They were a sweet couple, Helen and Bob. Their beautiful little Maltese, Lexi, had just died and they were a mess. Lexi was just one of their many Maltese loves, as that’s what kind of family they were… a “Maltese family.” I was so touched to hear all of their stories, starting with their very first Maltese, Mitzie who passed away years ago, to Lexi and her spirited behavior, to include the three others who were still living at home. They adored those sassy little dogs, and they were not afraid to show their tears and to be vulnerable in front of me about expressing their love and their grief.
It’s such a privilege to “honor the stories.” With this family, hearing about each of their dogs’ unique qualities, to finding common ground with Helen with growing up farm girls and sharing our “wheat-lingo.” I sat with them as they cried one minute, and then laughed the next. It feels so good when you’ve created a safe and trusting place for sharing and mourning; to be able to say whatever comes to mind with no fear of being shamed.
While I love hearing family’s stories, I also know I have a responsibility in making sure every family receives a diligent education regarding their memorial options. Countless times I’ve said to families “it’s my responsibility to educate you on what you can do, and it’s your responsibility to pick what’s right for you.” I go on to tell them a bad day for me would be to have a family come back and say, “I wish you would’ve told me about that, it would have been perfect.” Every family, regardless of the situation, deserves an education on what their memorialization options are.
Here’s what I tell families… We do not wake up on a bright sunshiny morning and declare “what a beautiful a day to run down to the funeral home or jump on Mr. Google to learn all about memorial choices!” We just don’t do that, for humans or pets. Therefore, while they are with me, they will get the education they deserve.
Back to Lexi’s family. Lexi’s human mommy did what many oftentimes do, she sat and shared stories for a bit and then found the need to wander around our display area. As I had already given my scripted memorialization presentation (yes, I said scripted, and if you want it, let me know! It’s a good’un!), she was studying the various options we’d just chatted about. She focused on a Mother of Pearl and brass urn, as the white re- minded her of her beautiful Lexi. However, I could tell she wasn’t 100% certain with the piece. While she had made mention of the urn being a bit higher priced than she originally expected to spend, there was something else.
To digress a second regarding my presentation script and to share a few secrets of that rock-solid piece! Think about these questions as you set up your educational presentation to a family:
- “Picture taking this piece home. Where will this sit in your home?” I literally have families close their eyes and envision this.
- “What will be around this piece? A frame? What colors? What materials, wood, metal, tile?”
- “Since it’s an urn, do you want it to stand out or nestle subtly in with your decor?”
- Here’s another question I ask families searching for the perfect pet urn: “What will happen with this urn when you die? Have you told your children your wishes? Have you put this in your funeral pre-planning documents?”
- See what I did there in teeing up the next layer of discussion for the preneed counselors? You’re welcome for that!
A big question for pet families is getting a feel for the entire pet family at home for the discussion of a “fam- ily urn,” a human urn which can be used to hold all the pets. As I educate families “our pets lived under one roof in life let’s let them live under one roof in death.” (Note: If you’d like more information on how I designate each pet’s bag of cremains in urn, let me know!) Back to Lexi’s family. We had previously agreed the urn selected would be used as a family urn, not only for all the Maltese’s but also for her cremains. Now, it was just a matter of zeroing in on the right urn. “Tell me again the decor of your home?” I asked. “Rustic, old-world, stone, deep colors of nature” she said. And, then she remembered a photo that she had on her cell phone of her renovated kitchen, and proudly pulled it up to show me. All the words she had used to describe her home were spot on. As I looked at her home and got a feel for who she was, and what she would be proud of for her precious Maltese babes and classy for her, I knew just what to suggest. And, it had nothing to do with the Mother of Pearl design she’d eyed earlier. I didn’t have the urn in stock I was thinking about. So, I quickly popped up my iPad and opened the on-line product display site of one of my supplier partners and clicked on the picture of the exact urn I was thinking about. A beautiful organic pebble stone urn (human size) which matched her home and style exactly. I showed it to her and her eyes lit up. “It’s gorgeous!” she exclaimed. I shared the price with her, almost four times the price of the Mother of Pearl urn. “I’ll take it! For something that beautiful and perfect, it doesn’t matter.”
And, she said, “It will be the most beautiful piece for my gorgeous Maltese’s and I to be in.”
For some of you, Lexi’s story may sound like baloney, because maybe this has been your experience:
- People only want cheap.
- People don’t want to be sold stuff like this.
- People don’t want to be educated on their options as they’re in a hurry to get out of the funeral home.
- My staff won’t follow a script… have you lost your mind, Coleen?
We have a beautiful opportunity with these families, My Friends! And we have a responsibility to help them. But I do get it… I think family’s objections have worn down our death care professionals to the point they’ve just stopped making standard merchandise presentations, or actually believing it when families ask for “cheap.”
When people get value, the price objection goes away. Read that again. And again. And again. And, then make it your operation’s mantra. People want value.
Here are some pointers when it comes to memorialization education:
- I might be pointing out an obvious with this one. What is up with the words like “basic urn,” “temporary urn,” or whatever else the words are? So, meh and, in my eyes, a bit disrespectful and con- descending. I coined ours the “Transitional Um.” One that will be used UNTIL we transition into a permanent piece. Doesn’t that sound lovely, and with a call-to-action to choose something else? Curious to hear your thoughts with that, and if you too will start using that terminology. Message me at Co1eenHCo1een.Rocks with your thoughts.
- Have a script that you present every time, without fail, to every family, when regarding memorialization choices.
- Tell you families you are HONORED to be able to educate them on their options for permanent memorialization. Educate, People, EDUCATE!!! ! For people to make a good, educated decision, they need information.
- Present with questions.
- Where will this piece be in your home?
- What was your dog’s personality? Quiet and subdued or very colorful? Let’s match that.
- When you see this urn, what will you want to remember fondly?
- Display your memorialization products so families can easily envision these pieces in their own home. News flash! NOBODY decorates with slat walls! You will find a much easier and customer-friendly way of talking about memorialization when you can mimic their own environment versus showcasing items on slat wall! Have that stuff removed, for God’s sake!
- Arrange items in vignettes with themes. Put like- items together such as a cat urn, a cat cremation keepsake jewelry piece, a frame to hold the paw print and a locket of hair, a small keepsake item for the child at college, and a rock with a sample of the cat’s paw print and their name. Help people envision these pieces together. Think of it like a mannequin at a clothing store; they’re outfitted and adorned with pieces that complement each other. Do the same thing!
- Listen to what the family mentions in conversation, and bring those important tidbits back up in your educational discussion:
- “My mom sure loved Lexi, too.” Make sure to talk about keepsake urns, jewelry pieces and personalized rocks so that Mom can remember Lexi, too.
- “Molly was really my daughter’s dog who’s off away at college. She had the hardest time sleeping at first in her dorm room because Molly was essentially her pillow her at home.” Remind yourself to show her the personalized blanket so that she can always have Molly near her at night.
- “My husband used to pretend to get really mad when Ace helped him plant the flowers. Actually what Ace did was go behind him and dig everything up! He put on a good act but he,1ike all of us, thought it was very funny!” Wouldn’t a rock, complete with Ace’s paw print on it, be so touching in that flower garden? A “tribute” to the many flowers that Ace dug up and needed replanting?
Families want information, they really do. They just don’t know the right questions to ask. And, just like most of us, they don’t want to be “sold,” but do want to buy. Make it easy on them to do that. Educate. Edu- cate. Educate. Trust me. They will appreciate it, and they will thank you.
In 2004, the death of her dog, Mico, guided Coleen Ellis to start Pet Angel Memorial Cen- ter. In 2009 Coleen founded Two Hearts Pet Loss Center, assisting others in providing meaningful pet death care services, as well to be an educational resource in the pet grief discipline. She is Certified in Thanatology, a Certified Pet Loss Professional, and teaches Pet Loss & Grief Certification courses. In 2011, Coleen released her first book Pet Parents: A Journey Through Unconditional Love and Grief and in 2022 she co-authored a book with Dr. Mary Gardner Forever Friend. In 2014, she helped found The Pet Loss Center, now a Gateway operation.
She is a founder and past co-chair of the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance, past president and current Executive Director of the IAAHPC, and currently serves on the Board of Trustees for Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science and her alma mater Fort Hays State University’s Board where she was also the 2018 Alumni Achievement Award recipient.