Putting off the final farewells

  • Article by: MARY LYNN SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 7, 2011 - 8:16 PM

In an increasingly mobile world, more people are delaying family funerals.

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Gill Brothers funeral director Daniel McGraw, with an urn of unclaimed ashes.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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When Sue Walker's dad died in January, she immediately began planning his services -- for July.

To honor her father, former Minneapolis Police Chief Jerry Lutz, Walker and far-flung family members will play some golf and cards, drink some scotch and "call it a day," she said.

"If we can have everybody here and do something he loved, it will be more of a tribute," Walker said.

Although some funeral experts suggest immediate services to help in the grieving process, more families are waiting weeks or even months to hold memorials.

Some delay services in hopes of making them more meaningful -- for instance, spreading ashes at a lake cabin in the summer or waiting for a date that holds a special memory. For others, it's a practical matter -- waiting for people to arrive from around the country, sometimes the globe.

"Each circumstance is different," said Daniel McGraw of Gill Brothers Chapels. "My neighbor's mom just died and they just don't want to go out to the cemetery until the spring. ... Sometimes they don't want to pull the kids out of school or they have a long-planned vacation to Mexico and they don't want to lose the $1,000 they already paid for the trip."

In a few cases, people just have difficulty finding an open date in their hectic schedules.

"It's sad but true," McGraw said. "A lot of people's lives are busy, and they're postponing funerals for convenience's sake. It's a sign of the times."

And not necessarily a healthy one, said Pat Lynch, president of the National Funeral Directors Association.

"It's not like a birthday party, graduation or optional event," he said. "Weddings are optional. Funerals are mandatory. ... People are looking for a convenient way to handle these things, and death isn't convenient."

"There's nothing sadder than having eight or 10 people bury their mother, and they're all alone. Then eight months later, they have a party," Lynch said. The bereaved need the hugs and words of comfort sooner than later, he said. "You don't wait eight months when your life is getting back on track and then reopen the wound that perhaps began to heal. ... It's about getting the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be."

'Traditions are changing'

Although delayed funerals aren't the norm, funeral directors say they are becoming more frequent, coinciding with the increase in cremations. State statistics show 46.8 percent of those who died in Minnesota in 2009 were cremated, compared to 15.8 percent in 1990. Once Aunt Martha's body is cremated, it's a lot easier to hold her services weeks, if not months, later. But even embalmed bodies can be put on ice for a delayed goodbye.

"I got the call the other day from someone who asked: 'How long can you keep a body?'" Twin Cities funeral director McGraw said.

"Traditions are changing within families," said Kevin Waterston, part owner of the family-owned Cremation Society of Minnesota. "I think people are getting more comfortable with memorial services when the casket isn't present. And that makes it easier to have [services] at a later date."

But that doesn't mean people are postponing their grief, he said. "They often just grieve more privately" before the larger, public service, he said.

That's the tack Ann Tesler's family members took when they decided to hold a memorial service in April -- three months after her mother, Janice, died. Unaffiliated with a church or synagogue, her mother hadn't wanted a traditional service.

"She had gone to a service where the person officiating didn't know the deceased and it was uncomfortable for family and friends," Tesler said. "I think a lot of families are in that situation. Somewhere along the years, they stop going to the church or synagogue for whatever reason, and then it's tough to have a genuine service."

Before she died, her mom requested her services be an open-house celebration on her birthday -- April 4.

'It's not clear-cut'

"She was quite a gardener, so having it in the spring had special meaning to her," Tesler said. "And having a celebration in her home, where she had hosted so many events for family and her friends and where most of the meaningful events in her life happened, meant the most to her. She just wanted to know that people would be comfortable and enjoying themselves one more time in her home."

But knowing that a three-month delay between death and a memorial service can be a long time for those mourning a loss, Tesler's family held a small open house for very close friends and family.

"It's a balancing act," Tesler said. "It's not clear-cut, so you just try to be respectful of everybody."

"Thirty or 40 years ago, everyone did it about the same," said Philip Sellew, University of Minnesota professor of classical and Near Eastern studies. That meant a two- to three-day visitation immediately after someone died followed by funeral services in the mortuary or a church, then a procession to the cemetery. A luncheon often followed the burial.

"There were expectations, and it was comforting ... at a time of grief and loss," he said. "You would have been shamed in my small town if you let Uncle Abel stay in the garage too many months because you really couldn't be bothered. Now I don't know if my neighbors would know who's in my garage."

Not only are people more mobile, but families are more diverse, Sellew added. That translates into less uniformity in family life, changing the way we give birth, marry and bury. "I don't say it's good or bad," he said. "It's where we are."

'It's a time to reflect'

Other cultures are more traditional.

"We never wait long to bury because of our cultural norm," said Kou Vang, director at Legacy Funeral Home in St. Paul. "We have to bury and then release the spirit, otherwise our loved ones can't reincarnate."

Followers of the Jewish and Islamic traditions also bury as soon as possible -- sometimes within hours of death. "It's a time to reflect," and a reminder for everyone to stop what they're doing, said Amin Kader, president of the Islamic Institute of Minnesota.

But for those not bound by religious and cultural traditions, when to hold services depends on how the person died, their age and the relationships, said Thomas Ellis, a funeral director for nearly 20 years and now executive director of the Center for Grief, Loss and Transition in St. Paul. "It's a value call," he said.

How to make that call is for each family to decide.

"It's an important family discussion," Ellis said. "What would Grandma want us to do? It could be that Grandma would really be pissed off if we were late to her funeral or postponed it. Or maybe Grandma would want us to go on vacation. ... It's all situational."

But don't wait too long, cautions Gill Brothers' McGraw. "They'll say they'll schedule in the spring, and then never do it. Out of sight, out of mind," he said. "I have a closet full of cremates."

Mary Lynn Smith • 612-673-4788

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