The National Funeral Directors Association Presents… Meet the Mentors 2020

As quite a few of you know, I am a funeral director. You know this because, either, A) You know me personally or B) I write and post about it often. The latter of which, is because I am taking it upon myself to let the world know what I do for a living. I want to let the world know because funerals are a part of life that needs more attention and education. Everybody needs their story told, and I am the one to do so.

In order to be good (nay, great) at this, I need to further my own education. I need to seek out as many answers as I have questions in how to be better at my job. How can I embalm better? How can I handle certain families during arrangements? How can I make better business decisions for the future? The way to find these answers and many more, is by asking my peers. I certainly ask my boss and fellow employees and we all learn from one another. By being on my county’s board of directors association, I can also learn from them as well. But, what about on a national level? What about from some of the top minds of people I would never get the chance to normally meet within the industry?

Ask and ye shall receive.

And receive I did. Due to the NFDA (National Funeral Directors Association), I was able to attend this year’s Meet the Mentors program. Meet the Mentors is an annual 3 day conference featuring mentors (leading funeral service directors) and mentees (50 funeral directors under the age of 40 or newly licensed in the last 5 years). Being that I am 35 years old and have been licensed for 3 years now, I hit on both. You are selected by the NFDA after submitting your name and hoping to be one of the lucky 50 chosen. Imagine my surprise when I found out I had made it! Truly an honor.

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Meet the Mentors 2020

The conference this year was held in Atlanta, GA at the very well put together Emory Conference Center Hotel. Rooms, food and fees were all covered via the Funeral Service Foundation, which coincides with the NFDA. Through this generosity they are able to host such events, seminars and conferences throughout the year. As much fun as I knew this was going to be, I also knew this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. I did not want to miss out on anything. I was going to go in with as open of a mind as possible and try to soak everything in.

From Sunday, March 8 to Tuesday March 10, I was locked in. I was excited and had butterflies the entire time, but I didn’t want to miss out on any opportunities to ask questions, take notes, but also laugh amongst my fellow directors and really connect with them. And I definitely connected with a few of them. It was truly an inspiring time and also refreshing (minus the exhaustion by the end of the night).

It really couldn’t have gone any better in my mind. The program delivered. I wish we had more time and even more chances at this. For anyone who is thinking of submitting their name or doubting its viability; GO FOR IT. You will not regret it. Like I said, I wish I could do this every year.

My morning started off at about 5:30 AM Central Time (Wisconsinite here). That was my wake-up call as I was heading down to Chicago for my flight out to Atlanta. Before anyone asks, the only reason I did not fly out of my hometown of Milwaukee, was because I had miles to use and Chicago was the flight to Atlanta that I could use them for. Cue the girlfriend giving me a ride to the airport. Gracias mi novia.

So, a one hour drive south it was to be. Only, it wasn’t to be, as my flight was delayed an hour. No big deal, I can kill an hour reading. Done. Once we boarded and headed to… wait, New Orleans!? That’s correct, apparently there was going to be a layover in New Orleans and then to Atlanta. I’m being tested already, aren’t I? After landing in New Orleans for a bit, I went to one of the airport bars and ordered a beer. I was immediately asked to repeat my request, not because the bartender couldn’t hear me, but because of my accent. I was told I have the thickest northern accent this person has ever heard. Ok…

After landing in Atlanta, it took my Uber driver two hours from the time I requested the ride to dropping me off at the Emory Hotel. Talk about really earning those “free miles” eh? I guess you get what you pay for. Never again will I not pay for the luxury of flying quickly and in comfort (shoutout Southwest Airlines). I will say though, all of that weariness went away once I stepped inside the lobby and saw the NFDA signs, lanyards and name tags set up. I had finally made it. Noah Watry, Milwaukee Funeral Director, Embalmer and Life Insurance Agent had arrived.

I quickly unpacked my bags, showered, shaved and headed back out, ready to mingle. Only, I thought I was ready to mingle. I was so nervous! I can meet with families who just lost a husband to suicide or lost a son to murder, or lead funeral processions in traffic 100 cars deep, but I suddenly couldn’t talk to fellow funeral directors? Oh Noah… I had hyped myself up too much. Ok, let’s get a beer and see where my friends were. I knew a few people that were going, and that was a Godsend. My friend Sarah bailed me out on this one! After talking with her a bit and getting to know a few other people around, I was feeling a little bit better inside. I’m sure the liquid courage helped a little too.

During dinner, we were able to get the agenda for the next few days from Bryant Hightower, the President Elect of the NFDA and enjoy a wonderful meal. Wonderful is an understatement of the food. We were told numerous times that we would not leave hungry, and man, I think I gained 5 pounds over 3 days. At least it felt like it. The spread was amazing. And they made sure we were fed and had drinks (non-alcoholic) on hand at any point. I was truly impressed. They say a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Well, the NFDA has my heart now, so thank you for all that you provided.

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Goldeneye 64 on Arcade!? Heck yes.

You know what else helps? Great people and entertainment! After dinner, we were treated to bowling, arcade games and billiards in a private setting at the hotel’s bowling alley. What made it even greater, is knowing that I won both of the bowling games I played. I will admit though, I used to be in a bowling league (before I chose basketball over bowling), so the pressure was on me to prove my mettle. The highlight of the entertainment though was finding out the Goldeneye 64 game was available to play on an arcade (shoutout N64 days). Ok ok, the real highlight was forging a few friendships that night. From Tuck, to James, to Panda, to Forest, to Keith, to Chandra, to Joe (not Joseph) to… everyone I came in contact with! If I didn’t list you, please don’t be offended! Just call me out in the comments section. Ha.

I ended up talking to a few more directors as the night winded down and went back to my room with a giant smile on my face. This is exactly what I needed. I had been feeling a bit down lately with life and business and as we are all prone to do, question our place and abilities. I know I’m great at what I do. I know I could get a job at any funeral home I wanted (mostly). I know I have a lot to offer. But I want to be great where I am and with those I’m surrounded by. This trip definitely energized me in ways I could not have gotten anywhere else professionally in Wisconsin.

I ended up falling asleep watching the “Love is Blind” finale on Netflix. LOL me.

Day two would start a little earlier than I thought because I still had myself on phones back home and received a death call around 1:00 AM. Oops. Sorry, I won’t be making that one. Fast forward to 6:30 AM and I’m up for breakfast. Again, the food was second to none. Second breakfast at 7:30 AM and after feeling like a Hobbit with all the breakfasts, it’s time to get back for a shower. Time to suit up, my fellow directors.

As the day started, we took our seats and immediately saw the treasure trove of NFDA swag waiting for each one of us. Besides the usual lanyard, notepads and pens, there was a water bottle, usb drive and portable charger sitting there for us. Anyone who knows me, knows I am a sucker for stuff like this. If it’s funeral related and has a legitimate use, I’m all over it.

Our first speaker was C. Lynn Gibson, and boy did I learn real quick that these mentors would have such a wealth of knowledge. I was writing as furiously as I could, while also trying to be present, in the moment, and pay attention. Without going into too much detail, I learned from Lynn that we as funeral directors need to listen to everyone’s story. We need to adapt to today’s families. Gone are the days of your traditional funeral with visitation and viewing during the night followed by a Vigil Service, only to have additional visitation, Mass and then burial afterward, spanning two days. Those types of funerals certainly still exist, but here is a telling statistic: From 2012 to 2019, families that felt religion is important in funerals fell from 49.5% to 35% basically. In the next ten years, that number will fall even further.

While there is no right or wrong to what a family wants for their final disposition (burial, cremation, green burial, etc.), it is right or wrong for us to fail them. Never stop learning, never stop listening. The families we serve leave it up to us to tell their story. They put their trust in us to do so. That’s what we do, and that’s what we need to continue doing, regardless of their wishes.

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Amy Cunningham presenting about modern funerals and green burials.

The second mentor was Amy Cunningham. She certainly has adapted to the modern funeral trends. In my professional funeral service career, I have had a few green burials. For those who do not know what a green burial is, it is a burial that promotes one being a part of the Earth. There is no embalming done or any metal used for a casket. Instead, there are essential oils and cleansing done, along with being wrapped in a shroud and then being placed inside a pine or wicker made casket. There are no harmful chemicals or metal used, because it is a green burial after all.

Amy taught us that there are numerous ways to celebrate one’s life and share their story through funerals by memorial tributes. Families can certainly participate more than they ever have before with today’s funerals and we should be promoting that. While a licensed funeral director is still necessary to be present with the deceased during any funeral, we can also invite family to help out as well. Amy showed me that there are many variations to funerals that I never even thought of. It’s this type of thinking outside the box that will allow us funeral directors to better serve our families.

Our final mentor was Matthew Bailey. He of the eccentric, yet reality-hitting-facts in how the future is now. It’s not 30 years from now. It’s not even 10 years from now. It is right now. I mentioned how traditional funerals with religion are going down in numbers. While I certainly am on the side of viewing and believe it is a way to let everyone say goodbye to a loved one, that doesn’t mean everyone else does.

“If viewing the body is important, what about viewing the soul?”

As stated, years ago, cremation was thought to be just a fad. A passing fancy that very few families would go for. Now, it’s become the “norm.” Cremation outweighs traditional funerals. This difference has caused some families to view their own traditions in a separate light. But it is still up to us professionals to make a difference. It is still up to us to help them heal and move on. When someone does pass, we still respond at 2:00 AM. We still have to tell their story. Every ceremony matters. The power of funeral directors to do so is the difference in being great. That trust is huge. It’s one I don’t take lightly, and neither should any other funeral director.

The future is now. There is no waiting for things to change. Be the change. There are no trends, only that which we have in our present time. Waiting will leave you behind. Educate yourself on what is modern and what you can do. If you are unable, that is where I come in. I am licensed and continue to better myself and learn more about how I can serve you and your family in every way.

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Ruby, therapy dog extraordinaire.

One of the highlights seemed to be Ruby, the therapy dog of Hightower Family Funeral Homes. Who doesn’t love dogs, am I right!? Therapy dogs have been proven to lighten the mood, bring peace and a smile to anyone’s face during the grieving process. Having a dog around just makes you feel better. Ruby was presented as such a dog and seeing the value in having that around the funeral home was eye opening. There is more to it then just having a dog present. Therapy dogs are specially trained to help those in need and provide comfort and care to. Just as service dogs are used for police officers or the blind, therapy dogs are there to aid the bereaved.

As the presentations ended, the mentoring only began, with round table discussions between the mentors and mentees. This allowed more one on one time and for any questions to be asked. Being this personal really did inspire me to be great. Talking with everyone face to face allowed me to really feel what they had to say on a personal level. I truly felt like we were all in this together. It was as if this was the moment where the torch was being passed. Because they are the mentors, and we the mentees, this was the time for us to take everything in and apply it to our daily lives.

Our brand is who we are, what we provide and why we do so. I left the program learning that I am someone who has the power to change lives and help people express a lost loved one’s story. We only get one shot at this. Every story matters. I am someone that provides the platform in which a family wants to share that story. Whether it is grandma being laid out for her legacy to be shared, or a brother being memorialized through music, videos and pictures or a daughter to be laid to rest through Earthly measures, just as she lived her life. This is why I am here. This is why I will always be here.

I left Meet the Mentors feeling as if I could truly do so much more. I left with goals of being even bigger and better within the funeral service industry. I plan on sharing even more with the general public. There is so much that people don’t know about death. From the moment it occurs to the funeral options and planning, to the final goodbye and dealing with those emotions that carry on after the ceremonies are complete. Death is something that we must all deal with. It is how you handle it that matters.

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Who is going to be that voice? Who is going to speak up for the deceased? Who is going to tell their story? I am. To come from a small, northern Wisconsin town with a population of only 1,000 people to now being someone entrusted with such a great responsibility in a city of over 500,000 as its population, this is something I take very seriously. And it is with tremendous privilege and honor that I do so.

Thank you.

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