An essential component of our role as funeral directors is to maintain the sanctity of our work and protect the privacy of those in our care. Something that continues to trouble me is the prurient interest some have in the most private part of funeral service. “I want to watch. Can I?” It is an embalming they are asking to watch. In mortuary school we were told that the only non–official who could legally watch was the next of kin. “But why would they want to?” asked out instructor.
Some years back, I was interviewed by a young freelancer for a piece about Green-Wood Cemetery (my book about the cemetery had recently been published). At the conclusion of our interview she asked if she could come to the funeral home to watch an embalming. It was not the first time I had been asked, and, as always, I was taken aback by the question. After telling her that she could not, she spitefully cut me out of her article. Not very professional!
At one time or another many funeral directors have been asked that question by the morbidly curious. Some feign an interest in funeral service as a way to gain entrée. At other times a funeral director is careless in his/her thinking, and allows a person into the preparation room. But that is always a mistake.
A colleague shared the story of a funeral home owner who allowed a friend to keep him company in the prep room. When the friend’s mother died, he went elsewhere for her funeral. When his funeral director friend asked why, he responded by saying, “I feared you would let someone else in to keep you company, and I didn’t want anyone to watch my mother being embalmed.” The funeral director’s indiscretion cost him a funeral –and the trust of a friend.
Recently, I overheard a “videographer” working on a potential documentary ask a funeral director if he could watch an embalming. I hope the funeral director will have the good sense to turn him down
It is both morally reprehensible, and illegal, to watch an embalming without being qualified to do so. Please don’t ask us to break the law. And if those factors don’t deter you, ask yourself this question: Would it be okay for strangers to watch the embalming procedure of someone you love?
In July’s issue, American Funeral Director pays tribute to COVID-19 heroes.When I was asked to contribute, I thought of the countless funeral directors who fit that description (and how it would take untold issues to mention them all). I decided to profile Tom Boland (many funeral directors in NY know him), who not only went above and beyond, but –despite taking painstaking precautions–contracted COVID, and after recovering, had the heartbreaking task of burying his dear friend and colleague, who had been killed in a crash. He did it all with grace, dignity, and strength, embodying what funeral directors are made of. His photo appears in the upper left of the magazine’s cover.
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.
Attended the funeral service for Manhattan DA Robert Morgenthau at Temple Emanu-El today. New York City’s longest serving District Attorney would have turned 100 on July 31st. He is buried in Mt. Pleasant Cemetery.
Inside The Reform Temple of Forest Hills, it was SRO as hundreds of people, including elected officials, judges, prosecutors, court staff, and New Yorkers, attended the funeral service for Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown. In his lengthy career, the highly respected district attorney successfully prosecuted many cases. The last one was the Karina Vetrano case.
The eulogies, especially those by Brown’s son-in-law, and a lawyer who was a longtime friend and protege of Brown’s, were alternately touching, informative, and humorous. His casket was shouldered out the door of the temple by the NYPD Ceremonial Unit, a helicopter flyover above, to a throng of mourners and dignitaries, including Mayor DeBlasio, Mayor Dinkins, Police Commissioner O’Neill, and acting Queens DA Jack Ryan.
As I always say #funeralsmatter.
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.
I was honored and humbled to be among the thousands of mourners inside St. Patrick’s Cathedral this morning for the funeral Mass of Det. Steven McDonald. The police office, who was paralyzed in a 1986 shooting became a symbol of forgiveness and compassion, inspiring so many.
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.