What To Know About Choosing a Cemetery

Recently, I arranged a funeral for the husband of a woman named Arlene. The couple did not have cemetery property. Nor had they discussed where they wanted to be buried.

They were, in other words, like too many others who haven’t thought about the important decision of a final resting place.

Arlene’s husband, Dan, was an honorably discharged veteran, so he was eligible to be buried in a Veteran cemetery.

Calverton National Cemetery, on New York’s Long Island, was their closest option, but it was a good distance from her home, and Arlene feared she would not be able to visit as often as she liked.

Because the couple’s Catholic faith was also an important consideration, Arlene was torn over where to bury her beloved husband. So, she checked out two Catholic cemeteries on Long Island, ultimately deciding upon St. Charles Cemetery in the town of Farmingdale. Dan was buried there with military honors.

Arlene’s struggle is not uncommon. Choosing a final resting place is not an easy decision, especially if the deceased did not express a preference. Bear in mind, it is a choice that will often serve generations to come, for cemeteries are not just places to bury the dead, they are also repositories of a family’s history.

For Arlene, the Catholic connection mattered, as it does for many others. “We are a Catholic cemetery for a reason. It is basically sacred land, and an extension of our church and our faith,” explained Carlos Balcarcel, who is the sales marketing manager for the Brooklyn Diocese in New York.

He added, “When you come to a Catholic cemetery, you see the expressions of your faith. You see the religious significance. You see the areas of repose that are specifically set apart for you to not only grieve, but to trust in your faith.”

Types of Cemeteries

Despite the high rate of cremation these days, in-ground burial and entombment continue to be much-requested modes of final disposition. That may reflect our long-held cultural beliefs about the nature of death. The word “cemetery” is derived from Greek and means sleeping place.

When it comes to selecting a cemetery, there are a number of choices. The differences are important – and often lost on people who wait until the last minute to make a decision.

Veteran Cemeteries

Veteran cemeteries provide a free grave and monument to honorably discharged veterans, their spouse, and dependent minor children. For cremated remains, they provide a niche.

Religious and Churchyard Cemeteries

Jewish Cemeteries, like their Catholic counterparts, are sacred grounds on which religious customs and practices are observed. Churchyards, which are relatively small in size, are usually reserved for members of the congregation, but not always.

Green Cemeteries

A few opt for what’s known as a green or natural “cemetery.” The grounds prohibit embalmed bodies, vaults, and traditional headstones, and require a biodegradable casket.

Traditional Cemeteries

Also known as Rural or Garden Cemeteries, traditional cemeteriesare open to all religious faiths. They generally contain upright monuments, statuary, and mausoleums, in a variety of architectural styles.

Memorial Parks

Memorial parks are cemeteries that contain flat bronze gravestones (also called grave markers, or memorials), rather than upright tombstones, to retain a park-like environment. They are generally non-denominational.

Cemetery Specifics

Many cemeteries are steeped in not only local, but national history. People often like the idea of being part of a cemetery with historic connections.

Ferncliff Cemetery in Hartsdale, New York, is one such cemetery. Founded in 1902, the roster of permanent residents is extensive and diverse. It includes Ed Sullivan, Tom Carvel, Joan Crawford, Alan Freed, Oscar Hammerstein II, Cab Calloway, and Madame Chiang Kai-shek.

The Feel

Designed as a memorial park, the grounds contain not only graves, but also three community mausoleums, niches for cremated remains, and a crematory.

When sales counselor Fred Santos, who has been with Ferncliff for five decades, meets with families, he first narrows down what they are looking for before taking them on a tour of the grounds.

Maintenance

A key consideration should be the comfort and convenience of those who will visit. Santos says that most people are looking for proximity to their home, and heritage plays an important role, too. “With our families, one brings the other. We have many generations here, one after another.”

He also advises that you “check how the older sections of the cemetery are maintained.” If they are not well maintained, that may be indicative of what will happen to newer sections.

Price

Price, too, is a major consideration in purchasing cemetery property. “The main thing that people look for is what’s within their budget,” Balcarcel said, noting that there are options for “all kinds of budgets.”

In fact, St. Charles, like most Catholic cemeteries, has special sections set aside for those with a financial hardship. The cemetery also contains community mausoleums, and niches for cremated remains.

Faith

A key difference between a Catholic and non-sectarian cemetery is that “Masses are said every single day for people who are resting in our cemeteries,” Balcarcel stated. In addition, special Field Masses are celebrated on Memorial Day and All Souls day.

“People are looking for a place that provides a peaceful place away from the world to connect with their loved ones,” noted Balcarel.

No One Wants to Make This Choice

From their long experience as sales counselors, both Balcarcel and Santos know well the reluctance of families to look into the purchase of cemetery property. After all, “no one wants to leave their loved one here,” said Balcarel. But when the time comes, you want that to be with “someone who you trust.”

“It is not something most people want to think about. We don’t think our parents are ever going to die,” Santos said. Still, he believes that it’s best to plan in advance. “You will pay today’s prices when pre-planning. Plus, there may be less availability in the future.”

“The information is out there and it’s important that a conversation is had,” added Balcarcel.

What to Ask

Remember, when you purchase a cemetery plot, you are buying the right of burial, not the land itself. Santos likens it to becoming a shareholder in a co-op. With your contract, you’ll receive a copy of the cemetery’s rules and regulations.

Still, it’s wise to ask the following questions before you sign:

  • What is the charge to “open” the grave, crypt, or niche, at the time of the funeral? The charge is generally not included in the purchase price.
  • Does the cemetery require a vault? Some cemeteries require that the casket be placed in a concrete or steel vault within the grave.
  • What are the requirements and/or restrictions on the types of monuments the cemetery allows?
  • Does the purchase include perpetual care?
  • How many remains will the grave hold? Individual graves generally permit between one and three burials.
  • Are cremated remains counted as burials? How many are permitted in a grave?
  • What are the rules regarding flowers, plantings, and memorabilia being placed at the gravesite?
  • Will the cemetery buy back the grave if it remains unused or you decide to move the deceased elsewhere? At what price?

This article was originally published on https://sixtyandme.com/choosing-cemetery/

Keep the Conversation Going Q & A with Salvatore Stratis and Jeffrey Gaines of Abigal Inc.

It was informative, and fun, to sit down with Sal & Jeff from Abigal Press for an interview about the printing company that has done exemplary work for funeral homes since 1936. The friends, and business partners had a lot to say about the work they’ve done, their unique view of history, and what they see for the future. Just when I thought we knew all there was to know about Abigal, I learned there was so much more (like the work the company does for the NY Yankees & the Catholic Diocese). My favorite story, however, is how the company began. A bit of ingenuity went a long way. Sal & Jeff tell that story and so many more.

You can read it in December’s ‘American Funeral Director’ magazine.

Moonrise at Green-Wood Cemetery

Last night, I attended  a most unique event at Green-Wood Cemetery with my friend & fellow funeral director, Doris Amen. It was a two mile stroll through the grounds, after dark, on a perfect fall evening . Along the way, we encountered performance artists stationed in and around some of Green-Wood’s many notable mausoleums and monuments. Food stations, too, were available.

Our ties to Green-Wood run deep. Doris is the cemetery’s “go to” funeral director, having handled the funerals of the cemetery president’s family, as well as many of the staff’s loved ones. While I, enamored with the grounds from my very first visit as a funeral director, wrote a book about the place. During the researching and writing process, I traversed the grounds countless times. Still, seeing it at night is something extra-special. Even in the dark, we discovered new sites and saw others in a different light. Highlights were the Currier (of Currier & Ives) monument lit up in pink, and the Charlotte Canda Gothic memorial (a perennial favorite) illuminated by candles.

When at last we came to the end of the trail, we were sad to see the night end. But we have our memories, and lots of photos, some of which we shared on Instagram.

Yet Another Trying Day at Pinelawn Memorial Park

In the past, I’ve written about the horrific conditions I, and my family, were subjected to at the funeral (if you can call it that) of my mother in 2015. Again at the funerals of my uncle in 2017, and my aunt in 2019, we were treated badly. Having experienced such callous treatment by a cemetery has made me hyper-vigilant that families in my care won’t receive similar treatment. Mercifully, I don’t get to Pinelawn a lot, but when I do I’m filled with dread. A dread that is, unfortunately, borne out by reality.

When I arrived at Pinelawn for today’s funeral, I was surprised to see that the bathrooms were still closed. Porta-potties were still standing from the height of the Covid pandemic. My hearse driver took a look and reported how filthy they were. He also commented on how the cemetery could possibly think that would be sanitary. But that paled in comparison to what was to take place.

After I signed in the funeral at the outside tent (the office is still not open) the staff took their sweet time, as usual, clearing the paperwork (now having the extra step of going inside to the office). As we waited, I commented to my hearse driver that it was unbelievable at this late date that the office and bathrooms were still closed. Only the day before, I had been at St. Charles Cemetery, across the way, where bathrooms were open and clean, and funeral directors were welcome to enter the cemetery office. Suddenly a man standing in earshot broke into our conversation and in a nasty tone declared, “We are the best cemetery in New York. During Covid we buried more bodies in a day than any other cemetery.” And at what emotional cost? From the stories shared with me by other funeral directors, there was little in the way of dignity, respect, or compassion taking place. What’s more, those burials were not done out of altruism, or charity; the cemetery was getting paid.

When we finally went to the site of the family’s crypt (45 minutes after we were scheduled) we had a pissed off deacon, now made late for his next assignment (he began the prayers before all the mourners had even gotten out of their cars). It was also left to us to explain a holy host of arbitrary rules to a grieving family: the casket (a casket they never got the opportunity to see up close) could not be present during the committal service (it would be placed into the crypt before,and the family would not be able to witness this), only 10 people could stand 20 ft. away, and the rest in the roadway. What’s more, the mourners could not place their roses on the casket, a longstanding ritual, and the deacon ended up praying to a curtain high above us. Of course, there was no explanation for any of this (irrational as it is, how could there be!?).

I was heartsick for this family,and apologized profusely. A friend of the family asked in dismay if this was how the funeral industry was treating people. The hearse driver and I explained that it was this particular cemetery’s policy, not the funeral home’s. Only the day before, we had had an entirely different (and positive) experience at St. Charles. The lack of uniformity is incomprehensible. And after recounting this experience to a colleague, who shared a similar story, we are hoping to get clarification by reaching out to the cemetery bureau.

At this late date, there is little reason to behave as if Covid is the dire threat it was in the spring, especially, on Long Island, a county with a low infection rate, and in which people dine out in restaurants with regularity. As a colleague said, “surely the cemetery staff eats in restaurants, and uses the facility’s rest rooms.”

On a personal note, the daughter of the deceased gave a short eulogy. She spoke of the difficult relationship she had with her adoptive mother, (whose name was the same as that of mine). Hearing her words, and witnessing the adverse conditions, brought back searing memories of the trauma I experienced five years before at Pinelawn. It was a painful PTSD experience that I’ve yet to shake.

Families and funeral directors, alike, if you’ve had a bad experience with Pinelawn (or any cemetery), feel free to contact me through this site and tell me your story.

Post Pandemic Funeral Service – Can We Find Some Normalcy?

As the winter of 2020 turned to spring, the death toll from Covid-19 seemed insurmountable. For funeral directors, it was the darkest and most challenging time we’ve ever faced. In an industry built on personal contact and a deep sense of tradition, we could count on neither.

“The idea of not being able to do what we were trained to do was the biggest disappointment, the biggest shock through all this. We could not in any way, shape, or form, operate as we’ve been doing with such immediate and harsh changes,” said Pasquale “Pat” Megaro, who owns Megaro Memorial Home in Belleville, New Jersey.

Now, though, we face a different challenge – how to transition to funerals in a world that is reopening but still not out of danger.

The Current Situation

Depending on state and county regulations, and each state’s recovery phase, funeral homes are able to offer the rites and rituals that were absent during the pandemic. Still, they have to do what they can to keep visitors, and staff, safe.

In late May, John Herzig, the president of Toland-Herzig Funeral Home in Dover, Ohio, started to prepare for that return to normalcy.

“We had the barriers installed in our reception areas and began making plans for new ways of serving food (no buffet style) and as far as the funeral home is concerned, we began addressing changes we needed to make for the safety of our families, visitors, and staff,” he explained.

That preparation paid off. The funeral home was ready when, on June 11, it had it first open-to-the-public funeral since March. The deceased was a member of the local Catholic Church, and her family had made the request.

With social distancing markers on the floors, and hand sanitizers available throughout the building, visitors were encouraged to wear face masks. The funeral home provided them for those who did not have one.

“With all things considered, everything went very smoothly,” said Herzig.

The New Normal

As much as people may hunger for tradition after such an unprecedented situation, the reality is that the post-pandemic funeral is not going to look like the funeral of the past, at least not for a while.

With social distancing still in force, the human contact that has been the comforting hallmark of funeral service is perhaps the biggest casualty of what has become the new normal.

“It truly has been difficult for families who could not get the love and support needed during their loss. Some are planning to celebrate those lives in the future, but it is too soon to know how many will plan something now that things are starting to get back to normal,” said Herzig. 

Funeral directors, too, feel constrained in how we have had to deal with our client families.

“This isn’t what we were intending to do from the beginning, dealing with people over the phone and through the computer, and not having that personal touch,” said Megaro, who, like many other funeral directors, rues not having the freedom to comfort a mourner with a hug.

As New Jersey entered phase two, allowing funeral homes to up the number of visitors from 10 to 25% of a chapel’s maximum capacity, Megaro was also able, for the first time in months, to offer a grieving family the ability to have a full visitation.

The rules had fortuitously changed the night before he was to meet with the family to make arrangements. He was also glad to let them know that 20 people would be permitted at the entombment.

That day marked a turning point for Megaro, who’d struggled with the severe, and sometimes questionable, limitations placed upon funeral homes.

Being the intermediary and having to explain the “harsh and hard rules and regulations” to families about what could and couldn’t be done had been wearing on him.

Embracing Innovations

Danny Jefferson, location leader at Pierce–Jefferson Funeral Home & Cremation Services in Kernersville, North Carolina, has been especially innovative.

In both his funeral home locations, Jefferson is offering families the option of either a drive-through or walk-through visitation, followed by either a chapel or graveside service.

“Most are opting for the graveside service so that they can have more people,” said Jefferson.

With up to 25 people now allowed to gather in the reposing room at one time, walk-through funerals have become a popular option.

“Our staff encourages people to continue to keep walking,” said Jefferson. Calling, or emailing the family at a later time, and leaving online condolences on the funeral home’s website are other suggestions to help keep the line moving smoothly.

Jefferson came up with the idea for a drive-through visitation when in April, at the height of the pandemic, a well-known local volunteer firefighter died, and the funeral director sought a safe way for the community to pay their respects.

The casket was placed on the funeral home’s front porch, with a table in front containing memorabilia. As well as being functional, “the table creates a safe barrier for anyone who would want to get out of a car and walk up to the family,” he noted.

For an hour, scores of locals drove under the building’s portico to say good-bye. Many of those were people who would not ordinarily be able to attend, including a 92-year-old man who was out of quarantine for the first time.

Lessons Learned

Funeral service has been upended in a way we could never have imagined, and as we move forward as an industry, we wonder what, if any, the long lasting repercussions might be.

“We’ve been shown how simple things can be. But you still need that attentiveness whether for a simple funeral or for an elaborate one. You have to put the time and effort into it,” said Megaro.

And while some may look at funerals in a different way, he believes that most are “going to cherish and really embrace getting back to the typical wake, funeral services, and Masses.”

Concerns about health and safety, too, have taken on a renewed importance.

“I think the pandemic has made us focus on the importance of safety and to make sure we do everything in our power to make our families, visitors, and staff safer,” said Herzig, adding that the pandemic “has caused everyone in every business and profession to never take things for granted.”

In an article Jefferson wrote for the June issue of American Funeral Director, a widely-read industry trade magazine, he characterized the pandemic as a tipping point for funeral service. After seeing what the absence of ritual has done emotionally and spiritually to the bereaved, he believes funeral directors should “reinvent our profession.”

Jefferson emphasized: “What Covid is teaching us is that people still want ceremony. They still want others involved. They still want a time and a place that they can share.”

This article was originally published on July 9, 2020 @ https://sixtyandme.com/post-pandemic-funeral-service-can-we-find-some-normalcy/

I Want to Watch

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?

R.I.P. Regis Philbin

Years back,  I was a guest on Live! With Regis and Kathie Lee. It was a lot of fun and, a few months later, Regis invited me to be on his cable show to talk about funeral pre-planning. His beautiful wife Joy was the co-host, and together we planned a pretend funeral for Regis. While imparting helpful information to the audience, Regis’ comedic timing made the subject less intimidating. In fact, he had the audience in stitches.

I thought of that when I heard the sad news of his passing.

His Funeral Mass and burial will take place on the grounds of Notre Dame, his beloved alma mater.

Unsung Heroes

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.

Home Funerals

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.

God Winks

As deaths from the pandemic have, mercifully, subsided, cemeteries have relaxed a number of their restrictions. One 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.  Earlier, 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 at 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.

In a Book

I’ve been mentioned in newspapers, magazines, and even on television (as a Jeopardy question), but it is quite a kick to be mentioned in mystery writer Thomas O’Callaghan‘s new novel NO ONE WILL HEAR YOUR SCREAMS. I’m truly flattered.

Best of luck with the new book!

NO ONE WILL HEAR YOUR SCREAMS

 

RIP Dr. Jacquie Taylor

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.