What You Need to Know When Considering a Home Funeral

In 1911, when newspaper publisher and journalist Joseph Pulitzer died, he was waked in the library of his Manhattan home. The room was filled with floral tributes and the furniture arranged for the assembly of mourners. Throughout the morning, family, friends, and employees came to pay their respects to the journalistic icon who reposed in a flag-draped casket, clasping a copy of his newspaper in his right hand.

Home Funerals Never Went Away

At the turn of the century, home funerals like that of Pulitzer were the norm. The deceased was embalmed in bed, and the viewing generally took place in the home’s “parlor.” Funeral directors supplied chairs and funeral paraphernalia such as casket biers, lecterns, and casket facial lamps.

Lately, news reports have generated some buzz about the return of home funerals. In fact, they never went away. They remain a little-known option that, if certain conditions are met, can be an intimate way to hold a wake.

An Option During the Pandemic

During the height of the Covid pandemic in New York City (when wakes could not be held) funeral director Nicholas Cassese, of the Walsh & Cassese Funeral Home in Queens, turned to a home arrangement to help a local family.

When the Family Has the Space for It

They told Cassese that not having a visitation was out of the question. Their mom had been a popular woman, and her family and many friends wanted to say goodbye. The woman’s daughter asked Cassese if it were possible to have a visitation in her Connecticut home.

“They told me they had the property to do it,” said Cassese.

On the day of the visitation, Cassese arrived at the daughter’s Greenwich, Connecticut, home with his brother, Anthony, and son, Nicholas Jr., who work with him in the family business. Relatives of the deceased were waiting outside to greet the hearse and to help transfer the casket into the home.

The Family Took Care of the Details

The family had taken great pains to ready their home. In the foyer, a table held a register book and memorial cards. A family member remained there to greet visitors.

The casket was brought into the library of the elegant home where the visitation was to take place. Standing floral pieces flanked the casket, and vases filled with colorful arrangements adorned the tabletops. Chairs were spread out, and photo montages were displayed on easels; a grand piano graced one wall. Natural light streamed in through large picture windows.

Outside, the backyard had been readied for a dual purpose. On one side, chairs were arranged for a religious service; on the other, tables and chairs were set up for the luncheon to follow.

“All the details had been fully thought out by the family,” Cassese noted.

When the visitation ended, the casket was loaded into the hearse with help from family and friends. The final disposition would take place in the morning. As Cassese drove slowly away from the home, mourners walked behind, escorting the hearse to the main road.

“It all worked out nicely,” Cassese remembered with satisfaction.

When the Deceased Wanted a Home Funeral

Funeral director Thomas Boland, who runs the Thomas F. Boland Funeral Parlor in College Point, New York, has handled several home funerals. One family contacted Boland after three other funeral homes turned them down. The daughter of the deceased told Boland that her father had expressed a wish for a home funeral.

“She said she wasn’t going to take no for an answer.”

Unlike the spacious area Cassese had to work with, Boland had to accommodate a home viewing in much smaller quarters. The deceased lived on the first floor of a two-family house, above ground level, and the only entryway was narrow.

An Unusual Arrangement

When Boland met with the family to make the funeral arrangements, he measured the doorway and immediately knew a standard-size casket would not fit. “I told them what caskets they could get,” he said. Still, even with a slimmer casket, the deceased and the casket would have to be brought in separately.

On the day of the visitation, Boland and his pallbearers carried the man’s body into the house on a stretcher, and then brought the casket through the door vertically. “The pallbearers did double duty,” he said.

Then they set up the folding chairs and prie-dieu they had brought from the funeral home for the two-day visitation. At night, when the visitation ended, Boland closed the casket, returning in the morning to reopen it.

It All Worked Out, Thanks to Good Planning

To prepare for any possible snag, Boland employed a technique known as “diamond lashing,” which would secure the deceased in the casket should the family insist he not be removed from the casket on the day of the funeral.

“I tied ropes inside in a strategic way on both sides under the mattress in the event we had to move the body inside the casket out of house,” he explained.

On the morning of the funeral, the family agreed that Boland and the pallbearers could remove the deceased and casket separately from the home. The deceased was taken to Boland’s funeral home, where he was placed back into the casket.

When Boland returned with the casketed remains, he lifted the lid in the back of the hearse for people to say their final goodbyes before the procession left for church.

“To give them peace of mind, I reopened the casket inside the back of the hearse so everyone could see to say their final goodbyes, and just so they knew it was really him in that casket,” said Boland.

Shortly after the funeral, the daughter of the deceased left Boland a five-star review on Google, writing in part “…he accomplished my dad’s last wish. I will always be grateful [to him] for making it possible.”

If You Are Thinking of Having a Home Funeral

  • First, and foremost, you will need to contact a funeral director. This is not a do-it-yourself project. There is paperwork to be done and permits to be filed.
  • While most localities permit home funerals, it may not be practical for apartment dwellers or those who live in a condo or co-op.
  • If you live in an urban area, consider where visitors will park.
  • Check to see if the doorway is wide enough to accommodate a casket.
  • Consider whether you will be comfortable in a room that once held a casket.
  • There is a cost savings in not having to pay the funeral home’s room rental charge, but you will have to pay for pallbearers and the use of equipment.
  • While some funeral homes claim to “specialize” in home funerals, the fact is funeral homes do not specialize in a particular service. If the first funeral home you contact declines, try another. Most funeral homes will be willing to arrange the service you want.

Originally published on October 13, 2021 https://sixtyandme.com/home-funerals/

How We Remember

I was honored to be asked to contribute an essay to NFDA’s ‘Director’ magazine in observance of the somber 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks. I chose to write about a few of the many 9/11 memorials to be found in cemeteries around the country. One of my favorites is in the Cemetery of the Holy Rood, on Long Island. The tablet behind the Pieta statue contains the names and occupations of 414 of the victims who perished in the attacks.

If you are an NFDA member, you can read my essay (and those of several other contributors) in this month’s issue, or online.

Lessons You Can Learn From a Tour In Your Local Cemetery

If you’re looking to explore your roots, or just want to soak up some regional history, look no further than your local cemetery. On most mornings, that is exactly where I go, because I am a funeral director. But I often head there on my off-time, too. Working as a funeral director has piqued my curiosity about the lives of those who rest beneath the monuments.

In fact, it was such interest that inspired me to author two books about notable American cemeteries: Green-Wood Cemetery and Gardens of Stone. I’m far from alone in my interest. Touring cemeteries has become a huge pastime as evidenced by the many hashtags, such as #tombstonetourism and #cemeterywandering, to be found on social media.

Whether small churchyard cemeteries or large, elaborate necropolises, cemeteries today are regarded as cultural repositories and outdoor museums. What’s more, they are visual reminders that every life has a story, and one of them may be the story of your ancestors.

Learning About Your Ancestry

“Discovering the cemeteries and graveyards of your ancestors is a great place to further your genealogical research, as well as a make a physical connection to ancestral family,” says Valerie Elkins, a family history expert and professional genealogist based in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

“Besides the commonly found information of name, birth and death dates, grave headstones may include clues on where to find further information to aid your research,” she says.

That information may include the person’s hometown, even in another country. Emblems on tombstones can provide clues to past membership in fraternal organizations, a person’s religion, and their veteran status, Elkins explains.

“Neighboring headstones can link families together, so it is important to pay attention to those graves surrounding them. Shared death dates might tell you that they died from the same cause such as a natural disaster, a disease outbreak, or that they died to possible unnatural causes such as war or murder.”

Elkins recommends the Internet as a good starting point if you are unable to locate your ancestor’s grave. FamilySearch.org, a free website, provides access to millions of records that the Family History Library, the world’s largest genealogical library, has available.

Ancestry.com, which has a large catalog of cemetery records, is also a good resource. It is a premium website, but local libraries often provide free access.

And if online research doesn’t work, Elkins says it pays to contact local and state genealogy societies, which may be the key to finding information about cemeteries, even unpublished small family graveyards, especially since cemeteries’ names may have changed over time.

“Once you locate your loved one’s headstone, take photos of the stone,” she says. “Some headstones have information on the back and sides of the stone, so be sure and record this as well. Take pictures of the neighboring headstones to research later.”

Touring for Pleasure

While many visit cemeteries to trace their family lineage, others go to view the splendid architecture and learn more about local history.

“The history of America is in cemeteries,” says Marge Raymond, a veteran senior tour guide for Brooklyn, New York’s renowned Green-Wood Cemetery.

Raymond, who knows just about every inch of the cemetery’s 478 acres, first discovered Green-Wood through her interest in bird-watching.

“I was captivated by the beauty of Green-Wood and wanted to know everything about it,” Raymond recalls. She began to go on tours offered by the cemetery, soon becoming a volunteer who welcomed visitors and manned the cemetery’s book cart.

Her dedication was rewarded when, in 2007, Raymond became an official Green-Wood Historic Fund tour guide. Early on, she created three unique routes for the trolley tour, and for over a decade has given hundreds of walking, and private, tours.

Raymond’s knack for storytelling has garnered her scores of glowing reviews on Tripadvisor, as well a reputation as one of New York’s most popular tour guides. She is also a professional vocalist, who has sung with such legends as Rock and Roll’s Steven Tyler of Aerosmith and was in the chorus for the late tenor, Luciano Pavarotti.

Sometimes billed as “the singing tour guide,” Raymond has been known to break into song at a gravesite, to the delight of those on her tour. One of those gravesites is that of Leonard Bernstein on Battle Hill, which occupies the highest point in Brooklyn and is a favorite spot of Raymond’s.

“I would call it a trifecta. There’s the remarkable Civil War Monument erected in 1869 by the City of New York, the statue of Minerva, the sister statue to the Statue of Liberty, and the grave of our beloved maestro Leonard Bernstein.” And, she says, “you can’t beat the view of the New York City skyline from that vantage point.”

What to Know Before You Go

Whether you’re taking a guided tour, or mapping out your own self-guided walk, here are some helpful tips from Elkins and Raymond to get the most out of your tour.

Familiarize Yourself with the Cemetery and Its Notable Inhabitants

“People come into the cemetery and look around. They may recall a name or two, but sometimes tourists don’t know the significance of what they’re looking at. That’s where a guided tour comes in. A tour guide knows the grounds and the stories behind the monuments,” Raymond says.

Search Find A Grave and Billion Graves

“Findagrave.com and BillionGraves.com are websites that have indexed thousands of graves from cemeteries around the world and are easily searchable,” says Elkins. BillionGraves.com also allows you to record the GPS coordinates of a headstone, along with the headstone’s information, to make it easier for others to locate.

Ask Questions of the Tour Guide

Don’t be a passive spectator. If something catches your interest, or you have a question, make sure to ask your guide. They welcome your interest.

Venture Off the Beaten Path

“I’ll find something interesting written on a headstone, then I’ll go and look it up,” says Raymond, who, while traversing Green-Wood’s public lots came across the grave of an early 20th century cyclist whose stone monument noted that he “died from exhaustion” after winning a race.

Tailor the Tour to Your Special Interests

Whether those interests are legendary movie stars, natural disasters, world wars, inventors, organized crime figures, or sports figures, there’s likely a tour for that interest.

Size Up the Particulars of the Tour

It is practical to have some numbers. How long is the tour? What’s the terrain like? Is there a trolley or bus alternative to walking? Needless to say, wear comfortable shoes, bring water, and don’t forget the sunscreen.

Know the Cost

Costs vary from cemetery to cemetery. Members of historic funds often quality for a discount.

If you’re planning to be in New York this spring, Raymond will be giving tours on April 17th at 1 pm & April 30th at 7 pm, and on May 8th & May 30th at 1:00 pm. Head over to https://www.green-wood.com/calendar/ for more details. And as one Tripadvisor reviewer recommends:

“Make sure to ask for Marge when you book, she’s like a walking history book!”

Originally published on April 15, 2021 on https://sixtyandme.com/local-cemetery-tours/

12+ Things You Should Know About Planning a Memorial Service

Two summers ago, my cousin Elizabeth died. Her death was sudden and occurred less than two weeks after the death of her mother. But unlike her mother, who had a traditional funeral, Elizabeth’s wish was to be cremated and to have her cremated remains scattered. In the interim, her two sisters and I put together a memorial service to honor her memory.

Elizabeth’s Memorial Service

In increasing numbers, people are making the same choice: to have a service without the body present. So, on a sunny Saturday morning in early September, Elizabeth’s family and friends gathered at her local Catholic church on Long Island.

I placed the lilac urn that held her cremated remains on a small table in front of the altar along with a framed photo of her taken at a family party a few summers before. A vase, at the base of the table, contained a floral arrangement in shades of purple, a signature family color.

A table, in the rear of the church, held memorial cards, which bore a photo of a lighthouse, a favorite of Elizabeth’s, and a basket filled with packets of purple forget-me-not seeds. Each packet was imprinted with her name and a picture of the flowers, which were to be planted in her memory.

The table also contained a guest book for visitors to sign, and each person was given a program outlining the order of service for the Mass. Her sisters wore the beaded bracelets and necklaces Elizabeth had bought for them just weeks earlier to wear at their mother’s wake. Later, at lunch, her brother-in-law, a police chaplain, led us in prayer before offering a brief eulogy.

Elizabeth’s memorial service was intimate and, in the absence of a funeral, gave family and friends the opportunity to gather together and commemorate her life.

The New Trend: Memorial Services

The rising popularity of memorial services is driven, in part, by the increase in direct cremations, a mode of disposition with no accompanying rituals.

The Covid pandemic has also contributed to the increase. When Covid struck, many churches closed, making it impossible for families to have a funeral Mass for their loved one. Instead, they planned for a memorial Mass at a later date.

“A memorial service acts in the same capacity as a wake, bringing people together, but without the deceased present in their physical form,” says funeral director, Doris Amen, who owns the Jurek-Park Slope Funeral Home in Brooklyn, New York.

No Two Memorial Services Will Be the Same

Memorial services can be religious or non-religious. They can take place in a variety of venues: a funeral home, a house of worship, a park, a garden, or on a beach. They can be simple or elaborate.

Elaborate Memorial

One of the grandest memorial services Amen recalls is the one for the widow of a well-known artist. A few months after her death, a memorial service with the woman’s cremated remains took place at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church on New York City’s Park Ave.

A reception followed the religious service on the outdoor terrace of the church, where waiters served cocktails and canapes. Everyone who attended received a print reproduction of one of the woman’s late husband’s nautical-themed paintings as a keepsake.

Amen later shipped the cremains of both the woman and her husband, who had died in 1999, to a cemetery in California for permanent placement.

Services Can Be Simpler

For more modest services, Amen offers her clientele the use of an urn, at no charge, to display the cremated remains. But whether they use hers or their own urn, people often dress it up with flowers.

That was the case for the memorial service of a local Brooklyn merchant. Amen displayed the cremated remains, surrounded by flowers, on a table in the meeting room of her funeral home. Guests dined on food catered by a local restaurant as they watched a video montage and shared reminiscences. Classical and big-band music, the man’s favorites, played in the background.

“It was a party. We had music. It was what the next of kin wanted,” said Amen. “They wanted to have a celebratory situation rather than an in memoriam. Every family is different.”

In fact, the man’s memorial card reflected his party spirit. It depicted him with a broad smile, one hand raising a glass of wine in a toast.

“So many people they did not expect showed up that the family ran out of food,” Amen, who often goes above and beyond for her clientele, said. “In 45 minutes, I made them a full tray of baked ziti.”

Food is often a big part of a memorial service.

“Some people go to restaurants with the ashes. We had one in a local restaurant at which the ashes were on a separate table, with a place setting. We even put a place card for that person,” Amen said.

Memorial Services Can Have All the Elements of a Funeral

In planning a memorial service, families will often draw on the traditions of funerals.

Obituaries can generally be placed in a community newspaper free of charge. They can also be posted on the funeral home’s website or social media sites like Facebook or Instagram.

Memorial prayer cards are often used. They will have a photo on the frontand aprayer, poem, or quote, on the back. The image can be religious or secular, depicting a nature scene, artwork, or a favorite photo of the deceased.

A religious service can be held. Sometimes it will be in a house of worship, or a member of the clergy can officiate at the site of the memorial service. Families should choose meaningful hymns and readings.

Flowers also can be a big part. A vase of flowers in the favorite colors of the deceased lends beauty to the setting. Peace lilies or orchids are popular options.

Photos and videos are important as well. Whether framed, poster-sized, montages, or in the form of slideshows and video tributes, pictures are visual remembrances of one’s life.

Funeral programs will often go beyond outlining the service and include biographical information, photos, poems, and favorite sayings.

Make It Meaningful and Unique

Families shouldn’t forget the small things that can make a difference in a memorial service.

Send invitations through the mail, email, or through social media platforms.

Ask everyone to wear the deceased’s favorite color, even if only as an accent piece.

Play the deceased’s favorite music. In addition to CDs and steaming, perhaps there’s a singer in the group who can offer a special song.

Serve the deceased’s favorite food and/or drink.

Set up a memory table on which to showcase favorite books, crafts, hobbies, sports memorabilia, and more.

Give guests a memento to take home – a charm, a favorite recipe card, a memorial stone, the sky’s the limit. If the deceased was a collector, consider giving guests a piece from that collection.

This article was originally published by sixtyandme.com/memorial-service/on March 22, 2021.

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.