Case Study: What to do when someone dies

About the author...

Paul, and his wife Fiona, used to lead the Vineyard church in Bournemouth, UK, where they introduced ChurchSuite and My ChurchSuite to the church. Paul now heads up customer support and training at ChurchSuite.

In this article Paul explores how churches might use some of ChurchSuite's features when someone dies.

Overview

Any death is a painful experience for a church; both for the leaders and congregation, but also for the surviving family members, especially if they are also in the church. While churches will give consideration to pastoral care for the deceased's family and conducting the funeral service, what should happen to the deceased person's personal data and when? Do you archive, do you delete, or something else?

Before making any changes to a deceased person's personal information in ChurchSuite, I encourage you to carefully consider the impact of your changes on surviving family members who may be currently linked to the deceased person's information. For example, grieving parents, following the loss of a child, or a grieving spouse, following the loss of their partner, will each have preferences about what you do with their deceased family member's information and when you do it. 

Imagine, a parent or spouse used to seeing their linked child or partner's details in My ChurchSuite suddenly not seeing that person because you've immediately archived or deleted them. Yes, they've died, but what if it's too soon to make that change? Or what if you don't make certain changes and an inadvertent communication gets sent by an unsuspecting User to the deceased's email address or a surviving family member?

Every change to a deceased person's data will need to be handled sensitively, appropriately and in a timely manner - and most importantly, in accordance with the wishes or reasonably expected wishes of the surviving family.

Interestingly the EU GDPR, in common with other international data protection laws, relates primarily to the processing of personal information for the living, with very little guidance on the personal information of the deceased. Certainly the EU GDPR highlights the importance of Data Controllers only processing personal information that is being kept up to date and necessary for an organisation's purposes; but most data protection guidance is silent on matters of pastoral care!

With this in mind, I would strongly encourage churches to engage with the deceased's family on this subject as part of their early pastoral care. It's likely they've not yet thought about this subject, so it's an opportunity to demonstrate that you're sensitive to their feelings and thinking about them at this difficult time. Find an appropriate time to explain the options available to them, and why making some changes, perhaps sooner, rather than no changes or waiting, will help them and the wider church family and your staff team. I've learned in ministry that it's entirely appropriate to alert a grieving family about the "insensitivity pitfalls" the church wishes to avoid by removing the deceased person's details from usual circulation at the earliest appropriate opportunity. We agree together what will happen and when, and I explain the consequences of the changes that we're proposing to make so that there are no surprises.

In the remainder of this case study I've outlined the processes that my team and I followed in the church I used to lead. I offer them as suggestions for your consideration - feel free to adapt as you feel appropriate to your context. If you have further suggestions and ideas from your own pastoral experiences, please do get in touch with me and I'll look to incorporate them into this case study to help other ChurchSuite churches in the future.

First steps - prevent communication and restrict visibility

As soon as we became aware of a death, our first priority was to disable all communication options for the deceased - to opt them out of receiving any further communications - ensuring the surviving family members who will likely access the deceased's email account won't encounter emails from the church, like an unfortunate rota reminder.

We also set all the deceased's privacy settings to "not visible". So we disabled My ChurchSuite login - to prevent any further access to the deceased person's My ChurchSuite profile through any device - and we made sure that name, email, mobile, telephone and address were all set to "not visible" - ensuring the deceased's name and any contact details were no longer visible to others in the church within My ChurchSuite.

Review and scale back your data

It may be helpful to begin scaling back the deceased person's personal information that you hold in ChurchSuite - and indeed any other electronic or manual systems - only retaining what's necessary, probably for a season, and only where you have a clear need for it (e.g. a lawful basis for processing). 

In our context we removed the person's email, telephone, and mobile number - a "sure fire" way to ensure those details are not inadvertently used by others in the church. We would however leave their address in place - ensuring they still showed " At this address" in linked family member profiles. Later in the process we archived the deceased person's profile - archived people are still listed "at this address" in ChurchSuite, but their name is listed in a strikethrough font, which can often be helpful.

We removed any notes and key dates that no longer served a useful processing purpose to the running of the church.

Relationship status and linked family members

In the early days of pastoral care of a bereaved family we refrained from making any changes to relationship statuses in our database - not until we had first discussed this with the family - especially where there are linked surviving family members still in the church and in your database too. 

So, in the context of a married couple, we refrained from changing the surviving partner's martial status to "Widowed", or unlinking the deceased partner from the surviving family member's profile. You'll want to do this farily soon, but we found it helpful just to pause a little and take time to discuss this with the family members first. Following the loss of a partner it will take time to comes to terms with the fact that they are widowed - they will still feel very much married or in partnership with their lost loved one, so be sensitive.

If the deceased is a parent, we made sure to carefully review the family's linked children to ensure that they were linked to a surviving parent, unlinking them from the deceased parent. We also reviewed linked children's profiles to make sure there were no unexpected or unnecessary contact details for the deceased hidden away - this was to ensure that communications sent through the Children module as "Send to parent" were not delivered to the deceased's email address or mobile.

Add a note

When we became aware of a death, adding a sensitively-worded note against people's profiles was especially helpful to my team. We added a note to the deceased's profile, and also on all known surviving family members, including children, that we held in ChurchSuite. Any user viewing a person's profile in the Address Book or Children module would then see that note.

Rotas and groups

While archiving a deceased  person will ultimately remove them from all groups and ministries and rotas, we found it helpful to address this separately. As explained previously, we didn't always archive a deceased person right away until we had spoken with the family; however we did want to make sure that rota overseers and group leaders were in the loop following a death, and that rota reminders didn't get sent.

A person's profile page lists all the groups, ministries and rotas that a person is serving on, so we would methodically work through each group and ministry to remove the deceased person from the small group and ministry member lists, and also remove them from any active and future rotas. We then let the group leaders and ministry overseers know. If the deceased is themselves a ministry overseer, you'll want to remove them from the ministry's settings.

Marking the date of death and anniversaries

We found it helpful to add a "Deceased" key date for the date of death on the deceased's profile. Later in our processes, when archiving the deceased's profile, key dates are helpfully retained. This key date was used for reporting purposes for identifying the number of deaths each year - of course we reported births and weddings and baptisms too! 

We also added a sensitively-named "Bereavement" key date on the surviving family members. You can also add the deceased's name and relationship in the Description field of the key date, so that when viewing a profile page it's clear who the bereavement related to.

This "Bereavement" key date was incredibly useful in helping us identify and mark anniversaries of a death. Depending on your pastoral care follow up processes, you may consider creating a 'Bereavement follow up' flow, adding surviving family members to the flow and setting a due date for the next anniversary of the bereavement, or perhaps setting the due date for the deceased's birthday or another significant date, so that you can respond appropriately at that time. A timely phone call, card or message on certain important dates will be a comfort to those learning to live with loss following a death. ChurchSuite really helped us stay organised in this respect, so that nothing got overlooked or forgotten - those pastoral care flow reminders were invaluable!

Other considerations

Here's a few other things you may wish to check in your database, in case they have an undesired impact on your pastoral care for a bereaved family.

  • Future event sign-ups - check the deceased's profile page for any event sign-ups to future events that may have been signed up before their death. You can them remove or refund their sign-up for those events.
  • Scheduled emails/SMS - check the deceased's communication log on their profile page to see if there are any unsent scheduled emails - you may wish to cancel them to prevent them being sent. Remember, even though you may have removed their email address or opted them out of all communication, a pre-scheduled communication will have already been submitted to the email/SMS queue ready for release at the scheduled date/time.
  • Giving module - although no immediate action will likely be needed here, you should check to see if there is are any recurring online donation subscriptions that need cancelling. You may also wish to add a note against the deceased's giver profile, so that your finance team are aware. If you later archive the deceased's profile in the Address Book, any linked giver profile will be unlinked and remain in tact. Note that the unlinked giver profile will remain active until such time as you archive it. You'll want to keep the giver profile active while you complete any outstanding Gift Aid claims or financial reporting. Make a note to have the deceased's giver profile archived at the earliest opportunity. Don't delete the giver profile as you'll lose your record of historic donations that person made! If you have claimed Gift Aid on the deceased giver's historic donations you will be unable to delete their giver profile - only archiving will be an option.
  • User profile - if the deceased had user access to your ChurchSuite modules, we recommend you archive their user account to prevent any unauthorised login attempts. Avoid deleting the user account right away - better to archive the account in the first instance so that you can set it active again if you need to. Remember, the deceased user may have content in your ChurchSuite account whose visibility has been restricted to just that deceased user's account.
  • Event overseers - use the Calendar module's Table Generator report to produce a list of future events to check if the deceased has been assigned as an event overseer for any future events, so that you can unassign them.

Changing the relationship status

In conjunction with your pastoral conversations with a surviving spouse/partner, there will be an appropriate time to change their marital status in ChurchSuite. The appropriate options would be either "Widowed" or "Single". Make the change in the surviving partner's profile, perhaps adding a note in support of the change. The deceased's marital status will then change to "Single" and the couple will be unlinked in the database. The surviving spouse/partner will see their marital status in the My ChurchSuite > My Details page.

Note that if an address is maintained for both partners, the "At this Address" section continues to show the unlinked couple and any linked children. If this is not desirable for any reason, then you can remove the deceased's address and the surviving spouse/partner's profile will not show their deceased partner in the list.

The death of a child is also especially difficult. My ChurchSuite includes a My Children section for parents with linked children. Review your My ChurchSuite settings - it may be helpful to have the My Children section only show for parents who have existing (surviving) linked children. Seeing one's deceased child in the My Children section may be a comforting or traumatic experience. Act promptly in conjunction with the family's wishes to make appropriate changes that may be necessary - once a deceased child has been unlinked or archived, they will cease to show in the My Children section to their parents.

Archive or delete?

My preference is always to archive in the first instance, rather than delete. Archived contacts can be set active again if needed - obviously unlikely in this context(!) - whereas a deletion is permanent and irreversible.
While recital 27 of the EU GDPR confirms that the regulation doesn't apply to the deceased, there may well be other laws in your country or region that does govern the storing and processing of personal information about the deceased. Arguably, if all personally identifiable data has been removed from a profile, your privacy policy may permit you to retain that archived profile for reporting purposes under a legitimate interest basis. I would also liaise with the surviving family members to make sure they are comfortable with what you wish to do - I'm not sure I would go against family member wishes to delete, even if I did have a legitimate interest in retaining some data!

Eventually however, there is an appropriate time to delete a deceased person's profile. In our church we had an annual data cleasing workflow that included a review of our active and archived data to see what was necessary to keep, and what should go. I'm mindful that from experience, churches are often reluctant to let go of historic data - for no other reason than "just in case"!

And finally...

While not directly related to this case study, ChurchSuite has further super-helpful functionality for adding and processing funeral bookings in the Bookings module. See the related articles for further information.

How are you managing the personal data of the deceased in ChurchSuite?

The above suggestions use various aspects of ChurchSuite's functionality. How do you manage the personal information for someone who has died? We'd love to update this case study with your suggestions too - let us know by emailing support@churchsuite.com

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