Tag: funerals matter

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?

Home Funerals

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

God Winks

As deaths from the pandemic have, mercifully, subsided, cemeteries have relaxed a number of their restrictions. One of them that has yet to do so was the cemetery I was at this morning. The gates are still locked, and to enter one must be a funeral director there to facilitate an interment. No visitors are allowed. As I waited behind the locked gate, trying to get the attention of the guard, a light-colored Prius pulled up behind me. The driver was wearing sunglasses, and I could not make out his face, but I recognized –or thought I did –the car as belonging to the Deacon who would be officiating at this morning’s funeral.  The Deacon and I had had a brief conversation as we both drove on the parkway leading to the cemetery, and by his calculation he was “right behind me.” So, when the guard unlocked the gate for me, I told him that the car behind me was with me, and to kindly let him in as well. He did, and I pulled into the waiting area, as the Prius pulled up next to me. The driver opened his window, and I exclaimed in surprise, “You’re not my Deacon.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                “No, but thank you for getting me in. It’s my mother’s birthday, and I want to visit her and lay flowers on her grave.”  He went on to tell me how upsetting it had been for families not being able to visit their loved ones, and how he could not understand why cemeteries, with so much acreage (and plenty of room to social distance), would feel the need to lock their gates to visitors. I agreed. When my Deacon did arrive, a minute or two later, I told him the happy car coincidence. “That was no coincidence, it was a God winks moment,” he said with a smile.

So glad that man could have that precious visit on such an important day.

RIP Queens DA Richard Brown

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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.

 

Pinelawn Memorial Park: My Mother’s Death Without Dignity

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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.

Joan Rivers’ Memorial Service

Joan Rivers’ Memorial Service

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.

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Funerals Matter

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The media is full of hype these days about the changing face of funeral service. While articles about green burials, home funerals or no funerals at all, proliferate, this is not the reality. Funerals matter and this book makes that case. A “must read” for anyone interested in a career as a funeral director. The author cites John F. Kennedy’s funeral, which –for those who remember or have seen the footage–spoke volumes about the need for ceremony. An article about this book appears in the March issue of American Funeral Director. Here’s a link to Amazon.

My Favorite Funeral

The funeral for Mayor Koch was a true celebration of his life! Each and every speaker shared memories –both personal and public–as well as anecdotes which made the entire audience laugh. Mayor Bloomberg, especially, was in top form regaling everyone with amusing quips and heartfelt praise. The signature moment came at the end of the service. As Mayor Koch’s casket was being shouldered out of Temple Emanu-El, the organist began to play New York, New York (if only Frank were there to sing it). In a moment both moving and celebratory, the entire crowd broke out in sustained applause. Here is that moment captured for history: