New Help Fur You

With 42 years under my belt and a reputation for being somewhat reluctant to change, you can imagine my reaction in 2016 when my son acquired a dog he pronounced would one day be a “grief therapy dog” at Oakey’s. Heck, I wasn’t even sure what a grief therapy dog WAS, so I sure as heck wasn’t immediately keen on the idea of allowing a canine to mix with our grieving families.

Sam spent the next couple of years at mortuary school in Nashville, and I figured by the time he returned to work in Roanoke he would have shelved the idea of his English Golden Retriever coming to work every day at our family firm.  Wrong!  And that wasn’t all I was wrong about:  Sam’s dog, Ragnar has been an incredible success with every family requesting him!

A member of my funeral study group from Columbus, Ohio related his experiences at Schoedinger Funeral Home with their grief therapy dog, and how the idea had caught on in a massive way. So I was willing to give “Rags” a shot here to show me he could actually help families at their hardest time. It didn’t take long before I was telling young Sam how wrong I had been to approach the idea of a grief therapy dog with such skepticism. Ragnar is now being requested multiple times a week and has been a calming influence on dozens of our families.

The idea is actually quite simple: our funeral directors make families aware of the availability of Ragnar and ask if each family would want Ragnar to be present for a visitation or service. We explain that the presence of a grief therapy dog can be beneficial to all in the immediate area, and that stroking a dog can lower blood pressure rates, stress, and ease respiration. Not just any dog can do this; my own border collie mix Stella would probably spaz out everyone in the building with her nervous energy!

Ragnar is actually still in training to receive his official certification as a grief therapy dog, but is getting plenty of practice until then. While I have not heard one negative thing about the concept, Rags has received tons of compliments, kind letters, and even gifts from grateful relatives of decedents. All of our staff members have fallen in love with this big, white creature who has one of the best dispositions of any animal I have ever seen. He seems to know just what to do when he is on the job, and has a particular affinity for kids. But Rags is equally adept at putting a smile on the faces of seniors and those with special needs.

To say that the entire concept has bowled me over would be an understatement. I have gone from rolling my eyeballs at the thought of a dog in the funeral home to being one of Ragnar’s biggest proponents. Having Ragnar at a visitation or funeral is a complimentary service we offer at Oakey’s, but the demand is beginning to outweigh his availability. We may one day have to acquire a second dog to help those going through grief, bereavement, and mourning. But no matter how cute, smart, and sweet that second dog might be, he could never win over the hearts of those at Oakey’s like Ragnar has!

“Why did your people call me in the middle of the night after the death in my family?”

“Why did your people call me in the middle of the night after the death in my family?”

That comment, or a variation of it, is probably the single biggest question or complaint I get at Oakey’s. It comes in the grocery store, in church, and on the comment sheets that families use to respond to me about our quality of service. It comes in phone calls, letters, or personal interactions on the the Roanoke Greenway or at hockey games. I can certainly understand why a family might be curious or even annoyed about this topic. Someone they love has just passed away, and a stranger is on the other end of their phone expressing their condolences and asking about embalming permission. The answer is one I am proud to recite as it showcases yet another example of the high level of service Oakey’s is known for.

Many (probably MOST) funeral homes these days do not have an on-duty staff at night; if a death occurs at a hospital, the funeral home will simply leave the decedent in the morgue overnight and send an employee to pick up the body the next day. These funeral homes use “on call” staff members only to go to a home or nursing facility when they are notified about a death there. Some even contract out body removals to a third-party agency.

At Oakey’s, we do things very differently. With no disrespect intended toward the fine hospitals in our region, I would not want my loved one to be taken to one of their morgues and left overnight. A morgue is cold, dark, and usually has other bodies in close proximity to one another. Having a contingent of our associates working all night long gives us at Oakey’s the ability to respond with swiftness and dignity to each and every death in which we are notified. Whereas many other funeral homes only send one employee on a “removal,” our firm sends a minimum of two to carefully bring the decedent back into our care. Again, our family believes that dignity is a key ingredient to everything we do. This certainly includes the manner in which we physically take custody of a recently deceased individual.

I know I have not even begun to answer the aforementioned question yet, but I feel the average person needs a primer in order to have a full understanding of what happens when we receive a phone call informing us that our services are needed. Our policy is to contact a family as soon as we are notified by a hospital, hospice worker, or nursing/retirement community about a death. The main reason for this initial call is to establish whether or not the next of kin wishes for their loved one to be embalmed. It’s a fact that the sooner a body is embalmed, the better the results will be. However, if a family is considering cremation or anatomical donation, embalming would simply be an unnecessary expense. This is the crux of that first call we make to a family, in addition to expressing our sympathy for their loss. Unfortunately, we are often notified about a death by a hospital several hours AFTER the person has breathed their last breath. In the middle of the night, this often results in our making a call to a family right as they are attempting to go back to sleep after learning about a death. Needless to say, this has upset a number of folks in our community, and they have certainly let me know about their strong feelings.

Thankfully, their queries allow me to explain exactly WHY we make the call that can sometimes come in the middle of the night. After hearing “the rest of the story,” families have a better understanding of our reason for calling, but they also go away reinforced they received the superior service that our company has provided for 152 years now.