Something of significance: Food (and drink) and funerals

Todd Van Beck's picture

Years ago when I lived in a northeastern state, I filled in for a funeral director who wanted to take his family on a long weekend. This funeral director was somewhat unusual because when he took a vacation he really took a vacation. In other words, if someone died, no matter who they were, he would not cut his fun trip with his family short and rush home, he would leave it all up to the professional person he had hired to take care of the place. Once and only once he picked me to take care of his funeral home.  Here is the story.

I remember when he called about this covering for him I asked “What types of families do you mostly serve?” He replied, “Oh, pretty normal people, you know pretty average.” I agreed to fill in for him for a period of five days.

The first two days absolutely nothing happened. Then the firm received a death call that a young man had been killed on a motorcycle. I was not then or now in the least surprised that somebody had been killed riding or driving a motorcycle. (I will retain my private thoughts on motorcycle safety for another time.)

I made the necessary calls, got the release from the medical examiner, and contacted the family. In all these calls I detected nothing amiss. Everything seemed just as the owner had described as being “pretty normal, pretty average.” That is, until the “immediate family” arrived for the arrangement appointment.

Never, ever will I forget when the doorbell rang and I with great dignity and grace opened the front door of the mortuary. There stood the local version of the “Hell’s Angels.” Resplendent they were with Nazi helmets, steel chains, tattoos galore, dental problems, odor problems, leather apparel and heavy intimidating boots which left oil stains throughout the immaculate mortuary. I was uncomfortable and fearful the moment I laid eyes on these people. It is simply true; try as I might, I was worried that they would do me harm, and the oil stains on the carpet drove me nuts!

However, this story is not about my totally unwarranted feelings of being in danger at the time, for in the end this bereaved group of unique and special human beings turned out to be mighty fine people, and interestingly every one of them ended up liking me! It took a little while for everybody to warm up, but once we bonded the entire group dubbed me “man” and “man” I stayed throughout the funeral activities. Looking back, it was one of the most creative, interesting, and wonderful funeral experiences I have ever encountered, and the guy I was subbing for was totally wrong: there was NOTHING, ABSOLUTELY NOTHING normal or average about this group of people whose life’s mission was freedom on the wide open highways of the world. As we will soon see, he might just have been wrong concerning another issue too.

As exciting and wonderful as this funeral was, one impediment dampened my tattooed clients’ satisfaction with the mortuary as a whole, in fact is upset them to no end. Prominently displayed on the arrangement conference desk, and also prominently displayed throughout the mortuary was a sign which read as follows: “THE DISPENSATION OF FOOD OR BEVERAGES IN ANY FUNERAL HOME IN THIS STATE IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED BY LAW.”

Only a blind person could have missed this sign and the others which were strewn throughout the public areas of the funeral home. The message was loud and clear. No food, no drink at funerals—thus ended the lesson.  

Because I had worked in other locations which did not have such laws, and because I knew full well that sociologically and psychologically speaking that in any rite of passage food and drink are present as being necessary and this human activity is as ancient as the “Lord’s Supper.” Because of this background and experience, I personally felt that any such rule, law, requirement, statute, whatever it ended up being called, was ill thought, punitive and most importantly it did not work unless it was enforced by a funeral director, because law or not,  people were always eating and drinking at wakes, calling hours, visitations, constantly. Maybe not in the mortuary itself, but certainly behind parked cars, or at another location, there were usually an array of sandwiches, sodas, and yes, booze. I also personally thought that instead of drinking and eating in sub-zero temperatures, which so many bereaved people ended up doing, it would have been kind and thoughtful to let them eat and drink in one of the numerous unused rooms in the mortuary. But as usual, my personal opinion did not matter for much, and the law is the law, as the old saying goes.

However, old saying or not the law is the law, but my biker buddies seemed not to understand and respect this law, and they made it abundantly clear that they were going to eat and drink at their friend’s wake, and they were not going to be drinking punch either. They made this proclamation while all the time staring straight at the “YOU CANNOT” sign on the funeral arrangement desk.

Because I was pretty much intimidated by them, I found it impossible to say no.  First because a certain fear for my own personal safety still lingered, but also I felt that they ought to be able to have a beer (that they had bought on their own) and eat a sandwich (which they had made on their own) if it made them feel better, and I felt strongly that I was in part present to help them feel better and not to work against these ends. So, folks, here is my confession: I ended up violating the state law, I allowed them to bring drink and food in the mortuary, but made them leave their mighty large beer keg out in the parking lot covered with a tarp. They were so appreciative and they all kept saying “Thanks, man.”  “You are the man.”   

No question, I was terribly uneasy about doing this. I knew the director of the state funeral board—who I knew very well did not like me—and hence I was afraid what this all-powerful person would do if I was found out. Throughout the wake, I kept looking over my shoulders, imagining that the funeral director police were going to cuff me and haul me off and toss me in the cookie jar and slap on the lid.  

However, the good people I was serving who dubbed me, this old, ultra-conservative funeral director, the “man,” were mighty appreciative. And, here is a side note: they paid for the entire funeral with cash. I don’t know where the cash came from, but then that was none of my business. Making them pleased and satisfied with the mortuary’s services was my business, and today, looking back, I know that I did the right thing. However, as I soon learned, not everybody agreed with me on this point of doing the right thing.

When the gentleman returned from his fun family vacation, I felt compelled to confess my grievous illegal, immoral, inhuman action concerning beer and sandwiches or soda and crackers. I felt it was right to tell him; after all, it was his place. However, looking back I believe I ought to have just kept silent, for when he found out that TVB had violated the sacred food and beverage law of the state he flew into a rage, belittled me and refused to pay me a dime for my five days of work. Then, to add insult to injury, when he discovered that the family was in reality a group of “bikers” he again hit the roof. Then when he found out that they actually liked me and called me “man” and that they had told me that when any more of their members were killed we were going to get all their funerals, he hit the roof again and declared that I was a kook, a dangerous kook, and that he would never, ever engage me again, and he made it explicitly clear that his firm did NOT take care of “those” kind of people.

End of story. Now let’s fast forward this to the year 2012, this month, just a couple of days ago.

A group of funeral directors in Pennsylvania have been engaged in a lengthy legal enterprise which challenged many of what they considered antiquated, ancient and burdensome, and meaningless rules and regulations concerning the funeral profession in the great Keystone State.

I just finished reading and digesting several documents which were handed down by the court in Pennsylvania, and I felt that many of the funeral directors that pushed this legal issue must have had similar experiences to what I experienced so many years ago. There were other important issues in the judgment of the court, but the dispensation of food and drink in the funeral home was among them. It appears that soon a bereaved person can have a soda and cheese and crackers at their father’s wake, in Pennsylvania anyway.

Naturally and predictably, and based on the telephone calls and emails I have received, there are not just a few in the Keystone State that seem mighty upset about the judge’s ruling, and appeals are seemingly already in the works. This always happens. Who knows what the end will be?  

No matter which side a person falls on—against, for or neutral—from my vantage point, this Pennsylvania ruling marks possibly the most significant change in the regulatory structure of funeral service since the promulgation of the Federal Trade Commission Funeral Rule of 1984, and possibly the elimination of all licensing for funeral professionals in Colorado. Whether a person is for or against, no question something of great significance has changed in Pennsylvania, and my prediction is that this will have a ripple effect across the nation whether the appeal in Pennsylvania is upheld or not.

I suspect the final chapter of this story is yet to be written. I thought to myself that the basic idea of prohibiting human beings from the innocent expression of their emotions, which almost always included food and drink somewhere along the line, did not work 35 years ago, and does not work today. Funeral reception centers are popping up across the country, and as a devotee of the expansion of the healthy progressive service and financial opportunities for funeral homes, I would much rather the funeral home receive the income or simply service opportunities from a funeral reception as compared to say the Marriott getting the income and service opportunities. Then again, here is a simple idea: just let people bring their own food and drink in the building as a simple courtesy and an expression of a thank-you that of all the funeral homes around, they called you. This seems to me just kindly common sense.

In the process of expanding the service vision of funeral homes and in the process making firmer relationships, increasing the visibility of the funeral home, and most importantly exceeding the expectations of our families, I personally will gladly clean up a mustard stain on the carpet. Given the profit margins today in funeral service, I would do that task gladly, for it means I got the death call and not someone else in town.

Agree or disagree with what happened in Pennsylvania, but one thing is for sure, right now something has changed in funeral service, and for once this change was implemented by funeral directors as compared to the changes being implemented by people who don’t understand funeral service and then the changes get rammed down our throats, which has happened so often. It will be interesting to see how appreciative the bereaved clients in Pennsylvania will be when they can munch on a sandwich and drink and beverage. Just possibly some funeral homes will put in reception centers and catering services, which opens even wider the outreach possibilities of the funeral home’s primary mission, which might just be to help people when death or when significant life events enter their lives.  

Anyway that is one old undertaker’s opinion. TVB



Not only do I agree with the events that caused your response, no one could have summed it up more perfectly than you. This is a win for the consumer.
By the way, back in the "good ole days" when we laid out bodies in people's homes, wasn't food and drink available just around the corner in the kitchen?

Doug Gober

Daily I find reminders of how stuck in the past are so many funeral directors in this country. A hearty congratulations to our friends who prevailed in this case, and a >tsk tsk< to those who opposed and are now appealing the ruling. Why oh why would one oppose something that (a) truly is a service to families and (b) has potential to create a new income stream?

Oh, I know... because we've never allowed it before. Why in the world would we allow it now? Someone might muss up our tidy (empty, unused) funeral home.

Loved your story, Todd, as always!

Judy Faaberg

THe main point is missed...Professionalism protects...Remember Sanitation-Issue....Prevetion of Disease.