In 1911, when newspaper publisher and journalist Joseph Pulitzer died, he was waked in the library of his Manhattan home. The room was filled with floral tributes and the furniture arranged for the assembly of mourners. Throughout the morning, family, friends, and employees came to pay their respects to the journalistic icon who reposed in a flag-draped casket, clasping a copy of his newspaper in his right hand.
At the turn of the century, home funerals like that of Pulitzer were the norm. The deceased was embalmed in bed, and the viewing generally took place in the home’s “parlor.” Funeral directors supplied chairs and funeral paraphernalia such as casket biers, lecterns, and casket facial lamps.
Lately, news reports have generated some buzz about the return of home funerals. In fact, they never went away. They remain a little-known option that, if certain conditions are met, can be an intimate way to hold a wake.
During the height of the Covid pandemic in New York City (when wakes could not be held) funeral director Nicholas Cassese, of the Walsh & Cassese Funeral Home in Queens, turned to a home arrangement to help a local family.
They told Cassese that not having a visitation was out of the question. Their mom had been a popular woman, and her family and many friends wanted to say goodbye. The woman’s daughter asked Cassese if it were possible to have a visitation in her Connecticut home.
“They told me they had the property to do it,” said Cassese.
On the day of the visitation, Cassese arrived at the daughter’s Greenwich, Connecticut, home with his brother, Anthony, and son, Nicholas Jr., who work with him in the family business. Relatives of the deceased were waiting outside to greet the hearse and to help transfer the casket into the home.
The family had taken great pains to ready their home. In the foyer, a table held a register book and memorial cards. A family member remained there to greet visitors.
The casket was brought into the library of the elegant home where the visitation was to take place. Standing floral pieces flanked the casket, and vases filled with colorful arrangements adorned the tabletops. Chairs were spread out, and photo montages were displayed on easels; a grand piano graced one wall. Natural light streamed in through large picture windows.
Outside, the backyard had been readied for a dual purpose. On one side, chairs were arranged for a religious service; on the other, tables and chairs were set up for the luncheon to follow.
“All the details had been fully thought out by the family,” Cassese noted.
When the visitation ended, the casket was loaded into the hearse with help from family and friends. The final disposition would take place in the morning. As Cassese drove slowly away from the home, mourners walked behind, escorting the hearse to the main road.
“It all worked out nicely,” Cassese remembered with satisfaction.
Funeral director Thomas Boland, who runs the Thomas F. Boland Funeral Parlor in College Point, New York, has handled several home funerals. One family contacted Boland after three other funeral homes turned them down. The daughter of the deceased told Boland that her father had expressed a wish for a home funeral.
“She said she wasn’t going to take no for an answer.”
Unlike the spacious area Cassese had to work with, Boland had to accommodate a home viewing in much smaller quarters. The deceased lived on the first floor of a two-family house, above ground level, and the only entryway was narrow.
When Boland met with the family to make the funeral arrangements, he measured the doorway and immediately knew a standard-size casket would not fit. “I told them what caskets they could get,” he said. Still, even with a slimmer casket, the deceased and the casket would have to be brought in separately.
On the day of the visitation, Boland and his pallbearers carried the man’s body into the house on a stretcher, and then brought the casket through the door vertically. “The pallbearers did double duty,” he said.
Then they set up the folding chairs and prie-dieu they had brought from the funeral home for the two-day visitation. At night, when the visitation ended, Boland closed the casket, returning in the morning to reopen it.
To prepare for any possible snag, Boland employed a technique known as “diamond lashing,” which would secure the deceased in the casket should the family insist he not be removed from the casket on the day of the funeral.
“I tied ropes inside in a strategic way on both sides under the mattress in the event we had to move the body inside the casket out of house,” he explained.
On the morning of the funeral, the family agreed that Boland and the pallbearers could remove the deceased and casket separately from the home. The deceased was taken to Boland’s funeral home, where he was placed back into the casket.
When Boland returned with the casketed remains, he lifted the lid in the back of the hearse for people to say their final goodbyes before the procession left for church.
“To give them peace of mind, I reopened the casket inside the back of the hearse so everyone could see to say their final goodbyes, and just so they knew it was really him in that casket,” said Boland.
Shortly after the funeral, the daughter of the deceased left Boland a five-star review on Google, writing in part “…he accomplished my dad’s last wish. I will always be grateful [to him] for making it possible.”
Have you considered the type of funeral you want? Is a home funeral an option for you? What considerations would have to be made, if you insist on a home funeral? Have you attended a home funeral? What observations could you share?
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