Today I participated in my second home funeral. The visitation was held in a magnificent estate in Greenwich, Connecticut and, as we were getting things ready, a colleague remarked that the setting was grander than most funeral homes. The room where the deceased reposed was bedecked with beautiful flowers, and family photographs. In the entrance way to the home, a table held memorial cards, and memorial folders.
The interesting thing was that the family had not chosen a home funeral because of anything they’d read, or heard in the media, about home funerals. Instead, it was borne of necessity. Funeral homes in their area are still not offering wakes, and a visitation was very important to them, as was a religious service. They were able to have a priest lead them in prayer later in the afternoon. There were also eulogies given by family members.
The first home funeral I was involved in took place two years ago. While the setting was more modest, it held the same beauty and intimacy. Again, the family did not choose a home funeral because of anything they’d read of heard. At the time of the funeral arrangement, the daughter of the deceased commented on how much her mother had loved her home, and that it would be the most fitting place to hold a wake– if only. She had no idea that she could, and was surprised when I told her that some were seeing a return to home funerals. Like the Connecticut family, that wake included a religious service at home.
I’ve been impressed by both these funerals, and am an advocate of home funerals being an option. Naturally, there are practical considerations for having one, and you can discuss this with your funeral director when planning, or pre-planning, a funeral.
As deaths from the pandemic have, mercifully, subsided, cemeteries have relaxed a number of their restrictions. One of them that has yet to do so was the cemetery I was at this morning. The gates are still locked, and to enter one must be a funeral director there to facilitate an interment. No visitors are allowed. As I waited behind the locked gate, trying to get the attention of the guard, a light-colored Prius pulled up behind me. The driver was wearing sunglasses, and I could not make out his face, but I recognized –or thought I did –the car as belonging to the Deacon who would be officiating at this morning’s funeral. The Deacon and I had had a brief conversation as we both drove on the parkway leading to the cemetery, and by his calculation he was “right behind me.” So, when the guard unlocked the gate for me, I told him that the car behind me was with me, and to kindly let him in as well. He did, and I pulled into the waiting area, as the Prius pulled up next to me. The driver opened his window, and I exclaimed in surprise, “You’re not my Deacon.” “No, but thank you for getting me in. It’s my mother’s birthday, and I want to visit her and lay flowers on her grave.” He went on to tell me how upsetting it had been for families not being able to visit their loved ones, and how he could not understand why cemeteries, with so much acreage (and plenty of room to social distance), would feel the need to lock their gates to visitors. I agreed. When my Deacon did arrive, a minute or two later, I told him the happy car coincidence. “That was no coincidence, it was a God winks moment,” he said with a smile.
So glad that man could have that precious visit on such an important day.
The industry was saddened to learn about the recent passing of Dr. Jacquie Taylor. Funeral service lost an excellent champion in her. An educator, who was also licensed as a funeral director, Dr. Taylor truly “walked the walk and talked the talk” unlike so many others today. In 2013, I attended a continuing education seminar Dr. Taylor gave in NY. As colleagues greeted one another, we expressed the hope that this lecture would be relevant and fruitful. And we weren’t disappointed.
Dr. Taylor began the seminar by discussing the unfortunate effect interlopers are having on funeral service. I was riveted by the word interloper. No one had ever put it better. “They believe that just anyone can do what we do. In fact, many of them think they can do it better than we can,” she said. She went on to say that some of these people have been publicly dispensing advice and giving seminars themselves, as unqualified as they might be, about funeral service issues and concerns. In essence, she told an enrapt audience, they are attempting to do our work without the qualifications. After the seminar, I went to meet her and thank her for her spot on observations. She was so inspiring that later that night a respected Ohio colleague and I began a Facebook group called Funeral Directors for Real.
Dr. Taylor’s words resound mightily in a day and age when social media is rampant with self-appointed experts aka wannabes. The now ubiquitous, and meaningless, term “funeral consultant” (funeral directors are the consultants) is everywhere. Many of my colleagues likely recall our first taste of this in the form of a pushy and obnoxious woman, who not only wormed her way into a national magazine article, but promised that her “connections” could lead to jobs for those who “stuck with her.” Websites abound with advice from these “experts,” most of whom are unlicensed and unfamiliar to anyone actually in funeral service. They all seem to be looking for a piece of the pie – a pie that is steadily breaking down due to outside interference. And it is not only the outsiders. We have to endure more than our fair share of the fringe element today. We have some who see funeral service as entertainment, hawking sensational YouTube videos, and others who refer to themselves by the pompous, albeit comical term “death educator.” Who among us has not cringed as their gibberish has made its way into print? Why are we allowing these people to speak for us? They are all such an embarrassment to the men and women who have dedicated their lives to caring for the dead.
The article I wrote about the importance of keeping the funeral tradition alive is in the current issue of the Saturday Evening Post. It’s an honor to be able to make the argument in such a venerable publication. Here’s a link to read it online:
This recent piece on Ranker, titled “The Morbid Truth About Working as a Mortician” was called to my attention. Apart from the redundant terms funeral director/mortician (an antiquated term, as well), the author is on the mark in titling item #1 It’s Hard to Break Into the Death Industry. A couple of my colleagues came up with a list of the closed funeral home sin the NYC/LI area, and there were many. I feel for the young people who spend a considerable sum of money to attend mortuary school, only to learn that jobs are few and far between.
My latest book is an historic overview of New York City’s most notable and historic cemeteries. Filled with photos, it can easily serve as a guidebook and reference book for taphophiles and tourists alike.
Outside Fifth Avenue’s Temple Emanu-El after the memorial service for Joan Rivers. I was there to cover it for Kates-Boylston’s “Funerals of the Famous” series. The experience was rather surreal as we were sitting in the second row, right behind Howard Stern and his beautiful wife, Beth. Howard Stern is not listed on the program, but was a surprise speaker. Donald Trump, along with his wife and family, was three rows behind us. Saw Barbara Walters, who we did not recognize at first. Mostly because she is so tiny in person. She actually came over and asked Tony a question (he looked like part of the security detail in his sunglasses).
I had the privilege of meeting Joan Rivers at a party, in 1988. Five years later, she invited me on her daytime talk show. I noted this in “Grave Undertakings” in a passage which reads in part: “…I received a call from the producers of Joan Rivers’ talk show. I thought it would be a thrill trading quips with the famous comedienne. She was my favorite.” On the show she asked me about my work and, of course, invoked her special brand of humor. I could never have imagined back then that I would one day be attending her memorial service, let along writing about it.
In the August issue of American Funeral Director, my article “An Undying Passion,” chronicles three women and their quest to find employment as funeral directors. Two career coaches weigh in, along with a profile of a fourth woman who has made a successful career for herself as a funeral director in a less traditional way. As the job market in funeral service gets increasingly tighter (how much tighter can it get!?), the timely tips and alternative suggestions may help others as they search for that elusive position of funeral director. These days, so many women seem to be seeking a career in funeral service, only to find out that the opportunities are quite limited.
The media is full of hype these days about the changing face of funeral service. While articles about green burials, home funerals or no funerals at all, proliferate, this is not the reality. Funerals matter and this book makes that case. A “must read” for anyone interested in a career as a funeral director. The author cites John F. Kennedy’s funeral, which –for those who remember or have seen the footage–spoke volumes about the need for ceremony. An article about this book appears in the March issue of American Funeral Director. Here’s a link to Amazon.
This photo, and its blurb, sparked this blog post. These days, so many newcomers to the funeral industry have declared themselves “experts.” A troubling –and embarrassing development–to true, bonafide industry insiders. They will tell you that the traditional funeral is dead, if you will pardon the pun, and that “green” is the way to go. And some of the more extreme bloggers will even try to convince you that “death is cool” (Seriously!?) I am here to assure you that despite such postings, the traditional funeral –with its comforting rites and rituals–is alive and well.
My profile of historic Calvary Cemetery in Queens County, NY –where folklore has it that 3 million people are buried–is the cover story for June’s American Cemetery. As a funeral director, the figure of 3 million did not sound right. The NY Diocese was happy to provide me with the more appropriate –and still substantial –number of 1.8 million interments. I must tell you, I shot this magnificent monument over and over ….and over during the course of a year, until we got a cover-worthy image.
While in Brooklyn to meet up with my friend Doris (a media favorite) and attend the wake of an industry friend, we made an impromptu stop at Green-Wood. “You want to take a walk before we go to the wake?” she asked. “Sure, I have sneakers in my car!” I responded, always up for a walk in G-W. “You don’t need those. I walk in heels,” she said. And, so we did. After which Doris drove us to the wake in her hearse. “I can double park that way,” she explained. We were quite the sight as we made our way in the Brooklyn traffic congestion, arriving at the funeral home as we did. After we paid our respects and talked with some colleagues, I was given a spirited tour of Red Hook (still in the hearse). I must say, Doris makes even going to a wake quite an event!