A Working podcast transcript: James Donofrio discusses funeral directing.

Should You Preplan Your Own Funeral? This Funeral Director Thinks So.

Should You Preplan Your Own Funeral? This Funeral Director Thinks So.

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Nov. 19 2015 4:01 PM

How Does a Funeral Director Work?

Read what L.V. Anderson asked James Donofrio about the demands of funeral work—from making arrangements abroad to taking 3 a.m. phone calls.

James Donofrio.
James Donofrio.

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by L.V. Anderson.

We’re posting transcripts of Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day, exclusively for Slate Plus members. What follows is the transcript for Season 5, Episode 1.

In the Season 5 premiere of Working, Slate’s L.V. Anderson interviews James Donofrio, a funeral director at Blair Mazzarella Funeral Home. Donofrio explains the effects of always being on the clock, how he prepares for an overseas funeral, and why a funeral director needs to know about every religion.

In a Slate Plus extra, Donofrio talks about a call he received to disinter 50 bodies, and where he gets the urns and stones used for his services

We’re a little delayed in posting this episode’s transcript—apologies. This is a lightly edited transcript and may differ slightly from the edited podcast.

Laura Anderson: Welcome to Working, Slate’s podcast about what people do all day. I’m Laura Anderson, a writer and editor for Slate. I’ve covered a lot of beats, including food, culture, and sex. But soon I’ll be launching a new column about workplace and management issues. And that made me want to learn more about other people’s jobs. On today’s episode, we talk with someone whose job is all about helping people say goodbye. What’s your name and what do you do?

James Donofrio: My name is James Donofrio, and I’m a New York state licensed funeral director.

Anderson: Can you walk me through what a typical day is like for you?

Donofrio: Not one day is ever the same. Generally, we can do nothing all day, just sit around, and in 10 minutes be so busy we don’t know where to even begin to start to run. It’s not a 9-to-5 day. It’s an 8 o’clock in the morning to 8 o’clock in the morning day. Someone can call you at any time—day or night.

Anderson: What happens when someone calls you, usually? How does that conversation go?

Donofrio: Well, whatever you’re doing you need to stop doing. They need 100 percent of your attention, because they have someone who they loved who passed away. Maybe they need some questions and answers. Maybe they just need some advice. So, you never know what they actually need.

Anderson: I have to imagine that the people who call you are in over their head. They don’t really know what they’re doing, because most people don’t have to deal with too many loved ones dying that frequently, hopefully.

So, how do you walk them through the process of everything that they need to know in order to have a funeral and decide what to do with the remains of their loved one?

Donofrio: The first thing we need to know is what they are actually interested in doing. Is it a burial? Is it a cremation? Is it a directly gravesite service? Is there a viewing? Are we going to church? Are we not going to church? Are we bringing a priest, a minister?

It’s a series of questions that sometimes people think we’re asking that we shouldn’t be asking. But we need to know what to do. Is the body in a hospital? Is it in a house? Is it at a hospice? Is it in the medical examiner’s? These are all questions we need that we have to ask people. Sometimes they think we are invading their privacy.

Anderson: So, let’s say the body is in the hospital. What happens next? It has to be delivered to your funeral home?

Donofrio: Well, if someone’s in the hospital, a New York City death certificate is computer generated. We check online. If their certificate is signed, we then generally go right to the hospital within an hour or an hour and a half, bring the person back here, and wait for just some further direction from the family.

Anderson: What kind of form does that direction take? Is it about embalming, or deciding whether to get cremated?

Donofrio: It’s all of those things.

Is the body to be embalmed? Is it a cremation with a viewing? Are the people against embalming? Is it a regular standard funeral with a viewing and a church? Is it a green funeral? There’s a million questions, and a million different scenarios that are all accompanied in a standard funeral.

Anderson: How long does it take to prepare a body for a funeral?

Donofrio: Tricky question. There’s a lot of variables. For example, how sick are they? What type of medicines they were on. Did they have an autopsy?

Generally, it takes four to six hours.

Anderson: Are you personally involved in embalming or preparing a body? Or do you have someone on staff who specializes in that?

Donofrio: Everyone here does all aspects of the funeral industry. They direct funerals. They make arrangements. They embalm bodies. Whether it be me, Gus, Luz.

Anderson: Are they all as experienced as you are, or are some of them more junior?

Donofrio: Just Luz, the girl who works for me.

She’s been here about six or seven years. She has been with me since she was a resident. She’s very experienced. Her specialty is filing paperwork for the consulates when we have to go overseas to another country. She also does some embalming. Gus is just as experienced. Mike is, too. They’re all experienced.

Anderson: So, you mentioned going to consulates to file paperwork. That means you have to send the body or send remains overseas.

Is that what that means?

Donofrio: Yeah. I do a lot of overseas funerals. Where someone dies here, they go to Bangladesh. Or, they go to the Republic of Kazakhstan, or Russia, or England, or Switzerland. We do all those types of funerals here.

Anderson: What is that process like? Are there a lot of regulations about how you ship remains overseas?

Donofrio: Everybody that ships overseas has their consulate, or their country has a consulate.

They have different regulations. Most of the regulations in New York and noncommunicable disease, a burial permit, embalmer’s affidavit. Then we get into the specifics. Some countries require an apostille—that the death certificate is certified by the Department of State. Some require just a city death certificate. Some have a few. In New York, we go into the consulate.

If the consulate is in Washington, we have to FedEx them the papers. They sign them, send them back. We make arrangements with the airport. We make arrangement with the family on the other side. If there are escorts, we have to tell everyone who’s flying with the body, so when they get to the other side they can take their loved one home. Some countries do not have funeral homes. So, basically, the family receives the body at the airport and takes the body home with them.

Anderson: That sounds like a very complicated and expensive process. How much does that cost? I’m sure it depends from country to country.

Donofrio: On an average, the airfare can be anywhere from $1,500 to $5,000. It goes by dollars per kilo. The price also depends upon the number of trips to the consulate and if the body requires a zinc box or a bioseal.

Everyone requires something different. There’s some new stuff out on the market for a hermetically sealed box. Which, years ago, was a soldered, zinc-lined box. Now we have a thing call bioseal. It takes the place of that. It’s a level five containment. It’s good for Ebola patients. And most governments accept it.

Anderson: What are the kinds of services that you provide that you think are surprising to people who aren’t aware of the kinds of services that funeral directors provide?

Donofrio: Services that we provides. Well, we pick up the decedent from wherever we prepare them, whether it be embalming, whatever they need. We place them in the casket. We provide the religious service, whatever religion they are. There are some casket requirements that certain religions have, other religions don’t.

Anderson: What are some of those requirements, from religion to religion?

Donofrio: Well, Hindus, they cremate. But some Hindus open the casket at the crematory, stomp five times. Jewish people have a wood casket burial in the ground—no vault. Nonsectarian people could have a metal casket, a steel vault, or a concrete vault to protect the casket in the grave. Green funerals have a wicker basket or a wood casket with natural glue and pegs. No plastic, no metal, no steel, nothing, no hinges, no interior.

You have to figure out. Sometimes there are little nicks, so you have to integrate them. We had a Hindu service last week. Half the family was Hindu, half the family was Christian. It was very difficult for them all to come to an agreement. A lot of times, we have to make people agree, because they just can’t all agree on how this funeral should go.

Anderson: I have to imagine that your relationship with dead bodies is different from most people’s, because I imagine that you spend a lot of time around corpses. Do you feel any discomfort about that? Or are you just really used to it now?

Donofrio: I don’t feel any discomfort. We have to treat all these people the same as you would want to be treated, because we’re going to be one of them. And you have to realize, we bury our friends and our family.

You really have to treat everyone the way you want to get treated.

Anderson: When you are treating a body of someone who you knew, does that help you find closure in accepting their death? Or is it kind of impersonal?

Donofrio: It’s extremely difficult. My cousin got killed Christmas Eve.

Anderson: I’m so sorry.

Donofrio: It’s been a while.

I had to take care of it, and her boyfriend fell asleep, hit a tree, and she died. You still have to do your job. It’s your family. They came to you because you know what to do. So, you have to do your job, and then grieve at some point after the funeral. You have to be perfect until that funeral is over. In that instance, I buried her, her father, her aunt, and two other members of her same family in 13 months.

So, you have to be on point.

Anderson: Even when you’re not personally connected to the person whose funeral you’re arranging, you are dealing with a lot of people who are in shock and in mourning. So, how do you prevent their feelings of grief from affecting you? Or do their feelings affect you?

Donofrio: Their feelings definitely affect us. I have a really good staff here. They’re not cold.

They’ll stop what they’re doing. We have to also make them feel comfortable. It’s not over when the funeral is over. There’s questions. Someone just called five minutes ago that wanted the cause of death on a death certificate that was corrected. It’s not corrected yet. They don’t know what the cause is. They’re waiting months for the medical examiner to correct it. There’s a lot of different stuff. There’s stones, as you can see, that I just had a phone call about stones.

You have to know basically every religion to do this job.

Anderson: Do you just learn on the job, in terms of learning those religions? Or do you do reading? Are there resources for funeral directors to help you understand those different traditions?

Donofrio: There’s resources to help you. There’s books. But on the job training is the only way you’re going to learn—of course, no priest, no minister, no rabbi does it the same way.

You’re going to church two days in a row and the priest says, “I want them on the right.” And the next day, a new priest is going to say, “I want them on the left.” And who wants you to say a eulogy? Who don’t allow a eulogy? It’s a lot of on the job training. It’s just a lot of asking questions.

Anderson: I guess also you can’t make too many assumptions. Or, you can’t assume that you’ve seen it all, because you’ll probably see something new.

Donofrio: I never say I’ve seen it all. I had someone who had two wives.

Anderson: At the same time?

Donofrio: Yeah. I actually had two people who had two wives. One died in 9/11. He had two wives. Another one, I don’t remember. But who do you listen to?

Anderson: Did they know about each other?

Donofrio: No. To us, it was just a little bit of a shock. But they had to agree on what type of funeral. One wanted to bury the person, one wanted to cremate the person.

Anderson: That seems like a particularly dramatic example of why some people preplan their funerals. Is that something that’s common?

Do you recommend that people preplan their funeral?

Donofrio: Yes. Preplanning your funeral is the best way for you to tell someone what you want. Even if you preplan, your next of kin can change it. It’s not etched in stone. But with preplanning and prepaying, the money is put in an escrow account. It’s always there. It gains better interest than you get in the bank. We get 3 percent interest.

So, preplanning is one way for you to get what you want.

Anderson: I have to imagine that people must get a sort of itemized list of the things that they’re paying for when they’re paying for a loved one’s funeral. What kind of items on that list surprise people?

Donofrio: We see basic funeral stuff. Maybe photo prayer cards, prayer cards, a program. A monument goes on a separate contract. It can’t be on a contract with a funeral, according to New York state law. So, that’s a whole separate issue.

Some people put doves. They release doves at the church, at the cemetery, the same as in a wedding.

Anderson: Do you actually handle getting the doves?

Donofrio: Yes, we do.

Anderson: Where do you get the doves from?

Donofrio: There’s two people in Staten Island. And they’re really not doves. They’re white homing pigeons. But they look very nice.

Anderson: Do you think people have misconceptions about funeral directors?

Donofrio: Misconceptions. Everyone thinks that in the funeral industry, we’re all making millions and millions of dollars.

The truth is, I don’t know anyone who you can call 24 hours a day, or you can call at 3 o’clock in the morning, except the cops, the firemen, the ambulance, the funeral home, and Domino’s. They are the only people that you can call that’ll come to your house at 3 o’clock in the morning.

Anderson: I didn’t even know Domino’s delivered that late.

Donofrio: I think they do. Domino’s down the block delivers until 2 o’clock.

Anderson: So, what’s your outlet? If you are on call 24 hours a day, and if you are obviously dealing with very emotional situations often for your job, how do you prevent the stress from taking over your life?

Donofrio: I don’t know. It’s a stressful job. But like right now, we’re doing nothing. It’s very slow this week. We have a lot of downtime. Most funeral directors—probably the highest rate of divorce in the country. I can’t tell you how many parties have been ruined or I have left.

I’m not alone. You could pick any funeral director—doesn’t matter where or what part of the state—when they had to leave, walk out, take care of someone. I was in St. Martin and a friend of mine’s son passed away, and they texted me. They knew I was away. They texted me. I had to stop what I was doing, go up to the room, take care of what I had to do. I mean, I was coming back the next day, but you know. These are just things that you’re just accustomed to.

When you have free time, you take advantage of it. When you’re busy, nobody hears from you. Your friends don’t hear from you. If you have free time, you know, we’re around. But if you’re busy, no one will hear from you. Everyone is accustomed to that. My kids, my girlfriend. Everyone’s just accustomed to that life.

Anderson: Was there a moment when you decided, OK, I’m going to keep doing this—this what I want to do with my life? Or, do you feel like you just kind of started doing something, kept doing it, and suddenly you had a business?

Donofrio: I was pretty fortunate. I didn’t actually work for a funeral home. Most of the early, early years, I worked for what was called a trade funeral home, where we did work for other funeral homes. So, you got paid per diem for what you did. So, it gives you a lot of free time. And in 1988, I bought this place. It was very, very dilapidated. And it was in terrible, terrible shape.

And I’ve been here since 1988.

Anderson: What changes have you seen in the neighborhood since 1988? And have those changes in the neighborhood affected the kinds of people who come into your office asking for help?

Donofrio: This neighborhood went from a strictly Irish and Spanish neighborhood. Now it’s becoming gentrified again. So, the people that are here are moving out or passing away. Walk on Kentucky Road, you can see baby carriages galore.

On the same token, the funeral industry changes when people aren’t looking in the yellow pages anymore. They have an iPhone or an Android. They’re finding you on social media. People travel more. Years ago you went to the funeral home down the block, around the corner. There’s fewer funeral homes. There’s fewer deaths, but there’s fewer funeral homes.

Anderson: How would you like to be honored—buried or cremated—when you die?

Donofrio: I was just put on the board of directors of Regina Pacis church. They put niches in the basement, cremation niches. I think I want to be cremated and buried there, an urn in a niche. I don’t want to give my kids the burden of have to visit a cemetery.

Years ago when I started, I don’t care if you were Christian, Jewish, if you went to the cemetery on a Saturday or a Sunday, it was full. You can drive your Greenwood 60 miles an hour on the weekend, you won’t see a soul. So, people are not visiting. People are more spread out. Their families are in New York, in Florida, California, in Washington. It’s a very, very diverse group of people. That’s why cremation, which was at 5 percent, is now at plus 40 percent, because there’s no stone.

If they move to a new area, Mom and Dad are home with them. They can just put them in the suitcase, put them on the plane, and go. There’s no added expense. If they are in a niche in a cemetery, you don’t need a court order, you need nothing. You just go there, pay for them to open it up, and they can give you the remains.

Anderson: Thanks for listening to this episode of working. We’d love to hear your thoughts about this podcast. You can email us at working@slate.com.

And dig through our first four seasons at slate.com/working. This episode was produced by Jason de Leon. Our senior producer is Mike Vuolo, and our executive producer is Andy Bowers. I’m Laura Anderson. See you next time on Working.

* * *

This podcast extra is part of your Slate Plus membership.

Donofrio: There is a synagogue where I have to move 50 people.

Anderson: 50 bodies?

Donofrio: 50 bodies have to be moved because they’re buried in a river, unbeknownst to the people when they buried them.


Anderson: Wait, I’m sorry. How did that happen?

Donofrio: This is a cemetery. There’s grass on the cemetery. They did a burial and they realized that the grave was full with water. So, this synagogue hired an engineer three times to come out and dig, dig, dig, dig, and measure how high the water table was.

Then they went to Israel and showed all the data to a rabbi. I don’t know his name. He said that they have to remove every burial.

Anderson: Wow. How long ago were these bodies interred?

Donofrio: Some of them have been interred more than 20 years.

Anderson: That sounds like a very challenging process. Who is actually in charge of digging up these bodies?

Donofrio: I hired a private contractor to remove the stone and dig the grave up to the casket.

Then I hired a religious Orthodox Jewish man that specializes in this.

Anderson: Specializes in bringing up bodies?

Donofrio: Specializes in this type of disinterment. He with a little shovel all around the casket, puts rope under it and a board, and picks them up. And we put them in another casket. We send some to Israel. Some get buried in other cemeteries.

Anderson: Wow. Do you face issues like that frequently?

Donofrio: Every day I have an issue like that. Something strange. I do a lot of normal business, but I do a lot of this stuff.

Anderson: We’re sitting in a room with a lot of urns in it, and also a couple of stones—gravestones, I guess.

Donofrio: Mmhmm.

Anderson: This is going to sound like a weird question, maybe, but where do you get urns and gravestones? Are there wholesale vendors?

Donofrio: The urns that I get are from a company called Elegante. He’s the largest urn manufacturer in the country. Most of these urns here are his. Stones come from all over the world, and they’re wholesaled out. Some come from Barre, Vermont. Some come from Kentucky. Some come from Canada. The black stones come from India.

Stones are starting to come from China and Vietnam because the labor is cheap. They put them on a boat and they send them here, and then they just sandblast the names.