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8 Simple, Subtle Ways to Support Your LGBTQ+ Staff (and Make Your Funeral Home More Inclusive for the Families You Serve)



-Written by Alex Adams, Licensed Funeral Director (she/her)


We’ve all seen The Funeral Director’s Oath and The Funeral Director’s Prayer, especially around National Funeral Directors Day, and certainly during the height of the pandemic. Many of us re-shared those poems, prayers, and quotes about funeral directors because we wanted the world to see that we were doing work that mattered, too. We wanted others to recognize that our work matters; that caring for the dead is just as important as caring for the living. That deathcare is as essential as healthcare. It is, after all, what most of us would say we were called to do.


Whether religious or not, I think most of us find encouragement and understanding in The Funeral Director’s Prayer:


Lord, give me the patience needed to serve everyone as my own;

the wisdom to understand others’ feelings;

the knowledge to learn as well as to instruct;

the kindness to treat everyone equally at all times;

the strength to endure long hours and hard work;

the desire to serve others as I would my own family;

the humility to accept words of thanks and praise;

the compassion to touch another's soul;

the pride and the right to smile when I have served a family well;

and Lord, most importantly the right to shed an honest tear when my heart is touched;

Lord, make me thankful that

I am a Funeral Director.


Author:

Anthony J. Asselta


And though most of us can resonate with that prayer, read it, and be touched so deeply, it’s heartbreaking to see the way its guidance hasn’t been applied to all families.


I’ve always been one to give folks the benefit of the doubt. I’ve always given great effort to remaining patient when asked (often inappropriate or hurtful) questions as an out lesbian. I have for many years viewed my life as an opportunity to educate others, with the hope that folks who know better will do better. It hasn’t always been an easy task, but it’s one that’s given my life meaning in service of leaving the world better for the LGBTQ folks that will walk behind me.


So in a call to action that is to remember the words of The Funeral Director’s Prayer; to remind you that our call is to “serve everyone as my own,” “to understand others’ feelings,” and “to treat everyone equally at all times,” I offer you 8 simple and subtle ways you can support your LGBTQ+ employees and, in turn, make your funeral home a more inclusive space for all.


#1 - Offer and Respect Pronouns



Laurel Wamsley of NPR puts it simply: “Proper use of gender identity terms, including pronouns, is a crucial way to signal courtesy and acceptance.” 


In fact, Laurel shares that “Alex Schmider, associate director of transgender representation at GLAAD, compares using someone's correct pronouns to pronouncing their name correctly – ‘a way of respecting them and referring to them in a way that's consistent and true to who they are.’”


As funeral directors and funeral home staff, we go out of our way daily to make sure we are respecting titles of clergy, survivors, and community members. We would never call our local priest by his first name. We make sure we’re using “Mr.” and “Mrs.” titles when we refer to the spouse of the deceased in their presence. We always lead with our local government officials’ titles rather than only their name. If we aren’t sure, we ask how to pronounce someone’s first or last name. We know the importance of courtesy and respect in our industry. 


Offering and sharing pronouns for yourself and your employees is a very simple, yet powerful way to show your staff and community you have respect for all. 


Place your staff’s preferred pronouns in their email signatures, on their nametags, on their business cards, and in their biographies on your website. Doing so will signal to your community that you will respect their pronouns and will show them that it is safe to request use of specific pronouns for printed materials and obituary writings at your funeral home. And believe it or not, simply sharing pronouns is a HUGE signifier to the LGBTQ+ community that you are a safe, inclusive space. Goal achieved without slapping a rainbow on your website.


Not only does this signify to your community that your business is a safe and inclusive space for all, it also shows your staff that you value them and all of their identity. It, too, eases stress and anxiety, and makes their day-to-day life much easier and less awkward in the workplace.


As a woman funeral director who feels most confident and aligned with her truest self in classy menswear, I’m well known for being “the woman in the suit and tie.” It’s often assumed that because I work for a small town funeral home, that those we’re serving are unaware or unreceptive to something as “progressive” as sharing pronouns. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I have had countless families ask me my preferred pronouns in arrangement conferences, at the place of death, and during visitations and funerals. Our society is equipped to handle the sharing of preferred pronouns, and providing that information up front only prevents folks from worrying that they’ll be offensive by asking or sharing.


Tip #2 - Neutralize Funeral Home Restrooms


Bathrooms are without a doubt one of the most, if not the most, anxiety-inducing spaces and experiences for LGBTQ individuals; especially for trans and gender-nonconforming folks.


As a gender-nonconforming woman, I can’t even begin to tell you the fear that floods my body when using gendered restrooms in unknown spaces. As someone who has experienced both verbal harassment and physical assault in restroom settings, I can honestly say that bathrooms are my biggest nightmare. That fear and anxiety is especially heightened for many when bathroom-related assaults and deaths are in the headlines of nearly every media outlet.


A simple way to help ease bathroom anxiety for both your staff and the families you serve is to have gender-neutral restrooms. Many funeral homes, and businesses in general, have multiple sets of bathrooms and oftentimes they’re already single-stall. Why not make at least one of those a gender-neutral restroom to signify to all that you are in the business of making their lives less stressful during an already difficult time?



Tip #3 - Use Inclusive Language and Vocabulary


Encourage your staff to normalize using inclusive language. When on the phone, at morning stand-up, during arrangements, or any other setting, a very simple way to make LGBTQ staff (and the community) feel valued, welcome, and respected is by using inclusive language.


When taking a death call, get used to asking, “Does Mrs. Smith have a spouse?” as opposed to asking, “Does Mrs. Smith have a husband?”  Don’t just assume that the person who has died, or your new staff member for that matter, has an opposite-gender spouse. This can be extremely offensive to the person who has to correct you and say, “Actually, Mrs. Smith’s WIFE is so-and-so,” but using the word spouse is unlikely to be offensive in any scenario. Why risk putting a bad taste in the family’s mouth or risk losing a call over something so simple? Inclusive language is a sure signal to all that you welcome them no matter who they are.


Tip #4 - Edit Your Existing Forms and Paperwork


Many states, including my home state of Indiana, have gone to using inclusive language on official paperwork and documentation. A simple way to showcase your commitment to caring for all is to change the language on your funeral home’s paperwork.


Sheets for gathering biographical information, as well as documents such as cremation authorizations, can easily be switched to say parent/parent rather than mother/father. As the parent of children with two moms, I am always aware of the places that have inclusive paperwork. Teach your staff to ask, “And what are his parent’s names?” instead of asking, “What were the names of his mother and father?”


Another simple addition is to include separate boxes for sex and gender on your paperwork. Along with showcasing your inclusiveness, this actually prevents this even needing to be a conversation. The funeral director will see how the form was filled and know how to navigate moving forward. Many states, including Indiana, have these as separate boxes on the death certificate anyway. Why not make your internal paperwork inclusive, too?


Lastly, adding a box to fill preferred pronouns for the deceased on your paperwork can really simplify the arrangement process. This alleviates any stress or anxiety your funeral director might have about asking when it’s just a part of their routine of filling out paperwork. This will inform staff of what pronouns should be used for further conversations as well as obituary writing.


Tip #5 - Be Open to Any and All Requests



Funeral directors have long been asked to do things that are outside of their personal customs and practices. We consider it an honor to serve all families, regardless of race, ethnicity, culture, and/or customs, and when we don’t know how something should be done, we either ask the family or take the time to educate ourselves in some other fashion.


Don’t be surprised or turn your head to a request like writing an obituary for a drag queen or scheduling a time for her co-queens to come to the mortuary to dress and cosmetize her. We schedule bathing and dressing for folks of different faiths often, so what’s different about doing so for a drag queen?


If you don’t know how something should be done or just need a little guidance, be upfront with the family and ask them to educate you along the way. And don’t forget that you can always call your local LGBTQ resource center. When they hear you’re putting in extra effort to make sure you get it right, they will be more than happy to give you any guidance you might need.


#6- Let Your Merchandise Do the Talking



Nearly all funeral supply companies have LGBTQ-inclusive products. A simple addition of even just a keepsake-size rainbow urn on your showfloor lets LGBTQ folks know that you want to honor their lives through customization in the same ways that you offer items with a variety emblems or insignia for various hobbies, interests, religious affiliations, military branches, and club memberships.


#7- Make Sure Your Social Media Presence Reflects Your Inclusivity


I’ll never forget the day a former manager suggested that my biography should list my wife as “partner” rather than wife. We had been married for 6 years at the time, post-legalization of same-sex marriage, I should add. Any thoughts as to how valued that made me feel as an employee?


I see it all the time; business social media accounts celebrate the weddings, anniversaries, and new-baby-births of their employees in opposite-sex relationships. But how often do we see the same celebration of folks in same-sex relationships? Very rarely. 


It’s not political to celebrate the lives of all of your employees. Do they have a monumental anniversary coming up? Do their kids have something special you can publicly celebrate? Normalizing the presence and lives of your LGBTQ staff through your social media is a really positive way to show you value their lives the same as everyone else.


Another important thing to keep in mind is how often, as funeral homes, we’re posting cute pictures of older man/woman couples for our pre-need advertisements. It would be wise to include photos of same-sex couples in these advertisements, too. Canva and Adobe Stock both have a wide variety of inclusive imagery.


#8- Don't Cherry-Pick Which Services Your LGBTQ Staff Should or Shouldn't Be Working


Don’t assume that just because you’re serving a family of a particular community or faith-background, or because the service is being held at a traditionally non-inclusive religious facility, that your LGBTQ funeral staff is unaccepted, disinterested, or unable to serve that family. There is no quicker or more sure way to indicate to your employee that you don’t value them than to cherry-pick which services they work.


On countless occasions I have worked with families of particular faiths that I know do not support same-sex marriage. They, however, are oftentimes the most grateful families I serve. Perhaps it’s because I am their first truly personal interaction with someone “like me,” or perhaps it’s because even though they have certain religious beliefs, they value treating others with love, dignity, and respect.


I once had a well-meaning co-worker inform a family that they would be working with a lesbian. He perceived them to be non-inclusive and was worried about how they might treat me, but by informing them of my lesbian status, he actually greatly offended them. They later told me that the son of the deceased was gay, and they felt uncomfortable with the fact that this co-worker had “made a big deal” of my being a lesbian. We should never assume that we know how to accurately read a family in such a way.



 

An important thing to remember with all of these scenarios is the overall message that you’re giving the entire community. Not only are you showing your LGBTQ staff that you value them and signifying to LGBTQ folks that you’re willing and able to serve them, you’re also letting folks who love LGBTQ folks know that you value their loved ones, too. 


Many people who have LGBTQ family members or loved ones walk around unsure of what spaces are safe and receptive to talking openly about their LGBTQ loved ones. The funeral home is the last place where people should feel they have to hide their love and care for another human being. 


All of the tips above are very simple ways to let people know it’s OK to say, “my son and his husband” or “my sister and her wife.” By doing these things, you’re letting your community know they are safe, they are valued, and they can lay down any societal shame they might be carrying while in your presence and in your facility.


May we ALL have “the kindness to treat everyone equally at all times.” 




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