CAPE MAY COURT HOUSE — The funeral business is one that everyone thinks is unpleasant at best, but the challenges go far beyond what we imagine.
Dealing with death at any hour is only the start, and that’s something that never becomes comfortable, said the owners of Radzieta Funeral Home, founded in 1850 and one of the oldest in the country.
“You don’t ever get used to processing bodies,” said John J. Radzieta, 42, who manages the business now for his father, John L. Radzieta, 76.
There’s a lot involved in arranging a funeral — which might include bagpipers, a police or fire escort, or even a motorcycle hearse — and the amount of business is unpredictable. But funeral directors can’t let that affect the attention and care they give their clients.
“We want the family to feel like they’re the only ones we want to be dealing with at the time,” John J. said.
A family itself can be a challenge if it’s divided about what to do.
“Sometimes the work is too interesting, when you have disagreements in the family and they can’t agree on what they’re going to do with mom or dad,” John L. said.
But all of these challenges pale in comparison to the demands on a funeral director’s character and abilities when making arrangements in the death of a child, infant or young person.
“It’s just devastating to have to be with the family who has lost a child,” said John L. Radzieta, who has arranged funerals for more than half a century. “If you haven’t lost one yourself, you can’t even say to them, ‘I understand how you feel.’”
John L. said he started work at the funeral home as an apprentice for prior owner W. Kenneth Matlack, then bought the business nine years later in 1970 when Matlack retired.
The funeral home was started in 1850 by George Ogden, an undertaker and dealer in building supplies, in Cape May Court House, about two blocks from its location today.
The elder Radzieta said the business has changed quite a bit since he started.
Fifty years ago, he said, probably 95 percent of the deceased were buried, almost always after a service in either the funeral home or a church.
Nowadays, memorial gatherings might be held at a restaurant, in a school auditorium, in a park or on the beach.
The younger Radzieta said the modern trend has been toward cremation instead of burial, with nearly half now choosing to turn the remains to ashes.
Price is seldom a factor in the choice, he said. Often cremation was the preference of the deceased.
“Also, we have a mobile society now. Before you were born, raised and died in the same town, and buried in the church cemetery,” John J. said. “Now people are scattered across the country and they take the funeral urn with them wherever they go. Two weeks ago, someone died here and they took the urn back to England.”
Sending a body to another country or Florida is more involved, a fairly regular job for a funeral home in an area with a lot of visitors from elsewhere.
John J. said each country has its own regulations, but most require the body to be embalmed and then sealed in a casket with a zinc liner. Then it must be shipped via an airline.
Funeral services are highly regulated, and often the rules don’t become apparent until someone needs those services. John L. Radzieta sees that too often, between his seat on the state mortuary science board overseeing the regulations and his own business.
For example, he said, New Jersey doesn’t recognize common law marriages when it comes to deciding what happens to the deceased, so “even though people lived together 40 years, it doesn’t mean a thing.”
A difficulty commonly arises when the deceased was separated from a spouse but not divorced.
“Children will come in to make the arrangements and we must tell them the surviving spouse is in charge of the funeral,” John J. said. The separated spouse “can relinquish their right or take control of the funeral.”
If the children are in charge and they want a cremation, a majority of the adult surviving children must agree to it, he said.
John L. Radzieta said his father had urged him never to be a funeral director or coal miner.
A coal miner for 42 years with his own coal business, the father had tacked on undertaker to the warning as an example of how unpleasant mining could be.
His father’s coal mine and all the others in Pennsylvania have disappeared, but the funeral business has been quite steady. Cape May County had five funeral homes a decade ago, five in the recession and five as of 2012, federal Department of Labor records show.
The warning from his father turned out to be pretty funny when the son made a good life for himself and his children in funeral services.
“Once I got established, he was very happy for me,” he said.
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