From Perfunctory Transfer to Transformative Experience

MAX BECKMANN-XX-Small deathbed scene

The funeral consumers I meet aren’t excessively distressed by today’s funerals costs. More frequently, they are infuriated by the insensitive way funeral firm personnel, in the presence of family, transfer the dead to the funeral home from the beds they died in. “Then these two men in dark suits walked in, suggested we might want to leave the room, and we heard the zipping of a bag. Then they left. It felt like they were in a hurry to get to an appointment, or something.” You yourself have heard this complaint. Funeral home transfer teams can bow and offer condolences until they’re blue in the face, but if they can’t manage a compassionate, careful collection of a deceased person from the room he or she recently died in with grieving family members looking on, they have botched the funeral, and the funeral home’s owner might spend the next three days trying to redeem the whole firm.

It is hard for such a loaded exchange to look as good or seem as smooth as anyone might desire. But the honesty and transparency of the moment is critical. Detaching medical equipment from the body, quickly reaching to support limbs that might hang down and look a little frightening in order to get the deceased person onto the funeral home’s stretcher–all of those moments in the presence of family can be painfully awkward for the funeral home’s hard-working (sometimes up-all-night) trade service or transfer team. In essence, this is a changing of the guard.

But I think success stems from engaging families more in the moment instead of fearing their reactions and trying to shield them from the transfer’s inevitable imperfections. The relocation of the dead from place of death to the next stop on the journey truly holds the most amazing, ceremonial potential! Some transfer teams see this moment of the funeral as the “worst” part when in fact, they could see it as the best and take greater pride in it. (Dare I say that many of the families wishing to pay less for a casket, would pay more for an improved transfer-from-place-of-death experience?)

We need to adapt to modern families wishing to witness as much as they can, even when what those families are choosing to see is difficult. It is not our job to remove them from an experience in order to “protect” them from it. Let’s face it, the popularity of cremations without any funeral parlor visitation combined with the success of the hospice movement and home funeral have created an environment where the time spent at place of death is the viewing.

At this modern on-the-spot ceremony, family members may have been singing, praying, crying and just exchanging stories at the bedside in the 90-minutes since death occurred. The tributes have commenced before the funeral firm’s arrival! Hospice workers, hospital chaplains, and death midwives are facilitating this new kind of working “wake” immediately after death exquisitely well. And families are navigating the liminal space–the time between death and disposition– as best they can.

Enter the funeral director (or the funeral home’s representatives), fresh from the stresses of the highway. Yow. Not an easy moment.

Addressing my brethren directly, I’d like to demonstrate how funeral directors and funeral home personnel can support, even uplift, a grieving family at point of transfer.

1. Clear your head and fill it with compassion on your way to the hospital, nursing facility or home where the death has occurred. Arrive at the agreed-upon time. Stand at the door of the room, knock softly, then enter. Slowly offer your hand to family members, extend condolences. You’ve been doing that with every job, right? What’s new is what comes next.

2. Ask what the people in the room called the deceased, and if you may use that name for a moment. Walk to the bed, touch the deceased’s shoulder, and introduce yourself to the deceased by name and say you are there to help. This is a leap, I know. But hang in there with me. What is said next is open to personal style and cause of death. Among the possibilities: a moment of silence staring into the face of the deceased (telegraphing nothing but a calm, confident demeanor in death’s presence). A very brief prayer could follow if the family is religious and no clergy is present (“God full of mercy who dwells on high, grant perfect rest on the wings of your divine presence…”). Or you could reflect out loud upon the fact that death is “a labor,” and that the deceased has successfully gotten to that labor’s other side. Death is not a lost battle.

3. Turn to next-of-kin and ask if everyone has said their goodbyes for now. (You must be willing to spend more time here if family members have still not completely collected themselves. You may have arrived too quickly, so be prepared to back off. Chances are good that they are ready, but you have no good reason to rush them if they’re not.) Check, of course, for wedding rings and personal belongings. Remove if necessary, and offer to the next-of-kin. (There are legal papers to sign that declare that person the custodian of the those belongings now that may need to be signed.)

4. Again (now, this is key)–address the deceased by name and then say, “Forgive us in the coming minutes if we seem in any way awkward or clumsy as we take you to the funeral home. We are doing our level best, and we promise to continue to do our best as long as we, and the others we work with, are taking care of you.”

I have found that even the most secular families appreciate this. Soul or no soul. People care that you care and that you are announcing your caring intentions. Did you notice how the family just took a huge sigh of relief?

5. At this point, turn to the family, and say, “Listen, it’s fine at this point if you guys stay in the room, but you need to make a little path for our stretcher here. Or– it’s up to you–you might want to wait outside in the hallway.” If you’re a bit inexperienced and worried about being graceful with the body, your dream may come true: the family may tearfully retreat to the hallway and let you and your partner do the lifting in private. I feel grateful when I work for a family that wants to stay in the room. And, if I’ve got a do-it-yourself crowd, I might allow some family help at the feet, in the lift to the rolling cot, at this point. They may not want to do that much, in the tight space allowed, save tuck the sheet under. Either way, the offer to work collaboratively is what counts.

6. Now it’s almost time to zip, but don’t zip yet. Tell the family, “I’m going to cover and close but before I do, is there any music you would like to put on?” Any smart phone in the room on speaker creates this splendid opportunity. Any flowers on the bedside table? Ask the family if they’d wish to have the deceased exit with flowers in hand. Gently tug stems out of the vase, and tuck them in.

7. Start slowly zipping at the feet. Continue to zip at an excruciatingly slow pace. This is just like a witnessed casket close. Stay formal. Be elegant. Go slow. Remember the compassion you brought through the door? Use it now most of all.

8. Stop your zipping at the base of the neck, with face of the deceased still exposed. Look up, and lock your eyes on the faces of the family members, indicating non-verbally: “Is it okay to zip over the face?” Give them a moment to gaze at their loved one’s face one last time. Wait for the nod. If you’re not getting the nod, wait some more. The family eventually will nod when ready. And you’ve been helpful in preparing them for the road ahead.cot cover kingsley black large-1

9. I take my leave with this cot cover from FinalEmbrace.com on top of the stretcher, gliding to music, as we roll down the hall. When the death has occurred in a residence, the exit may be even more effusive and elaborate. A parting poem? Solo sung by a family member? Absolutely. Even more terrific things can occur when the whole funeral was held in the home and you are now on your way straight to the crematory or cemetery. Louder music, rose petals cast as you graciously depart. Children or pets present? Get them involved too. This is it. This is now. No one will ever be quite the same again.


Amy Cunningham is a New York City funeral director who serves Manhattan, Brooklyn Heights, Park Slope, Cobble Hill, Windsor Terrace, Ditmas Park families, helping them create distinctive funerals and memorial services. She specializes in green burials in cemeteries certified by the Green Burial Council, simple burials within the NYC- Metropolitan area, home funerals, and cremation services at Green-Wood Cemetery’s gorgeous crematory chapels.

Thanks to Char Barrett, Jerrigrace Lyons, and Olivia Bareham whose trainings have strengthened my resolve to be a family-focused funeral director. Grateful thanks also to Kateyanne Unullisi, the celebrant and genius behind The Emerge Foundation, for her thoughtful notes on an earlier draft of this article.

Good Irish Funeral Music: “Danny Boy” Revisited

th-25It seems fitting to reveal on Saint Patrick’s Day that the most common Google query that reliably draws readers to “The Inspired Funeral” day after day, week after week, is “Irish Funeral Music.” The last Irish funeral music post I wrote, garnered me tens-of-thousands of page views. Either the Irish are needing to know what is traditional or new to their own funerals, or those who aren’t Irish want to convey an Irish vibe to the festivities.

So lately, in my effort to be of sound funeral planning assistance, I’ve been fixated on how to make “Danny Boy,” the most famous of all Irish funeral ballads, new again. th-23Can the beloved, seasoned, ever-so-classic-you-can’t-believe-they’re-trotting-it-out-again ballad be even more heart warming than it already is? Yes, it’s terrific–a total knock-out, in fact– sung in the classic mode by a male tenor, but here are some ideas you might consider when confronted with a funeral where “Danny Boy” is requested.

1. READ THE LYRICS AS STRAIGHT TEXT. DON’T HAVE IT SUNG AT ALL . Just read all four stanzas aloud from a podium, and grope for your handkerchief. Read it as a poem, aloud right now, and realize that by the time most singers get to the best, most moving lines, we listeners have been lulled into a sad, sweet snooze. (Take note, in stanza three: an “Ave” means “a prayer.”)

Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen, and down the mountain side
The summer’s gone, and all the flowers are dying
‘Tis you, ’tis you must go and I must bide.

But come ye back when summer’s in the meadow
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow
‘Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow
Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so.

And if you come, when all the flowers are dying
And I am dead, as dead I well may be
You’ll come and find the place where I am lying
And kneel and say an “Ave” there for me.

And I shall hear, tho’ soft you tread above me
And all my dreams will warm and sweeter be
If you’ll not fail to tell me that you love me
I’ll simply sleep in peace until you come to me.

2. HAVE IT PLAYED WITHOUT THE LYRICS AS AN INSTRUMENTAL ON A SLIGHTLY UNUSUAL INSTRUMENT. Here’s a super great “Danny Boy,” totally right for a funeral, on church pipe organ and solo trumpet. Here’s Eric Clapton playing it on guitar with characteristic emotion, and not singing a word. And if you’re bleary-eyed from too much funeral planning and need a little chuckle, here’s “Danny Boy” played as an instrumental, down in the NYC subway system, on a saw.

3. JETTISON THE MALE IRISH TENOR. Women have been singing “Danny Boy” beautifully since soprano Elsie Griffin belted it out at the turn of the century. My personal favorite female-rendered “Danny Boy” is Sinead O’Connor’s, recorded in such a way that you could quickly improve any “Danny Boy” funeral by cuing it from an iPhone into Bose speakers. Nice save. And don’t neglect the grandchildren! They can sing “Danny Boy” at a grandfather’s funeral, and rock the house (though funeral music should generally not be a performance).

4. FINALLY, CONSIDER EMPLOYING A MORE UPBEAT “DANNY BOY” AFTER THE FUNERAL’S CLOSING.
This idea might not be everyone’s pint of tea (or Guinness), but imagine “Danny Boy” played on sprightly banjo, after all concluding remarks and benedictions, as people are warmly greeting each other, hugging, finding their coats, blowing their noses, and remarking what a good funeral it was (Irish or not). Moral: it’s okay for a funeral to leave people uplifted in the vast majority of instances, grateful that the deceased were with us for as long as they were, and happier themselves–goddamnit– to still be alive, resolved to make good use of whatever time is left.

The Fact that MLK Jr. Foresaw His Death Was Acknowledged at His Funeral

As you will likely remember, the Reverend Martin Luther King spoke of his own death and funeral on April 3, 1968, one night before he was assassinated. But I never knew that a recording of his famous oration, now known as the “I’ve Been to the Mountain Top” sermon, was replayed at his funeral six days later at Coretta Scott King’s request. Have a listen, and watch the faces.

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t really matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live – a long life; longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. So I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”

Morbid Poet or Canny Pre-Planner?

Emily Dickinson mural in Amherst, Massachusetts

Emily Dickinson mural in Amherst, Massachusetts


It’s inspiring to note that America’s most death-preoccupied poet (known for writing “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” “Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me;” and “I was always attached to mud”) died in her own sunny bedroom 129 years ago this week, was then placed in a white casket on a pine bier in the parlor, honored with a 130-line obituary in the local newspaper, and was lovingly buried with two heliotropes in her hands at a gorgeous graveside service that involved other May-blooming flowers she had studiously reared (when in better health) in her own garden. Who gets an end-of-life roll-out like that any more? Mostly only those who think a lot about death in advance.th-7

She’d be pleased with us, sitting here, talking about her funeral. “We do not think enough of the Dead as exhilarants,” she wrote. What a soul, what an intellect. She shocks and enlightens us today with her death-inspired insights. For example, she said any death, all death, reliably comes as a “stupendous” surprise (even when that death is long-awaited and anticipated). This is certainly true to my experience. She wrote, “All other Surprise is at last monotonous, but the death of the Loved is all moments–now.”

For her funeral May 19th, 1886, Dickinson’s pall bearers walked her casket from the parlor to the cemetery in Amherst, Massachusetts, as her grave lay just beyond the fence line of the elegant home where she lived all her life. There, her friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson read Emily Bronte’s poem “No Coward Soul is Mine,” a piece which could be interpreted as slightly more religious than Dickinson was in her final years, but you can decide for yourself when you read it, and start thinking about what poems you’d like recited when you too are dead, when “subterfuge is done,” and when the temporary and the eternal “Apart–intrinsic–stand.”

No Coward Soul Is Mine
By Emily Bronte

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven’s glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from Fear.

O God within my breast,
Almighty, ever-present Deity!
Life – that in me hast rest,
As I – Undying Life- have power in Thee!

Vain are the thousand creeds
That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain;
Worthless as withered weeds
Or idlest froth amid the boundless main,

To waken doubt in one
Holding so fast by Thine infinity;
So surely anchored on
The steadfast rock of immortality.

With wide-embracing love
Thy Spirit animates eternal years,
Pervades and broods above,
Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears

Though Earth and moon were gone,
And suns and universes ceased to be,
And Thou wert left alone,
Every Existence would exist in Thee.

There is not room for Death,
Nor atom that his might could render void:
Thou – Thou art Being and Breath,
And what Thou art may never be destroyed.

An Unforgettable Home Funeral

1947397_607967775963306_499716301_nLos Angeles certified death midwife Olivia Bareham of Sacred Crossings gives grieving families the necessary support to conduct funerals and vigils in their living rooms, just as they were held a century ago. Yes, that’s right. The deceased never “steps foot” in a funeral home prep room or chapel, and has either died at home or been carefully conveyed there from hospice or hospital. Home funerals can last from just a few hours to several days. The deceased is generally placed on a massage table or bed (decorated with colorful fabrics) or even a hand-decorated cremation casket, and dry ice is sometimes used to keep the body cool.

Bareham is a former board member of the National Home Funeral Alliance, a group with which I am also affiliated. She and other guides in almost every state now are reviving the old-fashioned wake, home vigil or viewing thought by many to endow death–be it sudden or expected– with greater meaning. You see, when death is brought into a residence, the home becomes a memorable venue for this highly sacred undertaking, a savoring of liminal time and space. Wakes like this are slower paced and highly participatory with family members bathing and dressing the deceased, annointing the body with fragrant essential oils, then sitting with the dead all day or night, witnessing, comforting and grieving in a waving natural rhythm until the vigil concludes.

When baby Darrius was born still, Sacred Crossings helped the family bring him home for a vigil and celebration of his ‘life in the womb’ with a loving community of friends and relations. His mother Emma later said “It helped me so much to be able to hold and bathe and dress my baby and show him to all the wonderful people who were looking forward to meeting him. It helped me to come back to reality after a very bad dream.”

Words cannot convey the beauty of these funerals, so I best be quiet for a moment and let you watch. I have to warn you, however, that this gorgeous video may well stir strong emotion and perhaps should not be viewed by anyone who has been close to an infant death in recent weeks.

Bareham was trained by renowned home funeral guide Jerrigrace Lyons, friend, mentor and loving sister of anyone engaged in this beautiful work. I completed Lyons’ Level III last September and now supervise these perfectly legal home funerals in New York. (Video courtesy of Sacred Crossings.)

Good Irish Funeral Music: “Be Thou My Vision”

I sat up until two forty a.m. this St. Patrick’s Day morn, seeking to find the best in Irish funeral music, but twice the song I thought I’d feature proved to be Scottish.

Irish village funeral

Irish village funeral

This was the case with “The Parting Glass” and “Flowers of the Forest,” both amazing songs to absorb in sad times.

I’ll leave you with “Be Thou My Vision,” a favorite in many churches, said to be adapted from a sixth century Irish monastic text and merged with an Irish folk melody called “Slane” much more recently. I like the following three versions of “Be Thou My Vision” for funeral centering and settling, maybe to be played before the service actually starts. Listen to it this way on piano and cello, and this way, as sung by folk singer Andy Hull. Want it to reverberate throughout the sanctuary? Listen to this interpretation through four-part harmonized flutes. Gorgeous. Have a blessed and safe St. Patrick’s Day, and welcome to the many new readers brought to me by the write-up in the NYTimes. Post a comment if you know of an Irish funeral song I’ve missed.

I know, I know. “Danny Boy” of course. Here are my thoughts on how to make “Danny Boy” sound new again.

Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that thou art;
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.

Be thou my Wisdom, and thou my true Word;
I ever with thee and thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Father, and I thy true son,
Thou in me dwelling, and I with thee one.

High King of heaven, my victory won,
May I reach heaven’s joys, O bright heaven’s Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

Sacred Music Composer John Tavener Is Dead

The greatest contemporary composer of sacred music Sir John Tavener died in Southern England yesterday, November 12th. He was best known in the US for writing “Song for Athene,” which was played as a recessional at Lady Diana’s 1997 funeral (see video above). Tavener had amicable relationships with each one of the Beatles and recorded for Apple Records. “The Protecting Veil” for cello and orchestra ranks among his most sorrowful but hope-filled pieces, and is music you might recommend to someone in a state of grief. A student of sacred scales, world religious chants, choral and organ music, Tavener spent many years in delicate health, which he said assisted his creative processs. “I live with the thought of death very much in front of me, and this may well have a bearing on the way I think generally.” Here’s another nice quote from today’s NYTimes obit: “I used to fret over manuscripts and think, ‘What am I going to do?’ Now it’s a question of going very quiet, emptying my mind of preconceived ideas and seeing what happens.” Here’s a lovely, short documentary on this most visionary composer and artist.

Female Pall Bearers Carry Father Greeley

Greeley's simple casket leaves church on Chicago's South side yesterday.

Greeley’s simple casket leaves church on Chicago’s South side yesterday.


Mass was celebrated yesterday for sociologist and Roman Catholic best-selling author Father Andrew Greeley at the Chicago church where Greeley had been a parish priest almost sixty years ago.

It’s not surprising that a strong-willed man who wrote about Jesus’s relationships with women, who also supported the ordination of women, and was survived by five nieces and one sister, would have female pall bearers (four of the six), but it is unusual, and a good illustration of how small gestures at the funeral can support the deceased’s point-of-view, paying homage in a big way.