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'Til death parts us

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[Times art: Brandon Jeffords]

By LANE DeGREGORY
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 21, 2002


When a loved one dies, survivors bicker and sometimes come to blows, say funeral directors.

The two brothers hadn't spoken in years. They hadn't seen each other in more than a decade. Nothing could have brought them together.

Except their father's funeral.

The older brother was in his late 30s and lived in St. Petersburg. The younger brother lived several states away.

So the younger brother flew into Tampa and headed straight for the St. Petersburg funeral home. The older brother already was there. They met in the reception area.

"I had been talking to the older brother about cremation," says funeral home owner David Gross. "But the younger brother wanted to bury his father. Their mom had died years earlier, and he wanted their father's grave to be next to hers."

The brothers started shouting. Their argument escalated. Then the older brother threw down his briefcase. And the younger brother socked him square in the jaw.

Right there in the lobby of the funeral home.

"Finally, the older brother bends down and reaches into his briefcase. He pulls out a copy of his father's will. He points to this paragraph where it says Dad wanted to be cremated.

"So the younger brother backs off. And they both come into my office and sit down," Gross says. "And we get on with planning the funeral."

* * *
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[Photo: AP]
The last will and testament of Ted Williams is read by a member of the media after its filing in the Citrus County Courthouse last week. Despite the fact that the will stipulates Williams desired cremation, his family has been embroiled in bickering.

Ted Williams' children aren't the only ones ever to bicker over bodies.

For weeks, the 83-year-old baseball great has been kept alive in the news while his children fight over his corpse.

His older daughter says her dad wanted to be cremated, his ashes spread over the Florida Keys. His son (by a different mom) shipped the slugger's body out of Citrus County instead. Word is, Ted Williams is now resting upside down, freezing in a cryonics lab in Arizona.

Funeral directors across Tampa Bay say they seldom field requests for freezing.

But almost all of them have seen siblings screaming and throwing punches.

Some funeral directors have had to hire security guards and hang "unwanted" posters and act as bouncers at the solemn services. Some have had to schedule separate viewings for different factions of the family. Some have had to call the cops.

They tell tales of cat fights, of brawls over heirloom Bibles, of whiskey bottles sneaked into coffins. Of unbelievable greed and ousted girlfriends and shoving in the limo line.

The whole subject of wars fought over caskets is uncomfortable for funeral directors, who would prefer to emphasize the positives about their business.

But whether they want to talk about it or not, they've all seen their share of troubles.

"I've seen every side of people, from the greatest, most compassionate responses to the most selfish actions," says Barry Brewer, owner of Brewer & Sons Funeral Homes. He has offices in Brooksville, Orlando, Spring Hill and Daytona Beach. "I've seen people acting out of emotional needs and some driven by financial gain. Some of the things we have to deal with, you can't even imagine."

Michael Hodges, who directs Hodges Family Funeral Home in Dade City, says most people are in shock after a death. "Sometimes, in that state, they make statements out of anger," he says. "Then, it might take a day or more, but eventually they calm down and can work things out on their own."

Clyde Swilley runs Swilley Funeral Home in North Tampa. "The fights are very rare," he says. "But they're memorable. I had this one when an elderly woman died and her daughter and granddaughter got to arguing over something. I was watching from my office window, and the mother just started striking at her daughter with her walking stick. The daughter kept trying to get out of the way. I didn't think I ought to interfere."

These are stories from before the grave. From the time between death and burial.

The most trying time, therapists say, for those who survive.

* * *

David Gross has been in the business for 26 years. He runs a funeral home at 6366 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg. He keeps an attorney on retainer because so many legal questions come up.

"We try not to place ourselves between family members. But often they want us to be the mediators of their disputes," he says.

"We have a large conference room for the family members to get together and talk. And we encourage them to sit down privately first. Come up with their own plan."

Eventually, most families are able to work things out on their own, he says. But there are unforgettable exceptions.

"Usually, if a person specifies in their will what they want, that alleviates most of the planning problems," he says.

Problem is, the dead person is, well, dead.

No one can fight from the grave.

Sometimes, even the executor named in the will disagrees with what the will says. Funeral home owners say they try to abide by the wishes of the deceased. But the ones left living have the time, energy and money to carry on the fight -- so they sometimes prevail.

"We've had people preplan their funerals. Prepay for them, even. Everything all arranged and specified in the will," Gross says. "Then very distant relatives come out of the woodwork and try to claim a windfall profit from the death." They want to cut down on the funeral expenses and pocket the difference.

"It's very rare," the funeral director says. "But it happens.

"All I can do is consult our legal department."

* * *

In Florida, a surviving spouse has to give permission before a body can be cremated. Even if the deceased's will specifies that he or she wanted cremation, the state requires a cremation certificate signed by the next of kin. If there is no spouse, all of the children have to agree. If all of the children can't agree, the courts usually err on the side of not cremating.

That means the body often is buried (or frozen) until the case can be settled.

"That way, there's no harm done. The body is still intact. It's still available for an alternative outcome," Clearwater attorney Louis Kwall says. "Most of these cases are greed-driven. When someone dies, everyone already is emotional. People are having to face their own mortality. Some of them just get crazy."

Kwall handles cases for Young's Funeral Home in Clearwater. Farrell Speights has been director of that Howard Street home for 13 years.

"Funerals either make or break a family," Speights says. "When there's a division in the family, it can be quite exhausting for everyone."

Kwall compares funerals to the death of Yugoslavian dictator Tito. "Yugoslavia had been warring amongst itself for years. But as long as Tito was alive, he kept everyone together. It still was one country, one family," he says.

"As long as Ted Williams was alive, he was holding it all together. Then he dies and his empire crumbles.

"It happens to a lot of families, when the patriarch passes."

Sally Foote is a Clearwater attorney who specializes in probate administration. She oversees wills and estates and often serves as a representative for the deceased. She has seen cases settled in less than two days, so the funerals can continue, and some that drag on for years.

"People can be terribly energetic in their efforts to battle wills and estates," she says. "They carry out their own unhappinesses against each other through the legacy of the deceased.

"All these terribly emotional and unresolvable disappointments and all this anger comes bubbling up all at once.

"The wishes of the deceased should prevail," she says. "But they don't always.

"Sometimes it depends how much time, money and energy the living have to carry on the fight."

* * *

About a month ago, Dale Gunter's St. Petersburg funeral home got involved in a battle over a body. He had to call four lawyers and hire a police officer to patrol the funeral. In 35 years in the business, he had never been involved in anything this extreme.

The 79-year-old widow had died at the VA Medical Center at Bay Pines. She had four children, three girls and a boy. She had a will that showed she wished to be cremated.

Two of her daughters refused.

"They wanted to have an autopsy on her body. They were alleging medical malpractice," Gunter says.

One of the daughters lived in Florida, but wouldn't make any funeral arrangements or even come to the viewing. She tried to hire a private pathologist to try to overturn the medical examiner's ruling of "natural death." The funeral director had to postpone the viewing -- and the cremation -- while both sides argued on and on.

"When we finally had the funeral, even then, during the funeral, that one daughter kept sending me faxes, threatening to sue me," Gunter says.

"We have to be very careful what we say and who we defer to, when someone says they're in charge."

Gunter has been embroiled in conflicts where one brother wanted to keep all of his mother's remains together and another wanted to take some home to Pennsylvania. He has seen siblings war over whether to bury Mom in her wedding ring, or keep it out of the coffin -- and about who would get it if they didn't bury it. Other funeral directors have witnessed fights over family Bibles.

"Once this man died and his children wanted to bury him with a whiskey bottle. They said he wanted it that way. But that's not what their mom wanted," Gunter says.

So after the funeral, after everyone left, before he closed the casket, Gunter slipped that whiskey bottle under the pillow. "All the kids were in agreement on that one," he says. "And after all, it was the man's own wishes. We try to do what the deceased requested, within reason."

The only other time Gunter had to call the cops, he says, was to help break up a fight between sisters.

The two women in their early 20s started scratching each other in the parking lot. Gunter doesn't remember whether it was their father or mother who had died or what they were fighting over. He just remembers watching from his office window, thinking: "That's two sisters doing that to each other."

While he was waiting for the police, he remembers wondering:

What gets into some people? And why does it get into them so often at funerals?

* * *

Dwayne Elliott Matt has seen gang members shooting over coffins, families dividing Dad's cremains into seven equal piles, brothers and sisters squabbling over who gets to throw the first shovel of dirt on Mom's grave.

He is on the Florida State Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers. He has run Zion Hill Mortuary in St. Petersburg since 1989. "We try to cater to everyone. But we get caught in the middle so much," he says. "We get held responsible for things.

"Sometimes we have to take drastic measures."

Sometimes the person in charge of the funeral puts up "unwanted posters," photos of family members who shouldn't be allowed into the services. As the funeral director, Matt says, they often expect him to act as bouncer and throw the folks out.

"I had a wife once who'd been separated from her husband for years. The guy had been living with his girlfriend forever. Then he dies and his wife, who never bothered to get the divorce, she wants to take over all the arrangements. Of course the girlfriend didn't have any legal status. But it wasn't my fight to fix."

Matt wonders, too, what it is about funerals that skews some people's priorities. You'd think that after your mother died you wouldn't worry about how you got from the church to the graveside. But some of the most vicious fights this funeral director sees are over who gets to ride in the limousine.

"Only 15 family members can fit in that car. We always have big disputes over packing people into the limo," Matt says. He keeps a list, now, of who is allowed.

Most folks don't want to face death. They'd rather deny it than deal with it.

For some, a funeral is the first time they have to talk about philosophical issues, confront questions of heaven and hell.

Deal with a real trauma.

Plus, it's often the first time a child has to cope with a loss without the protection or guidance of a parent. All of a sudden, the one you turn to is gone.

And you have to take care of all the details.

"Grief is a loss. The expression of the greatest of losses. And with every loss there is an inability to meet our needs," says Teddy Tarr Luban. She's a grief therapist who sees 60 patients a month at her Miami office. She's also on the staff at Miami Children's Hospital and Baptist Hospital, Miami.

She doesn't believe in stages of grief. Everyone handles death differently, she says.

"No matter how apt you are at coping with grief, you're making funeral arrangements in the worst of times," she says. "Decisions are made when people are not thinking clearly. They're in post-traumatic stress, and they're being asked to confront conflicts they've buried since childhood.

"Any glitch in a relationship between siblings is going to be projected onto the funeral," Luban says. "You've got the same rivalries you've had all along, that were never solved as children. But now you have no leader. You've lost your sense of community."

At the time of a funeral, Luban says, no one has had a real chance to grieve. The children barely have had a chance to process what's happened.

So they go into what she calls Denial of Death. Or: Death on Trial.

By fighting over something to do with the deceased, they can keep that person alive -- at least in the courts, or in the funeral home parking lot. They can keep uttering that person's name and acting out their assumed wishes, or on their behalf.

"This is one way of postponing your grief work," says Luban. "Turn your anger over the death onto your brother or sister. Leave the outcome up to the courts."

In her 14 years as a therapist, Luban has been called to the hospital to help settle disputes between siblings over whether to donate their mother's organs. She has spent five years working with parents who have lost children. She has seen patients who never get over their parent's death.

"I try to help my patients realize that they can still have a relationship with that parent. They can use them as a guidepost in everyday activities. That doesn't have to be a sad thing -- it can be very joyous."

Luban has not been following the Ted Williams case. But she thinks she understands some of the emotions driving it.

"It's not uncommon for grief to turn into unbridled anger," she says. "When it's left undirected, when we really don't want to admit we've lost something, that's when it so often turns to conflict.

"That young man, Ted Williams' son, I don't know for sure, but it sounds to me like he doesn't want to admit his dad has died."

Maybe freezing is the only way he can keep him alive.

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