Ask the Undertaker

Ask the Undertaker is a column written by Ryan Helfenbein, in Outlook By the Bay Magazine. It covers many topics such as Green Burial, What to do if death occurs out of town, How to create a celebration of life, Veteran Burial Benefits and much more. Feel free to select an article from past issues of Outlook By the Bay Magazine below to learn more. 


2019 Issues

Early Spring 2019

It seems that the older we get, the faster time moves. Unfortunately, with that passage of time comes loss. Our friends begin to disappear and we can’t help but relate to the obituaries, as those listed aren’t much older than we are.

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Winter 2019

During the first week of December, many took time out of their schedules to see these images: President H.W. Bush’s casket escorted onto Special Air Mission 41 (aka Air Force One), his casket positioned in the Capitol, and “Sully” the dog lying in front of his flag-draped casket.

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2018 Issues

Holiday 2018 Issue:

Flying a flag at half-mast is only one of the many longstanding traditions that are carried out in honor of a fallen soldier. Another very common tradition is that of the folding of the flag over the casket at the gravesite.

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Fall 2018 Issue:

On June 28, 2018, our Annapolis community was forever changed as a tragic event took place in our backyard. Five families lost a loved one, and so many others were impacted that day by these inexplicable shootings.

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Summer 2018 Issue:

It never fails to amaze me when I see the amount of toys kids collect over the years and how much needs purging each Spring to make room for the new ones.

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Spring 2018 Issue:

Recently I met a woman who shared an experience she had on a beautiful Caribbean cruise. She woke up one morning at port to look out to see what a glorious day it was going to be on the island of Puerto Rico.

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Early Spring 2018 Issue:

Remember when you and your spouse proclaimed your love for one another through holy matrimony? Weddings are a time that many of us can say life took a major change, for the better, we hoped.

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2017 Issues

Winter 2018 Issue:

How many times have you heard the saying, “Perception is reality?” It unfortunately holds true in many aspects of our lives. For example, if we see someone in a nice car we immediately believe they are wealthy and if the date on a gallon of milk is expired, it’s got to be sour.

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Holiday 2017 Issue:

The other day my son and I went on a fishing trip. On the way back home I pointed at an old dock. With a bit of emotion in my voice, I shared with him that it was a place where my grandfather always took me to fish when I was a young boy.

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Fall 2017 Issue:

When it comes to Halloween, my family has always been the go-to source for unique costumes. Perhaps it’s due to our line of work, or simply the fact that this industry breeds creative thinkers.

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Summer 2017 Issue:

Each year I participate in our local middle school's career day. This year, an eighth grader asked if my job has an emotional effect on me. I told her that, yes, there are situations that become extremely emotional, but then surprised her by telling her just how rewarding my job could be when a family truly embraced the story of their loved one's life.

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Spring 2017 Issue:

The Civil War truly redefined what we call America today. It introduced us to can openers, left and right shoes and even the word “skedaddle.” In addition, the war gave birth to the holiday marked as the start of Summer to some, but a day of remembrance to all – Memorial Day. To undertakers, the Civil War also shaped the modern day funeral service...

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Early SPRING 2017 Issue:

When I was a young boy getting on my first roller coaster ride, I remember my father saying, “Trust me … “ With my knees knocking and tears close to the surface, the coaster started its descent from a long slow ride into the sky. And seconds after the descent, I never looked back and continue to enjoy roller coasters with my children today. Dad was right. “Trust me, you will enjoy this … ”

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Winter 2017 Issue:

There are people who truly enjoy this time of year. Perhaps it’s the idea of snuggling under a furry warm blanket or waking up to a crisp white snow covering the ground. Whatever it may be, rest assured those people are not gravediggers.

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2016 Issues

Holiday 2016 ISSUE:

Each year during our holiday feasts my father says the blessing. He starts with the standard blessing of the food to our bodies, but then moves into something that is possibly unique to just a family of undertakers. He asks for a special blessing of healing to all the families we assisted that year. My father has always built his undertaking business around the fact that we help families heal. For the countless number of individuals my family has assisted through the years, we can’t help but simply take a small moment to remember them -- members of the families left behind.

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Fall 2016 ISSUE:

Imagine if you will, waking up one morning and getting into your car to head out for your daily chores, only to realize that your car isn’t working. It won’t even start! So you call your neighbor and ask for a ride to the nearest car dealership later that afternoon so you can buy a new car. When you arrive at the dealership, you walk in and simply state to a complete stranger, “My car doesn’t work anymore, what do you have and how much should I pay you?”

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Summer 2016 ISSUE:

According to a recent article published by the American Automobile Association, 38 million people traveled this past Memorial Day weekend, the second highest travel volume since 2005. With all this traveling, one has to ask at some point, what if someone dear to you died when out of town? Who would the family call, what would be done, and how in the world would they get them back home? Yes, leave it to an undertaker to take the nervousness of travel and amplify it by mixing in the question of a death out of town. This is actually a commonly asked question and one for which we should all have the answer.

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Spring 2016 Issue:

An elderly American absent-mindedly arrived at French immigration in Charles de Gaulle Airport and fumbled for his passport. "You have been to France before, monsieur?" the official asked. The American smiled and admitted that he had been to France before. "In that case you should know to have your passport ready for inspection," barked the ill-tempered officer. The American gently informed the Frenchman that the last time he came to France he did not have to show his passport or any other documents.

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Early Spring 2016 Issue:

In the 1989 movie “The Burbs,” Ray (Tom Hanks) and his buddy Art explore a neighbor’s yard when they hear this new family might be a bit on the morbid side. During this film, after it is learned that a local townsman (Walter) disappeared, there is a scene where Art finds a bone in this out-of-the-ordinary family’s backyard and leans into Ray saying, “Ray, there's no doubt anymore. This is real …They're burying them in their backyard. Ray - This is Walter!” This movie is one of many that paint a chilling picture of burying people on family property. But it also brings up a question: Can it be done?

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Winter 2016 Issue:

A few years back a large focus group was organized to learn about consumers’ feelings regarding the funeral industry. Not too surprisingly, the findings were not so positive. It wasn’t ill feelings about the lurch-like personnel within the industry and that familiar overpowering smell of flowers that are common in the viewing rooms. Rather, participants wondered why it needed to be so gloomy...

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2015 Issues

Holiday 2015 Issue:

The holiday season is upon us. Time for distant relatives, exchanging gifts with close friends and family, and, of course, an excuse for us all to overeat. It is typically a happy time, filled with laughter and sharing of memories from the years past. While it may be perceived that the majority of the population is experiencing joy, it coul dbe just the opposite for others...

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Fall 2015 Issue:

"...I do not care what happens to this body. It is simply an empty house. And I do not need a grave for my family to visit and pay homage. My mother was buried in 1982. I have not been to her grave five times. She knew I loved her. I tell her I appreciate all she did for me. I will see her again when I get home (heaven)." How many would agree with these statements and the overall viewpont...

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Summer 2015 Issue:

Think back to a time when you were meeting with a funeral professional to help organize a service for a family member or friend who recently died. Most of that time was spent concentrating on ways to help honor that person's life, and help the family through the process. However, while planning the specific details and services, it is only natural to think about what we might want our own funeral ceremony to be like...

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Spring 2015 Issue:

The year was 2002 when the cremation industry was forever changed. In what would become a 40 million dollar lawsuit, heavy state regulation and an overhaul of proper management in the world of cremation, a situation arose in Georgia. Let's just say in very simple terms, a crematory was doing their job...

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EARLY sPRING 2015 iSSUE:

The year was 2002 when the cremation industry was forever changed. In what would become a 40 million dollar lawsuit, heavy state regulation and an overhaul of proper management in the world of cremation, a situation arose in Georgia.

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wINTER 2015 iSSUE:

We do not like funerals or visitations. It is typically a time of sadness, mourning and much awkwardness felt by both the family and friends all jumbled together in one room. So then why go to a funeral or visitation? What are we to do when we get there?

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2014 Issues

Holiday 2014 Issue:

Perhaps Frank Sinatra was not only a great singer, but something of a visionary when he sang the lyrics of his classic, “My Way,” in 1968. This song, written by French composers with lyrics reworked especially for Sinatra by Paul Anka, is about a man reflecting on life as his end nears. As the song goes, he walks you through his story of trials and tribulations, but keeps coming back to that famous line: “I did it my way.” Not only has this become an extremely popular song to close out funeral services, but it defines the modern day funeral and cremation experience.

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Fall 2014 Issue:

We all have experience with (and opinions about) insurance. It has become a go-to mechanism for protecting ourselves against the "what ifs" that may occur. Car insurance is mandatory to cover part of the accident damages. Homeowners insurance is required to cover some damages to our home. Health insurance is required now required by the government to cover much of our medical treatment. The interesting aspect of each of these is that each one is required to provide protection from the chance that something may occur. However, nowhere is it required for each of us to obtain protection from the one thing in life it is certain we all will face - our death expenses.

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Summer 2014 Issue:

A gentleman asked recently when he was preparing his funeral plans in advance, "Why are so many traditional funeral homes still so grim?" Afterward, he explained that when he worked with an undertaker to arrange services for his father there was a gloomy and cold feeling through the entire building. It seemed there was an all-encompassing sadness that pervaded the entire pricess.

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Spring 2014 Issue:

After a rough Winter, we all have been anticipating the long-awaited Spring and the official opening of area pools on Memorial Day. This holiday also offers a day off from work and school, when family and friends gather together for an outdoor picnic. But is today's Memorial Day celebration much different from that of our ancestors, or has modern culture pulled us away from its true meaning?

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eARLY sPRING 2014 iSSUE:

During the late ‘70s, a series of books were created called Choose Your Own Adventure. !ese books allowed the reader to assume the role of the main character and make decisions that will ultimately determine the plot outcome.

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Winter 2014 Issue:

Over the past decades, we have seen the funeral industry change like never before. Quiet whispers during a visitation have now become outburts of laughter with tears to follow, the water cooler and mint jar have become the wine and cheese...

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2013 Issues

Fall 2013 Issue:

We live in a society that is all about getting the most accomplished in the least amount of time, don't we? Everywhere you look, there is another example of this "more is better" mentally...

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hOLIDAY 2013 iSSUE:

It is almost that time of year again. No, not time to overeat, be with family or watch the kid’s eyes become the size of softballs when they open the big gifts. It is that time when the urge of shopping takes over and the search for the best value in town is the name of the game.

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fALL 2013 iSSUE:

We live in a society that is all about getting the most accomplished in the least amount of time, don’t we? Everywhere you look, there is another example of this “more is better” mentality -- in manufacturing, housing developments and even food production. But what about funeral services? Can’t be there too, can it?

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Summer 2013 Issue:

Imagine if you will entering a facility and being immediately greeted by someone smiling who even made a light joke about the weather. As you make your way further into the facility, you can't help but notice that your favorite Summer vacation song is playing...

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Spring 2013 Issue:

Over the centuries we have seen presidents pay tribute to the veterans who serve our country. The standard for honoring those who gave their lives for their country was set in 1862, when faced with mounting Civil War casualties.

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eARLY sPRING 2013 iSSUE:

During this past holiday season my family did its annual visit to see Santa. While our two boys were (very impatiently) waiting for their chance to talk to the man in red, we noticed a family that had brought their four-legged friend along to see Santa too.

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Winter 2013 Issue:

My wife recently had our third child. What we found to be rather interesting is that after the birth, friends and family called and emailed, asking when we could swing by to congratulate us.

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2012 Issues

hOLIDAY 2012 iSSUE:

The holidays are a time when we eat great home-cooked meals, visit with extended family members and scatter our loved ones cremated remains. What? That’s right, the holidays have proven to be a very popular time for that final goodbye as loved ones are already gathered together anyway.

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Fall 2012 Issue:

When it comes to Halloween, my family has always been the go-to source for unique costumes. Perhaps it's due to my line of work, or simply the fact that this industry breeds creative thinkers. Whatever the reason, we often end up creating the neighborhood kids' costumes.

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Summer 2012 Issue:

Part of every funeral director's education involves studying the American history of funeral directing. Directors in training learn about the development of the industry, how embalming got started and the ever-so-interesting topics of grave robbing and devices invented to signal a "premature" burial.

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Spring 2012 Issue:

Undertakers have noticed the increased popularity of so-called immediate disposition services, when the body is cremated immediately or buried directly after death. No services. No ceremony. Obviously, we have examined this express means of disposition and asked ourselves why.

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eARLY sPRING 2012 iSSUE:

This is the second of a two-part series in which mortician Ryan Helfenbein answers the most frequently asked questions about preplanned funerals from his customers and the readers of his column.

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Winter 2012 Issue:

Those who have decided to preplan their funerals typically wonder about how to go about it. Here is the first group of commonly asked questions about preplanned funerals and their answers. Another batch will appear in the early Spring issue of Outlook by the Bay.

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2011 Issues

Holiday 2011 Issue:

Undertakers are ready to meet the growing demand for "green burials". Green burials provide a service that truly mimics customs of our ancestors. And it has caught the attention of baby boomers.

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Fall 2011 Issue:

You’ve heard the old saying, “Only two things in this world are certain, death and taxes.” Truer words were never spoken, and it seems the costs associated with both go up every year.

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Summer 2011 Issue:

More and more Americans are moving from one state to another each year. And now, with the rise of cremation, this creates challenges for an undertaker due to a legal document that is necessary before cremation can take place - a cremation authorization. More importantly, who can authorize an undertaker to move forward with cremation?

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Spring 2011 Issue:

It's amazing how fast things have changed in our society today and how quickly people can adapt to that popular product or service. We see this change in the undertaker's profession as well...in the shift of popularity from traditional burial to cremation tributes.

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eARLY sPRING 2011 iSSUE:

Today, the services offered by funeral homes have evolved considerably from what was being provided years ago. The image of an undertaker as a buzzard, as Uncle Remus would depict him in his Br’er Rabbit stories, has truly become a thing of the past. Funeral home employees are no longer just driving the hearse or planning the service.

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Winter 2011 Issue:

The answer to the age-old question, “Why are funerals so expensive?” is finally being answered. As an industry, we can now say funerals don't have to be expensive anymore.

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2010 Issues

Holiday 2010 Issue:

The holiday season is upon us. Seeing distant relatives, exchanging gifts with close friends and family, and, of course, eating too much. It is typically a happy time, filled with laughter and reminiscing.

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Fall 2010 Issue:

Today, more and more people are moving away from the quiet, mellow, services offered by the funeral industry. Rather, families want to celebrate the decedent's life in a unique and personalized way, creating a positive memory of how their loved one affected others.

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Summer 2010 Issue:

With the baby boomers approaching an age where Medicaid or SSI may become a part of their lives, we as undertakers are being asked more and more how assets can be protected for burial or cremation expenses.

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Spring 2010 Issue:

Advanced planning is offered to protect people from the financial shock and emotional decision-making process that occurs at the time of death. In developing this program, it has amazed me to have found so many veterans who are unaware of what burial benefits are due them.

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Early Spring 2010 Issue:

Our job as undertakers encompasses so much more than preparing a loved one for a visitation, cremation ceremony or burial service. Our job is now to walk a family through the process of developing a meaningful celebration of the life of their loved one.

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Winter 2010 Issue:

One of my favorite topics is cremation. Cremation is something that is being discussed more and more.The reasons I often hear why people choose cremation, and ones I will address here, are that it is cheaper, it saves scarce land and it is easier.

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2009 Issues

Holiday 2009 Issue:

I have attempted to create a funeral director glossary to help the general public better understand some of the words us undertakers are using today. I am going to touch on five very common terms used today in the funeral industry: First-call, at-need and pre-need, embalming, cremains and inurnment.

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Fall 2009 Issue:

From the loss of Michael Jackson a few areas became very apparent to me in the context of my business: the importance of planning ahead, the role of the funeral professionals and how to create a true "celebration of life."

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Summer 2009 Issue:

One of the most commonly asked questions when it comes to my industry: who do I call when a death occurs?

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Spring 2009 Issue:

Over the past several months I have been receiving many inquiries about prepayment of funerals. One can't help but wonder if it is due to the economic situation our country is facing, the winter blues or people today just wanting to be more prepared and relieve their family from the financial burden in the future. Whatever the reason may be, it is a wise decision as long as it is done correctly.

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Early Spring 2009 Issue:

In this issue of OutLook by the Bay, my question comes from a woman in Easton who asks, "Is green burial offered around here?"

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Winter 2009 Issue:

As you can imagine, people ask me interesting questions on a daily basis about my work in the funeral business. Nonetheless, it has made me realize that many people today want to know more about what is available to them and what funerals are all about more now than ever before.

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