Monday morning started way too early.
I received a call from a funeral home in a distant city to help a family in our town. The funeral director asked if I could meet a family at their home where their mother had died following a lengthy illness. Due to the distance it would be some time before they could travel to our community. I summoned one of my gentlemen, who actually answered the phone cheerfully at the wee hours of the morning. Jeepers what a pleasant surprise, it just proves that the people who work for us really do enjoy helping folks in need. We arrived at the family’s home, answered their questions and transferred the deceased to our funeral home. After the preparations that we were directed to make, I headed back home for two short hours of sleep during what was left of the darkness of night.
When the sun peaked through the shades, I was already awake thinking over the schedule for the day. I was tempted to just get up and head to the funeral home. Somedays it is a long trip to the other side of the street. But I had promised myself that I would attend the fitness class that I had signed up for at the local Creative Wellness Center. So in order to keep up with the pace at the funeral home and the activities of my sons and grandson, I donned by jog suite, Rollerblades, helmet, and crash gear and skated off. I subjected myself to a gruelling hour of yoga/pilates/strength/coordination exercises led by a sweet gal with a drill sergeant mentality. After an hour of being outperformed by most of the women in the class, I skated back to the funeral home.
Plan for the day
As the staff arrives I am still in my workout gear. We conduct an early morning discussion of the plan for the day, with the ever present kidding and bits of humor that are always present with our staff. We discuss the approximate time for the other funeral home to arrive to transfer the person from the early morning call back to their community. Then I headed back across the street to get cleaned up and dressed while they started moving the equipment into the cars for a service we would conduct at one of our local churches.
As I am changing my clothes, the intercom on the telephone beeps with a question from the staff. Even when I’m home, I’m not away from the office. Several extensions of the business telephone with intercom capability keep me accessible to the staff for questions, so I’m still at work at home. Not so great if you want to get away, but the phones allow me to spend time at home with family members and friends even when I need to be available to the funeral home.
Transferring to the church
The crew is loading cosmetic lights, casket stands, flower stands, extension cords, reserved seating signs, register stands, portable microphones and numerous other little and big items into vans, limousines and whatever other vehicle we can commandeer. Then we load the many flower arrangements into an air-conditioned van, or heated van in the winter time. Flowers are always important in a funeral or memorial service because they are representations of the love and support of friends and family who may not be able to be at the funeral service or visitation in person. So these fragile representatives have to be carefully handled.
When we have everything else loaded we solemnly load the casket holding the deceased body of the family’s beloved member and drive off to the church in a pseudo-funeral procession.
Surprise on the street
It is always interesting to see other motorists reactions as we approach and pass them by. Some don’t have clue that we even exist in their world of morning coffee, cell phone chat, and radio surfing while whizzing through town an their way to their daily grind. Others take notice and seem to pause in thought, maybe in reverence for the person who has lived life but will experience it no more in this dimension. And yet others seem to have been startled by our mere presence on the street.
11:00 AM –
We arrive at the church and proceed to transfer everything inside. The casket cradling the deceased is always carried into the church first. It is carried with dignity and reverence. That comes from our human need to provide for the care and sheltering of anyone who is left in a person’s care. I have always thought of it in the same way in which I would help an elderly family member into church before I park the car and retrieve anything else from the car.
Entry into the church can often be a difficult task depending on the entry to the church itself. Some churches are built on ground level and don’t require us to carry the casket up steps. Many churches with steps at the entry have a ramp that can be utilized. However, a few churches require a rather lengthy trip up numerous steps, and it seems that the doors at the tops of the flight are often to narrow for us to gain entry with our personnel flanking both sides of the casket. The actual entry into the church, therefore, turns into a delicately choreographed dance as we move from side to side squeezing one bearer through the door at a time in as dignified a manner as possible.
The casket is settled in the church on it’s appropriately named “church truck.” This ingenious device is usually crafted of polished aluminum or chromed metal and folds up with a scissors-like mechanism so we can place it in a special compartment within the Funeral Coach. It’s large wheels allow us to navigate over a variety of surfaces as we solemnly roll the casket into position in the church.
Where does “mom” go?
The casket’s position in the church can vary in houses of worship. The decision of where to place it depends upon the family’s wishes, the preference of the clergy who will be conducting the service, and the physical limitations of the church itself. Most families want the casket open in the church before the service, and many want it open during the service. Some clergy prefer that the casket be closed during the service. Their thought is that the focus of the service should be on the message of hope and reflection. Some clergy prefer that the casket be left open because it is a reminder of the reality and finality of the death that has occurred. Most families want it open because they want to see the deceased during the service as this is the last time they can gaze at the face that they have seen everyday. The face that has shown the feelings of love and the many other emotions that made up the personality of their loved one. The casket will be placed near the entrance of the church today. The family decided to close it before the service and then bring it to the front of the sanctuary to begin the funeral.
After the casket’s entry into the church, my crew of gentleman and ladies brings in the rest of the contents of our procession of automobiles. The flowers, the stands they will be placed on, pictures and collages and easels to hold them, and the numerous other items on our enormous checklist that are necessary to conduct services in a dignified, meaningful, and healing ceremony.
One of the items that seems to pique the curiosity of many folks is the pair of cosmetic lights that we use in a church. The pink lights are used to overcome the bright lighting present in many churches. The pink glow that they cast helps enhance the deceased’s appearance.
The rest of the details
The flowers are arranged, the seating for the family and friends set and designated with reserved signs, the pictures and memorabilia arranged, and the numerous other details are readied for the arrival of family and friends.
As our ladies and gentleman go about finishing placing everything, I usually look up the clergy and musicians, and any other people that may be participating in the service today. We review what needs to be done and any special requests we haven’t already covered in the days before.
The staff is then divided up for the inside and outside duties. Our team of fellas heads outside where they enjoy greeting people in the parking lot, getting their cars parked in procession if they will be joining us at the cemetery later, and directing them to the entrance to the church. This particular church poses an interesting challenge as there are several entrances to the church sanctuary requiring a person to be stationed at each entrance. Most people when entering a church or funeral home for a funeral service are already a bit apprehensive, so we try to greet them warmly and help direct them in the right direction to see the deceased and greet the family with their support.
As people arrive our staff does their job beautifully, greeting, making sure they have a memorial, and in some cases memorial contributions envelopes, Kleenex, whatever they need. Directing them to the family and then to a seat when they are ready to be seated is sometimes like herding cats. We understand and embrace their need to visit with family and others attending the service. This is one of the most important parts of the service we provide, a safe controlled place for people to gather in support of one another at a time when they hurt most.
The gathering time before the service is also the most nerve wracking for most funeral directors. The rush of people can often threaten to become uncontrollable as they all want to greet the family and the family wants time to talk to each person attending. After all, drawing the support from those who have come is the best way for a family to relieve the emotions of grief. While the crowd intermixes, our staff is busy making sure everybody has a seat where they want to sit at the time they want to sit down. Numerous other details often come up during these last few minutes before the service. Double checking with the clergy and musicians to make sure they are all coordinated. Making sure that there are enough memorials, and numerous other little details.
One of my favorite tasks is reviewing the duties and procedures with the casket bearers. They have been chosen by the family to perform the last act of reverence for their friend or family member. It is an honor to be chosen for this task, as the casket bearers are often the closest companions of the deceased. Their duty is to convey the body to it’s final resting place. Often making the selection of the casket bearers a difficult decision for the family for fear that they may leave somebody out of this honored circle. The stories that are being shared as I enter this group of friends are always interesting and often entertaining, as they recall some of the more humorous memories of the deceased. This affirms the need for people to gather and recall their memories of the deceased to help them deal with the loss of a person who had meaning in their lives.
Tucking Grandma in
The time of the service draws near and the family members gather at the casket to say their last goodbye. This is a tough time for even the most seasoned directors. Watching people say a final goodbye. Knowing this is the last time they will see the face of the lady who has guided them, scolded them, and loved them for decades. Meaningful tokens of the experiences shared over the years are tucked into the casket. Drawings from great grandchildren, letters from grandchildren and pictures of past travels and holidays are carefully placed. This is a continuation of what humans have done for centuries. Items of importance in the lives of the family are “sent” with the deceased. This family has chosen to help me close the casket today. They leave their kisses, fold the interior of the casket in and place the “throw”, the piece of the interior that is draped over the cover of the lower or “foot” end of the casket, on grandma as if it was her favorite quilt. Then we all slowly close the cover to seal the protective cocoon that will hold the last mortal vestige of this person who was so important to them. One of them turns to me and opens her arms to share a hug with me as she remarks with a tearful smile, “Thank you, I’m glad we could tuck her in.”
Everybody is in their place. The late arriving relatives have been seated in the overfilled family section with grace. The clergy is ready to process to the front of the church. Slowly we turn the casket on it’s “truck” and follow the clergy to the front with family following. They are directed into their seats, by one of our staff. One family member needs to move to sit next to the right person. And the service begins.
Stay tuned for the surprises that evolve later in the day.