Jerry Davich: Behind the scenes of funeral home reveals tradition, changes
Jerry Davich firstname.lastname@example.org June 23, 2012 7:26PM
The word alone scares and humbles us, yet intrigues and fascinates us.
Some of us live our fragile lives with gusto, simply to defy death. Others live in the shadow of death, fearing its inevitable grasp.
The last place we want to visit, unless forced by fate, is a funeral home.
It addresses death. It embraces death. It profits from death. So I did it for you.
I visited the oldest privately owned funeral home I knew, Bartholomew Funeral Home in downtown Valparaiso, in business since 1892.
My tour guide was funeral director Chuck Harris, who’s been at Bartholomew for 17 years. These days, he’s also the Porter County coroner.
Immediately after entering the three-story building, time seemed to simply … stand … still.
Voices were hushed. Serene music floated through the chapel, lobby and downstairs waiting room where customers first learn of all the death industry options.
There, the casket sales room is stocked with samples of several models, styles and materials.
Caskets get delivered here with next-day service from Indiana-based Batesville Casket Co., also in business for more than a century.
“It’s the largest casket manufacturer in the world, and it also uses steel produced from this region,” Harris noted, slipping into his familiar spiel. “Working in Northwest Indiana, you have to know your clients.”
Funeral homes are required by the Federal Trade Commission to inform customers of their general price list (typically three price options) for caskets, services, preparation fees, etc.
This is to protect grieving, overwhelmed and possibly confused customers, who must sign a form stating they were told of such prices.
Funeral directors here always leave the room while the family discusses its options, to avoid appearing as a “used-car salesman,” noted Harris, whose brother-in-law Michael Newhard owns the business.
Here, caskets start at $675, and go up to thousands of dollars, depending on quality of material, additional sealing, customized head panels, decorative add-ons, you name it. Rental caskets also are available, strictly for viewing, and often for bodies heading for cremation.
Due to ever-rising cremation rates (the national average is now above 40 percent), more families are buying urns, not caskets, or spreading the ashes at sentimental sites (even though it’s illegal).
Generational business practice
In an adjoining room, customers view samples of dozens of accessories, everything from thumbprints of the deceased to artsy options for cremated ashes. One company, Memory Glass, suspends ashes into flashy pieces of solid glass art. You would never guess it’s the remains of a loved one over the mantle.
The average cost to bury a loved one — casket, funeral, cemetery, extras — is roughly $10,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to $708 in 1960.
Funeral home officials typically write obituaries after collecting information from families and later getting their approval. This, too, is often addressed during the initial meeting, taking about 90 minutes on average.
Prearranged funeral planning is becoming more common, which surprises me considering our fear of death, dying and the funeral industry.
One explanation may be that preplanning is encouraged to spend down any savings before being approved for Medicaid.
Most families use the same funeral home for each relative, showing the importance of tradition in the death industry.
“Once a family starts using a funeral home, unless you upset them they usually stay with it,” often for generations, Harris said.
During funeral services and visitation, “video tributes” of the deceased are changing long-held industry practices.
“Before video tributes, most mourners stood over the body, usually crying,” Harris said. “But now they’re standing in front of the video images, usually smiling or laughing.”
In other words, loved ones used to stare at death, literally, and now they’re staring at life, at least the former life of the deceased.
This new trend may reflect how we interpret, understand and deal with death, as every generation before us.
Despite the type of funeral, it’s important for funeral homes to personalize each service to make it as unique as possible.
For example, if Aunt Mary enjoyed teapots, that’s what should adorn her ceremony. Such “teapot touches” are what families remember after a funeral, Harris said.
Still, more families are cutting back on the time for visitation. What used to be a three-day affair is now a two-day practice, and sometimes a same-day visitation and funeral.
“Everybody’s lives are getting busier, and people seem to have less time,” Harris said.
“Funeral homes are changing because people want these changes.”
Embalming the funeral experience
Inside the building’s preparation room, a set of straps called a “body lift” hangs over the stainless steel table where bodies are embalmed and prepared for the funeral service.
The procedure takes one to two hours, unless the body had an autopsy, which stretches it into several hours.
“It’s like trying to send water through a garden hose that’s been cut up into different sections,” Harris explained.
“We have to then embalm each extremity and organ separately.”
Contrary to popular belief, embalming a body is not required by law.
However, every funeral home requires it for an open casket service. Otherwise, there will be odors and the body may look grotesque for viewing, which affects a funeral home’s reputation.
Different strengths and colors of embalming fluid are used, depending on how recent the death. Roughly 40 ounces of embalming fluid are used per body, but it first gets diluted with water.
A hose with an attachment gets inserted into various entry points of a body, typically the carotid artery or jugular vein in the lower neck area.
Bartholomew officials pride themselves on using less makeup, if any, on its clients.
“Instead of using pancake-type makeup, we try to do it from the inside out (with embalming fluid),” said Harris, noting that lipstick, makeup and nail polish are still used on women.
After embalming a body, a hairdresser comes into the prep room.
Her name is Marie Watts, and she’s been doing this here for roughly 70 years. (That’s right, 70 years.)
The funeral home’s hearse, which cost $100,000, is a 2009 Cadillac, complete with an automated rolling mechanism for caskets to be slid in and out.
Before leaving, I had to ask one last haunting question. Has any customer ever asked to lie down inside a casket, to see what it would feel like “for eternity”?
No, Harris replied. So I did. He rolled one out and I climbed inside with arms crossed, eyes closed and mind racing.
It felt more comfortable than I imagined, even though I plan on getting cremated. I asked Harris to take photos of my experience (another first for him) and I posted them on my Facebook page.
They immediately prompted a strong reaction from social media readers, from “Jerry, you’re sick” to “Hey, I’d like to try that, too!”
Like I said, I’m fascinated how death and its intriguing shades of darkness affect each of us differently.