Funeral home firm establishes state's 1st grieving center

Elkridge facility will function as clearinghouse

April 07, 1999|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Joining a national trend, a major funeral home and cemetery company has gone beyond its traditional role and opened a center in Elkridge to educate the public about grief and grieving.

Located in a former funeral home, the nonprofit Life Celebration Center is a sprawling building with a sunlight-filled lobby that has exposed brick walls and polished hardwood floors. It has display bookcases filled with books on death and grieving, comfortable chairs, a "reflection room" where people can read or watch videos and a large room that can hold up to 100 people for meetings or lectures.

"There are a surprising number of people who need and want this information but who don't know where to turn to get it," said Paul Kin, communications director for the center and its only full-time employee. He said he envisions the center as a clearinghouse where people can find and disseminate information about bereavement.

The center is funded by the Maryland division of Service Corporation International, which owns 23 funeral homes and cemeteries in the state and is the largest group of funeral homes and cemeteries in the country. The center is the first of its kind in the state, and the company's first, SCI officials say.

"It's becoming kind of a nationwide trend, but it's going slowly," said Fran Levy, director of communications for International Order of the Golden Rule, an international professional association for independent funeral directors based in St. Louis. "It's not like pet rocks, where one day it's not there and the next day it's sweeping the nation."

Such centers also serve a business function.

Kelly Smith, public relations manager for the National Funeral Directors Association, based in Brookfield, Wis., said funeral homes and cemeteries can benefit greatly from reaching out to the community in this way because it helps to build name recognition -- increasingly important, he noted, in a mobile society where people do not automatically go to the funeral homes that their parents or grandparents went to.

He did not know how many such centers are operating around the country, but said many of them, run by the industry, have opened in the past five years.

Levy said funeral directors have expanded their "after-care" services in response to a growing need. Although it may be rare to have an entire center devoted to grief, she noted, such information is provided by individual funeral directors and the Internet -- which she says is the biggest clearinghouse.

The University of Baltimore has a Bereavement and Hospice Support listing on the Internet that lists support groups and resources by state. In Maryland, as in other states, many groups offer free counseling and information.

But the industry can play a role, too, she says.

"Funeral directors in the old days started out as cabinetmakers," Levy said. "Clergymen did the funeral, and after-care was living in a town where everyone knew each other.

"It's becoming apparent that somebody needs to be doing this," she said. "It's a community service."

Many community members and grief experts say they are excited about the new resource, but some have reservations about the absence of counseling.

Christopher Rudolf, a social worker at Charlestown Retirement Community in Catonsville and an intern at the St. Agnes Hospice in Baltimore, attended a round-table recently to talk about possibilities for the center.

"It's a great concept," Rudolf said. "It's nice to see a large conglomerate of funeral homes, that have been getting bad publicity for high costs, reaching out to the community."

He said some of the round-table participants worried that Kin, who does not have a counseling background, is the only full-time staff and that no counselors are on staff or on call.

"You could have somebody coming in who is suicidal," he said. "You need to have somebody professional there who can work with them."

Carole F. Seddon, clinical director of the cancer counseling center at the Johns Hopkins Hospital oncology center, said some people could get more, rather than less, upset reading about death and dying without a counselor on hand.

"That would concern me, unless they have some kind of back-up system," she said.

But Corinth Matkins, coordinator of children's bereavement services at Stella Maris Hospice in Timonium, said the more information is available about grief, the better the public will be.

"There's not enough information out there," she said.

Kin said counseling is not a long-term goal of the center. Enough counselors are available in the area, he said, and he would rather focus on filling what he said is an unmet need in the community -- disseminating information.

"We're trying to be a connector," he said. "We want to turn families onto resources that already exist. We don't want to reinvent the wheel and duplicate efforts."

Sun staff writer Jamal E. Watson contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 4/07/99

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