An angel figurine tops a headstone at St. Peter’s Cemetery in the Staten Island borough of New York. Funeral home owners say working with families during times of grief creates a bond that sometimes “neither of you will ever forget.”  CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz
An angel figurine tops a headstone at St. Peter’s Cemetery in the Staten Island borough of New York. Funeral home owners say working with families during times of grief creates a bond that sometimes “neither of you will ever forget.”  CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

Story by Mary Morrell, Correspondent

Millie is a widow. She has no children and no family in the area. For the past 15 years, after she finishes a morning of grocery shopping, she sometimes stops at the funeral home where she made the final arrangements for her husband. The staff knows how she likes her coffee, she chats with the director, shares some danish and then heads back home after this welcomed get-together with friends.

This type of scenario is not uncommon, said David J. Petaccio Sr., owner and senior director of the Mount Laurel Home for Funerals and member of St. John Neumann Parish, Mount Laurel. It stems, he said, from the funeral home and staff “impacting the bereaved in a loving way.”

Robert C. McGirr, owner and manager of Clayton & McGirr Funeral Home, Freehold, concurred.

“In many instances, you have made friends with individuals who started out as perfect strangers, and you now have a bond that neither of you will ever forget,” he said. “In many occasions, it is as if you have become part of their family and they have become part of yours.” 

Certainly, demographics play a part. Before the expansion of communities into the suburbs and the trend of children and extended family members moving away from home, there was a support system in place for most people who had lost a loved one.

Today, with many families being scattered, the funeral director or members of his staff often become the friends who have shared one of the most intimate moments in a person’s life – the death of a loved one.

Stanley Winowicz, owner, manager and director of Winowicz Funeral Service, Trenton, said the funeral home’s outreach “helps with closure, bridges an empty gap in the family and provides a resource for referrals when people need something more in depth,” like a counselor, bereavement specialist, psychologist or referrals to programs run by Catholic Charities in situations like an addiction, which may have been the result of the loss.

Winowicz, of Divine Mercy Parish, Trenton, said compassion and hospitality are at the core of their profession, especially in challenging situations when there is a need to choreograph the sometimes-disparate family members.

“It is a labor of love,” Petaccio said. “The healing begins the moment the bereaved walk in the door and you look them in the eyes and express your sympathy – when you invite them to ‘tell me your story’ and let them know that nothing is too much if it will help them  get through this.”

For William Boglioli,  owner and manager of Woolley-Boglioli Funeral Home, Long Branch, and member of St. Michael Parish, West End, “There is no doubt in my mind that this is a ministry, a calling,” one that requires addressing the needs of those who come for guidance and understanding, and who need to feel confidence and trust in their funeral director.

It’s a ministry that belongs to the entire funeral home family, McGirr said.

“Every day, each of our staff members reflects the spirit of Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph showed complete selflessness when he stepped forward to see that Jesus was given a proper burial. We strive to emulate this attitude with each and every family that we serve,” he said.

Easing the Process

Today, preparing a proper burial includes an endless list of details that must be organized and handled in a timely fashion. This can sometimes seem overwhelming, even to funeral professionals.

But that’s an important aspect of the funeral home’s outreach, said Boglioli, noting that if funeral homes didn’t handle the details, it would fall to family members and add an unnecessary level of anxiety during a time when they should be focused on grieving.

In addition to the required paperwork after a death, and the on-going conversations with clergy, ministry personnel, cemeteries, crematories and even newspapers, there are the needs of the family to consider.

“There are numerous wishes to satisfy and activities which a family would like to accomplish when someone passes away, ”McGirr said. “Our goal is to advise, help plan, assist and make sure that these activities are carried out successfully.  In modern terms perhaps we could be considered a ‘funeral concierge.’” 

In addition to the practical aspects, the ministry of funeral directors is one of relationships, not only with the families of the deceased, but with the many people who play a part in the grieving process. A key relationship is the one with the parish priest.

“The pastor or parish priest offers the spiritual dimension and helps the family prepare for the funeral liturgy,” Petaccio said. “We, at the funeral home, talk about the many options family members have for funeral services and final disposition of the deceased.”

Because emotional and spiritual support from the clergy is crucial to bereaved family members, “We need to make sure we don’t impede this,” Boglioli said. “We need to be knowledgeable about religious rites and customs. “

In essence, offered Petaccio, “We need to be educators.”

Service to Many

For Catholics in particular, cultural changes, including the diminishing participation in the life of the Church, has left Catholics with an incomplete knowledge of Catholic funeral rites and options.

“Years ago, Catholics associated mostly with people in their church or neighborhood. Today, we have friends and neighbors of others faiths. People see how others are doing funerals, but funeral rites are not the same for all faiths,” Petaccio explained.

Because of this void in knowledge, many pastors are asking funeral homes to offer educational seminars on funeral service options as they relate to Catholic funeral rites. A popular seminar topic today is cremation, noted Petaccio, who has been providing seminars on a variety of topics to churches and in other venues for the past 25 years, and most recently completed a seminar in Our Lady Queen of Peace Parish, Hainsport.

The choice for cremation is on the rise, and experts attribute it mostly to demographic and economic factors, as well as the changing religious landscape. These factors also impact a funeral home’s need to offer options for a wide variety of personal circumstances.

“Each life is unique, and we strive to make certain that our services reflect that uniqueness,” McGirr said. “In my opinion, cremations have increased principally due to our mobile society, protracted illnesses [the long goodbye], and in some cases, of less religious involvement, as well as economics.”

Ultimately, “when the funeral ceremonies have concluded, and each and every wish of a family and the goals set by our staff have been successfully completed, you know you have impacted many lives,” he said.