Bathsheva's Bag

Stuff I'm into or not...speculations and ascribed motives and more...

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Regarding Bereavement

The Interview:

David Brennan is the owner and funeral director at East Haven Memorial Funeral Home. He is fourth generation. His great grandfather started the business on Chapel Street in New Haven, years ago, as Longobardi Funeral Home.  He started the business rather by default. He was the only one in the area who had a horse and buggy and therefore the only one, available and capable of transporting dead bodies from their homes to be buried. That necessity turned into a lasting business. David carries on that tradition—proudly.

When I asked him what he loved about his about his job. He stated, “The process. From when a family first comes in, grieving, distraught, and not sure of the direction they’re going in to be able to sit down with them and reassure them and get a plan into motion to seeing them after the funeral, in a follow up interview, to where they are then, and know that I’ve helped them in their process—that for me is the best. That and embalming. I’m very good at it. To be able to take a body that’s been ill or lost a lot of weight or been through a trauma and to make them presentable or beautiful, it means so much to the family.”

I asked him what was the worst part of his job, he responded, “burying the babies, the children, always the babies…” A particularly strange incident involved a young teen-age couple—only fifteen years of age, had been walking, holding hands, and the girl was hit by lightening. It passed through her and stopped at the boy. She’d been wearing sneakers and he’d been wearing steel-toed work boots. Wistfully trailing off, he also recalled a time where he was not only the funeral director but one of the bereaved. A longtime and dear friend had come in from Boston, for a wedding and was involved the night before the wedding, in a fatal head on collision, on the I95, exit 53 at the off ramp. He was caught between grieving and being urgently pleaded with by the family, “Fix him up Davey, make him look good.” A divide has since been placed on the off/on ramp, to prevent that sort of tragedy from occurring again. 

In talking with David about how his great-grandfather came into the business and subsequently his grandfather started East Haven Memorial Funeral Home in 1939, at its current location at 425 Main Street, East Haven, I received quite a quick history lesson about the East Haven locale. He mentioned how his grandfather, Salvatore Longobardi, was afraid to hang his name up as the owner of the business, for fear there might be some backlash against an Italian moving into the area. This quite surprised me, because East Haven is predominantly Italian and catholic. He explained how East Haven, had been rather waspy but poor, it had seen its heyday prior to the civil war, where Fort Hale had been started to fight off the Confederates. The erection of the Q bridge meant displacing numbers of poorer families from that area of New Haven. East Haven and Branford saw an influx of Italians.

I asked David how the business had changed over the years. He told me it had changed drastically. He told me that he never had the pleasure of working with his grandfather—that by the time he came back from college, his grandfather’s health was such that he had to retire and that he’d taken over the business with his mother and his younger brother joined them five years later. He says that the business is such that his grandfather wouldn’t recognize it, or be able to handle it. It was much simpler then. There would be a big room with numerous caskets, each with a cardboard placard with the price. The price would be the price of the casket, the funeral and everything else included—a “prix fixe”.

The need for an online media presence is essential to all businesses these days and the funeral business is no exception. They maintain a Facebook presence as well as their own glossy website. Nowadays with regulations such as they are, everything has to be listed separately. He says there are too many people involved with what used to be a simple rather straight forward business. There are so many little details, intricate and extensive. He has to deal with three different companies alone to deal with just the music licensing. If he plays a song, it has to be paid for. Catering and an after party—this and so much more, is all overseen by him. There is no longer a need for a huge room that houses numerous caskets. Caskets and all their options can be shown on a much smaller scale, yet offer so much more. *(Please refer to ‘The Tour’ for photos of the funeral home, current options and price list)

People do not want to deal with a dead body so much as to celebrate a life or just life in general. Which while he feels it’s nice to celebrate life, it comes as a loss. People need to mourn. Part of this is seeing the body of a loved one at rest, it enables them to be able to say goodbye properly. “It’s an ala carte menu and we’re the wedding planners,” he says with touch of sadness and nostalgia. He further tells me that almost no one opts for a casket and burial anymore, and that the go-to option is generally cremation.

When asked why he thought this was, David speculated at length. First off he feels that we’re a non–religious transient society. People used to stay in one place their whole lives. Now people grow up and move away. It’s cheaper to be cremated and transported back rather than deal with transporting a body.

He wanted to let me know that he can only speak from what he has seen in the industry, from his personal perspective as an Italian-Irish Catholic in a small predominantly Italian neighborhood. First, he never had need of advertising. He gets a lot of business and it’s all word of mouth because a father was buried there and he’d done a good job and he was remembered in a family’s time of need, and because he’s in the neighborhood and the business has been a fixture since 1939. These people in the neighborhood, they were working class, blue collar types. The people from WWI and WWII, they put their money under the mattress, and didn’t spend it unless they needed to, they didn’t plan ahead. They were primarily church going Italian Catholics. The church didn’t condone cremation, so there were wakes, memorials and burials. Simple and yet necessary. It gave people the scope they needed to mourn and move on. At some point in approximately the early 1980s, the Catholic Church changed their views on cremation, and even incorporated newly minted prayer services to be said over ashes.

David feels that the failure of the church was to become complacent, to not ask themselves, where they went wrong, what could they have done differently to avoid losing their flock in droves. And the funeral/memorial industry has been remiss in not asking what they could’ve done to impart the knowledge how very important it is so be able to say the goodbye. One isn’t able to say goodbye to ashes properly. It’s vital to the process, he says, to have a casket—open (if possible), a wake, a funeral and a memorial—to say one’s goodbyes. He emphasizes at this point, by quietly but firmly tapping his hand on the table we’re sitting at, on each word…casket-open…a wake…a funeral…a memorial…

He said a number of years ago, when he first started noticing this trend, he would offer mourners, embalming services for free, not for a public wake but for the immediate family members, because he felt that it was just that important to the mourning process and to be able to say goodbye. Not one person took him up on the offer or responded to the advertisement offering this free of charge service.

Finally, I asked David what he thought the future held for the funeral business and his business in particular. He said it was really hard if not impossible to predict trends, what might become new or new again. He mentioned, that it is predicted that the year 2017, promises to be a heavy year for dying, as the first of the baby boomers will be at that point. “It remains to be seen how that will affect the death and dying business. They (the baby boomers) were the first of the big planners, they planned for their first cars, first homes, their retirements, everything. How that plays out remains to be seen.”

The Tour:

The Tour

East Haven Memorial
Funeral Home
David Brennan – Funeral Director
Business card
When you first walk in you are directed to a main room –warm and inviting and a big center table large enough to accommodate a large number of people.
There are many options
Some urnsare magnetized
and one can select from different
Medallions with which to
decorate and personalize                                          Various Medallions

David Brennan explaining personalizing the casket with corner panels
                                                         to be attached to the outside corners
   Another option for personalization
   Alternatives to Urns for ashes                       Jewelry for ashes
Casket options.  Side panels display options & touchable casket liners available
Where the funeral/memorial is held
Front of the room with projector screen
Video also plays in outer lobby
           David Brennan showing where display frames and miscellaneous are stored
A typical display frame—this of David’s grandfather—a golf lover,
         and family members
The Children’s Lounge
Down the stairs and away we go…
100% Childproofed, fun & just lovely
David Brennan,
fourth generation Funeral Director
I deeply thank him, for his time, graciousness and a new perspective.

My Reflections:

First off, I just want to say, thank you for this assignment, from the bottom of my heart. It is not often that one can sit down for an hour with a complete stranger and have their perspective changed, to see something new and fall just a little bit in love with an aspect of humanity that you’d either never thought much of, or might have had some pre-conceived notions going in—I’m left a bit emotional and without adequate words to explain a quiet but seismic shift in part of my thought process.

The video on blackboard, of the unscrupulous and dishonest practices of some of the funeral homes, while it didn’t surprise me; there is a lack of integrity and decency in so much of business today, it left me disgusted. And along with a preconceived notion of what type of cold and creepy or odd person opts to spend their life dealing with the dead? So, along with my aversion to meeting complete strangers and being forced into interacting with them, this assignment was something I rather dreaded.

I was so happily surprised and moved by David Brennan’s warmth, decency, honesty and just lovely and kind approach.

Two things particularly surprised and moved me. When I asked David what was his favorite part of the job and he told me embalming. It’s not creepy in the slightest, it’s so important and needed. It offers an immeasurable kindness to a grieving/mourning family. Like a hospice worker, who helps the dying with love and kindness, David embalms the recently deceased. Just beautiful and honorable.

And, also, I’m not much of a traditionalist in the slightest. I never go to my place of worship, I forget to pray, and haven’t much use for holidays or reverence for the dead or any of it. So, when David waxed nostalgic for a bye-gone era (he’s my approximately age—early to mid-fifties), it took me by surprise. For somebody who deals with dead bodies, he’s quite the historian, a healer and a philosopher, and a mensch. On their website, The East Haven Memorial Funeral Home has a clip of Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a well known grief counselor and author, explaining the need for a traditional burial and the difference between grieving and mourning. Grieving is an internal process, whereas mourning is outward, to be shared as part of the bereavement process.

Also, as I was leaving, David showed me the children’s lounge. (see pictures in ‘The Tour’) What used to be a dismal smoking room, has been changed to a colorful, warm, playful and very inviting kid’s environment. There is such attentiveness paid to every aspect of a family’s comfort during this, their saddest and most vulnerable time. It allows children to be part of the process, but at the same time not be exposed to certain aspects of the funeral and/or wake where there might be discomfort at viewing the diseased.

As a Jew, I’m supposed to be buried in a wooden casket and have that dreary traditional send-off. As the non-traditionalist that I am, I have not decided what my funeral should be and planned in no way, shape or form. Although, I’ve thought about it on occasion. Sometimes, I think I’d like to do the Norse thing and be sent off in a flaming fiery boat upon the water,  other times, I think maybe have my ashes thrown in the Dead Sea and everybody party hard in Tel-Aviv and relate funny stories of me—there are plenty—at least according to my kids… Learning from the blackboard video that people can be buried with their animals, I might be inclined to be cremated with my beloved fur babies and planted among the roots of a sapling and be able to feed the tree. And maybe the tree could be in part of a sitting garden, next to a house that stays in the family for a few generations—at least.