Let’s face it: nobody welcomes the face of death, whether it is pondering our own demise, or living through the leave-taking of someone near and dear to us.
No topic is more sensitive or difficult or scary or fascinating in this life than death. Here are some ways of looking at it, found at BrainyQuote.com.
“I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” So says Woody Allen.
“No one can confidently say that he will still be living tomorrow.” That ice-slap of reality is from Greek dramatist Euripides.
Sportswriter and author Mitch Albom wrote in his bestseller Tuesdays with Morrie, “Death ends a life, not a relationship.”
His optimistic observation speaks eloquently to mourners who find themselves at a loss to deal with profound loss.
They turn to people like Anthony Guarino, a veteran funeral director of 35 years whose job description is to comfort and to create a transition—between this world and the next—that is respectful, peaceful, memorable.
On Saturday, Dec. 5, Yorktown Funeral Home—one of two Westchester locations owned by Mr. Guarino—will host its fifth annual Holiday Tree Lighting Ceremony, starting at 5 p.m.
The half-hour gathering welcomes family members and friends of those whose lives were celebrated at the home since its founding in 2011. They decorate the tree with an ornament that displays the name of their loved one.
“It’s a place for everyone to be together at a difficult time during the holiday season,” he says, “and they’re with people in the same situation.”
The process of grieving is not a luxury; it’s a necessity that also is therapeutic (which explains this column’s title, “Good grief.”)
Mr. Guarino recounts the time he gently convinced a reluctant friend to hold a service when he did not plan to, and the friend later thanked him. “It helps people get through the worst time of their life,” he says.
For those offering condolences, the moment can feel awkward and anxious. Death discomforts visitors to a funeral home or to a private home where a family is freshly wounded by the sharp teeth of grief.
What is a proper greeting? Says Anthony Guarino: “The best thing to say to someone is ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ Keep it short. People get nervous and they are trying to be helpful, but it is a very difficult time for those who have lost someone.”
I lost my mother very suddenly when I was 9. My father felt it best for me not to attend my mother’s funeral due to my tender age. I’ll never be certain how I feel about that decision made for me. I never got to say goodbye to her as she was whisked away by an ambulance, and was gone hours later.
I asked Anthony his view of discussing death with children.
“Yes, it’s very difficult to talk to children. As a parent, we want to protect them, and we want to shelter them, but the reality is that children are very resilient. You can be honest with them. Some people say to me, ‘Should I bring my child to the funeral?’ My answer is to ask, ‘Does the child want to come to the funeral?‘ If the answer is ‘Yes,’ you should bring them.”
He continues, “We have a family room where children can stay. They can sit and watch a video. If the child wants to go into the visitation room, it’s fine; you don’t want to put fear in them and make them self-conscious.”
What motivates someone to become a funeral director?
Typically, it’s a family affair.
While still a student, Anthony Guarino started working for his uncle’s funeral home in the Bronx. In 1980, Anthony’s brother bought a parlor in Mount Vernon, which Anthony now operates under the name Yannantuono Burr Davis Sharpe Funeral Home. Mr. Guarino’s two brothers each own other funeral parlors.
Son Anthony Jr. primarily is at the Mount Vernon location, while daughter Tracy works in the Yorktown parlor.
“I always told both of my children,” says Anthony, “that if you like what you do, you’ll have a good life, and they both like what they do.”
One of Tracy’s specialties is assembling remembrance videos, using photos supplied by the family. “It’s a celebration of life,” says her father. The DVD is played quietly off to the side so people can go over and remember the person through moving images.
Another advanced technology helps people who cannot travel to the service witness it from afar, through the Internet. A webcasting service streams the eulogies and other elements of the event anywhere in the world.
Anthony Guarino opened the Yorktown Funeral Home in 2011, but it was more than 25 years ago that the Northern Westchester suburb was recommended to him as a prime location, by the late Anthony DeVito Sr., an iconic figure in Yorktown who built the Yannantuono home in Mount Vernon.
Years later, a prominent priest at St. Patrick’s Church in Yorktown echoed the endorsement by suggesting that Anthony open a funeral parlor there.
When Mr. Guarino was introduced by a mutual friend to Eric DiBartolo, the longtime highway superintendent in Yorktown who now heads the Chamber of Commerce, plans to open Yorktown Funeral Home were set in motion, with Mr. DiBartolo as a partner.
“He was new to this but he had the right demeanor for it,” says Mr. Guarino of Mr. DiBartolo. “He wants to help people and this is a perfect setting for him, so it’s been it’s been a great partnership.”
A growing trend is the pre-planning of funeral arrangements.
“No one wants to be put into that stress of making decisions at the moment someone passes away. It’s so much easier to come and talk about it in advance, so when the time arrives, everyone knows what needs to be done.”
There are two types of pre-planning: A revocable trust parks money to pay for the funeral in a special account, but the funds can be re-directed to a different purpose. An irrevocable trust prevents the fund reserve from being used for anything other than the funeral. He explains that “It’s a way it’s a way for people to have it paid for and the burden of that payment is not left to the children.”
“The goal of all life is death,” Sigmund Freud reminds us.
For the final word on the subject, here is comedian Steven Wright, whose cock-eyed way of looking at the world marries the irrational to the undeniable: “I intend to live forever. So far, so good.”
Steven, you are so right.
A video interview with Anthony Guarino can be seen on Cablevision public access at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 2, and on YouTube channel Hudson Valley WXYZ with Bruce the Blog.