Ask the Expert – Glenn Burlamachi, Funeral Director

Liz here, and today I invited one of my oldest pals to join us for “Ask the Expert.” Glenn BGlenn Burlamachi owns and operates the Concord Funeral Home in Concord, Massachusetts, and has worked in the business for many years prior. (Confession: I had a stint working at Glenn’s funeral home! For research, of course.) I’ve always been fascinated by the business, a little because of my love for Six Feet Under but mostly because Glenn used to tell me stories all the time about what it’s like. I thought it would be an interesting topic for the blog, so here were my questions to Glenn:

1. How are violent deaths handled?

Violent deaths are not as common, however each case is different. There are accidents, homicides and suicides, all three can create it’s own violent story.  It is my experience to bring the survivors into the funeral home and process the funeral services as quickly as we can.  The survivors do not want to be there any more than you do.  We are as empathetic as we can be and keep conversation to a minimum.  Usually we do not deal directly with the immediate family but with another family member or close friend who acts as a liaison between the funeral director and family.

Concord 22. What’s the craziest funeral you’ve been part of?

Well, fortunately we have not had any “crazy” funerals.  I am mindful however that each family may have their own beliefs, customs and religious beliefs, this can add a “twist” to some funeral services.  Example…Jewish are buried within 48 hours of death with the exception of Saturday, they are quick and well handled with all parties cooperating and working together.  Unitarians are independent and need minimal assistance by a funeral home.  Greeks are traditionalists regardless of age.  We did have a horse and buggy funeral at the request of the deceased (prior to dying of course)…I could go on and on.

3. Talk about what it’s like behind the scenes of the funeral home?

A funeral home is a business just like any other, we function as efficiently as the leadership and staff allows.  It can be chaotic at  as death has no set schedule.  I have witnessed the funeral home remain quiet for week(s) and have as many as 7 deaths in 2 days.  We need to be prepared and at the ready 24/7, this adds to the stress as the funeral home (neat and organized) and staff (also neat and organized) must be available.  In my history we have had 3 deaths in one day on numerous occasions.  It is also imperative both the exterior and interior of the funeral home are updated and tastefully appointed. Concord Funeral Home

4. What’s it like living in the funeral home?

As mentioned previously we are a 24/7 profession, therefore residing at the funeral home is most often convenient.  However, there are more times than none I find myself unable to shut down and stop.  There is ALWAYS something to do so the disconnect can be most challenging at times.  Also, most funeral homes are located on a main street, this creates a “fish-bowl” atmosphere for the occupied funeral directors.  Some residents will observe (and comment) on your daily routine.

5. What is the worse cliché you have to deal with as a funeral director?

The daily clichés are common, “I’ll be the last one to let you down”, “I bet everyone is dying to get in there?” “how’s business?”  I have learned over the years to politely ignore and remain professional when the clichés are mentioned.

6. Favorite and least favorite part of job?

Favorite: the ability to assist a family in their lowest point in their life. This is both a privilege and honor.
Least favorite: 24/7  this profession is always on your mind.

Concord inside7. Typical day?

Depending on death calls, it can be very busy or very quiet.  When busy there are families to meet, obituaries to compose, scheduling to administer (church, cemetery, military and staffing).  When there are no death calls we find ourselves, cleaning, organizing, community service etc.

8. What happens when you receive a death call?

Most deaths are reported to the funeral home via telephone “call” hence the term “death-call”.  These phone calls occur 24/7, death can occur at home, a hospital, nursing home or public area. In most cases we must respond immediately.  We drive to the designated location and transfer the person with dignity and respect.  We dress and always act professionally, it is our duty and obligation regardless of the surrounding location or community we serve.

9. Writers try to capture feelings in words.  If you could describe the feeling  of your funeral home, how would you do that?

A funeral home is a reflection of its proprietors. The décor should be neutral, “home-like” and have a sense of the community.  The Concord Funeral Home is located in historic Concord, Massachusetts, therefore we have a slight revolutionary theme throughout.  The colors are warm and comforting, the art work is appropriate and the furniture period to the home yet functional. The exterior should have good curb-appeal such as freshly painted, seasonal flowers, manicured lawns etc.  This is the first impression for the general public therefore it must be favorable.

10. What kind of schooling do funeral directors require?

Funeral directors are required to attend and graduate from a two-year associates program.  Upon completion you are required to pass the National Board Exam consisting of 2 sections, Arts and Sciences.  Once this is successfully accomplished a funeral director must pass the state requirements.  Each state has its own guidelines. This consists of an apprenticeship program and both written and practical (embalming) exams.

11. Do funeral directors attend conferences?

Yes, there are many conferences offered throughout the calendar year. Most funeral directors will attend several.  Funeral Directors are required to earn 8 CEU hours each  year and are obtained at these mentioned conferences or online classes.  This profession like all professions change and it is important to keep up with the changes.

Readers: Ask Glenn a question! He’s going to stop in throughout the day as he can, in between funeral tasks.

33 Thoughts

  1. This was such an interesting and informative interview. Thank you, Glenn and Liz. I found it particularly interesting because one of the characters in my yet-to-be published mystery is a funeral director.

    1. Thanks, Grace! I started a series about a funeral home – it was first attempt at a mystery series, largely inspired by Glenn and all his stories. It’s as yet unpublished but I still have hope for it!

  2. Interesting stuff, Glenn. Do you handle cremations, too? If a deceased wished to be cremated, do they pass through your home or go straight to the crematorium (and is that even the right word?)? Would you accompany the body there and back?

    1. Hello Edith, in Massachusetts a funeral home cannot operate a crematory. We must select an independent crematory, most are affiliated with a cemetery and the cremation takes place there. Upon death the deceased is transferred to the funeral home, the arrangement conference will happen, paperwork signed and executed then transferred to the crematory. There is a 48 hour waiting period prior to cremation. This is a state regulation, also, prior to cremation the Medical Examiner will view the body to ensure both the paperwork and body are ok. However in other states, funeral homes can operate a crematory within their facility or on the property.

  3. I’m curious about handling bodies with infectious diseases (HIV, Hepatitis, Ebola). Do they require specialized handling? I remember how caring the local funeral home was when my parents died: I used containers from their home for their cremains and buried their wedding rings in my mother’s urn in a drawstring velvet bag. Thanks to you for all you do!

    1. Hi Margaret, in most cases there is no difference with handing infectious or noninfectious cases, I say this because funeral homes use “universal-precautions” with all bodies. By doing so will eliminate any question. All medical waste from embalming are disposed of in compliance with state and federal regulation (same as hospitals). The embalming room is cleaned with a bleach solvent after every case, this decreases the risk of contamination. On another note I am glad you had a “good” experience with your funeral home of choice. I am mindful this process remains with the survivors for the rest of their adult life.

  4. Thank you, Glenn, for providing such interesting and useful information, and thank you, Liz, for finding such an unusual yet appropriate guest blogger.

    If I can ask a question without seeming frivolous, why are there so many Irish-run funeral homes in this country?

    1. Hi Sheila (Irish) “Connolly”, I am glad to add insight to all you folks regarding this most sacred profession. As for the Irish funeral homes…a good question, the Irish like every other outside nationality immigrated to the United States and settled throughout the country. It must be a coincidence many Irish had an interest in this profession. If I were to make an educated guess, in the early years “Undertakers” were cabinet makers (woodworkers), these cabinet makers would make the casket for burial, and operated as storefronts in most communities. As time evolved these cabinet makers took on a more defined role as funeral directors and embalmers and separated from the “cabinet-maker” role. Perhaps the Irish were known for their wood working talents and later entrepreneur related vision and moved forward with their new endeavors.

      1. What an interesting idea. In the town where I live, there is a furniture store that did indeed start out making coffins a century ago (although I don’t think they were Irish!).

        On a related note, is it still possible to use wooden coffins for burial, or must everyone now use metal coffins encased in concrete?

      2. Hi Sheila, wooden caskets are more popular than metal. However there are certain areas of the country where metal is the primary choice. This is truly a family/personal choice. Most caskets are placed into the ground inside a burial vault. This is a cemetery requirement, there are several burial vaults offered, some are lined (to prevent outside elements from entering) and some are not.

  5. Thank you for coming today, Glenn. Has it ever happened that a funeral directer suspected foul play in a death when no one else has reported it? What would he or she do in that case.

    Way, way back, in my first job as a paralegal at a medical malpractice defense firm, I worked on a case of a teenager who had died of an allergic reaction to anesthesia. No one in the hospital ever told the family this. The family assumed he had died due to complications from the surgery. It was the funeral director who told them the body showed signs of a massive allergic reaction.

    1. Hi Barbara, good question. Funeral Directors are obligated to report any foul play to the state medical examiner. The medical examiner will determine if the case is to be investigated or not. I have had to to do this on one occasion and notified the family prior to calling the medical examiner.

      1. Great interview! I have one more question on this topic. What sorts of things would you be able to uncover, in the case where an autopsy had been performed and in the case where it hadn’t?

      2. Hi Kaye, well we (funeral directors) do not get involved with determining cause of death etc. We only report the case to the Medical Examiner who will decide whether to perform an autopsy or not. Sometimes the ME will only draw blood for toxicology when where is not need for a “full” autopsy.

    1. Good morning Sherry, most funeral homes are family owned. My funeral homes are family owned, I live above one of the locations with my family. Like any other business family owned is better. When your name is on the sign the service and attention to detail should be more focused than that of a corporate owned funeral home. In the 80’s many family owned funeral homes were purchased by large corporate companies, the sellers did well financially however the funeral homes were left to be run by employees not owners. The level of service the community was used to was diminished, this still holds true today. Family owned is always better.

    1. Hi Mary, that would be a twist, a good story for a book I would imagine…segue, a funeral home would be a perfect setting for a story, although a public facility, behind the scenes is private with only a few privy its operations. 🙂

  6. Fascinating article. Thank you for your insight.

    If someone dies, but is either indigent or no family can be found, what is the funeral home’s responsibility or protocol? Does it vary based on natural or unnatural causes?

    1. Good morning, the case is reported to the local police then the state medical examiner will take control of the case until next-of-kin can be located. The cause of death does not matter. We have had a few cases where we (the funeral home) could not locate next of kin but through the local police or medical examiner we were able to locate someone.

  7. Sheila mentioned the furniture store that started as a casket maker. In the 1950s, when my parents moved to Montana, my father was a traveling furniture sales rep and one of his customers, in a small town way up on Hwy 2, was a combined furniture store/funeral home that had evolved the same way, from a casket maker/cabinet maker.

    Glenn and Liz, thanks for fascinating insights. I foresee a mini-trend of funeral home scenes in coming books. Glenn, it sounds like your building has been a funeral home for a long time. Any ghosts?

    1. Good morning Leslie, no ghosts here! This is the safest place to live. No one approaches us unless the need us. I reside above the funeral home with my family. When our children were younger they would play in the funeral home (not occupied of course). It’s our way of life.

  8. Good question about the ghosts, Leslie. I hope Glenn will have time to stop back in and answer.

    Glenn, I would also like to know what special challenges/techniques you have in dealing with families mourning a suicide and deaths in which the body is traumatized to the point that it is difficult to identify and impossible for the family to view. Will the family insist on viewing? Are they likely to deny the body is that of their loved one?

    1. Hi Mary, suicide is the most difficult of cases to process. There are always so many ? and unanswered ? for the surviving family members and friends. Its always tragic and always sad regardless of the situation. Most families will view, if it is a child the parents want to view. In some cases this is not possible depending on cause of death. Regardless of suicide or natural causes it is important for loves ones to view their dead, by doing so confirms their death. This process is fundamental and when families see their dead the healing can begin. I am mindful of others who may read this blog who have experienced this tragic situation, therefore I will not elaborate on any specific details.

  9. Great post! I could have used this when I was writing my first book (not a mystery)- it involved funeral home embezzlement and it was so hard getting a funeral director to talk to me about that! Thanks for posting this.

  10. I once slept in the caretaker’s “home” in Forest Lawn, Hollywood. I saw deer but no ghosts. I also worked at a hospital and spent some time in the basement autopsy room. The only dead bodies I’ve seen were Siamese twin babies and my father. In Egypt, people were living in the former crypts. So I can read about cemeteries and such without a problem. There is a lot of history in a cemetery. My ex passed away many years after our separation and I have no idea where he is buried. He does not come up through social security or grave websites. Any ideas how his burial might be discovered. All his relatives are long gone.

  11. I actually passed your funeral home last year when visiting Concord with my writing group. It’s very inviting–maybe a poor choice of worlds there . . . thanks for the interesting post!

    1. Hi, I am glad you were able to visit this town which as you know has a rich literary history. I hope you were able to visit “Authors Ridge” at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery.

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