The funeral as we know it is becoming a relic –just in time for a death boom blared the Washington Post headline.
Whoever wrote this garbage must have scoured the depths of kook-dom. This article bears no resemblance to what funeral directors do on a daily basis. Perhaps if newspapers interviewed actual, experienced funeral directors instead of those who seem like escapees from an asylum they’d get a true picture of funeral service. Among those quoted here is a woman (said to be unlicensed) who caused a great deal of consternation during her time with SCI. Another is an inexperienced counter-culture type who makes a pest of herself, and because of that has been blocked her from our social media accounts. Still, she finds a way to pester. The nonsense terminology–memorialpalooza, fabulous memorial shindig –and tawdry attempts to turn death into entertainment (“Final Bow Productions” –seriously!?) are affronts to dedicated funeral directors, and every person who has suffered a loss. Granted, death rituals have changed over the years, but not that much. The news, however, with their sketchy and slanted information would have you think otherwise. Reporters sometimes take the terms personalization and memorial services and somehow manage to turn them into something akin to circus antics.
The death of a loved one is life-altering, painful, and so very sad. The often irreverent view of death by today’s Press made me think of Mike McAlary, once a well-known newspaper reporter in New York City. The father of four young children died from cancer on Christmas day in 1998, at the age of 41. I seriously doubt his grieving wife and devastated children would have turned to “Final Bow Productions” to handle his “celebration of life.” Nor were they likely wanting “to put the “fun” in funerals.” In fact, McAlary’s family and friends attended a Catholic Funeral Mass for him on Long Island. Raw with grief, they, and the priest, shared what he had meant to so many. That, and millions of other stories, are the realities of death and funerals.
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:
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 after learning that her son had plundered her considerable financial means for his own personal use, while turning to the cheapest mode of final disposition. It was also 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 uncle. 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. Sadly, because of Brendan Hickey, I feel that I did just that.
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.
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.
A scene from the funeral of former New York State Governor, Mario M. Cuomo, as his casket is being carried to the hearse after a Mass at Park Avenue’s St. Ignatius Loyola. Read more about Gov. Cuomo’s life and death in my profile which is in the March issue of American Funeral Director.
Attending the September 7th memorial service, in New York City, for the late, great Joan Rivers was a rare privilege. My feature about the service can be found in this month’s ‘American Funeral Director.’ You can read a preview of the article here.
My profile of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is in October’s “American Cemetery & Cremation,” magazine. October is the perfect month to visit the legendary graveyard, as the entire town is in Halloween Mode. A sidebar to the article lists a number of the cemetery’s unique events for the month.
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.