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.
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.
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
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:
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.