For John Carmon, death is the family business. Since 1968, he has been a funeral director at Carmon Funeral Homes, but he’s been helping out since long before.
“I grew up on the second floor over our original family funeral home in the center of Windsor,” he explains. “[I] started helping in the family business, washing cars and mowing lawns and everything else at the funeral home since I was probably 12 years old.”
Carmon has grown a lot from the 1950s pre-teen who put on his Sunday school clothes to assist his father in the transfer of a deceased person. From 2000 to 2001, he served as the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA) president and helped found the Funeral Services Foundation.
During his time leading the NFDA, he assisted in dispatching over 300 funeral directors to New York City to assist in the internment of the thousands killed in the attacks on September 11th and his company assisted after the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook.
“Our family started a full-time center for grieving children and families called Mary’s Place in the 1980s,” he adds. “[It] currently serves children between three years old and teens who have had a loss, through our foundation. And we actually started support groups for widows and widowers back in 1971 or 72, back when the only support groups were for Alcoholics Anonymous.”
In his decades of work, Carmon has seen many changes in the way Connecticut residents have chosen to honor deceased loved ones – shifting customs, new technology, and diverse religions – and has had to keep up with at least 10 state laws governing death and burials.
For example, Connecticut is one of only eight states in the country that restricts who can handle a person’s remains after death to funeral directors.
“Under Connecticut law, no person, except a licensed embalmer or funeral director, can remove the body of a deceased person,” reads an Office of Legislative Research (OLR) report on Connecticut laws after death, which continues, “Once the body has been embalmed or prepared according to state statute and the Public Health Code, a licensed embalmer or funeral director may authorize an unlicensed employee to transport the body.”
Carmon, unsurprisingly, agrees with this statute, arguing that it ensures a person’s remains are handled respectfully, professionally, and in accordance with Connecticut law.
“It’s important to certainly have the understanding because of health codes and everything else and to be able to handle disposition properly,” he says. “Especially in the advent today of green cemeteries and everything where they want to have the natural burials and there are places for that, but it’s also very important that if those places happen to be in or around an aquifer or something else, that all those things can be properly done under the guidelines and health codes.”
Carmon also stresses the importance of properly caring for a body when the person has died of some type of infectious disease which can pose a health risk well outside of the individual alone if not handled properly.
“We had Covid and people all of a sudden realize that we still are involved with diseases or viruses that can spread,” says Carmon. “It’s gotta be taken care of properly so that it doesn’t become an even worse epidemic than what it was.”
Concern over disease wasn’t the only thing that changed with the pandemic. Carmon says the funeral industry had to make major shifts in how they provided services and many places were forced to learn how to stream them over video systems quickly. His funeral homes, though, had already been using the equipment for nearly two decades. Still, they had their hands full.
“We really ramped up when Covid started and got portable equipment so that we could go out and basically do services in churches and everywhere else,” he explains. “Because a lot of those did not have the facility or the equipment for that. Many of them do now, but we made sure we had that equipment so that we could do it everywhere.”
Video streaming is also relevant when serving the state’s diverse international population, particularly those from places like India.
“It’s very common when we do a Hindu service because of a lot of the family members that live in India and they can’t get either visas or they can’t make the trip in a timely fashion or are able to get here,” he says. “We stream it so that they can basically see it in real-time wherever they are.”
Carmon’s funeral homes provide services for a wide range of religious belief systems across the state: Catholic and Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, and everything in between. Each has its own intricacies and requirements but for Buddhist and Hindu practitioners, cremation is not something that can be left entirely to the experts.
“The deceased is always prepared for an open casket viewing for everyone to take part in and see them and pay their final respects,” says Carmon. “And then they all participate in placing the wood casket into the chamber for the cremation.”
Carmon’s business has done a number of services for people who live in neighboring New York or New Jersey when funeral homes there have been overrun and unable to take on the quick preparations required of these services (usually performed within a day or so of death). In those cases, he recalls that family members would sleep in their cars so they could be on hand for the cremation ceremony.
But not everything is religious when it comes to death and burial. According to Carmon, he’s seen an increase in the number of people choosing not to have a religious service which has forced him and his employees to learn new ways to inject meaning into a ceremony.
“In this day and age with maybe 50% of the population that are affiliated with some house of worship, whether it’s Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, whatever group or sect that somebody may identify with there’s 50% more that don’t identify necessarily with anything,” says Carmon. “But they still have needs too. They have a need to gather, they have a need to receive the support of friends and community, and oftentimes they also need to find some form of ritual or ceremony that is going to help them cope with this loss.”
With the rise of non-religious services, funerals and memorials have also become more about the person who died than their faith or devoutness, and Carmon and his employees have found themselves adapting to new ways of memorializing the dead.
“Years ago, services were 90 — say 95% — religious in nature, and now you have a lot of services that are more about someone’s interests and hobbies and what they like to do rather than necessarily their faith,” he explains.
For this, he looks to a close friend Tom Lynch, who, in addition to being a funeral director in Michigan is a poet and essayist who has written extensively on death and funeral rites.
“He said, ‘years ago I used to have funerals for Catholics and Protestants and Lutherans and Congregationalists,” Carmon paraphrases. “And now I have funerals for golfers and bowlers and card players.”
Another common consideration when it comes to end-of-life planning: the cost.
According to Funeralocity, a funeral services consumer advocacy group, the average cost of funeral services in Connecticut ranges from $3,150 for direct cremation to $9,489 for a full-service burial. Direct cremation, in which a body is removed, transported, cremated, and returned in a cardboard box or similar, can run as inexpensively as $900, depending on the provider, but families and loved ones would be responsible for any other memorial services they would want to perform. Full-service cremation, meanwhile, can run between $4,000 and $10,000 and includes visitation, wake, and funeral services, as well as the transportation, preparation, and cremation itself. Costs for an urn – something other than a cardboard box – is an additional expense of around $300.
Burial without cremation is generally more expensive across the board, but Carmon says, in his opinion, price is not usually the deciding factor, especially when savings on burial services can be used to provide additional items elsewhere.
“Other parts of the service are more important now,” he explains. “Like the web streaming, picture tributes, or a lot of cultures really love to have a special program that has anywhere from two or three pages to a booklet of life pictures and things that tell a story about someone’s life that’s in color with those key things so that you can get more information. Some of those become very, very important.”
Additionally, he explains that in some cultures where cremation is an important part of the ritual, the body is still prepared for an open casket viewing, which carries expenses as well.
Ultimately, Carmon believes that, while cremation is becoming a much more popular option for families, it is more about giving them time. Time to prepare services and make the many decisions that are necessary after a loved one has died, time for far-flung family to make the necessary arrangements for travel, or time to travel with the deceased to a homeland or important burial location.
There are other options, as well, including the rising popularity of green or natural burials. While these types of burials have been around for centuries – some religious customs require them as a matter of course – they’ve become more popular among the environmentally conscious or those looking for a more natural alternative to traditional burial. According to 2022 statistics from the NFDA, 60% of respondents nationwide say they are interested in exploring green burial options, up from 55.7% just the year before.
In a green burial, a body is not embalmed or placed into a casket. Instead, they are buried in a basket or biodegradable box. They are also buried closer to the surface of the ground and are allowed to decompose naturally.
According to a report earlier this year from Connecticut Public, cemeteries across New England have been updating their guidelines to allow for these types of green burial services. Where in 2015 there were only five cemeteries in all of New England that allowed the practice, now there are well over 70.
Still, there are regulations that limit burial options, even with a natural service, and these can vary by municipality. Even though it is legal in the state, cities, and towns can have local laws that will not permit the circumstances – like higher burial or a lack of concrete vault – that are necessary for a green burial.
“For years we’ve been doing things so that if, say, a cemetery still needed the concrete enclosure so that it supported the earth and it didn’t sink or settle, we actually would place a simple wooden casket directly on the ground in the burial and then turn a vault upside down just so that it covered the top,” says Carmon. “But that the casket would naturally return to the earth and you’d cover any requirements for maintenance or placement for the cemetery.”
For some here in Connecticut, death offers an opportunity to give back in a sense, at least to the academic and research community.
Three different institutions of higher learning in the state – Yale University, Quinnipiac University, and The University of Connecticut – offer classes on basic anatomy for their medical students and these classes require, at least in part, real human tissue in the form of donated bodies.
“There’s no cost to the families or the person’s estate if we can use the body for the program,” explains Joseph Shine, a licensed funeral director and coordinator of UConn’s Anatomical Donation program. “At the conclusion of the body being used for the program, the remains are cremated, and the ashes are returned.”
For some, that makes the program seem like a good deal, at least for those who survive them. With no costs associated with it – UConn covers transport, paperwork, and cremation services – it can save a family thousands of dollars. But it isn’t a guarantee, even if you make the arrangements ahead of time.
“We don’t accept every single case just because it’s a basic structure and anatomy course for first-year medical and dental students,” says Shine. “So, you know, we want good examples.”
In addition to screening for things like infectious diseases, UConn cannot accept body donations of the obese or extremely underweight, those who suffered from dehydration or edema, organ donation recipients, or those requiring a forensic autopsy. And since the requirements can be specific, Shine has to make the determinations after the prospective donor has passed.
“I try to take into consideration everything and make it work if we can,” he says. “We’re always so thankful for all these people that are so giving and generous to our program, but specifically for what we use these donors for and for the students in their limited time in the labs we want the best examples for them to learn anatomical structures.”
For those who are able to donate, however, the program can provide them with some additional meaning after death. Shine says he sees former teachers who hope to carry on instructing after death, former UConn employees who learned about the need for donations in the course of their work, and even those whose lives were saved at UConn’s hospitals.
“These students understand how precious of an opportunity [it is],” says Shine. “Not everybody gets to do these kinds of things they learn so much from it, and respect is the biggest thing.”
To carry through that thread of respect, at the end of every school year, UConn holds a memorial service for all of the individuals who were part of the program that year. Family members of the donors are encouraged to attend, and students are given the opportunity to understand the bodies they worked on as people, not just anatomical specimens, an important thing to take with them into their medical careers.
“It means a lot to the families and especially the students,” says Shine. “They really do respect and appreciate the gift that they’re giving and given.”
Ultimately, what happens to you after you die is a deeply personal matter and the options are as varied as the choices involved. Whether you hope to honor a religious tradition, give back to the environment, or teach an aspiring doctor an important lesson, it takes planning and a whole lot of paperwork.
Some hoping to make things easier on their loved ones can make almost all of these choices ahead of time, from choosing a burial plot to making all of the arrangements with a funeral director years before they are needed. But planning isn’t for everyone.
“I’ve had couples sitting down,” says Carmon. “And the man’s being very quiet and his wife is saying, ‘Oh, we’re so glad we finally got together, I wanted to have these plans and have everything in place so that it’s a lot easier’ and everything else. And I looked over at her husband and he said, speak for yourself. He said, it’s a beautiful day, I’d rather be playing golf today. I’ll do it when I need to do it.”
While it can be difficult to approach the subject with yourself and your family, still, making these preparations can help down the line.
“I’ve never had anybody come in and say, oh, I’m so upset that mom or dad made their arrangements,” jokes Carmon. “I mean, the reality is people say, I’m so glad that they did ’cause we know what they want, or the costs are all covered and everything is in place, and they made it so much easier for us. But it’s still what people are comfortable with.”