Abstract: Social Work in Funeral Homes, a Unique Chinese Practice? (Society for Social Work and Research 25th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Social Change)

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Social Work in Funeral Homes, a Unique Chinese Practice?

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
* noted as presenting author
Yunxian Huang, M.Ed, Program Coordinator of Volunteer & Advocacy, Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care, Scarborough, ON, Canada
Weijia Tan, MSW, PhD Candidate, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
A. Ka Tat Tsang, PhD, Professor, University of Toronto, Toronto, ON, Canada
Background and Purpose: Social work in funeral homes is rare in the West, but it is an interesting and possibly unique development in China. Social workers were introduced to funeral homes in China amid the transition and expansion of both the funeral home industry and the social work profession, and are proving to play a valuable though under-researched role in serving not just clients but also funeral home staff and local communities. We created the new term “funeral home social work” to distinguish it from palliative, hospice, end-of-life, and bereavement social work. This paper surveys the current practice of funeral home social work in China and examines implications for the future development of this new specialization, on both a national and an international scale.

Methods: We conducted a systemic review of 27 articles using the keywords “funeral social work”, “funeral home social work”, “palliative social work”, “hospice social work”, “end-of-life social work”, and “bereavement social work” in both English and Chinese. Since it is a recent innovation in social work and the funeral home industry in China, the relevant literature is limited even in the Chinese language. We found 4 articles investigating how to apply bereavement work to funeral home settings before the emergence of funeral home social workers in China. 14 articles were found to explore the role of social work in the funeral industry and 9 articles discussed how to develop a comprehensive mental health and social service system for the funeral service sector after the pilot of funeral home social work began.

Results: The literature demonstrated that funeral home social workers provided services for not only the funeral home’s clients but also the other employees in funeral services and local communities, maximizing the impact of professional mental health and social services. For clients who were experiencing loss, bereavement counseling and care services were available in the funeral home, and social workers also provide information on policies and resources to those in need of financial and legal support. For staff, social workers organized events to promote stress management, peer support, self-care, and individual counseling. They also offered training on communication skills and time management strategies. For local communities, social workers promoted “life education” and “life hotlines” to provide support and resources for those who were experiencing life crises.

Conclusion and Implications: Based on the experiences of funeral homes that employ social workers, this paper argues this innovation may bring new ideas to bridge some of the service gaps in after-death care in China and globally. This paper outlines the support that will be needed from funeral homes, social work service agencies, and educational and research institutes to facilitate further development of funeral home mental health and social services and to promote the professionalization of funeral home social workers in China and globally.