A conversation with your friendly neighborhood mortuary scientist

By Diana Hammell
Caledonia Argus


“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”

Robert Frost


Bernie McCormick

At one time or another, everyone will have a close relative or friend who is facing the ultimate finale – the end of life. Many persons may find it difficult to broach the subject, and the process of arranging a funeral is a total mystery to most – something that is happily put off until it becomes an eventuality.



Older relatives, especially those living in a care facility know that death can be near. One doesn’t have to discuss the elephant in the room; just sitting with them and offering support and love is a great gift. Most families don’t talk about death directly, and in any family, talking about death is likely to be emotionally loaded. When an older relative does want to talk, however, it’s best not to dodge the subject. Saying to them, “Oh, no need to talk about that yet; you’ll outlive us all,” may be comforting to the listener, but not to the person wanting to get their affairs in order.

Psychologist Mark Edinberg  says that younger people sometimes forget that the older generations live with death on a daily basis.

“To be old is to have had parents, friends and spouses die, and yet they are no more afraid of death than younger persons,” Edinberg said. Listen, and if the listening or answering is difficult bring in clergy, a social worker or a funeral director to help with the conversation.

One doesn’t need to be old to plan a funeral. None of us know our future, except that death is certain. This isn’t dismal; it’s just fact. Even just-marrieds and especially young parents should absolutely have wills. Talking with a spouse or writing down wishes is not an ill-advised thing to do. It’s just another chore to get out of the way making one feel better for having done so.


Bernie McCormick of McCormick Funeral Home in Caledonia was kind enough to answer questions for The Argus that come to mind when the subject of death and funerals arise.



Q: I know that persons who have need of a mortician for the first time are amazed by the services that you provide. What are all of them? Do you write the obituary, arrange for the “lunch ladies” and the lunch, cemetery arrangements, church arrangements, obituary publication, pastor payment, etc. How does one know how many people to provide lunch for?

A: Our services can be as much or as little as the family requests. Funeral directors understand that arranging for a funeral is a new experience for many people and we are here to guide and help them in any way we can. We begin with the death call and transporting the deceased from the place of death to the funeral home. Depending on the circumstances of the death, the medical examiner might be involved. If the family chooses, embalming is next and setting up an arrangement time to be with family. If the family prefers, clergy is notified and comes to the arrangement. At arrangements, family decides what type of funeral or memorial service they want, (if any) times and dates and places for visitation, funeral and cemetery. We gather information for the death certificate and obituary, decide what papers to run obituary in, contact social security and the cemetery. We ask if they’d like a funeral lunch, what they want served and how many to prepare for. To get a number for the lunch we ask how many relatives there are and we consider the age and the activities of the deceased to estimate a number. Families will decide on a memorial card with a chosen verse inside, pick out thank you cards, a register book, decide if they want military rites if their loved one was a veteran and choose pallbearers. The clergy helps us plan the service with music and scripture selections, who to do the music, and they gather important information about the deceased. Flowers are discussed and we will order them for the family if wanted. Necessary papers and permits are signed, clothing is brought in and personalization, like having pictures, symbols of the deceased, personal items in the casket, or any special considerations like small children at the visitation, etc. are discussed. A casket, vault or urn are selected. We can arrange for final dating on the stone if there is one already at the cemetery. We call the musicians, pallbearers if needed, lunch people, veterans for burial rites, get the veteran’s flag from the post office and anything else the family wants. We submit the obituary to the papers and radio. We guide the family during the visitation and service and deliver flowers after the funeral to places selected by the family.



Q: How many cremains can be accommodated in a traditional cemetery plot? As many as eight? Is it different for different cemeteries? Visitations are done with the cremains present in an urn, but is it also possible to hold a visitation where the embalmed body is present and then cremated later before burial?

A: Each cemetery has it own guidelines. Most cemeteries will allow up to two bodies per grave. There can be two cremains, or one casketed body and one cremain. Most cemeteries require a vault for a casketed body, and some require an urn vault for cremains. Vaults are required for caskets because they help maintain the cemetery, otherwise the ground will not be level due to the eventual break down of the casket. The reason for only two cremains per grave is that cemeteries need the revenue of selling graves for the upkeep of the cemetery, and it could be difficult to have enough room on a monument for all the information of the deceased if you have many bodies there.

For cremation, you can have a visitation and funeral with the body present and then  the cremation after the funeral service. The body would be embalmed and usually families rent a casket, although they can purchase one and have it cremated with the body. Usually the body is taken to the crematory after the service and the family gathers at a later date at the cemetery for committal of the ashes. Legally, cremains do not have to be buried. The death certificate will name the crematory as the final disposition location, instead of a cemetery. It is up to families to decide what they want to do with the ashes. Many will bury the ashes in a cemetery, and some churches strongly recommend that. Scattering of the ashes is allowed if it is on  private property, or some will keep the ashes in an urn for burial at a later date. Funeral homes in  larger cities are experiencing that many cremains are being left at the crematory or funeral home and not being claimed.

The other option is to be cremated right away after death – embalming is not required – and then a visitation and memorial service can be done at a later date. Funerals have become more personalized; families have many options open to them; videos at visitations, creating your own memorial card, telling stories at the visitation and lunch, releasing balloons at the cemetery are just a few different options.


Early Planning

Q: Do you recommend that persons come to see you to plan their own funeral and arrangements? What information should they bring to a meeting with you? Is there a charge for the meeting besides what will be included in the actual funeral?


A: Early planning is a good idea for various reasons. By expressing your unique wishes, it greatly reduces family anxiety, confusion, grief and stress at the time of death. It also allows you to determine how much you want to spend on your final arrangements. Some of the information needed at arrangement times are: date and place of birth, parents’ names with mother’s maiden name, social security number, occupation, marriage information, education, military service information, attending physician, survivors, deceased family members, clubs, hobbies, religious affiliation, deciding if you want cremation (before or after the funeral) or body burial, casket, vault, urn choices and any other information you would like the funeral home and your family to know. When all the information is gathered, the funeral home will keep a copy and you will get a copy. You should not put these papers in a locked bank security box because families might not find them until after the funeral. You can pre-plan your funeral with or without financing it. If you choose to set aside funds, there are irrevocable funeral trusts with the money placed in a certificate of deposit or there are insurance options to place the funds in. Funeral homes will help you place these funds, but in Minnesota they cannot take the funds until the time of death. Funeral homes do not charge to meet with families to get information or set up pre need funeral plans.


Green Burials

Q: Can we do green burials in Minnesota yet? Are there green cemeteries available to us here? What are they like – are they just prairie-like with no markers, or are there markers? For green burials, what containers are used for burial of the not-embalmed body? No vaults are used, correct? Visitation of a non-embalmed body possible? Is it legal for people to do these burials on their own? I mean, can they put Grandpa on the dining room table and then bury him in the back 40?

A: We can do green burials in  Minnesota, but the land the bodies are buried in must be designated as a cemetery. The process of claiming land as a cemetery involves going to the state and having the land surveyed, etc. and then registered as a cemetery. Once it is listed as a cemetery,  it will always be a cemetery and land owners are responsible for its upkeep. Cemeteries can make their own rules; I know of some green cemeteries that will only do the burial of the unembalmed body, usually wrapped in a cloth, with no markers, and just grass, or prairie; some will allow embalmed bodies, in  wood or cardboard containers, with flat markers. No vaults are used. Minnesota law allows for visitation and funeral of an unembalmed body, if it is kept cool, usually by dry ice. The main reasons for embalming is preservation, restoration and public health. Embalming is not required by law, except in certain cases, such as if the death was caused by infectious disease or if the body will be transported by public transportation (airplane or train).

The only local cemetery that I know of that allows for green burials is in The  Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration Cemetery of La Crosse.


Now, some questions that arose at a gathering:


Q: Can the blood be used? Platelets, etc.

A: No, because embalming fluid is mixed with it.


Q: Is there getting to be a mafia connection with the mortuary business?

A: I haven’t heard of that.


Q: Can diamonds be made out of the bone ash?

A: Yes, there are companies that will make a diamond out of ashes or a lock of hair.


Q: Does anyone want to be late for their own funeral?

A: Yes, some have told me that.


Q: Sprinkling ashes – if done by airplane do you have to be careful not to have it blow back into the airplane?

A: Yes you do, it is something many people don’t think about.


Q: By law, must a body be embalmed by a certain number of hours/days? In the case of autopsy?

A: Last year, Minnesota law was changed, and except in the cases listed above, families can decide if they want their loved one embalmed. Funeral homes have the right to refuse a public visitation of an unembalmed body for public health reasons and because most visitors take it for granted that the body will be embalmed. A visitation can take place in a private home and families can do what they want there.


Q: How often do exhumations happen? People move and want their infant to follow them, for example.

A: It does happen, but not often for adults and infants. If an adult was buried in a concrete vault, the vault is dug up, and transported by the vault company to the new burial site. It is very difficult to move a  grown body that was buried before the time of concrete vaults. Before vaults, they used wood rough boxes to put the caskets in and depending on the soil conditions, there usually are just bones left. We have moved infants, and in some cases you can find the little casket, but if it was wood and a long time ago,  we might find splinters of the wood. Because an infant’s bones are soft, we usually don’t find any bones.  If the casket is not intact the cemetery caretaker will dig up the soil at the burial spot, and we will place everything we can in a new casket and transport the remains to the new cemetery.



Q: Even if there is no body in a grave, are markers recommended for genealogy search purposes? Or, is there a location in cemeteries where this information is included if not at an actual grave site.

A: That is completely up to families. It does help with genealogy to have a grave marked. It also provides a place of remembrance, which is very important to some people and a place for future generations to see their ancestors. Most cemeteries have maps with grave locations. If someone is buried there they will have it in their files. Also, many cemeteries are now online with graves marked.