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Marking 100 years of helping the bereaved

A photo of Selected Independent Funeral Homes' founding members

Selected Independent Funeral Homes' founding members

Way before the advent of email, or even direct-dial phones, a small group of funeral directors from across the U.S. would regularly exchange news and ideas with each other via telegram. It was a modern way of keeping up to date with the latest innovations and share values.

Rather than compete, these businesses had decided that the best way to help the bereaved in their communities was to help each other. Then in 1917, a small group of funeral directors met face-to-face to discuss a more permanent way to work together and help each other. Here they formed an exclusive by-invitation-only trade association, National Selected Morticians, founded with the Golden Rule, do unto others as you would have done unto you.

It’s known as Selected Independent Funeral Homes today. You may be unfamiliar with the gold-pyramid-on-blue logo that distinguishes its members – and that’s okay – because what’s important to them is the standard of service you receive from its members in your time of need.

“Helping bereaved families and the communities they serve is the ultimate goal,” says Selected’s chief executive Rob Paterkiewicz.

A copy of Selected Independent Funeral Homes' code of ethics dating back to 1927

Proudly U.S. based, in Deerfield, Illinois, the values set by the organization are now recognized in countries around the world. Just as it was in 1917, it’s still an exclusive group to belong to – Selected has only around 600 members, which operate about 1,300 independently owned and operated funeral homes in total.

“We are a fairly small organization when you look at the grand total of funeral homes worldwide. And that’s on purpose,” Rob explains.

“To gain the most from it, you have to be comfortable with sharing your ideas with other funeral homes and listening. It’s a give and take situation – our members are students and teachers at the same time. And, with the processes we use to evaluate them and ultimately invite them into membership, they tend to be the crème de la crème.”

Selected supports its members with programs to help them cope with the emotional situations they experience and witness, to keep them healthy in mind and body as they help the bereaved.

“I don’t think most people realize that in the instance of a terrible event – the death of a child, a family killed in a serious weather event, or a shooting – the funeral director is involved at a first-responder level,” says Rob. “They are called on to be there and take care of the dead. That is a painful and stressful situation for the funeral professional.”

Some of Selected’s funeral home members have been paying their annual dues to the association since 1917, while many others have been rooted in their local communities for decades. Every family or individual served by a Selected funeral home is asked after the funeral, how did they do? Selected members use this feedback to continue their growth and serve at the highest levels.

Telegrams from 1917 planning Selected's first Annual Convention

Although Selected’s values have remained the same, a lot has changed in 100 years. The funeral choices people make today can be very different from the way our great-great grandparents bid their loved ones farewell. Yet there’s still a place for traditional rituals which can help people to grieve.

“Our focus is on the future,” says Rob, who has observed the nation’s shift towards cremation over burial. He’s also aware of life-celebrations being held without the body of the person who has died being there, for fear their presence would be too upsetting for the bereaved.

“There’s nothing wrong with cremation and nothing wrong with a celebration of one’s life,” he explains, “but don’t overlook the fact that a loved one has died. It is healthy to be sad and shed a tear or two. When it’s swept under the rug, at some point you’ll recognize that you need to grieve the death before you heal. In the funeral service, we’re trying to get that point across.”

Aware that personal budget is a consideration for some bereaved clients, part of a Selected funeral home’s role is to educate and provide ideas that are mindful of all their needs.

A number of Selected funeral homes are going further, he adds, as religious institutions become less central to some people’s lives. Where places of worship were once the traditional hubs for marking significant life-occasions such as births, marriages and deaths, modern funeral homes are becoming a hub for the circle of life. Many are now opening out their beautiful reception centres and catering facilities as the venue for baby showers, wedding anniversaries and comings-of-age.

Rob PaterkiewiczRob Paterkiewicz

Today, air travel and intelligent technologies enable funeral directors to share ideas and regularly meet virtually, as well as face-to-face, throughout the year. Yet Selected Independent Funeral Homes’ core principles and values remain the same as they’ve ever been.

In September, it will be marking the beginning of a year-long centenary celebration, when members gather for its 99th annual meeting in Chicago, where the association first began. There will be toasts and stories from old and new friends promises Rob, as the organization and its members look back on their history and kick-start a 12-month celebration. “Then,” he says, “the focus will be on our next 100 years serving and growing the very best in independent funeral service.”