may include unmanaged mental illness, chronic substance abuse, dysfunctional family dynamics, overt interpersonal animosities and chronic maladaptive or violent behaviors.

Funeral directors should attempt to ascertain the nature and quantity of red flag volatility indicators while making funeral arrangements with client families. Funeral directors are ideally positioned to ask, “Will anyone be attending the viewing, funeral or burial who may have difficulty dealing with the death physically, mentally or emotionally?” or “Is anyone coming who has special medical needs?” or simply, “Is everyone who may wish to attend welcome?”

Many times, the simplest of questions posed with an appropriate tone of concern is all that is required to learn about those with fragile health, addictive disorders, or hostile and estranged relationships. Afforded this information, funeral directors are well poised to respond to issues before calamity strikes. Unlike indicators of individual volatility that focus upon the intrinsic issues of individuals, situational indicators address that which would be considered extrinsic to the deceased’s life. Specifically, indicators of situational volatility are concerned with those deaths attributable to the malicious actions or deliberate inactions of others.

Red flag indicators of situational volatility may often include deaths related to gang violence, child abuse, elder neglect, hate crimes, vehicular homicide, suicide or even negligent manslaughter. Funeral directors tasked with effecting removals from residential environments, public settings or even county morgues may be ideally positioned to detect these indicators of situational volatility by virtue of their personal observations or professional conversations with police, coroners or medical examiners.

An additional consideration in situational volatility assessment arises when those who are most unwelcome seek to attend services for the deceased. Funeral directors simply can not assume that those who are “persona non grata” will avoid a viewing, funeral or burial service even if they were the cause of, or involved in, the deceased’s demise.

Examples of persona non grata visitors may include: 1) an employer attending the funeral of an employee who committed suicide when they learned their job was being eliminated; 2) a man walking into the viewing of a mother and child who died from injuries sustained when the man’s car errantly veered into oncoming traffic because he was intoxicated; or 3) a group of religious extremists shamelessly protesting at the funeral of an American soldier killed by a roadside bomb.

For those situations where both “individual” and “situational” indicators of volatility are in evidence, funeral directors must exercise extreme vigilance in thoroughly assessing the risks and selecting the most appropriate options for safeguarding these most volatile events. While individual indicators of volatility may be encountered with any funeral, the likelihood of a tumultuous outcome rises exponentially when the deceased died from the actions or inactions of others.

This concept of exponential volatility will be evinced with almost certainty in situations where death is the result of an actual or perceived injustice by those having marginalized or compromised psycho-emotional stability. In these situations, funeral directors should be alert to the fact that abject anger and rage can and will often supplant sorrow and grief with demonstrative and unpredictable volatility.

Part 3: Response
Responding to conditions of volatility provides funeral directors with options for mitigating both the risks and consequences of a tumultuous funeral. While prevention initiatives encourage appropriate decorum and the principles of detection provide the basis for identifying volatile issues and conditions, it is the response component that ultimately provides funeral directors with options for avoiding tumultuous viewings, funerals or graveside services. Funeral directors seeking to develop appropriate response measures may begin by simply considering:
• What type of incidents could occur?
• What must be done to prevent a particular event or incident from occurring?
• What must be done if a particular event or incident were to occur?

Funeral directors performing this scenario-based planning exercise should remember that the determination of “foreseeability” provides the basis for mitigating volatility and is premised upon what “could” occur, and not necessarily what “has” occurred. With this simple, three-part exercise complete, funeral directors may now focus their attentions on actually mitigating volatility. Options for mitigating volatility and the associated risks and liabilities of a tumultuous funeral should include, in part:
• Training for all staff in emergency action procedures should a tumultuous incident erupt.
• Contracting professional security or off-duty law enforcement officers to provide discreet protective services for funerals exhibiting excessive volatility.
• Installing or upgrading a digital video recording system.
• Enhancing current security systems to include wireless panic alarms and well-secured safe areas.
• Scheduling private or multiple sessions for viewings and even funeral services to avoid catalytic confrontations between volatile individuals or groups.
• Providing a private area where family and friends may retire to avoid a confrontation with those in attendance who may be less welcome.
• Providing copies of any active “restraining orders” to local law enforcement in the event that a “prohibited” individual should seek to attend any service being held.
• Retaining the professional services of a terminally degreed psychologist to be present during services where the risks of volatility are inarguable.

Part 4: Recovery
Recovering from a tumultuous funeral is no easy task! Many times these events result in damage to professional reputations, property and even persons. Funeral directors must consider in advance what they would do if an incident were to occur at their facility since no mortuary or funeral home is immune from the consequences of family altercations, gang violence or demonstrations by political or religious extremists.

When contemplating the recovery phase, funeral directors must determine what has been adversely impacted, and what must be done to correct that which has been impacted in order for the business to return to normal operating conditions. Several options designed to enhance recovery efforts include:
• Supplementing professional liability insurance.
• Developing “post incident” marketing and advertising initiatives.
• Locating contractors capable of effecting repairs to damaged property on minimal notice.
• Establishing a business continuity plan for the delivery of services normally provided should the funeral home or mortuary experience an adverse event that requires repairs or remodeling.

In the End…
While the solemnity, dignity and decorum of funeral services are most often respected by the families, visitors and guests of the deceased, the possibility that volatile conditions might ignite must always be considered. A funeral director’s ability to detect and effectively manage indicators of volatility in evidence is an essential consideration for mortuaries providing consummate professional services. For those who have experienced a tumultuous confrontation or altercation at a viewing, funeral or graveside service, it is a traumatic and often costly experience not easily forgotten; for those who have been fortunate enough to avoid a tumultuous funeral, it is a nightmare well worth avoiding!

Robert F. Granzow III is a Global Security Advisor for a multinational corporation headquartered in Pennsylvania. As a former associate professor of forensic criminal justice and certified deputy coroner in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Mr. Granzow holds a Graduate Certificate in Forensic Medicine from Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, an M.S. degree from St. Joseph’s University, a B.S. degree from York College of Pennsylvania and an A.A. degree from Harrisburg Area Community College. He is a graduate of the Pennsylvania State Police Academy and is a member of ASIS International, the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners, the Northeast Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association and the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners.


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