Pinelawn Memorial Park: My Mother’s Death Without Dignity

My mother died two years ago.  While we had been estranged for many years, it saddened me to hear that her health had deteriorated, and that she had become a shell of the formidable person she once was. I found out about her death through my beloved uncle, her brother, and it was after the fact.  By the time he was alerted, by her son (his nephew), she had been dead for several months. Believing her remains were en route from Florida to New York for a traditional funeral, he inquired innocently,  “What about the funeral arrangements?” It was then that he was shocked and horrified to learn that she had been cremated  I say “shocked and horrified” because my mother and her brother are Greek Orthodox. Cremation is not sanctioned by the Greek church, and frankly is a big no-no.  What’s more, my mother abhorred cremation.  Years earlier, she had been dismayed and shocked herself when one of her best friends was cremated.  “Not for me,” she said, soon purchasing graves at Pinelawn Memorial Park on Long Island, New York.

My uncle 92 years of age, at the time, was heartbroken at not getting the chance to say goodbye to his sister, and only remaining sibling. He said it left a hole in his heart. And things were about to get worse. I called the Florida direct disposer, a repugnant and disrespectful title for one who lays the dead to rest. Their website alone made my stomach turn. “Why pay funeral home prices for direct cremation services?,” it asks. Those commercial words suggesting a cheap alternative to a real funeral were not consistent with the dignified (sometimes haughty) woman who hewed to tradition and ceremony, and could more than afford the traditional funeral she believed in. I called and spoke to the proprietor, telling her that I am a funeral director (she is not) in New York. I explained that in New York we get everyone on board before such an irreversible act can occur. She told me in strident tones that she had not needed my permission. I also called the Medical Examiner’s office in the county in which my mother had died. They told me she had been found in her bed with a pillow mostly covering her face, having been dead for days. Her son had obviously not bothered to check in with his 86- year- old dementia-addled mother. My family and I had so many unsettling questions.

Her son plundered her considerable financial means for his own personal use while turning to the cheapest mode of final disposition. It was about that time that we found out he, the perennial ne’er-do-well son, was a convicted criminal who had done time in a federal prison. We  insisted he bury those cremains; it was the very least he could do.

While he lied to us and evaded our requests for the burial of the cremains, we prevailed. But the worst was yet to come. I expressed my concerns to the cemetery about our doubts that my mother’s cremains were actually being buried, and not just some Florida sand going into the grave. I appealed to the cemetery administrator Brendan J. Hickey to let me examine the cremains in advance, as a professional courtesy, so that I could then reassure my. He turned a  deaf ear to my pleas.

The morning we buried my mother’s cremains in her grave at Pinelawn Memorial Park, there was nothing “park-like” about the chaotic scene. My uncle, cousins and I watched in horror as backhoes circled (the gravediggers kept apologizing to me, explaining that they were only following Hickey’s orders) and cruel words were hurled at us by my mother’s son and his wife. Throughout the thousands of interments I have been a part of I have never witnessed such a scene.

The most shocking moment was when two Suffolk County police officers, summoned by Hickey, approached me. While I conducted myself with the utmost dignity and restraint, as I do at all funeral services, the police were told that Hickey “expected trouble.”

In my long career as a funeral director, I have striven to provide the utmost dignity for the deceased. Yet, for my mother there was none. And that I could not do that for her has caused a ceaseless pain. While I made a complaint to the cemetery board (not only for myself, but to ensure Hickey would never treat another family in such a crass and cruel manner), they never followed up with me. I was approached by reporter friends to tell my story as a cautionary tale, but out of respect to my uncle I declined.  I could not, in good conscience make worse the circus that had been my mother’s funeral. Each and every time I must go to Pinelawn Memorial Park the horror of that day comes back to me.

Certainly it is the funeral director in me, and how I hold dear that last wishes are sacrosanct, that made me want to advocate for my mother. It is the last good deed we can do for others. While my mother failed my all the years of my life, I was determined not to fail her in death.  Because of Brendan Hickey, I feel that I did.

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