What Do You Learn After Attending 90 Funerals in 90 Days?

Posted September 21, 2016

7 min read

Gail Rubin, a Certified Thanatologist known as The Doyenne of Death®, uses humor to help get end-of-life and funeral planning conversations started. She is author of several books, including A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die and KICKING THE BUCKET LIST: 100 Downsizing and Organizing Things to Do Before You Die. Rubin also hosts the award-winning TV and DVD series, A Good Goodbye and an Internet radio program on FuneralRadio.com.

Rubin’s role in helping others prepare for end-of-life is part of what motivated her to go to 30 different funerals in 30 days. After doing it for three years, she’s now been to 90 funerals in 90 days. Here are some of the lessons she learned during three years of “30 Funerals in 30 Days” Challenges.

Death As A Surprise

“You can learn a lot by attending 30 funerals in 30 days,” says Rubin.

“Even though intellectually we know we will die, it’s always a surprise, whether the death was expected or unexpected. The funeral or memorial service plays a key role in processing grief, especially when the death is unexpected.”

Rubin didn’t personally know most of the people whose funerals she attended. She went through obituaries and selected which funerals she would attend. All of the funerals were open to the public, and she chose them based on interesting elements within the obituaries. “I strove to choose a good mix of religious and creative celebrations, and keep the male/female ratio even, while finding events that fit into my schedule on any given day.” She documented the experiences on her blog, The Family Plot. She also created a YouTube video for each post.

Rubin says the experience was an intense one. “When I showed up, I would find somebody with the immediate family and make sure it was okay for me to do a blog post,” she says. “I couched it as one more way to honor and memorialize their loved one.”

Some families asked if there was going to be a cost associated with her blogging about the service. Rubin would quickly explain there was no cost or fee involved—but it reinforced to Rubin just how sensitive people were to costs associated with a funeral.

“I saw how cost is definitely a big issue for a lot of families,” she says. Rubin had already recognized this when giving speeches to the public. “Often the first question people would ask about was, ‘What’s the most affordable local options available?’”

But going to 90 funerals in 90 days has shown that meaning, creativity and the ability to celebrate a loved one are unique experiences.

Some of the more creative events she attended tended to be cremation memorial services with no casket or body involved. For example, she went to a memorial service in Albuquerque’s Japanese garden in its Bio-Park, sited on a platform that overlooked a Koi pond. “That was a beautiful service—it really celebrated the life of a very young man who had died from an undiagnosed heart condition.”

In a post called “My Big Fat Italian Funeral” (as opposed to “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”) she wrote about how at one funeral, an Italian family celebrated a father who collapsed in his driveway and died of a heart attack.

“He was cremated, and his daughters had an afternoon open house with lots of food and wine, lots of photos, and displays, and people just sharing stories about him. That was a very interesting way to celebrate that person’s life,” she says.

Another memorable funeral was for a man who died in a motorcycle accident. The biker funeral was underwritten by the Bandidos Motorcycle Club. “They gave him a funeral that was very well attended and impressive.” He was a Navy veteran, so he was buried in the Santa Fe National Cemetery.

Seventy-eight motorcyclists followed his casket, pulled by a trike motorcycle hearse, up the back roads from Albuquerque to Santa Fe for the burial. “It was wonderful. It was very much personalized to this particular guy. The Bandidos were willing to spend the money to give him this special send-off.”

Another celebration she attended was for a 53-year-old woman who died waiting for a liver transplant. “They had a wonderful celebration of her life, with all of these items that related to her interests.” They had her favorite food and they played her favorite music—and they were even able to tie-in some southwest architecture that the woman loved. “You really got this wonderful sense of this woman from all the different speakers who got up and talked about her. This was a cremation that turned into a really great memorial service and celebration of that woman’s life.”

The oldest person’s funeral she attended was for a 90-year old man; the youngest was a 25-year old man. While some had little or no religious references, the religious services included Catholic, Baptist, Evangelical, Methodist, Presbyterian, Jewish, and Latter Day Saints (Mormon). About half of the services had a video or photo board related to the person being honored.

Celebrating Life

During the “challenge” Rubin has seen a variety of celebrations. Other events included a memorial lunch at a bowling alley bar, a funeral for a Dallas Cowboys fan, and a celebration of life for a hot air balloon pioneer.

Covering funerals for 30 straight days was an all-consuming process. “I was always relieved when I could stop attending these funerals. I could hardly do anything else for an entire month except do this project,” she says.

The entire experience served to reinforce the importance of planning for one’s funeral and end-of-life wishes.

“Because people love us, we want to make it easier for them to be able to have a good goodbye,” says Rubin. These stories can help funeral professionals communicate this message to families.

“That’s why I’m out there trying to educate people about options, costs and all the different elements that need to be pulled together. People haven’t planned ahead, and less than a third of people do. I’m trying to bump up that planning ratio. It’s better for everyone involved.”

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About Gail Rubin

Gail Rubin, CT, The Doyenne of Death®, helps get end-of-life and funeral planning conversations started with a light touch on a serious subject. She’s the author of A Good Goodbye: Funeral Planning for Those Who Don’t Plan to Die, Hail and Farewell: Cremation Ceremonies, Templates and Tips, and KICKING THE BUCKET LIST: 100 Downsizing and Organizing Things to Do Before You Die. She hosts the award-winning TV/DVD series, A Good Goodbye, as well as an Internet radio program.

As an award-winning speaker, she uses humor and funny films to attract people to topics many would rather avoid. She also helped pioneer the Death Cafe movement in the US, is a Certified Thanatologist, and a Certified Funeral Celebrant trained by the In-Sight Institute. For a different take on Gail Rubin, read her draft obituary here.

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