By Thomas A. Parmalee
Nicole Reed, a funeral director at Haskell Funeral & Cremation Services, with locations in Wyoming and Princeville, both in Illinois, has always been the go-to person in her circle of family and friends about anything funeral related.
The people in her life have not been shy about letting her know what they want their funeral to look like if they die.
“It got to the point where I knew I would never be able to keep any of it straight,” she said. “I joked to my husband that I was going to make a guide for them to fill out and get back to me, so I knew what to do in the event of their death.”
The more Reed thought about it, the more she realized it was not such a bad idea. “I could have handed them the pre-existing, simple two-page guide that probably every funeral home has with death certificate information, preference of burial or cremation, and where you want your services,” she said. “But, many of my family and friends are under 60, and it just didn’t seem fitting for them. Plus, what if they had questions?”
So, she got to work, and toward the end of last year published “In the Event of My Death …” – an informative guide for preplanning your funeral at any age.
The guide includes a treasure trove of information about planning a funeral as well as activities for the reader to complete, so they can leave a full record of their wishes for their loved ones. In that sense, it’s much more than a simply a “guide” – it’s an interactive workbook and is a book you can actually use.
We recently caught up with Reed to learn more about her impetus for writing the book, what it offers to families and how funeral homes can step up the service they provide to their community. Edited excerpts follow.
The team at Haskell Funeral & Cremation Services, including owners Bert and Veronica Haskell, brought you on board as an apprentice in 2016 when you were still a teenager. What have been a few of the most important lessons you’ve learned from them?
I have learned more lessons than I can count over the seven years working with Bert and Veronica, but there are two I would consider the most impactful.
First, working as a team and having a “village” is vital to being successful in funeral service. This job is one where you need to have others to lean on. Those people help get you through the difficult cases, catch a typo, answer the phone when you can’t and give you a much-needed day off. The best way to guarantee every family gets the service they deserve is to work together and support each other any way we can.
Second, funeral service is changing, and we either need to adapt and change with the times, or we will no longer be needed. We have to learn how to stay relevant as more families choose to do celebrations of life on their own. That means offering new services and being willing to go the extra mile. We must show we are here for each family, regardless of their needs, and that we can offer what they need. For some, this could be serving alcohol at visitations. For others, it could be digital register books. Each funeral home’s needs will vary depending on the areas they serve.
In addition to being a licensed funeral director and embalmer, you’re a certified celebrant. Why was becoming one important to you – and how has that made you a better funeral director?
I became a celebrant in 2019, completing Insight Celebrant Training. I realized the importance of celebrant-led services very early in my career as Veronica Haskell had been serving local families as a certified funeral celebrant since 2015. She would meet with the families, and I noticed their process of sharing stories with her was often cathartic. Then, she wove their stories together to share a service honoring the life of the person who died, often even incorporating the smallest details to make the service as personalized as possible. I loved that laughter and smiles often filled the funeral home as families remembered their loved one. I knew celebrant services were something many of the families in our community wanted and needed. There is currently a huge shift in people no longer belonging to a church. I have heard many times how a family will assume they can’t have a funeral, because they don’t want a minister, not realizing there is another option. The demand for celebrant-led services was at times too much for one person to manage alone. With this opportunity, I went to training, so I could also serve families in this capacity, and it has been extremely rewarding.
All funeral directors can benefit from learning about the celebrant process and going through a training course, even if they have no desire to officiate funerals. Celebrant training offers a different outlook on what a funeral should be and how everything we do should be about meeting the needs of the family we are serving. Even if the way to achieve these needs isn’t the “normal” way. The days of the typical “enter deceased’s name here” funerals are starting to fall to the wayside as families are wanting less “tradition” and more celebration and customization. As a funeral director, it has helped guide me to be better at getting families to open up, share memories easier, and talk more about the finer details of how they expect the services to be.
What does this guide include that others on the same topic do not?
I meet with families all the time, at-need and preneed, that have so many questions. Many questions are ones they didn’t realize they had until we began talking. So, I looked online. The majority of the guides I found seemed to be simply fill-in-your-info-here, or they focused more on estate planning. They did not seem to have information about the services or processes surrounding end-of-life plans. I wanted a guide that focused on the funeral/celebration aspect of death. Specifically, I wanted something with information so those reading and completing the guide could feel confident and educated about their decisions. I feel like the general public often thinks funeral homes are secretive. Because of that, I wanted this guide to be transparent about all aspects of funeral service.
You note that the guide is valuable for someone regardless of age. Why should even younger people make their wishes known in the event of their death? Might some people think it strange for someone who is 20 or 25 to be completing the exercises in the guide?
I believe my book can be used for anyone at any age, because the unexpected can always happen. In my “Why” page, I note a story of a young man — his family was devastated by his death. Deciding on cremation or burial was an extremely difficult decision they did not take lightly. If we could just think about our own death for a short time to make the planning of an untimely death just a little bit easier on our loved ones, I think it is worth it.
I am currently 26 years old, and my friends range from slightly younger than myself to those in their 30s – and many of them are starting families. If something were to happen to one of them, like a fatal accident or illness, the last thing their spouse needs to worry about is what kind of urn they would have preferred. If this guide had been completed, their spouse would have peace of mind knowing they are respecting their loved ones wishes, and the answers to all the funeral director’s many questions are right at their fingertips.
My husband would absolutely butcher my funeral if I didn’t have explicit instructions. I love him to death, but he hardly helped plan our wedding, and I’m extremely picky. Funerals, like weddings, are big events that you have one chance to get right. Completing my guide ensures I get what I want, in addition to making it easier for him. When I wrote “In the Event of My Death” I wanted it to be similar to how I guide a family through funeral arrangements. It is meant to walk you through the planning process while also offering information on the whys, hows, and whats.
Why isn’t it sufficient to spell out your wishes as they pertain to your funeral arrangements in your will?
Wills are a huge help for families after a death, and I encourage everyone to have one. However, it seems as though many families don’t read it until after the funeral arrangements have been made. Plus, a lot of people don’t even have a will unless they have a “reason” to need it. Those who do have a will often keep it in a safety deposit box, as suggested by many lawyers, and therefore it can’t always be accessed quickly. To give an example, one of my family members told me their funeral requests are in their will, and I am to carry out their wishes regarding funeral planning. I don’t even know where their will is located, so when the funeral director is calling me in the hours following their death asking if they wanted cremation or burial, I would not know the answer. With this guide, it is so much more than just the disposition and minimal instruction. It doesn’t have to be notarized, there are no additional costs beyond the purchase of the book, and you can give it or a copy to the person in charge of your wishes. It is also a book rather than loose pages, so it could be easier to locate in the need of a quick search!
How long does it take to complete the activities in the guide?
This truly depends on how much time you want to put into it. You can make it through the fill-in-the-information pages in one to two hours pretty easily if you know what you want. If you are reading the Frequently Asked Questions for more information, or having conversations with your loved ones, it could be completed over several days. I know many people who have been slowly making their way through as they get time or reading the entire book to learn more. It’s kind of like a “choose your own adventure” book. You get out of it however much you want to put in.
How does the guide make it easier for families as well as for the funeral home if someone dies?
The first part of this book is fill-in-the-blank for information that is needed right away, such as death certificate information, obituary information, life information and service preferences. It’s easy for a family to flip through to find their loved one’s disposition preference and necessary information. When people complete this information ahead of time, it makes the process easier on a grieving family by reducing the number of decisions they have to make.
As for the funeral home, the answers to the numerous questions we need to ask are all right there. The spelling of the family names, the deceased’s education, schools attended, clubs and memberships, urn or casket preferences, service preferences, who is officiating, and pallbearer suggestions are all in the beginning pages of the guide. The funeral home can just make copies of the completed pages to save time rather than rewriting it. Additionally, it streamlines the process. Rather than a family taking 10 minutes to decide on flowers, they can see where Mom wrote she loved “daisies and spring colors.”
What are some topics in the book that you think people completing it might learn about for the first time?
Many people are learning about the cremation processes and permits for the first time. I am often surprised at the number of people who assume we can just, and I quote them, “pick them up and burn them.” And how people are shocked that the body isn’t cremated the next day, or the death certificates aren’t ready when they come in for arrangements. Learning the “behind the scenes” aspect of funeral planning and processes is new and beneficial to many readers.
Also, the rental casket, urn carriage, alternative cremation container and scattering tubes are a new concept to many. In arrangements I often hear, “but how do you rent a casket?” The popularity of cremation has risen so quickly that it is still new to most people who haven’t experienced a death in their family.
Finally, the pages about funeral expenses will be something people learn about for the first time. I explain overhead expenses, services expenses, merchandise options and cash advances. I wanted people to understand the many things a funeral home provides that are not directly a line item on the funeral bill. For example, funeral homes have to maintain licensing for music to be played in their facility. We don’t charge families per song. It is just a service we provide. People are often surprised by how “expensive” funerals and cremations are, so I tried to put the cost of this service into perspective and add comparisons to educate the readers on the why behind the dollar amounts.
There are some items in the book that aren’t directly related to planning a funeral service, such as your computer passcode and your phone password. Why were items like this important to include?
The younger generations are very tech savvy. To put it bluntly – we live on our phones. I’ll use my husband again as an example. He often forgets the password to my laptop and our banking login, so he would probably struggle without this information.
I hear all too often of family members requesting the funeral director to use Face ID or the fingerprint scanner to get into the deceased phone after a death because they don’t know the passcode. They need to access their loved one’s photos, contact lists, and many important pieces of information because that is where we store everything. By noting your passwords in this guide, a small yet vital piece of information is easily located with everything else needed at the time of a death.
You have a frequently asked questions section in the book with lots of information. As a funeral director, what are the questions you get the most from families, and which ones have come up that have surprised you the most?
Honesty, the majority, if not all of the Frequently Asked Questions in the book are based on questions I have received while serving families. When a question came up while I was at work, or I thought of something important for people to know, I made a note to add it to my book.
The most common questions families have are about cremation: how long it takes, why they need a cremation permit, who signs the cremation authorization, how we know it’s their loved one, can they scatter or bury the remains, etc.
The question that always surprises me the most is, “Do they need pants?” I can’t help but laugh a little inside, because I cannot imagine the alternative of knowing that my loved one would be in their casket with no pants on. I have been asked the question several times during my career, and it is one that I always assumed was common knowledge.
How might the guide help someone interested in mortuary science as a career inform their decision?
I actually just had a high school student purchase a copy of my book. I think the Frequently Asked Questions and general information portion of this book could be a huge insight to a student. Although funeral service is not a one-size-fits-all, and every funeral home does things differently, the information here gives details about what they could expect to see or be doing on a day-to-day basis. It even has a glossary with a lot of funeral terminology that would be beneficial to a student looking into a career in mortuary science.
How does your funeral home use this guide … do they give it out to families that are interested in preplanning or at any events?
Although we don’t give it out to every family interested in preplanning, we tell people about it. We tell them it is a great first step to preplanning as it provides helpful information and can start conversations about their desires and preferences. We do keep copies available to purchase on hand as well. I had a couple who read the book, completed it at home, and used it when they came for their prearrangement appointment. I was able to make copies of all their informational pages, and we discussed their information and choices. It moved the conversation along very smoothly.
Right after I published the book, Bert and Veronica hosted a book launch party at the funeral home, which many local community members joined us for. We gave away several complimentary copies of my book at this event. Recently, we hosted a prearrangement seminar titled G.I.F.T. “Giving It Future Thought.” Veronica shared about the importance of planning ahead for your funeral and end-of-life care. At this seminar, we also gifted copies of my book via a drawing from those in attendance. We will likely continue this at future seminars as well.
Beyond your own funeral home, are any other funeral homes using this workbook as a resource for families? If not, why should they consider checking the workbook out?
I am not aware of any other funeral homes using this book as a resource for their families, but I do know many funeral directors who have purchased a copy. I encourage other funeral professionals to check out this guide as a great tool. If families have this guide, they can then come to you as a director to discuss their options in an informed manner. Throughout this book, I reiterate that it is based on my experiences and encourage them to speak to their local director for more details. This guide could give someone the courage and confidence to meet with you when they didn’t have it before. Even if they don’t come in prior to their death, their family could bring this book into the arrangement conference following the death, and the director would easily be able to take the information and help the family put together a service honoring the deceased in the way they requested.
How are you promoting or marketing the book – and how has the reception to it been thus far?
I have only been promoting the guide locally at this time, in addition to having it available on Amazon. I have an Instagram and Facebook page where I shared a lot of my process. Bert and Veronica have been very supportive by hosting the book launch party and sharing it on the funeral home’s social media page. I was featured on the local 25 News channel’s “Talk of the Town” program where I was able to share my story of why I wrote this guide and how I think people could benefit from it. I have also had an article in both of the local papers where the funeral home has locations, and the Illinois Funeral Directors Association wrote a wonderful article about my book in a publication of the Illinois Director.
The positive reaction I have received since releasing my book has been more than I ever imagined. I honestly figured that my family and a few friends would buy this guide to support me, but it has gone well beyond that. The community I serve has shared the book with their family and friends, and some have sought me out to tell me how helpful they found it. I couldn’t be happier with how supportive everyone has been.
What have you learned about publishing a book by going through this process – and what did you wish you knew going into it that you know now?
I learned publishing a book wasn’t nearly as hard as I had initially thought it would be. I thought there would be all kinds of hoops to jump through, or that I would have to pay thousands of dollars to use a publisher. Overall, it was a fairly straightforward and relatively inexpensive process. Luckily, my dad worked with a man whose son wrote and self-published two books and was willing to share his experience. Having someone who has published a book before to give you pointers is a HUGE benefit. Also, having a mom whose job includes formatting and proofreading documents was a help, as she guided me on how to take my book from a lot of information in an oddly organized format into a polished final product.
If I had to do it all again, I would probably not keep it a secret. I was nervous about what people would think, especially when it was merely an idea and not a finished product. Now, I realize they would have all been supportive from the start. My friends, family, and funeral home family are all a great support system who loved this idea, provided great feedback, changes, and additions, and I should have included them earlier than I did.
Do you have any other thoughts to share?
This guide is not meant to steer people away from preplanning with a funeral home at all. Throughout the guide, I encourage people to meet with their chosen funeral home and pre-fund if desired and able. I wrote this guide to help those who want to have some control over their end-of-life planning, who want to learn more about the options available to them, or who have a lot of questions about funerals and cremation, whether or not they are ready to meet with a funeral director. I wrote this guide because if it even helps one person feel like their family is prepared in the event of their death, then my job has been accomplished.
Be sure to check out Nicole Reed’s book, “In the Event of My Death …” by clicking here.
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