Imagine the soundtrack of your life. Focus on an artist who plays the acoustic guitar. Whether you love James Taylor, Bob Dylan or Joan Baez or favor newer musicians such as Dave Matthews, Ed Sheeran or Taylor Swift, the sound of an acoustic guitar is unarguably magnificent. With a resonance ranging from dark, mellow and low to bright, warm and vibrant, the remarkably varied voice of a guitar is influenced by its age, tone wood and the player fretting the neck. Scratches, scrapes and splits, of different size and severity, are visible in the decades-old spruce top and rosewood back. While the outward scars compose the character of the instrument, the heart and soul lies within the richness of its tone and the nuances of the notes played – reverberating a lifetime filled with love, laughter, heartache and pain.
Compiling songs with each chapter, some welcome and others better forgotten, the soundtracks of our lives are distinctive, personal and important and so should the funeral service that will one day symbolize our deaths.
“If someone’s mother enjoyed Patsy Cline, we should play that at her funeral. I served high tea to over 1,500 people on fine china and once directed a funeral on a baseball diamond,” explained Jacquelyn Taylor, a leading proponent of providing funerals adapted to an individual’s specific interests or wishes, no matter how far-fetched they may seem.
In an era marked by an enormous rise in cremation, many have decided to forgo the traditional funeral rite and instead opt for direct disposition, severely minimizing the role of the funeral director.
“Funeral service is facing an adaptive challenge which is closing the gap between stated values and current reality. We must continue to move the dial forward in hopes of changing the public’s perception regarding funeral directors and the importance of a funeral ceremony. Avoiding the ritual does a disservice to the life that has been lived and allows the survivors to deny what has really happened to them,” said Taylor.
Often, a funeral director claiming to have a presumption about the wishes of an individual can be a detriment to the family.
“Ignorance can lead to resistance. If a family is unaware of the variety of services provided by the funeral home, they may choose to arrange a ceremony themselves. Consequently, if a funeral director is unable to educate a family regarding their options or refuses to accommodate an unusual but reasonable request, this is also harmful to the funeral home’s reputation,” Taylor said.
“Despite what the anti-funeral lobby says, we should never be afraid to offer our professional services. Are we going to serve families or are we just going through the motions to get through the day? It is imperative to either lead, follow or get out of the way. Since the beginning of my career, I have held the very same beliefs and never forgotten -what a privilege it is to take care of the dead.”
A native of Astoria, Oregon, Taylor was first exposed to funeral service as a curious elementary school student.
“When I was about 10 years old and started to realize death happened to more than just family pets like fish and cats, I became interested in touring the local funeral home, which was next to our church. An older classmate, Dick Butcher, worked there. I remember him mowing the lawn dressed in his suit. I mustered up the courage to ask for a tour, which my entire class attended, after our parents gave permission. After that, I started drawing floor plans of funeral homes and telling everyone I was going to be a mortician,” Taylor remembered.
After graduating from high school in Boise, Idaho, Taylor moved west to attend the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science on the advice of a kindly funeral director who did not discourage her despite her age and gender.
“When I first arrived, I immediately went to view the lab. During that time, the college embalmed several hundred bodies on campus. At first, I was afraid I was going to faint, but I was completely fascinated. I felt as if I had pierced this secret veil,” she described.
To serve her apprenticeship, Taylor returned to Oregon and a position at McGaffey Andreason Eugene Memorial Chapel. At just 20 years old, the relative neophyte relished the opportunity and embraced the experience.
“At first, I was only allowed to sit outside the room and listen- while the owner or other licensed funeral director on staff made arrangements,” said Taylor, who worked predominantly in the embalming room.
“Not having an office of their own, the medical examiners rotated through area funeral homes, so decedents were brought directly to the funeral home. We had a case where a man died after crashing his homemade helicopter from a few hundred feet. His remains had a tremendous amount of trauma. Young and confident, I remarked to the medical examiner that no autopsy was necessary because it was obvious how the man died. He flatly replied, ‘Young lady, if I want your expert opinion, I will ask for it!’” she reminisced.
Taylor’s tenacity and spirited nature proved valuable, especially when the firm was sold to Uniservice Corporation in 1974. Founder and CEO Ellsworth “Ells” Purdy quickly became a devoted mentor to the young funeral director, who would adopt, implement and promote his innovative funeral service ideologies for the rest of her career. Purdy, who began as a livery service operator, soon grew to own over three dozen funeral homes, cemeteries and crematories in addition to wholesaling caskets to his firms through Crown Casket Company.
“Ells was a maverick and a visionary who understood that cremation itself was not a problem but that skipping the funeral would eventually become a problem. He was among the first to enact an adaptive funeral program, which would encourage funeral directors to offer services that were unique, special and designed to honor a life well lived through any realistic means possible,” Taylor related.
“American funeral practices are undergoing seismic change. This is evidenced by the fact that people are rejecting the traditional funeral and opting instead for minimalist disposition of the body, usually in the form of cremation, without the body present, and often without funeral director or clergy involved,” she said, which threatens the economic viability of the entire profession.
“However, beyond the interests of the industry, there are vast implications for citizens both individually and for society as a whole if there is a fundamental change in the way we care for our dead – not only the potential for psychological harm to individuals but the loss of time-honored social traditions and the extinction of historical artifacts like cemeteries. It is interesting to point out that the more educated, more affluent and less religious are choosing the least in death care, while those in the lower socioeconomic levels stretch their limited resources to provide full-service funerals,” she remarked.
The development of a burgeoning academic interest was abiding but impeded temporarily as Taylor began to climb the proverbial corporate ladder. Promoted to location manager, director of pre-need and marketing and eventually becoming a general manager, she experienced significant career growth within Uniservice Corporation.
“ It took me ten years after mortuary school to obtain my bachelor’s degree in business administration from City University in Washington while acquiring experience in funeral industry management that would benefit me in my future consulting work,” Taylor said.
In 1984, the company was sold to Service Corporation International. Desiring a new challenge, Taylor had a short stint as a training, development and marketing representative before being recruited by her alma mater to teach.
Starting as an instructor at San Francisco College of Mortuary Science, she was quickly promoted to director of admissions.
“I loved the classroom, and the students were always my first priority,” she said, crediting her long tenure to a genuine desire to educate future funeral directors. “The new class was often nervous when the semester began, which is what I hoped. I never wanted them to become cavalier.”
Spending a few years as dean of students, Taylor still taught courses such as restorative art, funeral directing, and management for nearly three decades, even after assuming the role of college president. Along the way, she completed her Master of Business Administration (MBA) at the University of San Francisco.
In 2001, an offer was extended for the veteran educator and college administrator to join to faculty of Mount Ida College in Newton, Massachusetts. As a full tenured professor, Taylor would also serve as the executive director of the college’s New England Institute of Funeral Service Education.
“After dealing with the taxing responsibilities of being a college administrator, the classroom was truly my place of solace and where I felt most at home,” she confessed.
She was compelled to complete her doctorate in philosophy (PhD) because she needed to answer burning questions about the future of funeral service. Dually concentrating in ethical and creative leadership and public policy, Taylor titled her dissertation: “Unfinished Business: A Study of Leadership and Adaptive Challenges in the Professionalization of Funeral Directors.”
“It demonstrates that attempts to attain a clear professional identity for funeral directors have been thwarted by repeated failure to respond effectively to adaptive challenges – failed attempts to control the public perception of funeral directors, a gap between industry leaders and those led and persistent internal contradictions, conflict and confusion over values,” Taylor asserted, citing the exponential growth in direct cremation and the increased absence of any funeral ritual after death.
Aside from the cultural phenomenon that involves the elimination of body-present funerals, funeral directors themselves have never developed a consensus about their societal role that would afford them a high degree of control of their fate. Conflicts over the appropriate level of education and licensing credentials, whether or not funeral service should be heavily regulated by the state and the persistent ambiguity about whether or not funeral directing is a profession as distinct from a trade or vocation are among the most common disagreements,” she recounted.
Eager to bring her experience, instruction and advice to a divergent audience, Taylor retired as a full-time professor in 2014 to establish The Funeral Tutor, a consulting firm that specializes in change management, organizational development, economies of scale for multi-location firms and meeting the challenges faced by contemporary funeral service professionals.
In addition, she started work as a special projects coordinator for The Dodge Company.
“Basically, I support the executive team by providing research on topics such as OSHA, licensing laws and occupational risk management,” she outlined.
The Dodge Company, a heritage manufacturer of embalming chemicals and related products, is currently owned by fourth-generation sisters Debbie and Kristy Dodge. The company also has a private family museum, where Taylor serves as curator.
In a career that has come full-circle, the enduring and steadfast funeral service advocate is excited about the opportunity to continue her life’s work. As a “thinking coach,” she has returned to her roots, bringing an intense energy and fresh perspective by helping people think differently about funeral service.
“Thinking Coach perfectly describes what I feel called to do. In this role, it also aligns with the reason I chose funeral service as my career. I wanted to: ‘Do something different that makes difference.’”
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Southern Calls Issue 23
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