Melissa Johnson Williams and Alexandra Kathryn Mosca are two well-known and respected names in funeral service.
In this recent article I wrote for Next Avenue, three seasoned, and respected, NYC funeral directors shared their thoughts and experiences with me. They were hard to hear, and even harder to write about, but such is the reality in these dark days. Funeral directors are doing all they can, against overwhelming circumstances, to lay the dead to rest with dignity and respect.
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.
I was pleased to share my view of funeral service with Life. Death. Whatever., gleaned from the work I’ve done, the experiences of my colleagues, and the perspective of the thousands of families I’ve served over the years. Despite what you may read in slanted press articles (with the fringe and/or inexperienced being used as sources to further a false narrative), funerals are as important as they ever were.
The funeral as we know it is becoming a relic — just in time for a death boom blared the Washington Post headline.
Whoever wrote this garbage must have scoured the depths of kook-dom. This article bears no resemblance to what funeral directors do on a daily basis. Perhaps if newspapers interviewed actual, experienced funeral directors instead of those who seem like escapees from an asylum they’d get a true picture of funeral service. Among those quoted here is a woman (said to be unlicensed) who caused a great deal of consternation during her time with SCI. Another is an inexperienced counter-culture type who makes a pest of herself, and because of that she has been blocked her from our social media accounts. Still, she finds a way to pester.
The nonsense terminology–memorialpalooza, fabulous memorial shindig –and tawdry attempts to turn death into entertainment (“Final Bow Productions” –seriously!?) are affronts to dedicated funeral directors, and every person who has suffered a loss. Granted, death rituals have changed over the years, but not that much. The news, however, with their sketchy and slanted information would have you think otherwise. Reporters sometimes take the terms personalization and memorial services and somehow manage to turn them into something akin to circus antics.
Death is life-altering, painful, and so very sad. The often irreverent view of death by today’s Press made me think of Mike McAlary, a once well-known reporter in NYC. The father of four young children died from cancer on Christmas day in 1998, at the age of 41. I seriously doubt his grieving wife and devastated children would have turned to “Final Bow Productions” to handle his “celebration of life.” Nor were they likely wanting “to put the “fun” in funerals.” In fact, McAlary’s family and friends attended a Catholic Funeral Mass for him on Long Island. Raw with grief, they, and the priest, shared what he had meant to so many. That, and millions of other stories are the realities of death and funerals.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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:
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.
Death never takes a holiday. At whatever time of year a death takes place, it will leave a permanent reminder in those left behind. Around any of the holidays it’s also a painful reminder of the “empty seat”.
My own father’s death took place on Christmas Day. He had been sick for several days but my family and I did not anticipate his death any time soon. We saw him on Christmas Eve as I had to work on Christmas Day at the funeral home. While there embalming on Christmas morning, I received a call from the hospital that he was not doing well and we should come. I contacted my family and within the hour I was at the hospital. But as I approached his room, I could hear my daughter crying and the beeping of the machines. I walked back to the nurses station and was a little annoyed with the conversation I had with the nurse who had called me. She kept saying, “I told him don’t die it’s Christmas” and that he had been asking for me. I walked away to go to his room and shortly my sister and her family arrived. We spent a little time with him and then we left, I to go to the funeral home to complete the work I had to do and my sister to her home where we would meet later in the day. Later in the week he had the “funeral directors” funeral. And yes, we celebrated but it was still a funeral, a time to say good bye. He had his Army uniform on and many “personalized” reminders of the career he had as a mortuary science educator and old school funeral director for more than half his life. The ultimate closure to this life story was a champagne toast at the end of his service. It was beautiful.
Funeral directors today are often portrayed as villains and no longer relevant. I can tell you there is nothing further from the truth for the vast majority of us. Even in our own difficult time, we often sacrifice our families because we know that someone else needs our help. It is an honor to help families through one of the worst times of their lives. Merry Christmas.
** This beautiful picture of candlelit cemetery in Finland is from:
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.