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.

Shrouds Seize the Limelight

The rule of simplicity, which works so well in life, works great in death also.

Which brings us to the shroud–one of the most significant items rising over the retail horizon of the 12-billion dollar funeral business. Jesus was wrapped in one. Here’s a little snippet of Charlemagne’s shroud (and I think Oscar de la Renta would approve).

Devout Jews and Muslims have much to teach about simple, earth-friendly burial, and they stick with the simplest and purest of shrouds. Here are some pretty fabulous shrouds currently on the market. It is lovely to be bathed, dried, shrouded then casketed in a biodegradable box. Then of course, some people prefer to be dressed in nice street clothes–a suit, tie, etc., dress and shawl for women–but you can still be wrapped in a family quilt or shroud after that, and then casketed if you prefer. It’s all about simpler, greener, family-focused options today, and my new motto is, “It’s all good.”

Child's shroud by AFineFarewell.com

Child’s shroud by AFineFarewell.com

Best Green Cemeteries For Eco-Friendly Burial Near New York City

-4By Amy Cunningham, Fitting Tribute Funeral Services, Brooklyn, NY

Some people think cremation is “greener” than burial because cremation generally requires no cemetery space. Actually, when you are speaking of one of the green conservation cemeteries within three hours of New York City or upstate, you can be protecting rural property by burying yourself in it. Cemetery laws prohibit highways or shopping malls from coming to land that has deceased people in it, so in using a green cemetery, you are helping to keep gorgeously-wooded, rural properties safe from development. (It may take a moment to bend your mind around this concept.) You can also be buried in a shroud (without a casket) in a green cemetery, something most conventional cemeteries don’t yet allow. No herbicides are used on the grass, as a rule, and the setting of a registered green burial ground is kept much as it was found: wild, natural, frequented by birds, squirrels, and deer. Folks who bury a family member in a green cemetery are sad a death has occurred, but elated by their participation in an end-of-life ritual that signals a return to the simpler burial practices of 200 years ago. Grave prep is more natural and aesthetically pleasing: no phony Astroturf covers the displaced soil, and evergreen boughs are available to help decorate or fill. Cemetery workers go out of their way to let family members lower the casket and shovel soil if that is their desire. You’ll also never see a grave-worker look harried or check his wristwatch at a green ground. The space is yours and you’ll be given ample graveside time. Some of my closest friends still exclaim, “Oh God, just cremate me.” But for those who love nature, history, and old-fashioned ritual, and for those whose custom has always been simple and green (Jews, Muslims among others), it’s a no brainer: Green burial in a natural burial ground–without an embalming, metal casket or vault–is a gracious, gorgeous, uplifting way to “go.” Here is my most complete accounting of every green cemetery and every hybrid ground attached to a conventional cemetery in or near NY state. There are shades of green at play here (two asterisks ** denote a completed registration with The Green Burial Council), but all plots listed here are priced well below the remaining graves in New York City. Some of these cemeteries are a little far afield, but I include them because they may make sense to New York families connected to those necks of the woods. FULTONVILLE NATURAL BURIAL GROUND, Upper Mohonk Street, Fultonville, NY 518-265-3136. Single plot $500 residents, $700 non-residents. GREEN MEADOW CEMETERY, 1121 Graham Street, Fountain Hill, PA, 18015. info@greenmeadowpa.org 610-868-4840. Plot $1500, open fee $650. **GREENSPRINGS NATURAL CEMETERY 293 Irish Hill Road, Newfield, NY 14867 (near Rochester) 607 564 7577. Standard lot $1,300; cremains lot $350. Opening fee for standard burial $1,000. Opening fee for cremains burial $225. Antique horse-drawn sleigh available to carry casket in winter. -6 HARLEMVILLE RURAL CEMETERY, near Spring Valley Rudolf Steiner School and Hudson, NY. Hybrid green ground attached to conventional country cemetery. Please call Jonitha Hasse at 518-325-7454 to obtain latest, extremely reasonable prices. **HOLY SEPULCHRE CEMETERY (Trinity Section) – Natural Burial Ground, 2461 Lake Avenue, Rochester NY 14612. 585-458-4110. $1600 single plot, $600 open. MARYREST CEMETERY 25 Seminary Road, Mahwah, NJ 07430, 201-327-7011. Single grave $1,400. Opening fee $1,750. Note: the purchaser should be a Catholic (but no one will “card” you). And the decedent need not be Catholic. This is, however, a Catholic cemetery. MOST HOLY REDEEMER CEMETERY 2501 Troy Schenectady Road, Schenectady, NY 518-374-5319. Single grave $1,500. Opening fee $715. Note: Decedent must be related to a Catholic. **MT. HOPE CEMETERY’S “GARDEN OF RENEWAL” (Hybrid), 1133 Mt. Hope Avenue, Rochester, NY 14620, 585-428-7999. Single grave $3,300, $800 open fee, $400 maintenance. ROSENDALE PLAINS CEMETERY, P.O. Box 85 793 Springtown Road, Tillson, NY 12486, not far from New Paltz. 845-658-9042. Single graves $550, opening fee for burial $575, required flat grave marker usually costs about $250. Plots available for cremated remains also at same price. Scattering garden in development.

SLEEPY HOLLOW CEMETERY just outside Tarrytown, NY 10591, 914-631-0081. (Historic cemetery with hybrid green burial ground by side of cemetery road, shrouds accepted, cremains accepted). Single grave $3,200. Opening fee for grave $1,797. Cremation grave (fits two urns) $1,500. Opening fee for cremated remains $536. **STEELMANTOWN CEMETERY 101 Steelmantown Road, Steelmantown, NJ (outside Cape May). 609-628-2297. Single or double plot $2,000. Grave opening fee $1,500. Eight-member family plot $7,000. Opportunities for wooded burial or placement in old Quaker cemetery. One hundred-year-old casket cart meets hearse and family at the gate.

Shovels at graveside

Shovels at graveside

TOWN OF RHINEBECK CEMETERY’S NATURAL BURIAL GROUND, 3 Mill Road, Rhinebeck, NY 12572, 845-876-3961. Single plot $1300, $900 to open. Plot for cremains $450, $600 to open. UNION CEMETERY AT MAYS LANDING, 195 Route 50, Mays Landing. NJ, 08330. 609-625-7571. Adult interment $850, interment of cremains $275. One-time regrading fee: $200. **WHITE HAVEN MEMORIAL PARK 210 Marsh Road, Pittsford, NY (near Rochester) 585-586-5259. Has Jewish area, Islamic area, all-green hybrid ground. $2150 grave, $675 open fee. Cremains in woods $2150, by water $2800, cremains open fee $395. **WOOSTER CEMETERY, 20 Ellsworth Avenue, Danbury, CT, 06810. 203-748-8529. Lovely historic grounds with green area priced lower than the conventional. $2700 adult plot, $900 open fee. Call office for foundation and maintenance costs. Marker and foundation fees vary. Most green cemeteries allow engraved, flat, native stones. For a complete listing of green burial grounds in other parts of the U.S. and Canada, follow this link to download a pdf list. Esmerelda Kent of Kinkaraco burial shrouds also maintains a green cemetery list. (Note: All photos are mine, taken last time I brought a family to Steelmantown.)

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.

The Case for Hiring a Professional Funeral Photographer

Photo by Duane Knight

Photo by Duane Knight

When funeral photographer Duane Knight attended the wake of a childhood friend last December, he was relieved to see a man there taking photographs. But when Knight later learned that the photographer was the father of the deceased, he was devastated. “Oh, I felt so sad that he was taking the photos instead of just being present at his own daughter’s funeral.” Knight believes as a matter of principle that every end-of-life service should be photographed by an empathic but distanced professional with the eye of a photo journalist. If we employ such people to shoot weddings, why not funerals?

Photo by Duane Knight

Photo by Duane Knight

Yes, immediate family members may be crying and not looking their best, but Knight isn’t interested in capturing images of their faces in that moment. It’s everybody else there in attendance–friends from the office, relatives who’ve traveled long distances–and all the small loving gestures and tender moments going unnoticed that should be documented, he says. “A good funeral photographer has to learn to be invisible. You have to know where to stand. You can’t use a flash. It’s a very delicate thing.” Two to three weeks later, Knight presents the family with an 8X8″ book of photos he has created. “They look at it and thank me through their tears,” Knight says. “I give them a healing record they can keep and browse through forever.”

As a freelancer photographer for “Gospel Today” magazine, Knight photographed the funerals of numerous famous gospel singers including Bishops Walter Hawkins and G.E. Patterson. Upon taking some particularly excellent photos of his own uncle’s funeral in 2008 and turning them into a book, it occurred to Knight that he had a pretty good business concept. Thus, the Brooklyn-based firm Between-the-Dash Photography was born. Knight has package rates; coverage of a simple wake or viewing starts at $750. For more information, write betweenthedashphotography@gmail.com.

Photo by Duane Knight

Photo by Duane Knight


Funeral and post-mordem photos
were vitally important to the American grieving process from around 1840 through the Victorian period until the late 1920s. Knight strongly feels he is modernizing a tradition that deserves greater respect. Let me know how you feel about this, and what your experiences with funeral photography have been.
Photo by Duane Knight

Photo by Duane Knight

Last Woolen Testament

images-6In 1667, British wool manufacturers were so fearful of the popularity of imported linen that they pushed Parliament for a law requiring every deceased person to be buried in a woolen shroud. Common folk complied with these strict requirements for more than seventy years. Perhaps it seemed like a cozy deal. Who doesn’t like a soft wool blanket? Capitalizing upon the well-publicized natural burial movement in England today, the Hainsworth Company, most famous for dressing Buckingham Palace guards, decided to sell people on the idea of wool burial again. images-5This handsome, biodegradable wool casket with jute handles is fortified with recycled cardboard and can support several hundred pounds. When you see it in person, as I did at the ICCFA convention, you long to crawl into it. (Of course I was tired, since the exposition hall was enormous.) Choose chocolate brown or a eggshell ivory. Casket retail price would be approximately $2400. Hainsworth makes pet caskets and lovely woolen boxes for cremated remains. Ask your funeral director about these products all available through Elliot Urn & Supply.woolen-casket-3_1296065546

Flowers That Communicate

I must share this photograph of a casket spray originally published on the British Good Funeral Guide website.

Goodfuneralguide.co.uk

From the lively website goodfuneralguide.co.uk

The deceased woman being buried loved to knit, so the clever floral designer worked balls of yarn and knitting needles into the colorful arrangement.

Lesson learned: It’s okay to offer ideas to florists, then ask them to think.

A Mentor’s Farewell to Marilyn

Monroe's crypt at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery

Monroe’s crypt at Westwood Village Memorial Park Cemetery

Our study of the eulogy brings us to this short piece of perfection delivered by Actors Studio director Lee Strasberg at actress Marilyn Monroe’s funeral in 1962. We are lucky to be able to hear a full recording here.

Strasberg barely got through his own closing paragraphs, which makes them all the more moving. Here’s what he said:
…I am truly sorry that the public who loved her did not have the opportunity to see her as we did, in many of the roles that foreshadowed what she would have become. Without a doubt she would have been one of the really great actresses of the stage. Now it is at an end. I hope her death will stir sympathy and understanding for a sensitive artist and a woman who brought joy and pleasure to the world.

I cannot say goodbye. Marilyn never liked goodbyes, but in the peculiar way she had of turning things around so that they faced reality – I will say au revoire. For the country to which she has gone, we must all someday visit.

“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”
was played as well as a portion of Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (scroll to minute seven of this link to hear it). Tchaikovsky’s melodic lament (said to be be a cry of love for his nephew back in 1893) seems an appropriate farewell to a screen goddess, and had been repositioned as a doo-wop tune in 1960 by Little Anthony and the Imperials, placing it in the social atmosphere at the time of Monroe’s death. She was viewable in an open heavy bronze casket, wearing this green Pucci dress, hands grasping pink tea roses from Joe Dimaggio who planned the entire service and didn’t allow any Hollywood stars or hangers-on to attend.

Fluttering Petals Graveside

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I tried to dry some rose petals recently on my own and they curled up into almost nothing. Clearly, freeze drying is the way to go, but who’s going to do all that in the days prior to a funeral service? FlyBoyNaturals.com supplies an assortment of lilac, peony, hydrangea, and rose petals, all freeze-dried to hold their vivid hues. Sixteen to thirty-four gorgeous tosses for $49.99. They flutter nicely, with a little spin to them, at the grave on a casket, or your funeral director can help you incorporate them into a seaside ash scattering ceremony.

My ICCFA ‘Best in Show’

The Tranquility Urn from Kelco Supply Company, $450

The Tranquility Urn from Kelco Supply Company


Remember when Elvis sang, “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You?” I fell hard for this beautiful, tall wood and porcelain urn which I spied from across the room this past week in the Kelco Supply Company’s booth at the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association‘s annual convention in Las Vegas. It’s on its way to our Brooklyn showroom.