Funeral directors help clients navigate hurdles left by snow

By William Wan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 12, 2010; A06

Like many bound by duty and snow, James Denham has been sleeping at work this week. For him, that has meant sleeping among the dead.

"It's not spooky at all," said Denham, a funeral director in Silver Spring. "It's quiet. And no, we don't sleep in the caskets. We've got plenty of couches."

Funeral directors are expected to do their job through rain, sleet, snow and cold. Death, after all, waits for no one.

And so they've had to get creative to help clients. Some funeral homes are holding services as scheduled and keeping the deceased in storage until cemeteries are cleared. Others are pushing back plans at families' requests.

By Thursday afternoon, Denham had spent more than 50 hours straight in his funeral home on New Hampshire Avenue. He spent much of that time trying to find cemeteries that might be open. He helped grieving families make last-minute decisions.

"It's hard sometimes for the family not to get angry. There's so many emotions involved, and so many factors, too -- the cemeteries, the limo companies, the streets," said Denham, who has been in the funeral business for 43 years. "It doesn't make sense to be mad at the weather, even though it is maddening."

The most heart-wrenching cases often involve Muslims and Jews, whose faiths traditionally mandate burial within a day or two of death.

The Muslim tradition is handed down by Muhammad -- no embalming, no cremation; just a simple washing of the body by family members, a prayer for the dead and a speedy burial, preferably before the next two sunsets.

This week, members of the Dar al-Hijrah mosque in Falls Church did all they could to follow those teachings. When a prominent member of the community died in his home at 1 a.m. Sunday, a day after much of the area had received two feet of snow, family and friends leapt into action.

But unplowed streets meant that the funeral home couldn't get to the family's home for most of the day. After 12 hours, during which the family stayed with the body, the funeral home arrived to pick it up but struggled to find an open cemetery. It wasn't until a lull in the weather came Tuesday that they could finish the burial.

"It's a good thing we caught that small window on Tuesday," said Johari Abdul-Malik, an imam at the mosque. "The snow started coming down just hours later. If we missed it, Allah knows when he could have been buried next."

Nancy T. Row of Gaithersburg decided to go forward with her husband Stephen Eugene Row's viewing Thursday and burial Friday. She had already delayed everything by a day as reports of Wednesday's blizzard rolled in, and she said she couldn't wait any longer. Relatives whose flights had been canceled were driving in. She had been scheduling and rescheduling all week.

But Thursday morning, Row faced one final hurdle. Someone in her neighborhood had left a van in the middle of the street, blocking plows and her only route to the funeral home. "Now I just need to find a way to get out of my house," she said, exasperated.

In terms of efficiency and logistical superiority, professionals say, nothing beats the military. Services have proceeded unimpeded at Arlington National Cemetery: 19 Monday, 13 Tuesday, five Wednesday (many were canceled at families' requests) and 14 scheduled for Thursday.

"Our roads are all plowed," cemetery Superintendent John Metzler said via phone while overseeing a 12-man crew Wednesday. "The main question is if we can get into the burial section safely, without breaking any headstones or getting stuck.

"Funerals are planned weeks, sometimes months, in advance, and families fly in from all over the country to attend," Metzler said. "If our equipment can get there and the family can get here, we'll do it."

Some experts said that part of the problem is that it has been years since the Washington region's network of hearse drivers, grave diggers and funeral directors has had to deal with such conditions.

"Once you deal with the cold on a regular basis, you develop ways of operating around it," said Keith Blanchard, a funeral director in Fairbanks, Alaska.

Reached by phone at what is thought to be the northern-most funeral home in the United States, Blanchard said, "We don't cancel funerals, we just prolong them -- service in the winter, burial in the spring." Some families he works with, mostly native Alaskans, bury year-round, digging through layers of ice and frozen soil.

"You start a fire to warm the ground and dig. Warm and dig. Warm and dig," said Blanchard, a fifth-generation funeral director. "You'll have eight to 10 men working around the clock for three days straight.

"When it comes to your loved ones," he said, "you do what you have to."

Staff writer Michelle Boorstein contributed to this report.

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