Professor provides insight on funeral project

Recently, a project I assigned my Consumer Behavior class received some attention in the Threefold. I am the instructor who had students plan their funeral as part of an integrated learning experience in marketing. I didn’t know about the article when it first came out but a colleague of mine brought it to my attention.

I didn’t know about it because I was never interviewed for the story. While I was quoted in it, I was actually never contacted. I am a critical source in this story, it’s important to talk to the faculty member who selects the learning experience. There is often great purpose behind it.

The Threefold has kindly given me a column to share my perspective on the project I designed for my class. I appreciate the leadership’s desire to uphold high professional standards.

The nature of the project is quite unique – to plan one’s funeral. While the project also entailed extensive industry analysis, the primary purpose was to have students plan each step of their funeral. It’s important to note that I did not invent this assignment. In fact, it came from an established peer-reviewed marketing journal, the Marketing Education Review. The article is called, “Planning Your Own Funeral: A helpful pedagogical tool.”

The author who created this innovative learning experience, a professor in the College of Business at Auburn University, collected research from 400 students in ten different classes and results showed it to be a worthwhile activity. Even so, I chose to tread lightly. I urged any students who were uncomfortable or concerned to please speak with me – ready to propose an alternative assignment if it touched too close to home. Grief from the loss of a loved one is real and painful. I wanted to respect anyone who was struggling with it.

There are many reasons this exercise is excellent for learning about marketing. Why do we buy? Most consumers make split second decisions every day that fill their lives with the products they need or want. We study that process in Consumer Behavior and we are certainly exposed to the “buyer world” because of our close proximity to Walmart.

But when I saw this article in a marketing journal, I thought what a unique opportunity to have my students explore a much richer decision process that heavily relies on cultural practices, family influence, and self perception as the criteria. The meaning that goes in to planning what product or service is used for each step highlights very critical aspects of consumer behavior that apply to many types of purchases.

The project is twofold. On one hand students get to learn the dynamics of a very regulated yet innovative industry, and on the other hand they get to complete a very beneficial project that has real-world value. When someone dies, the family must make a tremendous amount of decisions concerning the funeral. Funerals are expensive. They often run well over $10,000. By pre-planning your funeral you spare your surviving loved ones the agony of guessing or worse, bickering, over what they think you would have wanted. It allows them to grieve – and to celebrate your life. That is a good, good gift I want to leave behind for my loved ones.

In the process, I discovered things about my own family I never would have known. Both my parents live and work in Africa. As I discussed this project with them via Skype, I learned that neither of them want their bodies transported back to America if they die in Africa. I always just assumed they would since most of their relatives live here, and they are U.S. citizens. I would have spent thousands upon thousands of dollars trying to fulfill what I thought were their funeral wishes – and I would have been wrong! This process has facilitated many healthy conversations for students in the class and among family and friends.

Rarely do we discuss death. Why? Because it’s morbid? Well, Ms. Fast, you might say, these are college students – young and vibrant. Why should they spend their time researching practices surrounding death? The truth is not one of us knows the number of our days. Birth and death are natural. We shouldn’t be afraid. Our Creator calls us home when he sees fit. I think it’s healthy to remember THIS is not our home. Our bodies were not built to last.

Research from this study indicates that pre-planning your funeral generally helped students reduce anxiety regarding death and funerals. I hope that I get to do many things before I die. But when I go, I’m glad to know I’ve thought through my wishes for my funeral in a rational and logical fashion so that my family can just enjoy one another and celebrate my life. Through this process, I hope my students are anchored more firmly in the faithfulness of our Heavenly Father and gain a deeper understanding of the complexity of consumer decisions.

EDITOR’S NOTE: To read the article discussed in this column, go to http://advocate.jbu.edu/?q=node/555.