From the collections at the Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum. Reprinted with permission from The Leavenworth County Historical Society and Museum and the Leavenworth Times. Donated by Debra Graden.
They're a fact of life. Everybody's been to one. Everybody will have one. Many will have to organize and pay for one.
Funerals have been a part of the civilized world since the
establishment of civilization. To quote from The Funeral from
Ancient Egypt to Present Day America:
What most people focus on only a few times in their lives, a funeral home focuses on every day. By working with survivors every day, people in the funeral business have the acquired expertise of providing the living with the service of preparing their dead.
Leavenworth has four funeral facilities, each maintaining that basic philosophy. "Our responsibility is the care of the dead and to carry out the wishes of the families and those who have died," said Davis T. Moulden of Davis Funeral Chapel, 531 Shawnee.
"We want to provide an atmosphere and a facility that allows the family to vent their grief in a socially acceptable manner and start the grieving process," said Daniel C. Belden Jr. of Belden-Sexton-Sumpter Funeral Chapel, 500 Oak. "We provide a situation where they can receive the support of the community."
"You are communicating with people and are trying to give the best service that you can give them," said the Rev. J. A. Goodwin Sr. of Holmes & Goodwin Funeral Chapel, 424 Kiowa.
"It's a position where I can help people," said Gus Barnett of Barnett-Larkin-Brown Funeral Home, Sixth and Olive.
The funeral business is labor-intensive, and requires the ability of the funeral facility to take quick action at the request of a family. Many people are not aware of all the aspects of the facility's responsibility to its clients. Many are also unaware of all that a funeral home has done for them regarding the care and interrment of their loved one.
Step one: A call is made reporting a death. Where is it? Is it in a bed at home? In a hospital? In a penal institution or a military compound? Is it at the scene of an automobile or industrial accident? The funeral director must take the location into consideration, as well as possible obstacles.
"You don't make a show of your removal," Barnett said. "Be very quick and professional about it."
Then comes the paperwork: The death certificate, the insurance papers, and the information for a published obituary.
Many people struggle with the forms, and often lack accurate and detailed information about relatives. "They don't know what Aunt Clara's last name is any more after her sixth husband," Belden said.
Costs of services provided for the deceased is a fact of life for the living. The issue can be touchy. The ethical funeral director tries to strike a comfortable balance between what the deceased might have wanted, and what the survivors can afford.
"The funeral business is just like anything else; there's nothing cheap about any of it," Belden said.
"If they pick something they can't pay for, it's not only bad for them, it's bad for me," Barnett said. "There's no reason somebody should have to pay for an outlandish funeral."
"There are those that order a big funeral, and it's months before you can get paid," Goodwin said. "A lot of people think we're just supposed to do it."
Putting words and would-have-been wishes into the minds of the surviving is out of line, all the directors agreed.
"When a family calls us, that's our business. But when a family selects a service, that's their business," Moulden said. "It's not my place to put my hand on your shoulder and say, "This is the last thing you're going to get to do for dear old Mom.' We don't need to play that pathetic game. It's not my place to tell you what you want. It is my job to tell you what the options are."
Perhaps the hardest option is that of the selection of the casket. To the grieving, it is a final resting place for their beloved. People are often torn between providing their beloved with a comfortable final resting place and keeping expenses at a practical level. It is not unusual for emotion to win out.
"It's a major purchase," Belden said. "If I think they're overspending, I tell them. When you add our service charge to the cost of that particular casket over there, you're looking at $7,000. There aren't many families that can afford to do that."
"They should pick out what they want, and more importantly what they can afford," Barnett said.
Caskets come in two forms: metal and wood. Some metals are protective; other metals and wood are not. The least expensive is a cloth-covered casket made of wood particle board. More extravagant is a bronze or copper casket with a gasket seal and embellished panels.
"This is the best one I have," Barnett said, standing by a $4,000 bronze casket. "There are better ones out there, and I can get them, but this is the best one I have on hand."
"Funerals are like lifestyles," Moulden said, smiling a little. One might think back to the funeral of rock singer Elvis Presley in 1977 as an example of the quintessential opulent funeral: Ten white Cadillacs led the procession, followed by Presley's solid copper coffin.
Moulden advocated price comparisons, and said people shouldn't be made to feel bad about "shopping around." A funeral is a major purchase and should be treated as such.
"There's more mass media advertising and wheelers and dealers,a nd I think people really need to know who they're dealing with," Moulden said. "There is nothing wrong with price comparing of funeral homes. That's no more in bad taste than pricing a new television set."
Prearranged funeral plans are a godsend to both the surviving family members and the funeral director. Moulden, Barnett and Belden advocated such plans, and added that those plans did not necessarily have to be prepaid.
"I can't tell you how many times I have sat here with families and said, "Well, what do you think Mom would have wanted?'" Moulden said. "We have funerals that have everything written down exactly as the person wanted. The families need to decide only when to have the service. that takes a big load off."
Some may resist the need to plan, but people shouldn't put it off, Moulden said. "It's not a pleasant thought to begin with, and you don't want someone nagging you on the phone talking about funeral arrangements."
"Prearrangement is good for the consumer," Barnett said. "Their loved ones are not left having to make all those hard decisions at a time when they're under pressure."
"Make good decisions, and make them while the family is still complete," Belden said. "Get people to consider what's going to happen to them eventually."
State law prohibits funeral businesses from accepting money in advance to insure a fully prepaid funeral. The money should either be placed in an insurance policy or an irrevocable trust fund, Moulden said.
Financially stable or not, everybody will have a funeral. Funds from social service agencies are available from the deceased from indigent families. The funds are often inadequate to cover even the most basic funeral services, and funeral facilities often absorb the cost.
"I can't tell a family 'no,'" Belden said. "We have a responsibility to our community. Are you going to make it obvious that it's going to be a welfare service? I would never publicly embarrass a family like that."
Families have enough problems as it is during a funeral. The grievances and hard feelings of years gone by often manifest themselves standing before the open casket. "The family has to turn around, and they do it at the grave," Moulden said. Family problems and conflicts are common, and the director must often mediate.
"You name it: Everything from minor choices of flowers to who's going to pay the bill and how it's going to get paid," Belden said. "They spew out all their venom at one time. Sometimes we can solve the conflict, and other times we have to live with it."
Anger is common for the survivor of the deceased: anger at the doctor that couldn't cure, the insurance company that wouldn't pay, the person that didn't live. The funeral director hears it all.
"By the time they get to us, we're at the end of that chain," Moulden said. "We handle a lot of problems most people don't realize exist."
Grief is not synonymous with irrationalism, Moulden said. People can be very sad and still make logical funeral plans.
"Most every family I deal with know exactly what they're doing," he said. "They're not going bonkers because somebody died. They still know who they are and what their financial situation is."
Despite working with the deceased of others, funeral directors have felt losses in their own families and circle of friends. The grief for their loss is no less.
"I've certainly had my share," Moulden said. "I've sat on the other side."
Article donated by Debra Graden, President
Leavenworth County Genealogical Society, 1998