They work in what many see as the setting for a scary movie.  They cloak the institutional nature of what they do with bouquets of flowers, rich carpeting, and warm lighting.  Behind the scenes, well, no one goes there.  We do not want to know.  Or do we?

[A note to the reader: Some of what is included in this story – including the photos at the bottom of it – may be difficult to read or see.  Please be advised that this post is an attempt to help demystify a subject about which many people are uncomfortable.  While not graphic, some may consider the subject macabre.  Consequently this is not for the faint of heart and, if the discussion of death is one in which the reader would prefer not to delve, then now is the time to stop reading this post.  Most of the photos appear at the end for this reason.]

Ours is an advanced society that has yet to conquer the emotional toll of “progress.”  And, in the age of COVID, that toll has become intensified for many.  More people are dealing with death than ever before in recent history.  Up until COVID, the United States was enjoying a downward trend in the number of deaths.

Graph Credit: National Center for Health Statistics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Up until recently the death toll in the United States was on the decline according to a report by the National Center for Health Statistics National Vital Statistics System (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). 

And, with the increase in deaths because of COVID, funeral homes are seeing more cases, and many cases that are more complicated.

To get a perspective on what local funeral homes are facing WIBX spoke with Chase Hunter, Funeral Director at Eannace Funeral Home in Utica, New York.   Among the many hats that he wears as a part of his job is that of Preparation Room Manager – but more on that in a bit.  Hunter provided WIBX with not only an intellectual perspective about the job of the funeral director, but also a mental peek inside a world that few of us see – at least while we are alive.

Chase A. Hunter, Funeral Director, Eannace Funeral Home Photo Courtesy: TSM

One of the misconceptions about the job of the funeral director is actually the job description itself.  Many people view the Funeral Director as the business face of the funeral home.  The funeral director takes the initial call – especially in smaller funeral homes – usually from family, the hospital, or law enforcement – that someone has died.  The funeral director then becomes undertaker, mortician, and embalmer.  In the past these three different jobs were often done by three different people and were licensed separately.  Now all three are a part of the Funeral Director’s job description.  Each state licenses funeral directors according to their own regulations.

The Funeral Director is also the person on call at 2:00am, especially at family-owned businesses.  It is his or her to gather as much information as he or she can about the deceased.  Not only does the job entail tending to the immediate needs of transporting the body to the funeral home, but it also includes helping the family make decisions about the deceased, referring them to sources who can help them with funeral finances if arrangements had not previously been made, helping to write a obituary, adhering to the wishes of the deceased if those wishes are known, securing the death certificate, preparing the body, transporting the body if necessary, and helping the family in any way that they can Hunter says, “while upholding our code of ethics and morals.”  Unofficially the job includes providing a shoulder on which family members can cry, helping to order flowers, selecting the right shade of nail polish or cologne for the deceased, and listening.

In some cases the family wants the body returned to the deceased’s place of birth.  Hunter says that it is common in the city of Utica, for example, for him to facilitate passage to Italy, Bosnia, or the Dominican Republic.  When speaking with Hunter it was clear that he is passionate about his work.  “We really do care.  When you have a good group of people they care about the community and the people they serve.”  Hunter says that includes doing whatever they can to help the family and honor the wishes of the deceased.

Because of that dedication the job of the Funeral Director is difficult and time consuming.  Hunter says that technology has actually made the job a little more difficult.  He is not complaining because people are living longer.  He is acknowledging, however, that the machines used to keep people alive or to resuscitate them make the job of returning the body to a more beautiful state a bit more challenging.  Likewise, it is more difficult to work on the skin of a person who is 100 than one who is 80.  “We are dedicated to open casket viewing,” says Hunter, if that is what the family wants.  And, even if the family or deceased does not want an open casket, Hunter says that he and his team prepare the body as if the casket will be open.  “Will it be the perfect remembrance of that person?  We will do out best.”  He says that he has only had truly difficult cases, where they cannot “restore” the body, only a couple of times.

Hunter is proud of the restorative arts that he employs to give loved ones a chance to remember the deceased as he or she appeared pre-illness, pre-injury, and pre-death.  “Depending on the situation and skill set we will do what we can to make a person see his or her loved one one last time…Instead of having that memory of someone with a horrific picture…they look peaceful…It helps people say, ‘Goodbye.’”  He says that the ability to be able to see someone in a peaceful state one last time is more effective as a means of closure than one having to “picture” a loved one in healthier times.  He acknowledges that a closed casket may be preferred by someone but he says it often leaves the minds of loved ones to speculate on what someone may have looked like.  In most cases, he says, being able to see the person brings forth a “healthier grief reaction.”

Hunter speaks emotionally about one person who had lost an ear because of treatment.  He reconstructed an ear for the viewing.  Hunter said that he did it for the deceased, and did not know if anyone would be able to see the reconstruction.  After the services a family member came up to him and said, “You gave him his ear back.”  That, Hunter says, is the reward.

It is a science-based art, he says.  Building an ear, rebuilding an entire face, even using the right perfume – these are all details that Hunter and his team take seriously.  “We care for all sorts of death – lives lived long and well to live cut short, from children to addicts to victims, we care for all.”

Another Funeral Director with whom we spoke and who chose not to be identified said that she loves the challenge of restoration.  “No one wants people to die, but when they do I get excited to be able to recreate their appearance as close to what it was when they were alive and when they were happiest.”  Does that mean making someone who is 70 look 50?  “No,” she said, “but it does mean making them look like their best version of 70.”

Caring for all also means that the Funeral Director needs space.  Some cases are tougher than others.  Hunter says that concentrating on the needs of the family and the deceased, maintaining faith and spirituality, and a healthy sense of humor are all necessary parts of the job.  He jokes with family, friends, co-workers, and reporters who ask him questions like, “Do you believe in ghosts?”  At first Hunter is uneasy answering the question, perhaps thinking that the reporter is joking.  However, it should be noted that while doing research for this story this reporter encountered multiple technical issues while working with equipment – different sets of audio and visual equipment – in multiple funeral homes.  This was mentioned to Hunter who said, “I do believe that when you die there is a separation from body and soul.  If I believe in that I must believe…”  Although the answer was somewhat vague he added, “Certain times you (feel) a presence in the room.  There are times when that presence has been comforting – possibly God – or the feeling of a soul of a person – and times when you feel darkness.”  And darkness, he says, has never made them defer a case.  The only time they have deferred cases is when, he says, they are too busy.  And he says that he is always up front and tells people when he cannot take the case.

Hunter says that he speaks frankly, if gently, with his children about his job.  They too, apparently, asked him if he believes in ghosts.  It all helps makes the process just a little easier.

Preparation makes things easier as well, Hunter says, and there are definitely things that people and families can do in advance.  As we try to plan for births, anniversaries, special occasions, and other things, Hunter says, people should plan for death - an inevitable part of life - as well.

One of the main things about which to plan, Hunter says, is the disposition of the body and who will be in charge of that responsibility.  New York State has a form (“Authority of Agent to Control Disposition of Remains”) whereby a person can signify who will be in charge of one’s body after death.  If this form is not completed the following decision-making hierarchy is observed:

  1. Person Identified in a Written Instrument (e.g. Will or Authority of Disposition form)
  2. Spouse
  3. Children
  4. Parents
  5. Siblings

Every state has its own rules and the laws in other states may be different from those of New York.  In cases where people are visiting another state or country usually the rules of the state of residence will be observed as a courtesy, but not always.

Hunter says another important preparation is making certain that a person shares his or her wishes with family members.  He says that the following questions are helpful:

  • Do you want a service and, if so, what type?
  • Do you want the service in a church or in the funeral home?
  • If you were a member of the military do you want military honors?
  • Do you want visitation or calling hours and should they be public or private?
  • Do you want clergy to preside over the event?

Traditionally, Hunter says, people have relied on their religious affiliations for guidance.  However, more and more people are not associating with one particular house of worship or connecting with clergy.  The answers, then, to these questions become more important.

Other things to consider:

  • What clothing – or type of clothing do you want to wear? Hunter says that they dress bodies from head to toe – and that include undergarments, bras, socks, slips, stockings, shoes, everything.
  • Do you want music played? Do you have a list of favorite songs?
  • Have you seen things from other funerals that you like or do not like?
  • What kind of makeup would you like to wear?
  • Do you want to wear perfume? Scent is very important, Hunter says.  Many associate their loved ones with a particular scent and he tries to honor that.

He says, “There is a sense of peace when you are burying an older person that lived a good life and you are a part of that memorialization.  When you take care of or help facilitate that memorialization…it makes it worth it; you did the right thing for the deceased.”  Likewise not all cases are peaceful.  “Drugs, guns, and violence are a reality and they present their own challenges from prep room to services.  We are dedicated to remembering the loved ones in better times and helping the families they left behind.”

And to that end circles back to the preparatory room – or “Prep Room.”  Visiting the room at several funeral homes gave this reporter a chill each and every time.  That chill, and demystification of that room and the weird technical anomalies experienced therein, is what prompted this story.

It is in the prep room that fluids are drained, scars are healed, body parts are fixed, holes are patched, makeup is applied, and the body is dressed.  It is here that Funeral Directors like Hunter spend their most humbling hours.  With COVID those hours have increased, and the business of restoration has gotten more complicated.  Some would say that there skills have become more creative, more diverse, more important.

The prep room has a decidedly clinical feel, but there is also a softer side.  It is what Hunter is referring to as the blend between science and art.  There are, of course, hospital tables, aspirators, drain tubes, an embalming machine, forceps, scalpels, scissors, and needles.  There are products in salon bottles with names that make hauntingly clear what they are designed to do – replace body fluids, glue skin, recolor dermal tissues.  Duct tape, glue, safety pins, putty and clay, thread, and twine are meticulously labelled on shelves.  But there are also bottles of nail polish in every colour imaginable.  Eyeshadow, shampoo (yes, decedents are often treated to a final shampoo and conditioning), hair spray, lipstick, brushes, combs, a hairdryer and flat iron sit next to nail files and tooth floss.  In short there are all of the ingredients for a final spa day. Funeral directors take that final spa day seriously, and use it to honor those who have passed.

One final note: Most of the funeral homes visited as a part of the research for this story were in converted homes.  It should be noted that the building in which Hunter works has a history, but not as a residence.  The building where Carmine Eannace started his funeral home business in Utica was on Third Avenue, conveniently located near St. Louis Gonzaga Church.  In 1962 the business moved to 932 South Street.  Hunter says that it was the first building built to be a funeral home in Utica, not a house converted.  The translation?  Hunter says, “There is no scary basement, no creepy attic.  I do not spend my time in a basement under a house.”

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