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.

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.

What Franz Schubert Requested as He Lay Dying

People sometimes ask me how working with the dead has changed my life. And for a long time, I didn’t know how to answer. At first, I said that I was now somewhat less afraid of death, which may be true, but then this response began to seem disingenuous, and it sat less well with me.th

Here is what I know, and experience as a fact: since becoming a funeral director, I’ve been having powerful experiences with music–sometimes in the hearse, sometimes in the chapel, sometimes just at home–in a way I never have before. It’s like my ears and brain are communing with music and processing it in a new way–as though the deceased person stretched out in the back of the car, or just on my mind in that moment, has greatly enlarged my own personal sound system.I’m receiving music like posted mail, and ferreting out its messages. For this, I am grateful. So perhaps I can inspire you to hear music better also, and connect with all it has to say about life’s labored wayfairings.

Here’s a wintery, grief-infused, transporting piece of music one might spend a lifetime internalizing. It’s Beethoven’s String Quartet #14 in C sharp minor, Opus 131. It is forty minutes long, and it’s the piece of music that caused composer Franz Schubert to say when he heard it, “After this, what is left for us to write?” Schubert, in fact, later requested that this quartet be played as he lingered, ill and dying in his brother’s apartment late in the year of 1827. Classically-trained musicians know this piece well. But you see, I didn’t until I began to be attentive to good grieving music. Some parts are easier to like than others–just like life! What would be your last request? And how does music help you wrap your arms around loss and sadness?

Beethoven’s Last March

Beethovan's Funeral, March 29, 1827

Beethoven’s Funeral, March 29, 1827


You pretty much have to take a moment to appreciate this: 187 years ago this week, the vibration and flash of March snowstorm lightning woke the deaf, ailing 56-year-old Ludwig van Beethoven who’d been confined to his bed in Vienna for months. Startled from coma, the composer opened his eyes, raised his fist to rail against the sky, then collapsed back, dead.

Three days later, on March 29th, 1827, at least 10,000 grief-striken Viennese fans and citizens, and every local musician Beethoven had inspired, encouraged or berated, gathered for a funeral march with “simple” casket from the yard outside the Schwarzspanierhaus church to the more wooded area of Wahring, where a professional actor delivered a formal funeral oration written by playwright Franz Grillparzer who I wish could come back to teach us the fine art of obit and eulogy writing. Here’s the whole transcript (you have to plow through an opening graph referring to Germany as the Fatherland), or just savor here the best last bit of testimonial in honor of a pure-hearted, tortured man who gave the world so much.

“No living man enters the halls of immortality. The body must die before the gates are opened. He whom you mourn is now among the greatest men of all time, unassailable forever.

“Return to your homes, then, distressed but composed. And whenever, during your lives, the power of [Beethoven’s] works overwhelms you like a coming storm; when your rapture pours out in the midst of a generation yet unborn; then remember this hour and think: we were there when they buried him, and when he died we wept!

Here are two pieces of music that were played at Beethoven’s funeral services, one composed by him, one not: Beethoven’s Equali for four somber trombones, and Luigi Cherubini’s “Requiem in C Minor,” which the discerning LvB admired, and you’ll love too when you listen to it.

Good Funeral Music: Tchaikovsky’s “Andante Cantabile”

Chamber music at the beginning of a funeral or memorial service doesn’t get any better than this: Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile movement from the String Quartet #1 in D Major, Opus 11. “Play this at my funeral,” I always say to my husband. Nothing recorded is as successful at capturing life’s sweetness, the delicacy of our attachments to one another. The piece opens the doors of the heart, exposing its protected corridors. Can’t fail. It’s exquisite. Apparently, Tchaikovsky overheard the sorrowful folk melody being whistled by a house painter at his sister’s home in Kamenka, Russia. When performed for Leo Tolstoy, the mighty, bearded author is said to have wept like a baby. Thanks to savvy reader Susannah Brooks who suggested I also post Bobby McFerrin’s interpretation, which stirs the heart and imagination.

There Is No Death in Nature

“It is the secret of the world that all things subsist and do not
die, but only retire a little from sight and afterwards return again.
Nothing is dead; men feign themselves dead, and endure mock funerals
and mournful obituaries, and there they stand looking out of the
window, sound and well, in some new strange disguise. Jesus is not
dead; he is very well alive; nor John, nor Paul, nor Mahomet, nor
Aristotle; at times we believe we have seen them all, and could
easily tell the names under which they go.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

Photo by Kevin Russ

Photo by Kevin Russ (P.S. Happy Earth Day!

On the Inevitability of Separation

On the Inevitability of Separation

“As pilgrims unite and separate at a public inn, so also fathers, mothers, sons, brothers, wives, relations unite and separate in this world. He who thus understands the nature of the body and all human relationships based upon it will derive strength to bear the loss of our dear ones. In Divine plan, one day each union must end with separation.”
–from The Mahabharata, a Hindu text.

My Painted Stairs

I started to paint while the kids were at sleep-away camp.

I started to paint while the kids were at sleep-away camp.

We all try to leave a mark in this world. And while these photographs of my first floor staircase have nothing to do with funerals or funeral planning, they do say a little about me, so I thought I’d include them here.

I am an enormous admirer of Vanessa Bell’s country house, Charleston. She was the writer Virginia Woolf’s sister, of course, and she painted the walls and doorways of her home with her lifelong friend Duncan Grant. Gosh, I always thought, I’d like to be that uninhibited, that free. Then, as I approached the age of fifty, I thought, to hell with this, it’s now or never. I’m just going to start! So I started. And I painted these stairs that lead upstairs from my narrow 1911 home’s first floor.

Here’s a larger view. I stenciled the checkerboard part, and painted the rest freehand with Benjamin Moore sample jars. Are you leaving a mark on your world? Share it with me.
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