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. Then 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 left their cars). It was also left to us to explain to a holy host of arbitrary rules to a grieving family: the casket (a casket they never got the opportunity to see) could not be present during the commital 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 my c-Morte Girl pointed out, “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 the Morte Girls through this site and tell us your story.

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 want 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 embalming room. 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?

RIP Dr. Jacquie Taylor

We were 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.

“There has been a deleterious effect as the boundaries of funeral service have become increasingly porous,” Dr. Taylor said that day. Nothing could be further from the truth. And while she is no longer here to advocate for our industry, we can carry the mantel forward. Interlopers be gone!

Rest in Peace, Dr. Taylor.

 

 

How a Common Death Ritual Made It Harder to Mourn the Loss of My Mother ————-Say What!?

How a Common Death Ritual Made It Harder to Mourn the Loss of My Mother

We can barely contain our disgust at this article. In essence, the writer is complaining that the funeral home made her deceased mother look too good, and it has traumatized her. She writes: “I thought she was alive again. She looked better than she had for years. Her skin was pink and smooth; her hair, nicely groomed. Even her fingernails were done, and she had a very small smile on her face.”

This woman is hawking a book, and that likely accounts for her hyperbole, laughable terminology (slumber room, coffin) and misleading information (once again someone who can’t understand that cremation is a type of final disposition and does not preclude embalming). She did, however, catch the attention of a major magazine with her tripe. And she is yet another voice slamming the work we do with such caring and dedication.

This is one (seemingly disturbed ) woman’s opinion, and we know that this is not a normal reaction to a perfectly presented remains. As we have seen time and again, it is quite the opposite: families cannot thank us enough for taking away the ravages of disease.

Funeral service is being slammed on a regular basis. Unfortunately, part of the problem is that we have stayed silent while kooks (often inexperienced and/or unlicensed) speak for our honorable industry. We encourage funeral directors everywhere to reach out in rebuttal to these defamatory articles, starting with this one.

The New York Time’s email: editors@time.com.

 

Definition of Funeral Service

Southern Calls is a prestigious funeral service journal. The SouthernCalls.com website has interesting articles and images on their pages that are a mix of old and new.  The Funeral Profession page has two separate pages, The Present and The Past.  The Present page has this as its headline:

THE PRESENT
Steeped in history, defined by compassion, The Funeral Profession moves ever forward buoyed by innovation, rooted in tradition, and made lasting in the service to others. We proudly honor the purveyors – past & present.

This should be funeral services motto. Every generation moves ahead but it should always be rooted in tradition and made lasting in the service to others. Funeral service history is not considered important by many today. It’s old fashioned and outdated. But what has never changed is this: We serve families. Whether they want a full traditional funeral or they want something modern and innovative we are still rooted in the tradition of honoring the deceased AND the family.

Too many times today it feels as though the material that is published in regard to funerals is oftentimes more about entertainment and getting likes on posts, or more followers. Funeral service built its reputation on not getting recognition for what we did. We did our work respectfully and quietly with reverence and compassion.  Many people will not “like” this (in whatever form you take that) statement but funerals (now being called “celebrations”) are about remembering someone who has died and honoring that life in the most appropriate way for the family.  This should be our only focus.

tombjune2017

 

 

 

 

Green Burials and Responsible Reporting

We submitted this piece to The New York Times @nytimes as an Op-Ed letter seven days ago and have never heard from them. We are publishing it here so our voices can be heard regarding this topic.

Recently, The New York Times published an article: Green Burials: At the End of Life, Thinking Outside the Coffin, (NYT, November 15, 2018)
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/15/business/green-burials-wendy-macnaughton.html

It was clever, and complete with eye-catching graphics and unusual fonts to draw the reader in. However, it lacked basic research to make it useful for those who interested in learning about funeral options. The premise of the article was, in a quirky way, to tell readers the reasons people might want to consider a “green” burial. What has been the problem with nearly all the stories and comments about green burial is that although they are touted as an up and coming way of disposing of human remains, the facts do not support the argument. This hype-driven alternative is the province of a small fringe group who make it difficult to distinguish between fact and fiction. You often read statistics that claim people are very interested in this type of disposition, but there is an astounding lack of reporting about what percentage of the general public is following through on this choice. If you ask funeral directors how often families select green burial, you will quickly find that this is not a trend at all. Although, funeral and disposition choices have changed over the years, clearly this is not a choice that is widely popular.

Looking at this specific article (many other articles quote the same statistics and material) there is a comparison between traditional funeral costs versus green burial costs at $1,000 – $4,000 for the green burial option. This is an exaggeration. By calling cemeteries that offer “green” options you will find that the burial space alone may take up more than half of the $4,000. The Green Burial Council’s (greenburialcouncil.org) website provides lists of approved and certified green burial funeral homes and cemeteries. For example, if you look at the list of cemeteries near New York City, you will find that the closest one is Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, about one hour outside the city. This means that the deceased would need to be transported a long distance for burial (as is the case in many areas around the country where there is no green cemetery nearby), adding additional costs.

The article goes on to look at the type of caskets and shrouds that can be used. Some green caskets are no less expensive than those typically used in funeral homes on a regular basis. A Google search for green caskets and shrouds reveals pages of listings. Memorials.com offers many varieties of green caskets on their website from woolen caskets starting at $1,297.00, up to $2,099.00 for a bamboo casket. kinkaraco.com has a variety of products for green burials. Shroud pages show items costing between $225.00 – $995.00. Bear in mind, these prices do not reflect the funeral home’s charges nor do they include the cemetery space. Combined, these costs can easily exceed $4,000.

The article also mentions urns and a starred box advises that “…cremation isn’t so green. Cremating one body uses as much fuel as a 500+ mile road trip.” There is no reference for this comment (nor for any of the other items in this piece) so one can’t determine its accuracy. Flame-based cremation usage is at an all-time high and continues to be a very affordable method of disposition. And newer flame-based cremation units are much more efficient. Last year, Facultatieve Technologies, a manufacturer of cremators, introduced the FT USA v2 cremation retort which minimizes the burning of natural gas during the cremation process. Flameless and aqua cremations are considered more environmentally friendly, but since they are relatively new their availability is limited across the country.

An exchange between the author and two workers at Fernwood Cemetery in Mill Valley, California, (fernwood.com) discuss interments with misguided humor. Of note is that Fernwood Cemetery, which bills itself as “one of the country’s first environmentally conscious cemeteries” is not on the list of Green Burial Council approved providers. What’s more, on their price list for ‘Natural Burial Options,’ the least expensive option is $6,700, far exceeding the article’s suggested cost of $1,000 to $4,000. These prices are just for the burial space and no other goods or services.

In the end what does all of this mean for the consumer? We believe it means that while people may be curious about alternatives to tradition funerals that curiosity has not led to a greater demand for green burials. At a time when traditional funerals today are sometimes mocked and treated like vulgar, pagan rituals, the majority continue to find them normal and comforting. The funeral of President George H. W. Bush is a case in point. So, let’s validate the consumer’s choice by telling them that whatever they want for their final disposition is okay. Surely, each individual should have the type of final disposition — burial, cremation, entombment — that they want and can afford, and that includes adhering to time-honored rituals or trendy alternatives. Just don’t be taken in by the hype.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy

By Melissa Johnson Williams

Those of us who witnessed the events 56 years ago of President Kennedy’s assassination, remember it vividly. He was so much more than just our President. He was of course a husband, father, son, brother, and friend to many. He was a decorated war hero and an inspiration to generations of people.

Rest on good and faithful servant.

Carolyn Jones (aka Morticia Addams)

By Melissa Johnson Williams

Thirty-five years ago today Morticia Addams died. The woman we knew and loved as Morticia was of course Carolyn Jones.  A very talented actress who performed in both movies and television. She crossed several movie genres but even the younger generation knows “Morticia”. She was the original and favorite goth beauty. The Morticia dress and mannerisms had us coming back week after week. And of course that handsome devil Gomez and the rest of the kooky family had us at the theme music. It was pure entertainment heaven. It’s also why so many of us seek out the show this many years later.

Many may not know of her acting in 34 movies. Some with the best of the best of Hollywood including Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Anthony Quinn and Kirk Douglas to name a few.

But for most of us we will always love Morticia!

See the source image

See the source image

Extreme Embalming

There was a picture that circulated on the internet recently showing a young man posed at his wake in a laid back style.  Many commentators used the phrase “extreme embalming” to describe this supposedly new phenomenon. Most of those commentators know nothing about embalming or its history. If they did they would have known about the many photos that exist of posed deceased persons just here in the US from before the Civil War.

On this the 66th anniversary of the death of Eva Peron. “Evita” the devoted wife of President Juan Peron of Argentina, was famous in life and death. Her history and that of her husband can be found without difficulty through any search engine. What is interesting about Evita is her story after her death.

On July 26, 1952 when Eva Peron died, her husband was at her bedside along with Dr. Pedro Ara. Ara was a well known anatomist and very skilled at the preservation of the body. He came to Argentina in 1925 to organize the anatomy museum for a medical college. He had learned embalming from some of the best physicians in Europe. It is believed he had preserved through embalming hundreds maybe thousands of human remains.

Eva Peron was embalmed in the room she died in. President Peron gave him complete control and privacy while engaged in the operation. At the completion of the preparation the President expressed his satisfaction.  She was washed, dressed, her hair prepared by her own hair dresser. Her nails were polished by her personal maid. The casket was a fully open mahogany with a glass top.  Her remains were moved to the Ministry of Labor where she would lie in state until her state funeral on August 9.  Millions of people came to pay there respects to her during the interval. For his final treatment Dr. Ara had her remains moved to a laboratory the day after her funeral. He immerses the body in a chemical solution in the belief that it would provide a permanent preservation. It would remain there until the construction of her monument was complete.

Political unrest gripped Argentina and President Peron was forced to flee to Paraguay on September 20, 1955. However, the new President believed he must rid the country of the Peron’s affection. He ordered the military with the help of a famous German commando leader to seize her remains.

The story continues, that her remains were sent to Bonn, Germany in 1956. Pope Pius XII gives consent for it to be buried near Rome but was moved one more time to Musocco Cemetery in Milan in 1957 under the name Maria Maggi.

Back in Argentina during this time it was not clear where her remains were taken. Those loyal to the Peron’s would begin a long search for it. The Peron loyalist, kidnapped the current president of Argentina in 1970 with the hopes of having him to tell them where she was. He was found dead several days later.  The end came in September 1971 when a “man” appears at the Milan cemetery claiming Maria Maggi was his sister and he wished to have her disinterred. This was accomplished with extraordinary speed. The remains arrived at the residence of Juan Peron in Madrid a few days later.

Dr. Ara also lived in Madrid and the following day began repairs of the body that was now 16 years since being viewed and 19 years since embalming.  A new coffin held Evita with it being placed in the Peron home dining room, where the current Mr. and Mrs. Peron ate dinner each evening. Juan and his wife returned to Argentina to lead the country but without Evita in 1973. Political unrest there led to the return of her remains the following year and she was placed next to her husband in the Presidential residence. Her coffin was open for viewing while his was closed.  Evita’s post death travels end in October 1976 when she returned to her family in Recoleta Cemetery. Her husband was buried in his family cemetery in Buenos Aires.

Dr. Ara consulted with one of the world’s most prominent embalmers, Desmond Henley of London in 1972. Henley had embalmed many prominent persons and was considered to be a master embalmer. This consultation was one year before his death and while he was still interested in learning more about the practice of embalming.

There have been many famous embalmed remains around the world. Vladimir Lenin, Ho Chi Minh, Chairman Mao, and Joseph Stalin to name a few. Long term embalming is possible and an art. Embalming makes it possible to not just preserve the remains for a period of time but also have it look the way it was remembered. A positive final good bye.

This article was excerpted from previously published material from the American Funeral Director, April and May, 1986 by Edward C. Johnson and Melissa Johnson.

 

Women In Funeral Service, Circa 1900

These pages are from the funeral service publications of the early 1900’s called The Casket and The Sunnyside.  As can be seen in these photos women are prominent in the care of the dead, specifically teaching embalming.  More than 100 years ago these women lead the way for every woman practitioner today.

KNOW YOUR HISTORY!