“Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its

dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness

the tender mercies of its people, their respect for the

laws of the land and their loyalty to high ideals.”

– Sir William Gladstone

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

19 Things Your Funeral Director Won't Tell You

Reader's Digest published a ridiculous article by Michelle Crouch entitled 13+ Things A Funeral Director Won't Tell You (see original here). This article contained obvious shortfalls in research or in experience, so I thought I would reprint the 19 things here along with my responses:

1. Plan Your Funeral, but...Think twice before paying in advance. You risk losing everything if the funeral home goes out of business.

Not true. Prepaid funds are placed into either an insurance policy or a trust fund. You are the owner of the policy, you can transfer it to anywhere you’d like, or even cash it out early.

2. On a Budget or Concerned About the Environment?Consider a rental casket. The body stays inside the casket in a thick cardboard container, which is then removed for burial or cremation

Half true. Rental caskets are called ceremonial caskets, you can have a viewing and funeral, and then the inner lining is removed for cremation. BUT, the cardboard inner lining is suitable for cremation, but generally not for burial as it has to be able to be carried with a certain amount of weight inside. Different states and cemeteries have different requirements.

3. Tell Your Family Not to Wait Running a funeral home without a refrigerated holding room is like running a restaurant without a walk-in cooler. But many funeral homes don’t offer one because they want you to pay for the more costly option: embalming. Most bodies can be presented very nicely without it if you have the viewing within a few days of death.

This is true, HOWEVER, for the sake of public safety, most (if not all) funeral homes require embalming for the following circumstances: public viewing, transportation across state lines or out of country, and shipment on train or airplane

4. Some Hard-Sell Phrases to Be Wary Of “Given your position in the community …,” “I’m sure you want what’s best for your mother,” and “Your mother had excellent taste. When she made arrangements for Aunt Nellie, this is what she chose.”

This is straight bull, after years in the industry and having worked with others with years in the industry; I have never heard nor met a funeral director that would say something like this. Ours is not a glamorous job and those that enter the field for the sake of sales don’t last long in it. The author fell for the stereotype in movies, not from real experience.

5. “Protective” Caskets with a Rubber Gasket? They don’t stop decomposition. In fact, the moisture and gases they trap inside have caused caskets to explode.

Nothing stops decomposition and nothing claims to, the benefit of the gasket is to keep water out as much as possible.

6. Make a Point of Asking If there’s no low-cost casket in the display room, ask to see one anyway. Some funeral homes hide them in the basement or the boiler room.

We may not display them (because they are unattractive) but we certainly don’t hide them, in fact the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) requires that every customer is given a casket price list before even seeing caskets. This list includes all caskets available for purchase, including the low-cost ones.

7. If You Choose Cremation... Ask the crematory to return the ashes in a plain metal or plastic container — not one stamped temporary container. That’s just a sleazy tactic to get you to purchase a more expensive urn.

Not every container is suitable for long-term storage or for burial, if we stamp “temporary container” it’s because we mean it. A sleazy tactic would be telling you it will last forever, only to have an uncomfortable situation arise years later.

8. Shop Around Prices at funeral homes vary wildly, with direct cremation costing $1,200 at one funeral home and $3,000 across town.

True. Some funeral homes own their own crematory, and others contract them out. Some funeral homes have to transport the body a few hundred miles to the nearest crematory. Also, geography makes a difference. While the SE US has about a 16% cremation rate, Nevada has a 75% rate. Funeral homes have to adjust to their individual market. Life should have taught you that cheaper is not always better :)

9. Not Everything is Cremated We remove pacemakers because the batteries damage our crematories.

Every family requesting cremation must sign a Cremation Authorization, which clearly states this fact, and has the family initial their acknowledgment of the removal of any pacemaker, medical pump, radioactive material, or silicone implants prior to cremation. So we clearly DO tell people this.

10. The Details Can Cost You If I try to sell you a package that I say will save you money, ask for the individual price list anyway. Our packages often include services you don’t want or need.

Refer to number 6. You don’t have to ask for an individual price list. Federal law requires that each family is given one before services and finances are discussed.

11. The Title Matters Yes, technically I am an undertaker or a mortician. But doesn’t funeral director have a nicer ring to it?

Morticians and Funeral Directors are not the same thing! It has nothing to do with how it sounds. A mortician deals with the body (embalming, cosmetic, dressing, etc.) and a funeral director works with the family (arrangements, contracts, service execution, etc.) Some states allow these licenses to be obtained separately. Not every Mortician is a Funeral Director, and vice versa

12. Think Outside the Box Sure, you can store ashes in an urn or scatter them somewhere special, but nowadays you can also have them crushed into a real diamond, integrated into an underwater coral reef, or blasted into space.

Yep. Not sure why we wouldn’t tell you that.

13. The Deceased isn't Always Present It’s usually less expensive if the body isn't there for the funeral.

I don't know many funeral homes (if any) that base service prices based on the attendance of the deceased. I must point out that my funeral home does not have any price difference between a funeral service or a memorial service.

14. Please Don't Worry about This If the deceased’s favorite outfit is a size too small or a size too big, bring it to us anyway. Part of our job is making the clothes lie perfectly.

I’m not sure what the benefit would be of telling you otherwise

15. It Has to Be Recent If I ask you for a photograph of the deceased to help me prepare the body, I don’t mean her honeymoon picture from decades ago.

True. Once again, why wouldn’t we tell you this?

16. Please... That may be real gold in your loved one’s dental fillings or crowns, but don’t ask me to remove them for you.

I’m not afraid to tell you this. I don’t want to pull out your dad’s teeth. There, I said it.

17. Be Wary Never trust a funeral director who says, “This is the last thing you can do for your loved one.”

Refer to number 4. Once again, never heard this.

18. Spending Big Doesn't Make a Funeral Meaningful Consider a potluck at the widow’s home or an informal ceremony at a favorite park, and ask survivors to tell stories or read poetry.


19. Don't Come Alone Always bring another person when you meet with me, ideally someone who’s not as emotionally attached to the deceased.

This can help, sometimes having too many people in the room creates more commotion than the grieving need, however.

Now here are things your funeral director really won’t tell you!

“I missed watching my son open his birthday gift in order to respond to your mother’s death”
“I have five other families I’m meeting with just like you; none of them are any more or less important, so I’m actually exhausted”
“I know you don’t like how your mom/dad looks, but they were in horrible shape and I spent hours at 2:00 this morning trying to make them look descent.”

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Etruscan Funerary Art

Etruscan is a term given to a culture that lived in central Italy (near what is now Tuscany) beginning in a bout 750 BC. Though they had the same access to marble and stone as Rome would have, even if it was imported, they seemed to prefer using Terracotta for their sculptures. Terra means earth or clay (as in terrain) and Cotta comes from the Latin cocta, which is where we got the word cook. So Terracotta is a ceramic made of baked clay. One reason for this preference may have been the tradition of erecting buildings made of wood, which would not have supported stone on the pediments.

Because of the familiarity of Terracotta in temples and in the image of goddesses, it also seemed to be the preferred technique for building Sarcophagi. Sarco/phagus means flesh (like Sarcoma) and to eat (like esophagus). This, because traditional sarcophagi were made of limestone and the pH of the stone seemed to act as a catalyst for decomposition hence, "flesh eaters".

In the image below a couple can be seen together having a party so-to-speak. The man once held a goblet and the couple looks very much alive. They have fleshy cheeks, large eyes, and archaic smiles. This represents what they are doing currently in the after-life, not necessarily how they lived in mortality. If you view the lower half, you would assume they were laying supine like in the Egyptian coffins. The two views shared with the lower and upper halves are a reminder that although they are dead and at rest, they are also very much alive as an enduring couple.

Sarcophagus of the Spouses in the Nat'l Museum of Rome

Closer detail of facial expression

Married Couple from Cerveteri in the Louvre

Later Hellinistic examples.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Embalming: Art or Science?

Here is a short essay by an embalmer I thought you might enjoy:

Many people engage in activities that are generally appreciated by the public. Artists, athletes, musicians, and performers have all acquired skills that are admired by their respective audiences. The end result of the artistic activity in which I engage also has an audience, but is generally underappreciated, misunderstood, or avoided. I am an embalmer.
I pride myself in my science – or is it an art? A good embalmer has to evaluate each client that graces his canvas. Taking into account the decedent’s age, weight, cause of death, medications, and interval since the time of death, are all factors that must be noted before the chemical cocktail is mixed. The appropriate ratios of Formaldehyde, dyes, humectants, injection pressure, and dilution are all colors on the palette. Only experience can foresee a plausible outcome.
In the living, the eyes are the center of expression; but in the not-so-living, it is the mouth. The lifeless lips before me once laughed, frowned, flirted, and now ceased. Now I must sum up that life with a casketed monument that will be seen by all those who loved it. Whatever expression I create on the pallid face will be set in stone, to be viewed during an encore following the closing of the final curtain.
The next time you approach an open casket, soon to be a buried treasure, allow your retained breath to become a sigh. Take time to appreciate the opportunity to see your loved one again: an opportunity that came as the result of a skilled mortician. Take comfort in the rosy-colored icon that was once your mother, or sister, or friend. Touch her hand and kiss her forehead, and say, “Good night”.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Beware the Undertaker!

Tall, gray, old, gaunt, and cold: these are the words that describe the undertaker. At least that is, if you believe Hollywood, poems, and artistic depictions. Watch this video clip for an example of how funeral directors are portrayed in movies:


In many poems like Rudyard Kipling’s “The Undertaker’s Horse”, the undertaker is seen as one who steals a loved one from your grasp, almost using the image of the undertaker and the Grim Reaper interchangeably.

“Answer, sombre beast and dreary,
Where is Brown, the young, the cheery,
Smith, the pride of all his friends and half the Force?
You were at that last dread dak
We must cover at a walk,
Bring them back to me, O Undertaker's Horse!”

So the question is, what kind of traits must a real mortician have? Here are just a few of the qualifications:

  • Flexible: Works odd hours and is often on call.
  • Compassionate and Empathetic: deals with others’ strong emotions daily
  • Dignified and Professional: must show proper respect to certain circumstances
  • Good Communicator: Must be able to discuss potentially unpleasant topics
  • Open-Minded: Deals with many religions and belief-systems
  • Knowledgeable and Skilled: Has to know something about legalities, finances, human anatomy, embalming, religion, management, insurance, veterans, chemistry, and on and on
  • Involved in the Community: Knowing many people on a personal level is important for serving every demographic.

Here is perhaps a better description of the Undertaker by Bennett Chapple:

The midnight hour, the darkest hour
That human grief may know,
Sends forth it’s hurried summons-
Ask me to come—I go!

I know not when the bell may toll,
I know not where the blow may fall,
I only know that I must go
In answer to the call.

Perhaps a friend—perhaps unknown-
‘Tis fate that turns the wheel-
The tangled skein of human life
Winds slowly on the reel.

And I? - I’m the undertaker,
“Cold-Blooded,” you’ll hear them say,
“Trained to the shock and chill of death,
With a heart that’s cold and grey.”

Trained—that’s what they call it
How little they know the rest-
I’m human, and know the sorrow
That throbs in the aching breast.

F.A.Q. Are there qualifications to become a mortician?
All states in the US (Except Colorado) require some form of license to practice as a mortician. Some states offer separate licenses for morticians/embalmers and funeral directors. Most states require a degree in Mortuary Science (yes, that degree exists) as well as a 1 - 2 year apprenticeship.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Embalming: The How and Why

To Embalm means just that - em (to cause) balm (spices). Embalming has been around since almost the beginning of time. Jacob’s (Israel’s) embalming is recorded in Genesis Ch 50. It became popular in the United States during the Civil War because soldiers could be sent home instead of being buried in the battlefield. Abraham Lincoln was the first US President to be embalmed and his body was taken on ‘tour’ over 1650 miles. This popularized embalming as people could see the state his body was in even days after his death.

Embalming has not always been as we know it today. It has ranged from simply anointing the body to the complex rituals of wealthy Egyptians. Today’s process is known as arterial embalming. Thomas Holmes is known as the Father of American Embalming and introduced the process of arterial embalming. The blood of the vascular system is replaced with embalming fluid which contains dyes, humectants, surfactants, and small amounts of formalin – the liquid form of the gaseous formaldehyde. Some chemical companies have replaced formalin, which has its drawbacks, with gluteraldehyde.

Here is a very simplified rundown of the process:

  • 1. The facial features such as mouth and eyes are positioned
  • 2. A major artery (usually the Carotid first) is raised above the skin
  • 3. An accompanying vein (ie the Jugular) is raised
  • 4. Fluid is injected (pumped) into the artery and the vein is incised to allow drainage
  • 5. Fluid distribution is observed and other arteries are injected if needed
  • 6. Incision are sutured

During this process the hair and body are washed and the fingernails are cleaned, etc.

After arterial embalming is completed, cavity embalming begins. A long tube known as a trocar is inserted into the Thoracic (chest) and Abdominopelvic Cavities and any fluids or gases that may be present are aspirated or removed via suction. Then a strong concentrated fluid is distributed throughout the cavities. There have been times in history that only cavity embalming was done and times when only arterial embalming was done.

The benefits of embalming are numerous: It puts color back into the skin, it slows decomposition, it disinfects, and it restores a more natural appearance. Though there is no federal law that requires embalming, most (if not all) funeral homes require it in the case of a public viewing. The real value of embalming however, is unseen. I could write pages and pages about the importance of viewing the body of a friend or family member.

“Dr. Erich Lindemann, a pioneer in the study of grief management…postulates that avoidance of the dead body is always done at the psychological peril of the aggrieved, and that this avoidance may appear at first to be consoling in the initial phase of acute grief. But in truth [this] is just an illusion. In time, the necessity to view the body becomes a major issue in postbereavement care.” Mayer, Robert. Embalming. McGraw-Hill Medical, 2006. pp 7-8. Print.

Author, poet, and funeral director, Thomas Lynch says: “remembering him the way he was…begins by denying with the way he is. When someone dies, it is not them we fear seeing, it is them dead. We fear that seeing will be believing.” Lynch, Thomas. Bodies in Motion and at Rest. W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. Print.

Embalming can cost anywhere from $250 to $800 and can be more if the person was autopsied. Surprisingly, most funeral homes lose money on the embalming process. The general public does not seem to understand the true value of embalming, and since embalming is not required for certain services such as cremation and direct burial without public viewing, funeral homes fear that raising the price to much better cover the cost will steer people away from the option.

FAQ: Are the Organs Removed During Embalming?

No, Embalming utilizes the circulatory system and is done with as small of incisions as possible. A pathologist will remove organs during an autopsy, but they are kept with the body and buried/cremated.

Lincoln's Body:

Civil War embalming photos:

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Casket or Coffin?

The media constantly gets it wrong, (so does Wikipedia) speaking of the flag-draped coffin of so-and-so, or the coffin carrying the body of so-and-so. So maybe we can clear this up a bit. What is the difference between a casket and a coffin?
Casket is actually a pretty general term that refers to (historically) a box for holding jewels - a jewelry box. This is quite a fitting term then, for the box that holds the body of a friend or family member. Caskets can generally be placed into two categories: wood and metal (and cremation caskets, which will be discussed in a later post). The wood casket can be hard or softwood and made of multiple woods. They are 6' 3" long and 28" wide.
Don't worry my big n' tall friends, you can get larger and longer if needed. Metal caskets are 6' 6" long and are either Ferrous or Non-Ferrous. Ferrous (like steel) caskets' thickness is measured in gauges, while Non-Ferrous (like copper or bronze) are measured in ounces per square foot. Caskets can be sealed (locked with a gasket) or non-sealed. The sealed casket is designed to keep out air, soil, and water. Frankly, while people seem to appreciate this protection against the elements, the body is forced to decompose through anaerobic means, which leads to a slimy putrefaction. Allowing air, water, and soil into the casket makes for a 'dryer' and less odoriferous transition.

But enough of the deets - a coffin is a body-holding box as well, but it is hexagonal in shape, 'bulging' at the shoulders, like you may picture Count Dracula in. Like most death-related terms, coffin became an uncomfortable term and so casket was the new euphemism because it had a more pleasant connotation. I wonder what will replace casket? In North America, chances are it is a casket, unless it's a real die-hard cowboy that makes his own 'toe-pincher' coffin. However, coffins are still used in Europe and other parts of the world and are made of the same high quality materials. To be safe, you can always say casket. A coffin can be called a casket, but a casket can't be called a coffin :)

Caskets can either have two lids, one that exposes the top half of the body, or a single lid that displays the entire body (known as half and full couch caskets) There have been many variations in fabric, material, and design throughout history, but I won't bore you with whole story. Below are examples of coffins and caskets. You can see great examples of older caskets by going to this link - these are old photos of the deceased, so enter at your own risk.

FAQ: What is a vault and why is it necessary?
A vault is an outer burial container that is placed in the grave to hold the casket and is topped with a lid. There are multiple reasons for using vaults. Environmental reasons, especially with cemeteries within city limits is one reason. Also the use of a vault can help keep this from happening during a flood. Many cemeteries require vaults to avoid the ill affects from the ground settling as old caskets decay, or to keep caskets from crushing under the weight of cemetery equipment.

A coffin from made-in-china.com and a half-couch casket from dahlcares.com

A Full-Couch casket from hansenspear.com