What is it Like to Write About Death, Dying & Funerals for a Living?
Posted July 20, 2016
7 min read
For more than 12 years, Chris Raymond served as editor of The Director magazine, the official monthly publication of the National Funeral Directors Association and the world’s most widely read magazine for funeral directors, embalmers and other deathcare professionals. Raymond has spoken on numerous death and dying topics to audiences of funeral service professionals and consumers alike, and his articles have appeared in leading funeral service publications worldwide.
See what we learned when we sat down and spoke with Raymond about what it’s like to write about death, dying, funerals and grief—deeply personal topics that many find hard to contemplate.
Q: How long have you been writing about end-of-life, funerals, death and grieving?
Chris Raymond: In 1998, the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) hired me as editor of its monthly magazine, The Director. That audience is comprised of men and women in the “deathcare” industry—funeral directors, embalmers, cemetery professionals, cremation providers, suppliers, etc. Thus, the articles I wrote naturally addressed these topics from their perspective to help them more effectively serve families as providers of the care, services and goods survivors might need when a loved one dies.
In 2012, I took over About.com’s dying, funerals and grief website (which transformed into Verywell.com earlier this year) and started writing articles about death, funerals and grief for everyone, i.e., the people doing the actual dying and the loved ones they leave behind.
Then and now, I’ve strived to create fair, balanced and objective content that audiences find worth reading, and my many years at NFDA now definitely help me provide a practical, realistic perspective for anyone seeking answers to their end-of-life questions.
Q: What is the reaction you get from people when you tell them about what you do for a living?
Chris Raymond: When strangers discover that I write about dying, death, funerals and grief, there’s usually a moment that I refer to as “The Pause.” This typically includes a sudden inhalation of breath or a nearly audible gasp.
After a second or two, some people suddenly remember that they need to be somewhere else, but most usually smile and say, “Hey, I’ve always wanted to ask you guys something…” I’ve been fortunate to experience many insightful, deeply personal conversations during my career that have better informed my writing and, hopefully, I’ve helped a few people along the way.
Q: Do you have any personal stories that have impacted your perspective on death and how you write about it?
Chris Raymond: Among numerous experiences, a few stand out and these lessons influence my writing today. For instance, a funeral director I know also owns a people cemetery and a separate pet cemetery. He once confided to me: “On any given weekend, there are 10 times as many people visiting the graves of their pets…”
The lesson: Grief should never be judged because it’s very real to the griever, regardless of its cause, and losses should never be compared.
Attending my great-aunt’s visitation in 1987, I stood next to her sister (my grandmother) at the open casket. For several minutes, she gazed unmoving and wordlessly at her sister’s body while I struggled internally to find a few meaningful words to comfort her. Ultimately, I failed to say anything, but my grandmother eventually said, “I really like the color of her casket. I’m going to get that color, too.”
The lesson: Despite the inescapable reality of death, the many details and distractions of life will continue to preoccupy us and, apparently, my grandmother preferred gunmetal blue to brushed copper.
Finally, while sharing views with a fellow attendee after a cremation-related seminar during an NFDA convention, this funeral home owner stuck his finger in my face and vehemently insisted: “As long as I own my funeral home, we will never offer cremation to families.”
The lesson: Times change and funeral providers must adapt because there’s a significant difference between form and function. Consumers/society drive these changes, and I still wonder when this guy’s funeral home went out of business.
Q: What are some of the general things you’ve learned along the way—given all the research and writing you do on the topic?
Chris Raymond: Despite the perception that most people don’t want to face their mortality and talk about death-related stuff, I’ve encountered just the opposite throughout my career. Given the right environment, most people seem eager to ask something they’ve always wondered about or share a story about a personal funeral or burial experience, whether positive or negative.
I love the growth of death cafés in the U.S. because these events offer the perfect opportunity for people to demystify this “taboo” topic in a safe, comfortable environment. I try to do the same thing with my articles, and I wish more funeral, cremation and burial providers would proactively reach out to educate people in their communities.
I’ve also learned that how people grieve is a unique as our fingerprints, and that any individual’s response to the forever-loss of a loved one defies predictable stages, steps, “closure” or generalization. Most of us find a way through grief in time and eventually learn to live with the scar on our heart caused by death, but we will never forget or “get over” a loss completely.
Q: You are tasked with writing about topics that require a lot of time to think about, and in many cases, also require a great deal of introspection and compassion. How hard is it to do this while also educating readers?
Chris Raymond: Publishing today reminds me of the dramatic transformation we’ve witnessed in funerals in the past several decades. Many years ago, we consumed information chiefly via ink-on-paper, and we primarily buried our embalmed dead in cemeteries after an open-casket visitation and service. But just as we now access content via a wealth of new mediums, we likewise enjoy a myriad of options when arranging funeral, memorial or interment services for a loved one or ourselves.
But these changes are just on the surface and even though the outward forms of publishing and funerals now vary, their underlying functions remain the same as they always have. No matter how you access an article today, whether on your mobile device, computer, magazine or newspaper, that content still needs to satisfy your needs and prove worth reading. Similarly, the services we arrange to honor and remember a deceased loved one must also fulfill the complex, fundamental needs of grieving survivors, regardless of the goods and/or services selected or the manner of body disposition (burial, cremation, etc.).
People can quickly identify a good article or a good funeral, regardless of its form. To me, writing an article for virtual publication, or a funeral director helping a grieving family arrange a meaningful farewell, remains just as challenging as ever because their respective functions haven’t changed. You’ve got to put the needs of your “audience” first in order to succeed.
Q: What are you reading right now?
Chris Raymond: I’m always reading something but can only focus on one book at a time, so I alternate between two lists: books for pleasure and those for work. For pleasure, I recently finished Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and now I’m reading a biography of Robert Rogers, who commanded an elite British fighting force during the French and Indian War. For work, I just finished How Animals Grieve by Barbara King and plan to read The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh next.
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