New York funeral director Amy Cunningham founded the firm Fitting Tribute Funeral Services, and is the creator of The Inspired Funeral blog. A former magazine journalist and blogger for beliefnet.com, Amy has much experience with home vigils, alternative rituals, mixed faith and contemporary funeral services. Today she speaks with us about ideas for working with a funeral director to plan a personalized funeral to jump-start the healing process after a death.
Kimberly: What do families need to be aware of when dealing with funeral homes?
Amy: The first thing I tell people is that when hospice is in charge, death is not an emergency. If hospice is in charge and death occurs as expected, you don’t need to tell the funeral director to come right away to make a hasty pickup. You are entitled to time in the room with your loved one. When death occurs, it’s a good moment to hold the hand of the deceased, sing, continue talking, have other family members take turns having private times with the deceased, have a clergyman in. Every hospital or hospice is different, but it’s my understanding that at least a couple of hours are allowed for grieving. You just have to clear it with the hospice nurses and call the funeral director. I’m the kind of funeral director that says ‘when do you want us to come?’ rather than ‘we’ll be there.’
Not everyone is into that. Some people are so wracked with exhaustion and the dead family member is so emaciated with a face full of pain that some people just want to leave. Even so, I tell people to stay and acknowledge what you are grateful for. You’ve obviously been talking the whole way, but this is a sacred time and a funeral director doesn’t have to intervene immediately.
Amy’s tips to cultivate a good relationship with a funeral director:
- Ask him/her to describe some of the best/most favorite funerals the funeral home has directed.
- Tell him/her about your family’s faith journey. (Open up, in other words. Now is not the time to be vague or mysterious about your most deeply held values and beliefs.)
- Relate details of other funerals in your lifetime you’ve liked or disliked.
- Try to have some basic knowledge about your local cemeteries and crematories if possible.
- Review timetables carefully. Does the funeral start time seem realistic given one important family member’s tendency to arrive late?
- Motivate the funeral director to work hard for you by—just once—commenting on something you see around the funeral home that you like (if you don’t like anything, go to a different funeral home). I know grieving customers should not be required to be charming, but I’m here to tell you that being a little charming helps.
- Tell your funeral director, if you’re pleased with the way the funeral has gone, that you’re going to post a review and tell everyone you know about your experience.
The second point then, is that you can take the deceased home if you want to. This varies from state to state, for example, in New York where I practice, they insist upon the involvement of a funeral director to file the documents after death occurs to allow for this. One time, when a death occurred in a home, I went in and did my work to file for the death certificate, but the woman was so emotional in saying goodbye to her husband of 55 years that she asked to spend the night with him in the apartment. Death occurred late in the afternoon, so I went over and saw that his body was in very good shape. I called my boss and her family members—I don’t think we would have done this if family members couldn’t also keep her company—so she was there with family members overnight with her husband. Come morning, we picked him up at 6AM and she was in a better space emotionally to say goodbye. In this case, she chose not to have a funeral viewing afterwards.
So a funeral director should be flexible and a good listener to interpret your wishes and try hard to give you the time you need and want. This is a more common request nowadays. People who request this typically do not want an embalming, or a traditional funeral with an open casket and a wake. This is called the liminal time—the time between the moment of death and the burial or cremation. This is a lovely time that, according to your emotions and your belief system, is sacred. Funeral directors should work with you so that you feel that you’ve said what you’ve needed to say.
My own experience with my mother’s body is that I sat at her bed for a while. I just stared at her hands and held her hands after she died. I realized that I’ve been looking at those hands all my life. It’s quite amazing to spend time with someone you have loved after they are dead. This is not something that most people are aware of.
Kimberly: Especially because when people are grieving for such a long time, it is hard to exit out of this without that sense of rush.
Amy: Even when the dying is prolonged and you are keeping vigil at a death bed, you lapse into this make believe thinking that it’s never going to happen. When it finally does happen and death occurs, you cannot believe it. This is why it’s important to know your rights and study up on what is possible with a funeral.
After death occurs, especially in a home, you can have a shroud on hand. The family, at the time of death, can sponge bathe the person and shroud them. This way, when the funeral director comes, the family can just let them know that the body has already been bathed and shrouded. The burial can then take place as soon as the documents have been taken care of and the shrouded body can then either go directly to a green cemetery or to a simple box and burial or cremation.
I like to have people communicate with their funeral director as well to include as many personal objects, like letters and photos, into the funeral casket. There is more that you can do than just behold the deceased. We can put photographs and flowers, and in the case of cremation, as long as it is material that can burn safely, you can decorate the outside and the inside of the casket.
I’m very bullish on casket decorating. People can say to the funeral director, ‘can we have the box’ before the service and they can decorate the casket. People can ask for the white Starmark casket, or other white combo trays, and they are simple and inexpensive boxes that people can feel fine about purchasing and they can decorate them by writing on them in markers or any kind of water-soluble paint.
Kimberly: Are there any technological advances that have changed the way funeral services are being practiced?
Amy: I try to get people to sing, and also with the new Bose speakers and an iPhone, you can have fantastic recorded music at any service on the go. You also have photo scans and videos of people’s history that can be transformed into memory books or movies that you can post on YouTube.
This isn’t about technology per se, but in the old days there used to be registry books where everyone would sign their names. Today, I try to make it a blank book where people can not only write their names and addresses, but they can also take the time to write a story or a note. Fancier funerals can have an iPad where you can sign in and write a note like this as well.
Kimberly: I feel that a lot of people will also joke about specific things that they want for their funeral, but when it comes down to the actual planning, people tend to take a more traditional approach.
Amy: It is a family’s tendency to get more religious in the event of a death to make sure that they have touched all their bases. I encourage folks like that to make sure that they do have a traditional aspect to their funeral, but then go ahead and have a poem or some music to add to the funeral.
At my green burials, I bring sprigs of rosemary, which is a British touch to funerals. Rosemary is an herb that simulates the memory and it is a way of honoring memory and articulating faithfulness and love. It’s a simple thing where you can inhale the smell and toss it into the casket before you say goodbye.
We are also seeing a trend in shoveling at green burials, which was taken from Jewish burials where a rabbi presides as everyone shovels a scoop of dirt on top of the casket. All people at a natural burial want to engage in a covering of the casket in the earth. When I do this at Jewish funerals, I do the tradition where the first shovel is upside-down as well.
I’ve noticed that especially for men and adolescent boys, shoveling at the graveside becomes cathartic. Someone that may have been in the background of the funeral for the rest of the time can finally be seen as coming to an understanding when they begin shoveling. It’s primal and it unites us with all of humanity through time.
Kimberly: Thank you for talking with us today!
Amy: Thank you!
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