This interview will be exploring death and burial at the beginning of the 21st century, and the evolvement of the role of the funeral director, which is very much of a 20th century phenomenon.
Before the funeral director profession evolved as a profession, it was cabinetmakers who were building coffins, livery stable operators who were furnishing horses and carriages to transport the dead. It was during the Civil War period, the advent of embalming came to be. Because Union soldiers who were killed in battle in the South were brought back north for burial, and in order to facilitate that transportation, the practice of embalming came into being so the soldiers could come back north for services and burial. Subsequent to that, the funeral director became a coordinator and ordered caskets from the cabinet maker and carriages from the livery stable and services were done at home. People were born at home, they were married at home, and they were buried from the front parlor of their house.
The wake used to be held in the family home and that gradually began to change in the 20th Century. Funeral directors used their own homes. It became easier for families as a matter of convenience for the funeral home to be utilized rather than the family home. When I first came into the business, there were a lot more house funerals than there are now. It's been perhaps 15 years since I've had to take a casket back home to a family's house. The majority of the services we have are in church -- the church being more of a home for families than the funeral home. Certainly it is available for non-church people, but in my counseling I suggest to people that the church is a place for baptisms and marriages and strong church connections produce church funerals.
Things have also changed in the respect of the body being visible. Now you have memorial services. For the last 30 years about half of the families we serve have chosen cremation. That's not to say that the bodies are not present for funeral services, but rather than traditional burial, cremation is opted for. Cremation accomplishes in a matter of hours what God and Mother Nature takes several generations. It's simply hastening the process. Memorial services, whether the body is buried or cremated, are becoming more and more popular. It seems to be easier for families because then typically after a memorial service there would be a reception and it would be done in the church parlor or parish hall, so it would be a less formal gathering of people and exchange of ideas of feelings in an informal setting after the funeral service. So rather than proceeding out to the cemetery with the casket, and then coming back for a reception, a lot of families are now choosing to have memorial services rather than the traditional funeral.
It is interesting because when Christians are baptized or christened in church, there is no such thing as a memorial baptism, there are no memorial weddings, so I'm not sure why people are coming around to memorial funerals, but they are simply for logistics.
Also coming into the choice of cremation is the cost and space. If cremation is considered, it eliminates the need for a fancy or expensive casket, so there is certainly a cost savings in that respect. There is a cost savings in the cemetery. There are significant savings when a grave is opened for cremated remains rather than traditional casket. Some communities are running out of cemetery space, but that's not true in the Concord/Carlisle/Acton/Lincoln area. There are metropolitan cemeteries who have no further land available for development so that it takes far less space as you can appreciate to bury cremated remains than it does caskets. Here in Concord for instance we can inter four cremated remains in each grave, so that a family of eight people could be buried in a traditional two-grave family lot. So there is some cost savings and some space savings as well.
At this point in time for a traditional adult funeral with a moderate casket selection, average costs run between $5,000 and $6,000. That does not include a purchase of a grave. The services of the funeral director, his facilities, required transportation of the casket, I believe averages nationally between $5,000 and $6,000. As I indicated earlier there would be a cost savings if cremation is chosen as typically that might be in the $3,000 to $4,000 range, so there is some savings in that respect.
A plot at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery costs $1,200 and in Carlisle I believe it is $200. Sleepy Hollow is a town cemetery. They certainly don't want to run the cemetery at a deficit which is why it is priced what it is. It is a town decision. The cost to open a grave in Sleepy Hollow for traditional casket internment is $600 and $750 on a Saturday, Sunday or holiday. To open a grave for cremated remains is $260 or $410 on a weekend or holiday.
I do not serve on the Cemetery Committee here in Concord. I do attend meetings occasionally, but I think it would be unfair to me to sit on that committee and dictate policy given the fact that I am a funeral director.
In the late 1980s, I had brought a family in to introduce to the cemetery superintendent so they could select grave space and they selected a grave. Some months later when it came time to schedule the burial as the services were being conducted, I noticed the Shelia Shea stone had been installed and the caption on the stone at Shelia's request says, "Who the hell is Shelia Shea?" When the lot was sold to this particular family that stone had not been installed. And that stone has produced some controversy in town. The cemetery now requires a monument permit, so that all inscriptions have to be approved now by the Cemetery Committee before a stone can be done. That particular phrase was offensive to some people. It was typical of Shelia, but it was not appropriate for some of her neighbors in the cemetery.
A few years ago a decision was made to add a Jewish section to Sleepy Hollow. Until that was done there were no burials on Sunday in Sleepy Hollow, but to accommodate people of the Jewish faith, who would not be buried on Saturday but rather on Sunday, the decision was made to allow burials on Sunday for everyone regardless of faith.
I am an independent funeral director. The majority of funeral homes in United States are still family owned. Several years ago there were a number of national firms who bought up smaller "mom and pop", if you will, funeral homes. There was going to be some supposed cost savings because these businesses were purchased in clusters so that through economy of scale perhaps one hearse could serve three or four locations whereas a typical funeral home has one hearse per business. One of the chains has filed for bankruptcy, has been reorganized, and has emerged from bankruptcy under new structure. In effect, what happened was the national companies because they were able to buy up funeral homes in a particular area had, in fact, a monopoly on the business and could charge whatever they wanted to. So the reality is there was no cost savings to the consumer. There were in fact price increases. I am frequently asked now given the publicity around the national chains if my firm is still family owned, and I can proudly say yes, we are family owned. So when a family calls upon me for service, my responsibility is to the family, whereas if a funeral director is called in the employ of a national chain, his responsibility is to his manager, his district manager, his board of directors, and ultimately to the stockholders of his corporation. So I have a great deal of freedom and flexibility as far as pricing here whereas a national firm does not. The independents are now the majority. I don't know specifically what the percentage is but my guess is that something less than 20% of the funeral homes are owned by a national organization.
In the early 1990s the direction the business was going was with the national chains. But the companies have been required to divest themselves of some of their offices because of the monopoly structure. In addition to that the national chains now know that they can't generate the revenue in their offices that they thought they would because their volume is not what it used to be because the majority of the families prefer to do business with a locally owned business. So the national companies are divesting themselves of those funeral homes.
As time has evolved, the funeral director has become a grief counselor, a professional working with the family which goes beyond taking care of the body for burial. That is one of the great satisfactions I get. As a student in funeral directing and embalming school, in addition to microbiology and anatomy and accounting and so forth, there were some courses on psychology and grief counseling which have proved invaluable to me serving my families. That is the greatest satisfaction I get in my profession is helping. It is not the sale of merchandise; it's the interaction with people. A family who comes to me as a stranger leaves my facility as a friend, and I get a great deal of satisfaction out of that. Casual acquaintances become good friends and good friends become better friends. It's very gratifying in that respect.
Given the cost of nursing home care in this day and age, 20 years ago if a couple retired and they owned their own home and after 40 years working they retired and had $100,000 in the bank, that's a pretty good life. Should someone now become ill and require nursing home care, those resources are going to be very rapidly depleted, so that here in Massachusetts through Mass Health Enrollment, they will allow families to set aside funds in irrevocable funeral trust accounts which are dedicated exclusively for funeral services. They are not considered an asset of the recipient when the application goes in for public assistance. That is one of the reasons people are doing pre-financing. It is to shelter funds for funeral services. The only reason I would suggest pre-financing is appropriate is for that purpose, to shelter funds specifically for funerals before an application goes into public assistance. But for the average person on the street in good health, I would not suggest pre-financing is appropriate for them. Why spend $5,000 or $6,000 with your funeral director today when you might better take that $5,000 or $6,000 and take a Caribbean cruise with your wife and enjoy it, and then upon your death your funeral expenses will be borne by your estate or your children. As far as pre-arranging is concerned, people have done that for a number of years, making their wishes known to their family as well as their funeral director. I would not be so receptive to pre-planning to a degree that does not leave the door open for surviving family members to make some decisions and choices that work best for them. Upon your death there is absolutely nothing, and it is not my intention to sound uncaring and unfeeling, that I or a medical professional or a clergyman can do to help you, but there may very well be some things that we can do to help your spouse and your children, which is why I really prefer to take my guidance and direction from surviving family members. So you should not be so dictatorial in your wishes that it doesn't allow survivors to make some choices that work best for them. So as far as pre-arranging, I'm very happy to take statistical information that may very well be filed on death certificates. It certainly could be used in newspaper announcements, obituaries and so forth, but as far as you actually planning your own funeral, I think that's a little bit selfish.
The profession of funeral services is more tightly regulated particularly since my father's time in the business. We are regulated by OSHA, we are regulated by guidelines from Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Federal Trade Commission. The Federal Trade Commission now requires that we obtain signatures from every family we serve, whereas when my dad first came into the business and certainly when I did as a youngster, we could conduct business with a handshake and a smile. We still conduct business with a handshake and a smile but we need to obtain signatures as well. I'm not suggesting it's over regulation but sometimes the paperwork becomes a little bit burdensome.
The business of MacRae-Tunnicliffe was established in 1936 by Rothwell and Sidney MacRae who lived in Lincoln. They saw a need for another funeral home in the area and established this business in Tuttle's Livery on Walden Street. In 1937 this home here on the corner of Thoreau and Belknap Streets was purchased and established as MacRae Funeral Home. It was through a tragedy that the Tunnicliffes came to Concord. Rothwell MacRae's son, young Rothwell, was fully expected to succeed his father in this business and had worked for his dad as well, but was killed in a motorcycle accident in 1954. It was shortly after that that Rothwell MacRae decided he didn't want to be a funeral director any more. I expect he interviewed a number of possible successors, and he and my dad established a friendship and the MacRae-Tunnicliffe Funeral Home came into fruition in 1958. I was 12 at the time, and I grew up after that in this house living upstairs over the funeral home. My father was Edmund Tunnicliffe, III. I am Edmund Tunnicliffe, IV and there is no Edmund Tunnicliffe, V. My son is Andrew. We decided enough was enough. Both of my children are grown and college educated. My daughter is a special needs teacher at Acton-Boxborough High School and my son, Andrew, presently lives in California working in the film industry. Although my children grew up in this house with the profession, they decided that careers in other areas were more appropriate for them.
I started at the age of 12 washing cars, dusting folding chairs, and I matured slowly in a more professional aspect with accompanying my dad to the hospitals following a death, to nursing homes and private homes as well. I had not at that time as a youngster thought this was going to be my life's work. I didn't want to get out of bed at 2:00 in the morning as my father did. I didn't want to miss Thanksgiving or Christmas dinners on occasion as my father did because he was called to respond to a death. But after having some college experience, and to be honest I was not a good university student, I volunteered for the draft and served for two years in the United States Army in 1967-1969. It was Vietnam at that time, and I was trained as an infantryman and held that "military occupational specialty", which was what they called it, although I was working in a finance office in Germany. After the Tet Offensive in February 1968, there was a levy and all of the soldiers who carried this MOS were levied out of Germany and were sent to Vietnam. I had a 14-day leave and then I went to Vietnam.
Fortunately, it was done alphabetically and because my name started with a "T", all the Abbots and Bakers and Connollys ended up in infantry units in Vietnam and the Tunnicliffes ended up in a stevedore company, so I was very fortunate I served in Camron??? Bay for 12 months. I was not in a combat situation but I made some significant friendships with Vietnamese people as well as soldiers in my own company. It was while I was there I really decided that the funeral profession was a profession, and it was in fact something I wanted to do having had somewhat more of a life experience, and in fact I still view it as a profession.
I lost some Concord friends in Vietnam. I can tell you specifically while I was in Vietnam, Tommy Dickey was killed. He was a marine serving in a combat situation and died while I was in Vietnam. My dad was called by the Dickey family to assist them through that difficult time. It's only now that I have an appreciation for what he must have felt with his son in Vietnam and serving other families in Concord who had lost their sons in Vietnam. Ricky Frank was another friend of mine in high school. Ricky was killed after I came back home. He was a helicopter pilot. Yes, it brought a little different perspective both for my dad and me upon my return.
Vietnam was a civil war and I'm convinced that we would have been there far longer if it were not for dramatic war protests back in this country. The news that we got in Vietnam was from the "Stars and Stripes" newspaper which was the Armed Forces newspaper, and it was very heavily pro-military. So a lot of the protests that were being held in this country, we were only made aware of through letters and communication from our wives, fathers, mothers, relatives. It was not widely published in the newspaper. So if it weren't for those dramatic protests, this war would have gone on far longer than it did.
Hundreds of thousands were killed in our own Civil War and now what is going on in Iraq, several hundred Americans and I'm not convinced I know the exact figure, have lost their lives in this latest conflict in Iraq. So we've lost 300 or 400 boys and women in Iraq and some 50,000 odd in Vietnam, but for some reason this war in Iraq because it has the television coverage that it does, when they imbedded the journalists with the troops, it dramatically brought it right to us. If we thought Vietnam was on our dinner table, this is worse. I think it makes it so much more significant, so much more immediate.
When I returned to Concord from Vietnam, there were protests going on in Monument Square. This was the hippie generation and I came home with short haircut and my friends who I grew up with whether they went to college or not, my non-military friends were smoking marijuana and had shoulder length hair and some of the guys had earrings. This was all very foreign to me. A lot of these kids I recall vividly went out to Woodstock in 1969 and wanted me to come. But I didn't want to go. It was a different culture for me.
Even the adults were questioning the war. Because I was not in a combat situation I could see what we were doing for the Vietnamese people in this village. We were employing them as house cleaners and house keepers in our hooches. We were providing medical and dental care for the residents of this village, so in that respect our involvement when people would ask me do you think we should be in Vietnam? I would say no, but if we weren't now, who's going to take care of these people? Camron?? is one of the finest deep water shipping ports in the world. My company was charged with unloading ammunition. There were five piers in Vietnam, four for general cargo and pier five was segregated because that was where a lot of the ammunition for the war in the southern part of Vietnam came into. I was a stevedore working on a ship unloading bombs and ammunition for about the 8 to 12 months I was there.
There were no parades when I came back. At that point I strongly felt we should withdraw from Vietnam, which we eventually did. You're half a world away pretty much as we are today, but it was basically a civil war in Vietnam and we shouldn't have been there to start with.
When I returned, I continued my education at technical school. The only funeral directing school at the time was located in Kenmore Square in Boston. So I was commuting to Kenmore Square on a daily basis before licensure as a funeral director. There are now two schools, the school in Kenmore Square has now merged with Mt. Ida College in Newton, and the other school is in Westwood, Massachusetts. Massachusetts now requires at least an associate's degree before you are eligible to take state board examinations; whereas when I was first licensed it was strictly after the one-year course. Although I did have some college experience, I did not have a degree in funeral service per se. Now it would be more like a couple of years training. There is more emphasis on the counseling aspect of this profession rather than what markups are appropriate for the caskets and urns in your selections.
Jessica Mitford's book, The High Cost of Dying has focused on the cost. That cast dispersions on this profession, but in fact I think it was healthy because funeral directors because of the publicity following her book, stood back and could look at their profession and realize that something needed to change and that we are not just purveyors of fancy mahogany caskets and urns, that people were looking for something other than goods and merchandise.
That has brought about now where the focus is on the grief counselor and the outlook has changed for the funeral director. As yet, I do not have a website and unfortunately it's coming. We are now such a high tech society. It is very impersonal which is why I have resisted it for as long as I can -- to send condolences to the family or sign an online guest book, all you need to do is sit down and log on to your computer. To me it is more significant to go to a visitation or wake or a personal visit to the family to show your support or your sympathy rather than sitting down at the keyboard and e-mailing a message to a guest book. It's foreign to me, but it's a trend.
We are now required to take universal precautions when we are dealing with human remains, gloves and gowns, masks. Before the AIDS virus was fully understood, there were funeral directors unfortunately who had refused to handle families if in fact death was due to the AIDS virus. Now knowing what precautions are effective, we do not discriminate whether it is hepatitis or AIDS or Jacob Rutfelt's disease which is very highly contagious and fatal. But with proper sanitary care and universal precautions, we're able to adequately help those families as well.
There are limitations to what a funeral home can sell. We cannot sell monuments or flowers to somebody. Massachusetts is one of two or three states in the country that will not allow a funeral director to be engaged in any related profession, which is why funeral homes in Massachusetts cannot operate crematories on site where they can in all the other states. This is preventing a monopoly so that monument companies have their own businesses and florists have their own businesses, and funeral homes are limited specifically to funeral services. That's not necessarily true in other states. You can buy flowers, you can buy clothing, you can buy monuments, you can hire caterers and have receptions in funeral homes after services, but not in Massachusetts.