Turning Kind Deeds to Writing Income: Helping Funeral Homes Minister to Families (Guest Post)

PB Note: Got this really intriguing guest post from Chicago-area commercial freelancer Melanie Jongsma – a great thought-starter to get your creative wheels turning. I invite you to view it not as one about someone doing “memorial folders,” but rather, as the story of someone who looked beyond the typical commercial writing box and found an income opportunity where most people wouldn’t. Ideally, it should make you go, “Hmmmm…what other arenas might I have overlooked that could be turned into a profitable copywriting direction?”

And no, projects like the ones described below won’t make you rich, but for the time expended, they’re great little “slot-ins” to keep your commercial freelancing plate full. And, again, what other even juicier untapped venues might be out there?


My best friend’s mother died unexpectedly in 2006. I sat with her and her family as they sorted through photos and told stories through their tears. There’s not much you can do to help in a situation like that, but I did the one thing I could: I designed and wrote the funeral program.

Three years later, when my friend’s father died, I was able to help with his funeral program too. It turned out to be a keepsake that the whole family treasured.

In both of those situations, Funeral Director Mike Matthysse (of Matthysse Kuiper DeGraaf Funeral Homes) expressed appreciation for the work I had done. He recognized what a value this service would be to other grieving families, so we began to talk about how personalized memorial folders could become a service option for Matthysse Kuiper DeGraaf’s existing ministry.

A proposal that worked for both of us

Having learned a lot from Steve Slaunwhite about pricing, I sent Mike a carefully crafted proposal. Mike liked what I had to offer, and he wanted to hire me, but he couldn’t meet the price I had quoted. So I adjusted the quote to make it work for both of us—that is, I brought my price down, but I also decreased the time I would need to invest. For example, I reduced the number of revisions Mike could expect from me, eliminated stock photography options, and asked if there were parts of the work his staff could handle. In the end, we came up with an arrangement that looks like this:

  • The staff at Matthysse Kuiper DeGraaf gather photos and information from the family, scan everything, and email it to me all with the specifics of the funeral service.
  • Matthysse Kuiper DeGraaf also posts their clients’ obituaries on the MKD website, so I’m able to access that information if I need additional details.
  • I review all the info, clean up the photos, write a “life story,” and lay everything out in a format that Mike’s staff will be able to print in-house without having to worry about trimming.
  • Mike shows a proof to the family and then emails me any corrections that need to be made.
  • I email the final version of the PDF along with an invoice.

For the above, Mike pays me $250. At first, this amount did not represent $50/hour, but now that I have my systems and templates in place, the work goes faster, so I make about $75/hour per memorial folder.

A few things I’ve learned

I’ve done several of these customized memorial folders since arriving at an agreement with Mike, and here are a few things I’ve learned:

  • Good questions are important. Because I’m not present at the family interviews Mike and his staff conduct, it’s been a huge help that they are willing to include some additional questions from me. These help fill in the blanks, so I can add some color to the deceased’s life story.
  • Work like this requires quick turnaround. Mike wants to be able to show the family a proof within a day or two, so sometimes I’m working late to get it to him on time.
  • Mike and his team were already providing a valuable service before I came along. My role is simply to add to what they already do so well.
  • Families really do appreciate having this special keepsake. It requires some sensitivity, intuition, and empathy to get the writing right, but it really blesses the people who receive it. And that’s good for Mike’s reputation as well as mine.

I planned to pitch the idea to other funeral directors in my area, now that I have some well-received samples to show. But I’m hesitant because of the quick turnaround required. I wouldn’t want to put myself in a position where I need to produce two or three customized memorial folders in a day, in addition to other jobs I have!

A question for fellow writers

This income opportunity developed out of a desire to use my writing skills to help my friend and her family through a difficult time. It’s turned into a frequent (though unpredictable) paycheck with potential for expansion. That makes me wonder… Have there been other times my writing has helped someone, and I’ve overlooked a possible freelance market?

What kinds of writing “favors” have you done for friends that might represent business opportunities?

Have you stumbled on a profitable writing niche (that you’re willing to share) that you’d previously overlooked?

What other business or industries might offer hidden writing opportunities?

About the author

Melanie Jongsma loves helping people organize their thoughts and experiences into compelling personal stories, effective business collateral, and powerful ministry messaging. She blogs at LifeLines—helping you share your story. Readers of this post can download her newly-released checklist—7 Ways Professional Editors and Proofreaders Use Find-and-Replace—for just 99¢.

Want to be a guest blogger on The Well-Fed Writer Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

24 replies
  1. Susan Johnston
    Susan Johnston says:

    Melanie: Sounds like a great idea! You mentioned being worried about having too much of this type of work. Why not team up with a few other writers in your area, train them on this type of writing, then outsource to them when you have overflow work? That way you could continue meeting demand and become known as an expert in this writing niche.

  2. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Great idea, Susan, (and great to finally meet you at ASJA last week…)

    I’d go a step further and say, find that stable of good, reliable, consistent writers (and THAT will be the challenge in all likelihood) and hire them at a lower pay scale and pocket the spread. If you can make $250 for roughly 3.5 hours of work (based on $75 an hour), then you should have ZERO problem finding writers willing to work for say, half that rate. Heck, if there are a ton of writers willing to write a 400-word keyword-rich article for, say $5, $125 should be easy.

    Again, it could take a while to groom the right folks, and it might end up more hassle than its worth, but might be worth a shot, and as your rep grows, maybe you can charge more… Just some ideas!


  3. Dennis Briskin
    Dennis Briskin says:

    Very inspiring. Perhaps you can use an open-ended questionnaire or fill-in-the-blanks form to help stimulate the family’s thinking/recall and assure you touch on as many bases as relevant. (Sometimes I don’t know what I think until I hear what I say.) For example, “What are some things he did or moments you shared that answer the question, ‘How would he want to be remembered?’ Or photos or drawings perhaps?”

    Or “Did she have a favorite saying or poem or quotation that helps capture her approach to life?”

    See the attached photo and story for an example of one way I want to be remembered (smiling, dedicated blood and platelet donor).

  4. Melanie Jongsma
    Melanie Jongsma says:

    Those are great sample questions, Dennis! At this point, I personally don’t have any direct contact with the families. Only Mike Matthysse and his team do that. But these are definitely questions I can suggest to them. And if I do end up contacting other funeral homes to offer this service, it’s quite possible they would not already have a “life story” interview in place, and I could offer to develop one for them, based on Matthysse’s original form, my additional questions, and the questions you’ve suggested here. Great idea!

  5. Melanie Jongsma
    Melanie Jongsma says:

    Susan, thanks for the idea. I have to confess, I’m a little leery of outsourcing this kind of work, because the memorial folder is such a personal, sensitive keepsake. I mean, theoretically, it could be outsourced, but I think emotionally I might have a hard time turning it over to someone else!

  6. Dennis Briskin
    Dennis Briskin says:

    Melanie, I agree outsourcing might be a challenge. The higher-level skill in what you describe is not handling the language but interviewing with sensitivity and tact. How do you screen for people who can do that? Perhaps when it comes time to train your backup or successor, have the person shadow you during some interviews and then discuss and analyze what and how you do it. In this context, I am reminded of a wonderful quotation from Eric Berne, MD, (author of “What Do You Say After You Say Hello?”): “An amateur knows what to do. A professional knows what not to do.”

  7. Melanie Jongsma
    Melanie Jongsma says:

    (I tried posting this reply before, but it seems to have disappeared into cyberspace. If it shows up later, I apologize for the duplicate answer!)

    Dennis, you’re right that sensitive interviewing skills are essential for this kind of work (and that’s probably why Matthysse prefers to let only his staff interact with the families), but I think the language-handling skills are just as important. It is often necessary for me to create a life story that is accurate, comforting, and true to the person’s values, though I have never met the person. I use the interview notes, the submitted photographs, and any chosen songs or Bible verses to catch a glimpse of what the person was like, and I do my best to choose language that will capture those impressions and reflect something back to the family that will resonate with them. I’m not sure those skills can be taught, though maybe during a “shadowing” I would be able to tell whether the shadower has the intangible qualities necessary to do this kind of work.

  8. Jodi Kaplan
    Jodi Kaplan says:

    I can’t really comment on the funeral aspect (I’m used to different customs). However, I’ve done several favors for people fixing resumes – not that I want to specialize in that – but many of them need rewriting, rewording, editing, proofing, and reformatting). It’s a brochure/branding document for “You Inc”, not a spec sheet.

  9. Sandra Templeton
    Sandra Templeton says:

    Melanie, this was a very inspirational story and what way to give back and help other people. I believe most people go into business to help others and do what they love. This kind of writing is really a gift and not everyone would be qualified to do it. Personally, I started out wanting to do copywriting, but realized my gift was as a direct marketing designer. Thanks Peter for sharing this story! :))

  10. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Good stuff, everyone!

    Melanie, I can see why it would be hard to outsource, but I’m only looking at this from a time standpoint. You alluded to the notion that you wouldn’t want to do these all the time as you can likely make more money on other project types.

    As such, if you could develop relationships with a number of funeral homes and several good writers, and at the same time, develop (which you likely already have) some sort of template for putting things like this together based on a certain fixed set of input from the funeral home, I can see the possibility of being able to handle a larger volume.

    Assuming you could find good reliable writers (THE wild card in the equation…) who could pull off this kind of writing, with minimal oversight, you could probably build a decent sideline income with a small time commitment. I know, sounds great in theory and these things don’t always pan out that way, but you could build it slowly as you got the right pieces in place. Just a thought!

    And Jodi, I agree with Melanie that your definition of a resume (“a brochure/branding document for ‘You Inc’”) is great. And I’d go a step further and say it needs to focus not just on a list of jobs and accomplishments (features) but somehow paint a picture of how hiring you would make a difference for an employer in the ways that matter to them (benefits).

    Thanks, all!


  11. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    Sometimes a client will present a need I hadn’t previously thought about fulfilling. One of my better clients who regularly orders a variety of standard jobs such as sales letters, articles and so on asked me to write a 10-minute speech for him. He wasn’t used to public speaking and he needed something he could pull “out of the trunk” without stumbling over his thoughts or words. Then it turned out that one my regular graphic designers specialized in creating Powerpoint slideshows. Next thing we knew, the client had an entire presentation ready for any occasion — and the designer and I had a new bundled product to sell!

  12. Melanie Jongsma
    Melanie Jongsma says:

    That’s fantastic, William! What a great idea! I think a lot of times we FLCWs feel “anybody can do that” about the work we do—because it’s second nature to us. But your story illustrates that we shouldn’t take ourselves for granted! And you really went above and beyond by developing the speech into a full-blown presentation. Nice touch!

  13. Ken Norkin
    Ken Norkin says:

    I can’t think of any favors I’ve done that have turned into business opportunities. But throughout my freelance career, and before that as an exec with a small ad agency, I have applied what I see as the main lesson or take-away from Melanie’s experience: If you want to do the work but the client won’t pay what you want to charge, redefine the work into something you can afford to do for the price they’re willing to pay.

    If you simply lower your price, you’re negotiating against yourself and telling the client that your first price was either too high or not your real price or both. By revising the scope of work — fewer pages, fewer words, fewer drafts, faster payment — you are showing a willingness to help the client get something that meets their needs with the quality you can deliver at a price they can afford.

  14. Ken Norkin
    Ken Norkin says:

    Well, I’ve been following this philosophy since the 1980s (freelancing since 1991) which is long before I ever heard of Steve Slaunwhite — and as of today, I’ve never read anything that credits this approach to him. I guess I just learned it organically and independently. I did hear Bob Bly express it in one of his one-day workshops back in 91.

  15. Dennis Briskin
    Dennis Briskin says:

    I recall reading this same idea from Bob Bly in his “Copywriter’s Handbook” in the early 1990s. The way he put it (paraphrasing): If you can (or want to ) spend $X on this, let’s see how much service I can give you for that. He seemed to say, nicely, but firmly, “This is my fee for that scope of work. If you want to spend less, I will give you the same excellent quality, just less of it.”

  16. Melanie Jongsma
    Melanie Jongsma says:

    I see that Bob Bly is listed as an endorsement on Steve Slaunwhite’s website, so maybe Steve learned this strategy from Bob. Here’s how Steve puts it in his guide, “Pricing Your Writing Services”: “If the client cannot or will not offer you a decent fee for the project as quoted, then your next step is to try to negotiate a compromise. NEGOTIATION DOESN’T MEAN DROPPING YOUR PRICE FOR NO REASON. Never, ever do that. Negotiation means offering an alternative plan that gets the client what he wants—your writing—and gets you what you deserve—your professional rates.” He then lists a number of compromise options, regarding timing, scope, and timing of payment. The guide is available on his website, forcopywritersonly.com. I’ve found it to be a well organized, helpful resource that I refer to often.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] Note: A longer version of this article originally appeared as a guest post on Peter Bowman’s blog, WellFedWriter.com. […]

  2. […] the ever-friendly Peter Bowerman (whom I guest-posted for once) sent me a classy […]

  3. […] I don’t remember who first recommended Peter Bowerman’s books to me, but as soon as I read The Well-Fed Writer, I knew I wanted to read everything else he had written too. Peter is so gracious and helpful, that even though we’ve never met, I feel like we’re friends. I have quoted him on this blog, and he has allowed me to guest post on his. […]

  4. […] The blog I submitted to him was about the work I’ve done for Matthysse Kuiper DeGraaf Funeral Homes, which I’ve also described in earlier posts here, such as Memorial Folders: a final tribute to your loved one’s life story. But for Peter Bowerman’s subscribers, I went into more detail about the process of getting the job and arriving at a price. If you are interested in those details, you can go to Peter’s blog to read my guest post: Turning Kind Deeds to Writing Income: Helping Funeral Homes Minister to Families. […]

  5. […] 5. The Well-Fed Writer – Turning Kind Deeds into Writing Income. […]

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