Dr. Jason Troyer Shares Tips For Engaging Families & Community Partners

Last week, the funeralOne team was down in Nashville, Tennessee for the annual International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association (ICCFA) conference!

Not only is ICCFA one of our favorite events of the year because we get to meet with amazing funeral professionals from all over the world, but it also brings together some of the brightest and most innovative funeral minds together under one roof to talk about the future of funerals. And to make sure you, at home, get in on the insights, we’re recapping some of our favorite conversations here on our funeralOne blog… enjoy!

Every year at ICCFA, the funeralOne team does our best to attend as many continuing education sessions as possible to learn all about the new trends and potential threats that may be affecting the funeral profession. And every year, there are typically a few different subjects that seem to take center stage in each session: cremation, personalization, pet memorials… the usual.

But this year, there was one threat of competition that seemed to be at the center of everyone’s mind, whether it was the topic of the CE sessions, a line of discussion in our exclusive interviews, or even in the whispers of funeral professionals at the show.

So it was no surprise that when we sat down for Dr. Jason Troyer’s session at ICCFA on the topic of how to engage families and community partners through providing comfort, information and support, he opened up with the same looming threat that seemed to be on everyone else’s mind…

“The new competition is something different,” he said, as he showed a photo of a memorial service happening in a grand, beautiful room. “This is a closeup on a memorial service. It’s happening in a hotel ballroom, like this one. Because, if the folks aren’t looking for a faith community and they feel like anybody can provide a sound system, some food, a place for people to gather, then why not go somewhere else?”

This isn’t a scare tactic… studies have shown that Americans are becoming less and less religious every year. In fact, a Pew Research Center study found out that about a third of Americans don’t belong to any specific religious organizations and even fewer have close ties to local clergy.

“The new reality is that funeral professionals must fill that void,” Troyer said. “And I know what I’m saying to you and I’m sorry. I know that I sound like one more speaker up here who says, ‘Here’s another thing to add to your list. Take care of your Facebook page. Be up on social media. Be trained in this and that.’ But I feel this is really important.”

The Advantage of Funeral Professionals

“Families will go to whoever is the provider that gets to them first. That might be hotels. That might be other private venue places. So I think the answer is for funeral professionals to step in and say, ‘We are the grief original experts. We are. We do this every day.’”

“No offense to hotel professionals, but they don’t deal with death and grief every day,” Troyer said. But funeral professionals do. Therefore, as a profession, we need to step back into the role of an end of life expert and really need to own it… otherwise, new markets and event spaces will take it. This means guiding families through education and support, having a long-term relationship with them after the funeral, providing that aftercare – that’s all part of it. “And I’m sorry if that adds one more thing to your list,” Troyer said.

Funeral professionals have the special training necessary to step into the role and fill these gaps left by clergy and religious community members. But you have to be able to communicate this to your families, own it, and demonstrate your skills to them. How do you do that? With education and community based marketing.

Interruption vs. Education

“Interruption marketing is the old way,” Troyer explained. “This is interruption marketing: Imagine that you’re watching your favorite sports team. Are you like, ‘I hope they go to commercial?’ No. No. Not ever.” It’s marketing that is always interrupting something else, and our bodies are conditioned to ignore them, because we hear so many ads and commercials in a day. Therefore, in order for that form of marketing to be effective, you have to play that commercial so many times before people actually remember who the ad is for.

What funeral directors need to do instead is marketing that aims to educate their community, and therefore positions themselves as experts.

“Let me give you an example to demonstrate what I’m talking about… an example from outside of funeral and cemetery services: Missouri Star Quilt Company,” Troyer said.

“The mom is a quilter. So her adult child said, ‘Let me take a video of you doing something, creating something, making some sort of pattern, doing something,’ and they put it on YouTube. Before you know it, they have 60 million views on YouTube. They have over a quarter of a million subscribers on their YouTube Channel. Missouri Star Quilt Company now encompasses 16 buildings within this small town, that was one of the many Midwest towns that had basically shuttered storefronts in downtown. All of a sudden it was brought it back. They employ 185 people and had about $20 million in revenue in 2015.”

So what’s the secret of success in this story? A refocus from product-based marketing to education-based marketing.

“Think about this. It’s a quilting and fabric store. Sometimes I’m talking to cemetery and funeral professionals. and they will say, ‘Look. We can’t make changes. We’re a traditional business.’ You know what? Quilting is a pretty traditional business. And in about any town of any size, you’re going to have people selling fabrics. You’ve got the chains – JoAnnes, Hobby Lobby. You’ve got the Walmarts selling fabrics. But you can get fabric, yarn and other stuff pretty easy. The difference here was that this Mom was great at teaching people new patterns, new techniques.”

“Inbound marketing is providing that information. That’s the key to this story. Not that no one was providing fabric before, but providing the information that people wanted first… ‘I want to know how to quilt that pattern. I want to know how to do that. And while I’m here, I guess I might as well go ahead and purchase those things from you.’” That’s what education based marketing is all about. And that’s where funeral professionals need to shift their focus.

How To Bring Families Back To The Funeral Home

So now that you know that you need to de-emphasize interruption-based marketing and actually provide information that your families want, how do you put it into effect? How do you provide valuable, educational information that is going to earn their attention? Troyer suggested a few different ways to get started…

1. Establish trust as the go-to grief expert in your community.

“Families don’t want to shop for funeral services. They don’t want to comparison shop. They want to go to a place that they can trust,” Troyer said. “The problem is they might not know whom to trust. But if they find comforting information from you, they know exactly whom to trust.”

One way to establish trust with your community members is to establish yourself as the go-to resource for grief support in your community. “There are lots of different ways you can provide grief support and information, not just a pamphlet that sits in a pamphlet stand, kind of near your front door that many people don’t pick up. You might share something on social media or a blog. Handing out printed material is a good way to do it. Using traditional media, providing seminars and remembrance events.”

They key is to open the door for education and relationship-building before they even walk through your door to plan their loved one’s funeral. Because the truth is, your expertise lasts a lot longer when positioned at grief support than it does trying to educate families on funeral products.

Some families will love a specific type of casket, or a specific urn, or a special customization. That can be really important. But the amount of time that families want to hear about that can be measured in hours or days. If you’ve lost a significant loved one and you’ve got that hole in your heart, how long is your antenna out there, looking for supportive information? The amount of time that you can reach people about grief information is huge. Become the local grief expert. That type of service will really set you apart from other folks, because they remember who really cares about grief.”

2. Provide them with comforting information

Funerals are a confusing, stressful time for all families – especially if it’s your first time planning one and you are unsure of where to start. This is where funeral professionals can be most helpful. Don’t just be a source of information for the families that you serve, but be a point of comfort. Ease their worries, answer their questions, and debunk any common myths that they may have heard about funeral services.

“’Comforting information’ is you listening very carefully with an open heart. Not telling them what to do, but reducing their confusion. Correcting their misconceptions. It’s going to have the natural process of decreasing their anxiety, because they are anxious in those situations. It isn’t counseling. It’s not direct advice. And it’s not going to take their grief away. You can’t do that. But it is going to make grief easier, because if you remove all the extra anxiety and all the other things that they’re worried about, if you can take those away, then they can focus on their grief.”

You can recognize comforting information because it begins with statements like, “let me help you understand what you can expect” or “let me prepare you for this next part.”

Even if you are not sure how to offer them the right kind of valuable comfort in their time of grief, simply passing along helpful resources can be a huge source of comfort. “Keep a list of local and health professionals around. It takes a little bit of energy to search those thing out. And you might think, ‘Well, these days with the Internet, it’s so easy to search those things.’ In some ways it is, but when you’re exhausted and you’re not quite sure you want to do it, it’s just easier to have a list.”

3. Guide them step-by-step through difficult transitions

Transitional times are the bumpy times. The time when you are going from one state of mind or one state of being into another. You can break them down into big-picture transitions, to very small, within-the-day transitions.

“Any loss is a transition. The loss could be a child., or going from being a child to being parentless. Being a parent to being childless. Being a spouse to being widowed, and many others. I’m going to focus on the most narrow version, which is when they are going through death-related rituals, the transitions between them,” Troyer said.

“During those transitions, the big-picture ones or the day-to-day ones, when they’re planning a service, or they’re getting ready for the next ritual, they’re scared. They’re not quite sure what’s going to happen. They’re so alone. They don’t need another question to ask. They don’t know how to ask for help.”

Where funeral professionals can help is better facilitating these rituals, especially in terms of emotional facilitation.

“Funeral professionals are really good at making sure everything is in place. Everyone knows their job and they know how to do it. If you’re bringing in family or loved ones, you’ve told them what to do and kind of set those expectations. You are great at physical staging and physical facilitation. The next level is emotional preparation and emotional facilitation.” You have to say things so that the family feels your empathy, but at the same time, you get out of the pattern of your daily routine. Just because you may have done four viewings this week doesn’t mean that the family you are serving has.

Facilitating rituals allows you to slow down and say, “Okay. Even if this family was here six months ago for Grandpa, this is the first time this family views Grandma and that’s really important. I’ve got to slow down, be fully present for this family, and really be there with them.”

One way that Troyer suggests doing this is through language and guidance. For instance, leading into a visitation by saying:

“Is everyone here? Great. I want to talk about a few things before we go back to see your grandmother. Just to let you know, I think you’ve made the right decision. I know that viewing your loved one is difficult but I think this important for your grief process and I think you will get a lot out of this eventually. But I know it’s tough right now.

“When you go back, you can touch your loved one. You can talk to them. That’s all normal. I’m going to give you plenty of time. I’m going to step out of the room at various points and give you some privacy. But I’m also going to be nearby if you need anything. At some point I’m going to ask some of you if there’s anything we can do to make your loved on look their best, because we really think that’s important.

“Do you have any questions? Oh, and by the way, some of your family members are going to react differently. Some of you are going to want to stay here for quite a while. Some of you aren’t going to be very comfortable in there. Some of you are going to maybe cry and some of you are going to feel like you’re walking through a cloud. Those are all normal reactions. I would encourage you not to judge other family members.”

This isn’t to open up a debate about whether or not you should encourage families to view or not. They’ve already made the decision to view. What funeral professionals should do is affirm that they’ve made the right choice, and answer any questions or hesitations that they may have ahead of time.

“If you can predict any question that they had but were too embarrassed to say, it will seem like you’re a mind-reader. And when you come across like a mind-reader, that’s not what they think. They think, ‘This is a person who really cares.’ And that’s when they feel that energy.”


How do YOU think that funeral professionals can better engage their families and community partners? Is your funeral home going out of your way to provide comfort, information and support to families? Be sure to let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

A big thanks to Dr. Jason Troyer of Mt. Hope Grief Support for a wonderful and insightful ICCFA session! To learn more about Dr. Troyer’s work, check out his website: mthopegrief.com

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