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Making funerals and memorial services hearing accessible

This is a post from the “Sound Advice” series by Ruth Bernstein.

Although funerals are part of life, especially for us octogenarians, the last nine months have been difficult for me. From December, 2012 through September, 2013, I went to seven funerals and two memorial services. For anyone, coping with the loss of a friend or family member at funerals is difficult, but for someone with a severe hearing loss, going to these events presents additional challenges. In most cases, there is very little time to plan for attending a funeral.  And, funerals can take place in so many different kinds of settings – graveside, in chapels and auditoriums – making it that more challenging to create hearing access.  Dealing with the unexpected nature of funerals, grieving families, funeral directors and other personnel who perhaps have not had experience with arranging for hearing access, requires understanding, patience and persistence.

The first funeral I attended this year was graveside. One possibility for me to access the services was to use my FM and system and pass the mic around. After talking with my friend’s wife, I decided that would be too difficult and so chose not to. That funeral was followed several months later by a memorial service in a New Jersey college auditorium which was not hearing accessible. After a flurry of emails, I was provided with an FM receiver for the service, which allowed me to hear. I attended two funerals at Riverside Memorial Chapel in Manhattan. Audio loops have recently been installed in all their chapels thanks to the work of Jerry Bergman of the Hearing Loss Association of America – Manhattan Chapter Looping Committee. I called the Chapel beforehand and was assured the hearing loop was working. As the service began, I switched to T (for tele-coil) on my hearing aids and was able to hear. Three funerals were at out of town Funeral Homes and a fourth at a Synagogue on Long Island. Only one of these venues was hearing accessible. At the first Chapel, I gave the Rabbi my FM mic and asked him to pass it to the other speakers. Unfortunately, he did not do that so I heard very little. At the second Chapel and the Synagogue, I arranged to put my FM mike on the lectern. I could not hear because some of the speakers did not stand at the lectern but walked around while they spoke.

The fourth funeral home, in Hackensack, New Jersey, has an assistive listening system. They provide one ear bud with the receiver which might be helpful for some, but is not useful for someone with a severe hearing loss. The funeral service, however, was captioned because the widow, who has two cochlear implants, requested the accommodation. Of all the funerals and memorial services I’ve attended this year, this captioned service was the only one where I had no problem understanding what was being said because I could read every word, and so could the large number of people with hearing loss who attended. The funeral director was so impressed, he said he would investigate using captioning for the Dignity Memorial® network that serves families through more than 1,800 service providers across North America.

I also attended a memorial service in an apartment where, thankfully, my hearing aids worked. I learned about the second memorial service three days ahead of time. It was held at a Buddhist Chapel in Manhattan. Despite my request, there wasn’t enough time to arrange for hearing access. I had a brainstorm and asked a friend if she would be willing to use her iPhone and type the names of the speakers and a brief summary of what was said. She did an excellent job of “captioning.” I felt included in the proceedings even though I did not hear most of what was said.

At every funeral or memorial service I attended over the past year, I made my communication needs known and  worked  with various people to try to satisfy them. Although the results were not always ideal, I was able to access some of the services. I educated people along the way and, hopefully, laid the groundwork for more hearing access at funerals and memorial services. Being able to access the words of the service and eulogies is an important way to honor the memory of your loved one. I hope other people with hearing loss will let funeral homes, houses of worship and other venues know what they need.

If you have questions about any of the technology I’ve mentioned, don’t hesitate to contact Terrence Williams, Assistant Director of Hearing Technology at the Center for Hearing and Communication. He is a wonderful resource for information on assistive listening technology, and he can be reached at 917-305-7922 (v) or via email.

Warmest wishes,

Ruth D. Bernstein

Consumer Advocate

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