Mary Kay Kurdila HeadshotBy Mary Kay Kurdila

The phone rings and you get a call from one of your local families that one of their loved ones have passed away and they need your services. This starts off like any regular first call until you ask for the place of death and they mention the death occurred away from home. At this point, you may have many questions and concerns, such as who do I call, can I trust them to represent my firm, will everything be done within the time frame I require, and will the quality of work be to the satisfaction of the family and my firm? A recent discussion with some colleagues provided me with some deeper insight into these concerns and I thought I would address them.

The number one concern I hear from funeral homes, is the ability to trust the firm handling the case to their expectations. This is a genuine concern, especially as stories of unethical or questionable behaviors make national headlines. As members of the funeral community, we all have a duty to uphold the ethics of our industry and to act in the best interest of the families we serve. When choosing a firm to assist you in an out-of-town death you have many options, such as calling a national shipping company, choosing a funeral home or mortuary service from one of the published directories, or doing a basic internet search. One must find a firm that best matches their values and practices so a level of comfort can be obtained.

Once the decision has been made to call a firm, one must determine if communication will be an issue. Because of differences in technology, time zones, and even language roadblocks to communication may exist. Knowing the potential for these road blocks and addressing them upfront is key to efficiency. For example, what would you do if you were asked to fax information but you did not have a fax machine or access to email, or speak a foreign language. Differences in operations may also pose a problem. Some firms have set hours of operation and are not staffed on evenings or weekends unless a viewing is scheduled. This can create time delays because you may receive a first call at an ME office on Saturday but not make removal until Monday morning. Addressing these issues at the forefront of the call allows each firm to plan accordingly and avoid potential delays. This initial communication also allows each firm to convey their expectations, for example, determining charges, methods of payments, who will sell goods, obituary placement, and obtaining vital statistics.

Another common concern is time. We all like to think we are the Greek God Chronos and have complete control of time but as we know all too well, this is often not the case. Families may push for services to happen within days or even hours and others may request delayed services weeks after the death occurred. Any circumstance requires communication between both firms in advance. Some states have specific requirements that must be met before shipping can take place. For example, states such as New York, California, and Arizona require a signed and filed death certificate before the deceased can be shipped; however, states such as Florida and South Carolina do not require the death certificate before shipping. Circumstances such as delays in the doctor’s signing a death certificate, health department’s hours of operation, methods of filing death certificates and even airline cargo availability can cause potential delays, so these things should be kept in mind when planning a funeral.

There are also circumstances that provide an interesting twist on shipping remains, such as jetport availability in rural areas and bariatric cases. Not all jetports have cargo facilities and ability to ship human remains. In these circumstances, a shipping funeral home may have to drive to another location. In the case of bariatric remains, especially those 500 pounds or greater the airline may not have jets that can accommodate shipping. In cases like this, the funeral home may have to drive to another distant airport or choose an alternative method of transportation such as railway.

The next concern I often hear is the quality of the embalming. As we all know, embalming is not a perfect science and often situations outside anyone control can cause issues. For example, the cause of death, life saving and post-mortem procedures, storage temperatures, distances and time delays may all have an effect on the condition of the remains. Again, this is where the importance of communication between both parties is paramount.

The embalmer on the shipping side knows better than anyone the condition of the deceased prior to embalming. The embalmer should communicate any issues or concerns with the condition of the deceased both prior to and after embalming; this helps keep the receiving funeral director aware of any circumstances prior to receipt of the deceased. The receiving funeral director should also communicate any desires in the preparation of the deceased. For example, some firms prefer a mandibular suture for mouth closure while others prefer needle injector as well as have requests for shaving, positioning, use of dye, fluid choices and the list goes on. When this is communicated beforehand, most embalmers can accommodate. Additionally, when working on a shipping case where the shipping firm may not know what the deceased looked like or the desires of the family, it is not uncommon not to do any extensive tissue building or cosmetics. Many times shipping funeral homes will focus primarily on disinfection, preservation, and basic restoration unless otherwise advised. When there are specific requests, the receiving funeral home must communicate this information to the shipping funeral home. It is the responsibility of the shipping funeral home to advise the receiving funeral home if these requests can be met.

Some families may also request delayed services that are weeks after death. This often does not raise problems in the shipping but will take special consideration in the preservation of the deceased. Embalming is temporary preservation of remains to stall decomposition. The key term in this definition is temporary. When a family decides they would like to delay services, the shipping embalmer may elect to use a higher concentration of fluids and the receiving firm may need to do additional treatments after they receive the deceased such as reaspiration, additional cavity treatments and additional topical treatments.

Conducting a call where so much is contingent on others can be very stressful. Finding a firm whose values and operating processes best match yours, as well as prices that are in the best interests of the family can be time consuming. Making the right choice in any circumstance is often a matter of research and communication between the parties involved. It is important when working with other professionals in distant areas to keep the lines of communication open. FBA

Mary Kay Kurdila has worked at National Mortuary Shipping (NMS) since 1996 and the companies Operations Manager. Founded in 1981, NMS offers funeral solutions to funeral directors handling out-of-town deaths. For further information about Mary Kay Kurdila or NMS please contact 800-321-0185.