Behind the Scenes at a Funeral Home
By Stephen Gemelli
Do you ever wonder what happens behind the scenes of a funeral home? How did the flowers get arranged so perfectly? How did the casket and the departed get where they are, positioned in the funeral home, looking so stately and perhaps even elegant? It takes time, coordination, telephone calls, talented assistants and patience.
Funeral Directors are available to serve the needs of a family 24 hours a day, 365 days of the year, no matter what they may be doing at the time of a family’s first notification. Many of the professionals in funeral service forgo holidays and dinners with their own families so they can be available to members of the community at a time of tragedy and loss. When a death occurs in a family and that family calls a funeral director, he or she realizes that the family needs to be cared for immediately, whether it’s Thanksgiving, New Years Eve or any other day at 2 p.m. or 2 a.m.
When a family notifies the funeral home of a death, we immediately go to work to assist the family. First, we speak with a family member or someone they designate to speak for them to find out who has passed away and where that person is so that we may retrieve the decedent and bring them to the funeral home. Once we have those answers we generally try to make an appointment to meet with the family to discuss the type of service they would like to have and on what dates. Now the art of coordination comes into play…
We start making phone calls so that we can coordinate with our staff and the place of death in order to transfer the decedent into our care. If the death is at home and a hospice nurse has notified us, then we can come immediately. However, if the place of death is a nursing home or hospital, we need to make sure the site is ready for us. Facilities such as nursing homes and hospitals have their own protocols they need to follow before they can turn over care of the decedent to a funeral home. The facility needs to have a doctor sign a death certificate or a nurse sign a document called a nurse pronouncement, which is a confirmation of death that allows a funeral home to transfer remains. They clean the deceased patient and place him or her on clean linens to provide some dignity. Once the facility has done their due diligence in caring for the patient, the funeral home can then come and transfer the person. For most funeral homes, a patient transfer during the day is fairly simple because members of our staff are readily available. Night time transfers are a bit different. We need to wake our assistants and have them join us at the funeral home so we can go to work immediately. A long-standing policy at our funeral home is that no matter the time of day or the place of death, we come fully dressed in a suit and tie (even at 2 a.m.), always being considerate of professionalism.
Once the decedent is returned to the funeral home and we have permission to embalm, the embalmer can begin the procedure to temporarily preserve the person for calling hours and the funeral. The embalming process is a surgical procedure that is performed in an operating room within the funeral home; body fluids are exchanged with a preservation chemical, usually a formaldehyde based formula. The process of exchanging these fluids is similar to blood transfusions that happen all the time in a hospital. Along with the fluid exchange, the person is bathed with a sanitary soap, the eyes and mouth are closed in an effort to give a natural expression, hair is washed, finger nails are cleaned and trimmed, and ultimately the decedent is dressed in clothing provided by the family. If the decedent is female, a hairdresser comes in. The entire process of preparing someone for visitation can take several hours, depending on the circumstance surrounding a death.
While the decedent is being prepared, the funeral director is making arrangements to meet with a family to take vital information needed to complete a death certificate and to write an obituary. Information as to what religious community someone is affiliated with and any club or organizations he/she may belong to is discussed so that we can contact these organizations and make arrangements for any type of ceremony the family may want to have. We ask the family to provide us with clothing and perhaps a photo for the newspaper notice. We listen and try to guide families through the many decisions they may need to make.
Funeral directors make many telephone calls throughout the time they are serving a family. We need to contact our workers to let them know when calling hours and funeral services will be taking place so that they can assist us and the family with all aspects of service. We call churches and cemeteries to set up services. We contact doctors and hospitals to get all of the proper paperwork ~ such as a death certificate ~ so we can then get a burial permit from the Board of Health in whichever town someone had passed away, allowing us to perform an earth burial, cremation or entombment. We arrange for funeral escorts with local police departments. We compose and forward the newspaper notices. We contact our casket companies to arrange a timely delivery of the family’s chosen casket. We contact government agencies such as Social Security to notify them of a death and to help make arrangements for any survivor benefits. We contact military to perform military honors.
While serving a family, we also need to maintain the funeral home property and make sure that our employees are taken care of in terms to salary and benefits. We are governed by many agencies for the protection of our employees and our clients. Some of the agencies are OSHA (for the benefit of our employees), the FTC (they govern how we structure pricing and disclose procedures to clients), our state Board of Funeral Service (they administer licensing, oversee pre-need contracts and set standards for the operation of a funeral establishment, including ethical business practices). All the aspects of running a business are carried on behind the scenes, without intruding upon any dealings with the public.
The next time you visit a funeral home to pay your respects, the staff will be dressed in crisp clean suits, you will be greeted at the front door, the flowers will be in place, the funeral home will be clean, and ~ most importantly ~ the casket or urn will be in place allowing you and the family to say goodbye in a fitting and dignified way. You won’t hear the phone calls or see the office staff busily getting papers in order, or see the cars being cleaned or the hearses leaving for hospitals and nursing homes. That’s how we want it; those are the behind the scenes goings-on that can take hundreds of combined working hours. We make it all come together, no matter the circumstance, so you, the public sees only the final, respectful presentation.
Stephen Gemelli, a member of The National Funeral Directors Association, Massachusetts Funeral Directors Association, where he served on the board of directors, and a Past President of the Greater Worcester Funeral Directors Association, is General Manager and Funeral Director at Mercadante Funeral Home, 370 Plantation Street, Worcester. 508-754-0486, www.mercadantefuneral.com.