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Ask Anything: 10 questions with Funeral Director David Heckel

Funeral Director David Heckel answers your questions about embalming, cremation and burial. Plus, one of the WRAL.com moderators is now taking your questions.

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David Heckel
How do I go about planning my own funeral arrangements? – Sonia Clark, Raleigh

Good question, Sonia. The first thing you should do is talk with your family about the subject.

We (funeral directors) visit thousands of homes every year and many people tell us they’ve never taken even 10 or 20 minutes to sit down with each other and discuss what they’d want if something happened to one or both of them.

The next step would be to make an appointment with the funeral director to record your wishes. He or she will gather some important statistical information for a death certificate, and help you select the type of service you want.

And finally you can, if you wish, pay in advance for services and merchandise to be provided in the (hopefully distant) future. Most funeral homes will offer an inflation proof contract that locks in the price for their services and merchandise at the time the contract is signed.

How do you keep residual emotions from following you home from work? Does being around a lot of grieving people during your work week affect you emotionally, or do you build up an immunity like police officers, homicide investigators, etc.? – Julie W., Goldsboro

Well Julie, caring, compassion, and empathy are some of the personality characteristics that help a funeral director excel in this profession. But there is a difference between the professional relationship we have with our client families and our more intimate personal relationships.

It is natural I think that you would “connect” with someone right away in certain social and business settings. And those circumstances tend to affect me a little more. But just like a clergy person or a mental health professional, I am able to help others who are experiencing deep grief without taking on their emotions as my own

What is the cost of cremation vs. an actual funeral where the body is embalmed and displayed for visitation? – Judy Elliott, Oxford

You’ve already answered your question in some part in how you have asked it, Judy. But not necessarily for the reasons you suggest. There are a number of options available for those who wish to be cremated and prices vary depending on what services a family chooses.

Like burial or entombment, cremation is just another form of final disposition. It does not have to preclude having the deceased prepared for a private or public viewing and visitation. Many families who choose cremation have that gathering time and then have the casket present for a funeral ceremony.

The gathering of family and friends to pay their respects has been an important part of our culture and an important step for many in saying goodbye and closing the temporal relationship with a loved one.

Cremation can be a more economical choice however if a family requests no embalming and preparation and does not select a casket. Additionally, cemetery costs are less for an urn than for a casket.

David, how does a person become a funeral director? I know someone that is thinking of a career change. What are the steps to take? Schooling? Certifications? Please let me know. Thanks. – John H., Cary

There are both two year Associate Degrees, as well as four year college curriculums to prepare for a career in funeral service.

Upon successful completion of one of these programs, it is required that you pass a national board examination covering all aspects of the profession from embalming to legal matters, to business operations.

Additionally, there is a one year apprenticeship requirement. Then in order to obtain a license, one must pass a test on North Carolina laws governing funeral service, undergo a criminal background check, and provide witnesses who will attest to your moral character.

North Carolina is a dual license state; meaning you can have a license either as an embalmer or a funeral director. There is also a Funeral Service license which certifies both job titles. Some other states offer a single license.

Do you really have to sew people's mouth shut? – Sharon Underwood, Clayton

It is a curiosity for many people how the body is prepared, Sharon. Part of the embalming and preparation process is called “setting features." We use different means to ensure that the eyes and mouth are closed and to give the deceased a natural appearance as if asleep or in a state of repose. Generally, that does not involve having to use sutures.

What is the process of cremation? I signed so many papers and had to initial here and there so many times to have my father cremated. Why is that? – William Thompson, Durham

Cremation is a high heat process that reduces the body to bone fragments which are then usually processed into a finer particulate. Most people commonly refer to cremated remains as ashes. Because cremation is such a final and irreversible process, there are many safeguards in place to protect both the family and the funeral director. We require positive identification and appropriate authorization forms to be signed before we schedule any cremation. Additionally, there are North Carolina laws that govern cremation.

What type of personal protective equipment is worn by morticians to prevent exposure to unknown infectious agents that the deceased may have in their body fluids or tissues? – Melanie Sorrell, Raleigh

If you’ve seen a surgeon ready to do his or her job, you can imagine that an embalmer looks the same. Embalmers practice universal precautions when working in the preparation room. This includes wearing gloves, mask, gown, and eye protection. Thanks for that excellent question, Melanie.

I am interested in a "green" burial. No embalming, no vault, burial within 24-48 hours, biodegradable casket. Can this sort of burial be pre-planned so my wishes will be granted and no fussing within the family? – Elizabeth Crawford, Canton

There has been more interest in that sort of disposition recently, Elizabeth. I have read a couple of articles about the practice of green burial, but I’m not aware of any public cemeteries offering that option in the Triangle region.

Because no casket will withstand the weight of the soil, most traditional cemeteries require an outer burial container. It is both a matter of surface maintenance and a concern should there be a disinterment requested at some future date. However it does not have to be a protective vault. A two piece concrete grave liner meets the cemetery requirement.

I believe the Jewish tradition follows the idea of green burial in that it is held that the body should return to the earth in a natural progression; neither retarded by preservation nor sped up by cremation. Embalming is not required in most cases. But without embalming, the funeral director can refuse to offer public viewing.

Wood is of course biodegradable and there are many choices of wood caskets. Jewish caskets are meant to be of simple design and are made without any metal fasteners. A green cemetery may offer other options.

You do need to be aware however that there will be someone who will have the ultimate legal authority to determine the disposition of your body upon your death. That person (or people) would normally be your next of kin. So once again, you should talk with your family about your wishes.

When dealing with an unexpected death in the family, how can one feel confident choosing the right funeral home? I'm used to shopping around for the best price on the things I buy, but I'm sure in a tragic situation I would not feel up for that. How can I be sure I'm not getting taken for a ride? Do people actually shop around for funeral services? – Jen. F., Creedmoor

Another good question, Jen. As we have become more of a consumer oriented society, most people seek the best value for the money we spend. Fortunately for the consumer, the funeral profession is highly regulated.

We must comply with Federal Trade Commission regulations regarding our price information. And regulatory state boards of funeral service provide a secondary measure of protection against anyone who might be tempted to be unethical. Funeral directors as a rule are good people and funeral homes are generally interested in only making a fair return on their investment.

Death often does come unexpectedly, but the best way to feel comfortable making any funeral arrangement is to do so well in advance. That way you can make important decisions with a clear head and not be influenced by grief. Otherwise, my advice would be to ask friends which providers they have used. You can ask if the funeral home you intend to use has a satisfaction guarantee and whether the staff is required to complete ongoing training and professional development.

Also you can select a funeral home by its length of service to a community and its reputation. And one final note about shopping around for the best price, Jen. And that is “You get what you pay for. Or the converse, you don’t get what you don’t pay for.” Consider the added value of benefits like bereavement travel services, aftercare support services, and transferability of pre-arranged plans that some funeral homes provide.

My wife's parents are in their 90s and in failing health. We are trying to make some advance preparations for the inevitable and are amazed at the expense of a funeral. Looks as if it will cost in excess of $10,000 for a "simple" funeral due to the various costs for things that the funeral director said are required, including casket, vault, and then the various services they provide. Her parents are simple people who have never had a piece of furniture nearly as nice or expensive as the cheapest casket available, and they don't want to see their hard earned money spend on what they consider to be frivolous things at the end of their lives. What are some ways costs can be reduced? We've heard that in some states caskets can be purchased at Costco, but not in N.C. Other suggestions? Thank you. – J. Hoke, Durham

As with any professional services where the provider must complete specialized training and obtain licensing, funeral services can indeed be costly. (Think attorneys, physicians, mental health professionals). However there are options to keep your cost within reason.

For example, you may choose to eliminate or reduce the staff and facilities fee by foregoing a visitation or by having the visitation the same day and just prior to the service. Funeral homes often provide graveside services at a reduced fee from a service in a church or funeral home chapel.

Ask the funeral director if there are other less expensive casket choices that he has not shown you. Most providers have basic metal or wood caskets available that they may not show in their selection room. If he is going to provide services, the funeral director is going to want to help you with selecting a casket from his offerings. But he cannot refuse a casket purchased elsewhere as long as it provides a suitable, sturdy means of transporting the deceased.

Likewise there are many choices for protective vaults, from the simple to the elaborate. But if cost is a major factor in your decision, cemeteries generally only require an outer burial container or grave liner for the casket.

Once again, let me reiterate that planning ahead and pre-funding your arrangements can save your family a lot of money. Historically the cost of funerals and cremations has doubled in price every eight to ten years. You can lock in at today’s prices by paying for services well in advance and free your family or survivors from the financial burden of paying for services at the time they are provided. The money you save can then be directed to the people or organizations you value most.

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