New York State Funeral Directors Association


It isn’t hard to imagine somebody sitting in a funeral home office, discussing funeral plans for a recently-deceased loved one and experiencing shortness of breath.

This symptom can be seen as an expected reaction to an extreme situation.

It’s also seen as an indicator of cardiac arrest.

For decades each day, staff at the McVeigh Funeral Home in Albany have welcomed family members of the recently-deceased to sit down and plan a memorial.

But it’s only been about two years since the funeral home’s manager, David Parente, has felt at ease related to the health of people facing one of the most stressful situations in their lives.

That’s because the McVeigh Funeral Home purchased an Automated External Defibrillator – or AED – and they bring it with them when they travel to funerals and the cemeteries.

It’s a device that can mean the difference between life and death not only for family members – but for employees at the funeral home as well.

AEDs are small electronic devices that gauge the rhythm of somebody’s heartbeat. They are able to send a shock to re-start the heart of a victim suffering from what the American Heart Association says is the number one cause of death in the United States.

It isn’t just sitting at the desk planning a funeral when people can suffer sudden cardiac distress, Parente said. It could happen during a funeral, in a chapel, in the parking lot and at the cemetery.

“When they’re grieving, when there’s excessive stress in their life, their health is at risk, period,” Parente said.

Sudden Cardiac Arrest – not to be confused with a heart attack – is an irregular heartbeat, caused by an electrical problem disrupting the heart’s ability to pump blood to the brain and other organs, according to the American Heart Association.

It can cause the heart to stop beating altogether. Heart attacks are caused by the lack of blood flow to the heart stemming from issues like blocked arteries.

According to the American Heart Association, almost 360,000 people suffer from cardiac arrest in the United States each year.

Parente is among a small group of funeral directors working to make sure it doesn’t happen in the funeral home.

“When you just know almost everyone who’s coming through those doors is stressed, excessively stressed, it’s just a good feeling to know that we are in a position to maybe help in a way that we never had available to us,” Parente said.

There’s more to the decision to install an AED than picking a spot on the wall. For one, it has to be purchased, which is an expense that’s not required – at least not at funeral homes. Most of them range in price from between $1,200 to $2,500.

New York, and several other states, made AED installation a requirement at exercise facilities more than a decade ago.

The Empire State also requires portable defibrillators be installed at places of public assembly and at public swimming pools.

After making the decision to install one, Parente said challenges were “far less than what we expected.”

For one, the AED machine isn’t of much use unless staff are able to use it. So the first challenge was getting all the staff together at one time to have training.

New employees need to be trained as well – and Parente said staff revisit their CPR training every six to eight months, which is also an expense Parente said other funeral homes thinking about an AED should consider.

“If you’re not ready for that, this would be the wrong route,” Parente said.

The second challenge was deciding where to put the AED – a modern device that could stand out if readily visible on the wall of an historic home.

Parente said it wasn’t a matter of simply hanging a metal box on the wall. Instead, they had the unit installed into a recess in the wall at the funeral home’s entrance. So it’s integrated and neither obtrusive nor alarming to people.

“It’s all part of doing this the right way, and showing the community, showing our families that we’ve put thought into every step of this,” Parente said.

The AED is fitted with an alarm that goes off when it’s accessed. This both prevents theft and alerts other staff members that there’s an emergency happening.

In more than 3 decades as a funeral director, Parente said only once has somebody fallen. It was an elderly man who fell while standing in line for two hours at a wake – the stress and heat got to him, Parente said.

“It’s the kind of thing you hope you never have to use, but you’re prepared. It’s disaster preparedness. It really gives us a sense of security, I have to say, about being able to take care of people,” Parente said.

“A good funeral home, really, is about the living,” he said.

“We want to show our community we care on many different levels. It’s not just when they have a death. We care about your health. When you come here and have that kind of episode, we can do a little more than just call 911. It’s just a level of commitment you’re not going to find in too many funeral homes,” Parente said.