“We have funerals every day. The families we serve do not.”
This was on the sign of a prep room door, and is quickly forgotten by any funeral directors who have taken 3 a.m. calls from people whose mothers were given six months to live. We can’t do anything, but they don’t know that. We are the death professionals, so they called us for answers.
I see death every day, and spend every day with people who have just lost the most important person in the world. You, presumably, do not. I will try to put something together that could be useful to someone experiencing a death in the family for the first time.
Of course, it would be impossible to cover every situation in which you find your loved one dead, nor can I advise you of the laws pertaining to funeral services in all areas, but I’ll run you through some of the most common scenarios. Please contact a funeral home in your area – at any time of day or night! – if you have more questions.
If your family member dies at home, unexpectedly, the death will most likely need to be referred to the medical examiner. This doesn’t always mean there will be an autopsy, but you will need to call 911, even if the deceased was very old. Most likely, if the death was clearly an elderly person who died in his sleep, the police will come to your home and then release the body to the funeral home of your choice.
If you are not familiar with your local funeral homes, you may be tempted to call the closest place, or the cheapest. There is a lot to consider when choosing a funeral home, more than simply the cost. If you know you want a simple cremation, it may be enough to choose the cheapest place, but I recommend also reading reviews. If you know you want a burial or a memorial service, it’s better to research a handful of places. Perhaps you can ask any local family or friends which funeral homes they have used.
The funeral home will send staff to come pick up the body. If the death occurs at home, they should send two people, regardless of the size or location of the deceased. Keep in mind the staff may or may not be funeral directors, or even employees of the funeral home. If you know one of the funeral directors at the place you have chosen, you can request that person do the removal. They will give you an estimated time of arrival. Even if the funeral home is close, they may have to schedule the pickup around services, arrangements, or other deaths. Some funeral homes only have a couple of staff people or one vehicle.
The funeral home may ask you about the weight of the deceased, to see if there is any need for additional help or a larger gurney. They may also ask about communicable diseases, because some people wish to wear more protective equipment when there is a confirmed diagnosis of a bloodborne disease.
When they arrive, let them know if you are not ready for them to take your loved one immediately. If you need more time to say goodbye, or to wait for other family members to show up, you may ask them to wait, or even to come back at a later time. We truly have seen it all, so there is no need to apologize for spilled body fluids or a death occurring on the toilet or in the bathtub. If the deceased died before getting dressed, you can request that the funeral directors dress him in simple garments or at least wrap him in a sheet. If he is wearing clothing you want back, the funeral directors can bag these items for you at the funeral home and return them to you.
If the deceased is wearing jewelry, a watch, or has a wallet or other valuables on him, the funeral home most likely will leave these with you and ask you to sign for them. In the case of rings that won’t come off, we can remove them at the funeral home with ligatures and lotion. (Please don’t ask us to cut fingers off…we have been asked, and we won’t do it.)
If you are being met by a funeral director who works at the funeral home, and are feeling up to it, they may sit with you and collect information for the death certificate, or they will call you later to schedule a time for you to come in. They will need the deceased’s social security number, educational level, most recent occupation, doctor’s name and number, and mother’s maiden name. There will be time for you to collect this information if you don’t have it. The death certificate must be completed by the funeral director, doctor, and state vital records office before the body can be buried or cremated. Because of this, it often takes a couple of days before the final disposition can be arranged.
They will also ask you about viewing or embalming. If you are not sure, don’t make a decision. Remember that an autopsy or bone/organ donation, or a traumatic death doesn’t mean no viewing, and a viewing doesn’t require embalming. If you are certain you don’t want a viewing, you may be asked if there are other family members who may want one. If the deceased wore dentures or glasses, we will be sure we have these items with us before the viewing. We may also collect clothing for the viewing.
If you are the spouse, sole adult child or sole parent of the deceased, all the decision-making will be up to you. If you were not legally married, or there are other children or another parent, the responsibility will be shared. If the other family members are not local, arrangements can be made by fax or email.
Funeral directors are also very familiar with the wide range of emotions at the scene of a death. Families have laughed and joked, cried and screamed, had to be physically restrained, or watched TV and barely looked up. You have the option of watching us take the body out of the house, or going to another room while we do our jobs. I generally recommend families not observe if we are doing something like lifting a body off a toilet, or carrying him down stairs on a backboard, because it’s not a dignified image, but we can’t absolutely tell you not to watch.
We may have to move items in your house out of the way. Night stands, hallway tables and other furniture often get in the way of mortuary cots, which are longer and more cumbersome than people realize. Pets should also be confined. If the deceased is in a room at the end of a narrow hallway with tight corners, we may set up the cot in the living room or even on the porch and then carry him out on a board. We also wrap the body in plastic, which some families find upsetting. If this bothers you, you may be able to ask that we use a favorite blanket instead.
Some families like to assist with the removal. In most cases you are always welcome to, but it won’t be expected of you if you can’t or don’t want to. This is our job, and what you are paying for.
If the deceased was a veteran and you are interested in burial in a national cemetery, or having military honors at your service, we will need his DD-214 papers. If you cannot find them, we can usually get ahold of them with just a social security number.
The funeral directors should also carry a price list with them, and should present this to you if you ask about prices, caskets, or other merchandise. If you later decide to use another funeral home, you have the right to transfer the body, although there will still be a charge for the original pickup.
It may be helpful to you to write down any questions that come up after we leave, since it’s common to forget things right away. There is an overwhelming amount of information we can pass along and it can be too much to think about when someone has just died.
We are here to serve people on the worst day of their lives, but sometimes we forget that most people don’t do this every day. It never hurts to explain it thoroughly to all families.