New York State Funeral Directors Association

No matter how skillful a funeral director might be, there is no predicting how a particular family dynamic might disrupt an otherwise well-planned and dignified funeral or memorial service.

As funeral directors, one of the numerous roles we may find ourselves assuming -- and hopefully rarely -- is that of an at-need family dispute mediator.

However, working to resolve an at-need dispute is essential to ensure a dignified service for the deceased, provide comfort for the survivors, maintain a firm's favorable reputation, and to protect a firm's staff and guests.

To illustrate, a local family that was known for its brawls among its own kin had scuffled years prior during a funeral service of their family member at a competing firm.

The melee eventually worked its way outside the firm and into a busy roadway. Local law enforcement was called to the scene, and pepper spray was used to subdue the belligerents.

The family was banned from future use of the funeral home. The local newspaper reported the incident the following day.

More recently, another member of this same family died at his residence, and unexpectedly. Now, it was the other funeral home's turn -- my funeral home.

After being called, and without knowing the relation of the deceased to the brawlers cited above, my colleague and I dutifully sprung to action and took the deceased into our care.

Not until the arrangements conference with the family was I made aware of their brawl at the funeral years earlier, and the report of the "funeral fight" came to mind.

After the family requested a memorial service for the loved-one to be  conducted at the funeral home, I realized we would need to take precautions to prevent a repeat of the previous incident.

The following day, not surprisingly, the daughter of the deceased visited the funeral home to inform me of certain "trouble-makers" that may choose to attend the service.

To my astonishment, such individuals included the parents and each of the many siblings of the deceased. She and her mother wished to deny them entry, if possible.

In response, I assured her that her mother, as next of kin and agent of the deceased, was the de facto authority during the memorial service. She could deny entry of whomever she wished.

To demonstrate this fact, I helped the daughter prepare a list of 12 individuals whom her mother wished to deny entry -- all the while hoping to avoid having to use the list.

After we completed "the list," and the daughter departed, I contacted local police to inform them of the potential problem, to seek advice, and to request their subtle presence.

Due to our community's small size, the police were well aware of the ongoing family feud. The officer offered to park a marked vehicle across the street from the funeral home at the time of the service and to inconspicuously station plain-clothed officers outside our firm.

Meanwhile, I devised a plan using our two entrances and our staff that might avoid confrontations between the decedent's spouse and children and the decedent's parents and siblings.

This was "Plan B," which certainly was not foolproof.

However, "Plan A" was to avoid having to use "the list" at all. So, just prior to the service I approached the spouse and daughter of the deceased with an air of subservience to them and made a final appeal.

I asked them to reconsider their decision to deny entry of those on "the list" on the condition that I would approach the parents and/or siblings of the deceased to request that they maintain a peaceful and dignified presence.

The spouse acquiesced. I declared victory to myself, but realized the significant risks this decision might create and the sensitive positions in which our staff might be placed.

Therefore, immediately after the spouse reconsidered her position, I informed the police department of the same.

The officer who received my call replied, "OK. We're on alert; however, if someone inside becomes a problem, approach the person and ask them to refrain from being disruptive."

He continued, "The next step is entirely your call, but if they don't comply, ask the person to leave the premises or you will have them removed by the police and charged with trespassing, then call us immediately."

After talking with the officer, I instructed the staff. In fact, posing as a disruptive guest, I had each of them repeat the officer's words to me. Soon after, we began to allow entry to all who arrived while hoping that civility would predominate.

Ten minutes prior to the scheduled start of the service, I asked the daughter of the deceased to discreetly point out those whose names were on "the list." She pointed out just three individuals. Just three...That was fortunate, I thought.

Next, I subtly approached each of these three individuals. I quietly introduced myself and made an appeal that they keep the peace. Each of the individuals I approached assured me that their visit was simply to honor their brother.

Now, I thought, they were aware of our presence and knew we were watching. We weren't left simply standing by to wait for an altercation to occur, or hope that we'd get lucky that none would occur.

After approaching the lectern, I thanked all in attendance and introduced the minister. While the minister took the floor, the staff and I anxiously stood nearby as the memorial service commenced.

Eulogies grew in number and the temperature inside climbed higher. While my composure remained constant, my nerves began to fray.

After 45 minutes, the reverend said a final prayer. The calm continued. I was still hesitant to declare victory, however, until all guests were outside the funeral home (and all doors locked).

In the end, all guests departed without incident. After the family took possession of their loved-one's urn, they expressed their heartfelt thanks to us for tending to their needs.

After the family exited, the staff and I celebrated privately with some "high fives."

Who knows why civility prevailed? It could have been one or a number of the measures taken. Or something completely unrelated. Regardless, we prepared for the worst but hoped for the best.

What mattered most, however, is that the service for the deceased was dignified and the spouse and her children left the funeral home comforted by the peaceful service that ensued.

This, after all, is what we are charged with accomplishing -- regardless of what's listed in our job descriptions.

John Gawronski
John Gawronski is a New York State-licensed Funeral Director