Moonrise and the Morte Girls

Last night, the Morte Girls attended Moonrise, a most unique event at Green-Wood Cemetery. 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. 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?

Madame CJ Walker

By Melissa Johnson Williams

Madame CJ Walker was a remarkable African American woman, a distinguished early 1900’s self made business woman. @Suntimes article about the sale of her estate, Villa Lewaro led me to look at her biography. She is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, NYC.

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.

Rosalia Lombardo

By Melissa Johnson Williams

It was my great pleasure to work on the National Geographic program Italy’s Mystery Mummies. I had the opportunity to work two distinguished anthropologist, one of whom was a living legend at the time. Dario Piombino-Mascali known for his work with the Sicilian mummies made it possible for me to complete my fathers research interest in Rosalia Lombardo. Dr. Arthur Aufderheide was the best bonus one could ask for. His nickname, the “mummy doctor” says it all.

My father for years before his death had an intense interest in Rosalia. He corresponded with the monastery about her numerous times and they put him in contact with a living relative of Dr. Alfredo Salafia who embalmed her. Through Dario I was able to put the pieces together that he had been looking for. Below is a blog post by our dear late friend, Christine Quigley discussing the program. Enjoy, Melissa Johnson Williams.

Embalmers and anthropologists

Three of my friends were on TV last night, and the program was fascinating! “Italy’s Mystery Mummies” aired on the National Geographic Channel at 10 P.M. last night (it will air again on Saturday at 7 P.M.). The team included physical anthropologists Dario Piombino-Mascali and Art Aufderheide, and Melissa Johnson Williams, practicing embalmer and executive director of the American Society of Embalmers. They had unprecedented access to the mummies in the churches and crypts of Italy, including that of little Rosalia Lombardo(1918-1920), one of the most perfectly preserved mummies in the world (and Dario’s favorite!). She was embalmed by Dr. Alfredo Salafia (1869-1933), but the ingredients of his formula have been a mystery–until Dario tracked down the niece of Dr. Salafia’s 2nd wife, who still had the embalmer’s papers, including a handwritten memoir in which he recorded the chemical components. They do not include the supposed arsenic, but instead formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid, and glycerin. Dr. Salafia was one of the first embalmers to use formalin (a formaldehyde mixture), but also secured Rosalia’s preservation by lining the specially-designed casket with lead and sealing it with wax, making it airtight. The team confirmed with x-rays that her body is intact, but did not break the seal, so she continues to lie in state at the Capuchin monastery in Palermo, Sicily. Wow!

Dia De Los Muertos

Dia De Los Muerto, the Day of the Dead, is a formal holiday celebrated throughout regions of Mexico where it originated from October 31 – November 2 (All Saints and All Souls Day), each year.  The funeral related industries throughout the world have started dropping the word “celebrate or celebration of life” to replace the word funeral. But nowhere is there more a celebration of life and death then in these communities in Mexico over this formal holiday period.

Historical sources indicate this celebration to be more than 3,000 years old dating back to the Aztecs and possibly first witnessed by the Conquistadors 500 years ago.  There are reports that there were attempts to end the event – that was not successful and has evolved over the years.

Foremost to this celebration is visiting of the graves of deceased family members. In some areas, bones are removed from graves and cleaned, while others spend the day honoring their loved ones with food and activities that the deceased enjoyed in life. Today many outside the Hispanic community embrace this feeling of celebration.  Museum exhibits are observed throughout the US and other countries. A way to help people understand the culture not just of death and dying but of honor and respect for those who have died.  The movie “Coco” that premiered last year, was a good way for children of “all” ages to understand the life and death cycle that so many today say is denied.  Let’s take a moment to remember that we all have the capability to remember, honor and acknowledge our dead. Not just on special designated dates but throughout the year.

 

 

 

3 MYTHS ABOUT GREEN BURIALS: A FUNERAL DIRECTOR’S PERSPECTIVE

This blog post originally appeared on sixtyandme.com. If you are considering a green burial, here are some things you should know.

3 MYTHS ABOUT GREEN BURIALS 

 

What It’s Like To Work As A Funeral Director

A few months ago, I was invited to be among the bloggers at sixtyandme. The site, begun by the extraordinary Margaret Manning, has grown by leaps and bounds, now reaching 500,000 readers. The bloggers on the site share their professional expertise gleaned from long careers in their respective fields. I will be blogging on all things funereal, broaching subjects factually and honestly. One of my missions is to combat misinformation about the funeral industry by unlicensed individuals (who have no idea what it’s really like to work in the industry), and those with limited experience.  My first post was a natural, given my many years in funeral service.

What It’s Like To Work As A Funeral Director