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Do Funeral Homes Ever Have a Bad Year?

Larry King, the iconic sage of talk radio and then television, in contemplating the end of life, recently raised the question on Twitter, “Do funeral homes ever have a bad year?”

Growing up in New York City and being frequently in contact with my roots I can answer that question, but before I do, I’ll raise the question, how many wakes does the average New Yorker attend each year? The answer is many, and they start at an early age. They say that death comes in threes - maybe yes, maybe no, but I can recall having to attend two wakes in one night and three in a week on occasion.

Going to wakes is part of the New York region’s Catholic culture. You go when someone in your family dies, when a neighbor dies, when a close relative of a friend or co-worker dies, someone like a mother or father or maybe a brother or sister. You draw the line at grandparents, except if you knew them and your own, of course.

It’s set in the culture. You help in someone’s grieving. You further cement your friendships. You show respect. You go to be seen or to see someone else you know who will be there. There is a protocol. You don’t want to be too early, unless of course you have two wakes that night, and you want to leave before the priest arrives to say the Rosary. Also, if it’s the last night, the night before the funeral, you want to be out of there before the crying starts.

If you were not close to the deceased or his or family, there is also an unwritten code of conduct. Say as little as possible. “You have my deepest sympathy,” will usually do. “He or she was a wonderful person,” is appropriate if you actually knew the dearly departed whether or not that is actually a true statement. There are some expressions that you should avoid, especially, “He or she looks good.” Under no circumstances, even if it is true, say, “He or she never looked better.” Other expressions to avoid are: “I know you will miss him or her”; “He or she is happy now”; “He or she was the love of your life.” Why not ask those questions? Because it may be the case that the deceased will not be missed, he or she was not tickled pink with their upcoming fate and was not happy at the end, and he or she actually was not the love of his or her life. Another phrase to sit on is “What will you do now?” That question usually will draw a blank stare or maybe closed eyes and a deep breath, and the response, “I have to get through this,” or “I really haven’t had time to think.”

I call my sister Carol in New York every week and inevitably she asks, “Did you hear about so and so?” When I respond that I haven’t, she informs me of his or her passing and her obligatory attendance at the wake or funeral. “Are you coming up?” she will ask. Traveling the 240 miles from Washington to New York to pay my respects to someone I haven’t seen in many years is not in the cards, though sometimes I feel bad about missing out on seeing old friends and having a drink with them. Having lived in the Washington area for over 50-years, I have enough funerals to attend here, too many in fact.

The funeral business is a big business in the New York City metropolitan area because of this cultural phenomenon. It is also serendipitous for bars and restaurants in close proximity to the funeral home. Part of the process is to slip out of the funeral home with old friends and male family members and have a drink. The bars and restaurants on Broadway in Astoria that are close to Quinn’s Funeral home do a land office business. Quinn’s is a mega funeral home five stories high, the Costco of funeral homes. It used to be the Queens business office of the Brooklyn Union Gas Company. It can conduct about 10 wakes a night. That is a lot of traffic for the neighboring bars and restaurants.

I remember when my grandfather Jim, James McPartland, my mother’s father died. I was living it up on Labor Day weekend in the Hamptons when I got word from mother’s aunt Lilly that Jim had taken sick and had trouble breathing. I rushed home from the Hamptons and spent the night with him and was asleep in a chair next to his bed when he died. Mother was on a cruise to South America. I wired her the news. She called on the ship-to-shore radio/phone and said to go to Quinn’s and spare no expense.

I called Quinn’s where Jim had been taken and made an appointment to look at caskets. Aunt Lilly came with me when we visited the showroom on the fifth floor. The first thing out of her mouth when the funeral director led us into the casket showroom was, “Show me the Social Security casket.” At the time, I think the government funeral benefit for those eligible was about $200.

“But surely, you’re not thinking of that for Mr. McPartland?” the director said.

“I’m not going to be around long, so I might as well take a gander at it while I’m still breathing,” Lilly said.

“It’s over this way in the back,” he said leading us through row after row of caskets.
We stopped at a plain pine box painted gray. Lilly ran her hands over the side of the box. “Pretty basic, if you ask me.”

“We can paint I brown or black, but with pine wood the gray is more dignified,” the funeral director said jutting out his jaw in a display of authority.

Lilly reached inside the box and felt the polyester-like lining. “No cushion, this wouldn’t be very comfortable for an eternity,” she said. The funeral director did not react.

“All right, show us the works,” Lilly said. “Jim’s going out in style, but nothing with angels on it,” she said. “And none of those cherubs or flowers either.”

When we settled on a casket, a rich and shiny mahogany type wood, the director suggested a burial suit. I turned and whispered to Aunt Lily that grandpa Jim had already told me he wanted to be laid out in his favorite blue suit. She whispered back that he told her the same thing, adding “Let’s get our money’s worth, and have some fun with this guy.”

“What do you have,” she asked the director.

“Come this way,” he said leading us into a smaller adjoining room.

It was a revealing experience, since none of the suits or shirts on display had any backs, just strings attached to the sides to pull the fabric together. Aunt Lilly began laughing. Fingering the material of a dark blue suit, she asked, “How much do you get for this suit?”

When the director quoted an absurd price, she said, “You got some nerve charging grieving people that kind of money for half a suit.”

Not fazed by her remarks, he responded. “You must understand. The suits are specially made. They are not off-the-rack items.”

“Do you remove the clothes before you bury them?”

“Excuse me.”

“You heard me. Do you keep the suit and shirt?”

He hesitated. “Most certainly not.”

A wry smile came over Lilly’s face as she shook her head back and forth. “We’ll bury Jim in his good suit. That’s the way he wanted it.”

Out on Broadway looking for a cab after we left Quinn’s, Lilly looked at me. “I bet that half-a-suit has been sold a hundred times over.”

Grandpa Jim was waked for three nights and there were large crowds there each night, including his bookie, Teddie Richter. “Jim bet on horses running at tracks I never heard of,” Teddy said. “He really knew his horses. You know, this was one of the few times he was behind.”

Uh Oh, I thought. Teddy was a very large man. “How much?” I asked.

Teddy laughed. “It was only $15. This one’s on me. He was a great guy.”

Ten years later, Aunt Lilly died. Hurricane Agnes was wreaking havoc all along the East Coast. I could not get to her wake or funeral. I really wanted to be there for her. She had raised my mother and was a wonderful person to be around. I still miss her as I do Grandpa Jim.

In case you’re interested, Aunt Lilly didn’t choose the Social Security casket.

No Larry, funeral homes never have a bad year.  Read More 
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How To Publish Now

Please excuse my absence these last eight weeks. I digressed from writing short stories to research digital publishers to determine who was offering the most affordable and effective Print on Demand (POD) publishing services. Midway through my research, I concluded that the subject was worthy of a book in order to share my findings with other writers.

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U.S. retail price is $11.99 in book format and $2.99 on Kindle in eBook format.  Read More 
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