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Content here represents the voice of SIGNATURE SUNSETS, an informational initiative designed to broaden and brighten horizons in the funerary domain.

The material is an outgrowth of a pre-planning reference book, Pondering Leaves: Composing and Conveying Your Life Story's Epilogue, written by the author of this blog.

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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

THERAPY DOGS IN FUNERAL HOMES

FOUR-LEGGED SUPPORT


If you paw through the staff directory on the website of Sillinger Family Funeral Home in Greenfield, Indiana, be sure to scroll down to catch a photo and biographical glimpse of Butler, a long-eared and furry employee that’s also featured on another page pertaining to “Grief & Healing.”  Like his human colleagues, the facility’s Golden Retriever, trained for grief therapy, receives customer feedback via his own e-mail address. 

As a staff member at the DeJohn Funeral Homes & Crematory in the Cleveland, Ohio area, Magic, a Portugeese Water Dog, has his own business cards as well as Facebook followers.  At the Michigan Memorial Funeral Home in Flat Rock, Michigan, Zoey’s business cards are given to guests as a keepsake to remind them of the comfort the Golden Retriever offered during their experience there.  Also, the pooch’s name is written as the first entry in a guest register book at funerary events.  

A page on the website of the G.H. Hermann Funeral Homes in Indianapolis and Greenwood, Indiana, features two “facility dogs” that grace the premises.  An overview of job descriptions for these licensed grief counselors, Lady and Jax, includes the names of the locations where they work.  Both tail-waggers can be contacted by way of their singular e-mail addresses.  Multiple Facebook comments directed toward Lady suggest that these compassionate associates have quite a following!

Many organizations around the country have been training and registering dogs for healing ministrations in different types of community settings and under varying circumstances.  Often they are summoned for visits to places where tragedies have occurred.  But, increasingly, their value is being realized at nationwide funeral homes. 

You can find: 
Jovie, a German Shepherd mix, at the Life Changes Grief Management Center of Caldwell & Cowan Funeral Home in Georgia
Moses, a Golden Retriever, at Westville Funerals and Cremation in South Carolina
Bogana miniature Australian Shepherd, at the Brunswick Memorial Funeral Home in New Jersey
Dakota, at the Life Tributes Funeral Home & Cremation Service in Spencer, Wisconsin; 
Otis, at the Gwen Mooney Funeral Home in the Cinncinnati region
Kibbi, at the Morris Baker Funeral Home & Cremation Servicein Johnson City, Tennessee; 
Seger, a Chocolate Lab, at Duffield & Pastrick Family Funeral Home in Coloma, Michigan
Aragon at the Turner Funeral Home in the Pittsburgh area

These are but a few of many working “therapists” addressing the needs of grieving individuals and lending cheer at arrangement conferences, visitations, funeral services, and other affairs, while sometimes serving alongside a two-legged staff member as a greeter at the door.  For example, by viewing a website video, one can observe Sage, a Golden Retriever at Elm Ridge Funeral Home & Memorial Park in Muncie, Indiana, mingling among a group surrounding an open casket.  

In assuming their professional roles, the cordial canines (attired in service vests) integrate into gatherings in a manner that makes a stunning impression on funeral directors who often observe an uncanny and intuitive honing ability.  That is, there is a perceptible tendency for them to find folks and offer their solace to the individuals whose grief seems to be the most pronounced.  Invariably, they tend to gravitate toward members of a decedent’s immediate family. 

The concept of grief therapy dogs appears to be a burgeoning phenomenon because of the benefits that have been reported by those who have adopted it. The theoretical basis relates to physiological processes, such as:  lowering of blood pressure and heart rate, decrease in levels of cortisol; release of neurotransmitters and hormones (dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins, etc.) that improve mood; and a reduction in the incidence of depression.

But empirical reality may be more influential. Stroking the soft fur of a sedate companion can evoke serenity.  Unlike humans, “man’s best friends” can be counted on to provide unconditional acceptance and affection; they won’t judge someone who shows up in torn jeans and a ratty hairdo.  

For The News-Herald article by Jacob Lammers (“Therapy dog works his ‘magic’ at funeral home”), in referring to their therapy dog, Patty DeJohn has noted that "Magic brings comfort to people when words can't.  People try to be comforting and say the wrong things. With animals, it's an energy of love."  

According to Felissa Elfenbein’s Two Little Cavaliers blog entry (titled “Therapy Dog: Funeral Home Greeter”), during a family arrangement session at the Fawcett, Oliver, Glass and Palmer Funeral Home in Chillicothe, Ohio, the funeral director, Terry Palmer, observed a poignant moment when their therapy dog approached someone who was particularly distraught.  Wilson, the Labrador consoler, walked over to the woman and gently laid his head on her lap. 

It goes without saying that deciding to employ Hollie, a Driftwood Golden Retriever, probably was a no-brainer for funeral directors of Betzler Life Story Funeral Homes in Kalamazoo, Michigan, since one of the communities they serve is Paw Paw.  But a number of establishments are offering this amenity as a soothing gesture, regardless of name incentives or whether or not their clients are well heeled.  It’s up to individual families to decide if they’d like to have the no-cost inclusion of a canine presence.

Mourners who welcome the participation of these atypical stewards invariably reap consolation from their therapeutic intervention.  Even momentary contact can unleash suppressed emotions.  As reported by Amy Rabideau Silvers in JSOnline (“Funeral home mourns therapy dog Oliver”), at the Krause Funeral Home in Milwaukee, there was a time when a young boy who had stopped talking after a sibling’s death actually talked at length to their veteran therapy dog, Oliver.  

Personnel at various facilities often comment that, in spite of being dressed in suits and fine attire, folks attending events don’t hesitate to sit down on the floor to commune with the dogs.

Terry Palmer believes that it’s important for a funeral “home” to feel like a home (as the name implies), rather than like a mortuary.  In an mlive.com article by Linda S. Mah (“Canine comfort for the grieving: Golden retriever a welcome friend at the funeral home”), Scott Betzler reinforced this point when he reflected upon the usual manner of death management prior to the advent of designated facilities.  In previous eras, funeral activities used to occur in the place where a decedent had lived – the rooms where children played and meals were shared, with pets nearby on the sofa.  He suggested that a funeral home, like someone’s residence, is less intimidating when this member of the family is there to greet you.

So when fetching a funeral home, maybe you’ll want to collar one that is literally going to the dogs!  If administrators at an establishment you favor tell you you’re barking up the wrong tree, at least you can hound the funeral director a bit by suggesting this type of addition to their staff roster.  With a little prodding now, perhaps by the time services are rendered your people may be among those who will appreciate the warmth and gentility of a comforting canine attendant.  
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