The Funeral Director: a commentary
By Jo Pettit, Executive Director, NSFDA
I am not a funeral director. Yet, I often have been heard to remark that if I had the luxury of doing it over again, I would become one. When growing up I didn’t know it was an option and for some reason, funeral directing was not on the high school guidance counselor’s top ten list of careers.
No one enjoys thinking about death but it seems as if Americans, in particular, work hard at avoiding the subject. The fact of the matter is, though, that the same percentage of Americans die as those in any other culture: 100%.
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In my opinion, the most maligned businessperson and the easiest target in our society is the funeral director. I believe the reason for that is tied into our attitude about death: if we ignore it or laugh at it, it won’t seem as scary. But when that doesn’t work and we’re still scared, we get angry and lash out. It’s similar to whistling in the dark and then killing the messenger.
In addition, I think that the most assaulted profession is the death care industry. In my position I hear it all: They make you spend money when you’re weak and emotional; they make you feel guilty for not doling out thousands of dollars on a funeral; they don’t care – they’re just out for the bucks. (Notice that all the complaints center around money and seldom about the real issue. Some period of anger almost always follows the death of someone significant.)
Let me comment on a few "monetary" criticisms of the profession:
- A Funeral Home has not been established as a charitable institution. It is a business with extremely high overhead. For instance, because of the building’s usually convenient location, the property taxes are in the highest category; maintenance is costly due to heavy building use (weekly carpet cleaning and recurrent rug replacements, frequent furniture cleaning/replacement, regular repainting, daily car washing, etc.)
- A Funeral Director wears those “fancy” clothes in a show of dignity and respect for the deceased and the family. The Director must own multiple outfits out of necessity. While you’re at it, think of the large dry cleaning bills when several funerals a day or week are taken to the cemetery in heavy rain or 90+-degree, humid weather.
- Big, dark cars are a requisite. Limousines are needed to help family members remain together during a stressful time and usually, they are dark in color to match the hearse. Or, they’re dark because of tradition. (Note: most funeral homes use service stations and car washes so often that they maintain charge accounts with them!)
- Another factor that makes conducting business complex is that funeral homes are governed by the Federal Trade Commission and the New York State Department of Health whose regulations tend to be far more stringent than the New York Business Law under which most other businesses operate.
- Funeral directors care for families at the worst possible times of their lives. They respond during dire need, do what has to be done and stand quietly in the background. Most times they receive gratitude from the families of the deceased for the comfort and care they’ve given.
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For thousands of years (we are able to trace them back 35,000 years), funerals have been conducted as a way of honoring the dead and dealing with the tremendous void left by the death of someone significant to those still living. Most people agree that in addition to publicly honoring the dead, ritual is important in the healing process.
Although it is true that funeral directing is a business, it is more often than not, a ministry. It is performed by caring people who have been called to offer something unique and necessary.
THE NEW YORK STATE LICENSED FUNERAL DIRECTOR:
- A person must be licensed by New York State in order to arrange funerals, embalm and bring the deceased to a cemetery for committal.
- To become a Licensed Funeral Director (LFD), a person must successfully complete studies at an accredited mortuary science school. After passing the National Boards, a person must work as a Resident in a NYS Registered Funeral Home and then pass a New York State Law exam.
- To maintain his/her license, every two years a funeral director must complete twelve contact hours of continuing education.
RESPONSIBILITIES OF FUNERAL DIRECTORS:
- Funeral Directors make the arrangements (pre-need and at-need) for the transportation, funeral and final disposition of the deceased. Funeral Directors also care for the deceased’s family and friends. They are able to help the family interface with various governmental agencies, cemeteries, crematoriums and religious organizations. They are trained to recognize grief issues, answer questions and to advise survivors regarding available help.
- By NYS Law, a Licensed Funeral Director must be present to supervise the interment or cremation of a deceased person. In addition, a LFD must be present at the pick-up of the deceased or delivery of his/her remains to a common-carrier. A LFD must sign and file the certificate of death with the Registrar in the district in which the death occurred.
THE NEW YORK STATE FUNERAL HOME:
- To become registered for use as a funeral home, a building must contain a preparation room that has passed a New York State inspection. It must also conform to OSHA standards which, by the way, include required annual educational sessions for funeral home staff.
Many people find it comforting to plan their own funerals. It relieves their survivors from the stressful responsibility of arranging their funeral.
- Pre-planning may be done without pre-paying.
- There are many options, including personalization of the services, that should be discussed with your funeral director.
- Sometimes referred to as “aftercare,” continuing care is offered by Funeral Directors because the after effects of losing someone significant are traumatic, painful and long lasting.
- Funeral Directors are well aware of the stress and suffering from bereavement and are ready and willing to help. They are able to make referrals to helpful agencies or counselors, recommend reading materials and provide advice about where to seek information or assistance.
- Often the distress resulting from grief reveals itself a year or so after the loss. Funeral Directors remain available to help as long as family and friends need them.
Funeral Directors are important members of several mass fatality/disaster response teams - the New York State Funeral Directors Association Disaster Committee/Task Force, DMORT - Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team and here on Long Island, the Suffolk County Medical Examiner’s Disaster Committee.
The various response committees and teams are trained to conform to their organized plans of readiness should a mass fatality disaster occur. For instance, the response by funeral directors to two Long Island disasters, the downing of Avianca Airlines in January 1990 and TWA Flight 800 in July 1996, and in New York City, the World Trade Center in 2001, involved hundreds of funeral directors and related personnel volunteering for weeks and, in some cases, months.