For years, State Senator Thomas Kennedy has continuously filed a bill on Beacon Hill that, if passed, would allow family members of the deceased to take a break during wakes at funeral homes so that they could have refreshments—something that is not currently allowed under Massachusetts state law due to potential health hazards. But every time, his argument falls flat.
On Tuesday, he made his pitch, again, for what he believes was roughly the 12th time since he has been in office. “I have filed this bill, I don’t know, maybe a dozen years, and it just gets heard with no action. There hasn’t been anyone else pushing for it,” says Kennedy.
The idea to file the bill originally stemmed from a personal experience Kennedy went through in the 1990s, he says, when his aunt died, and a funeral director scolded his family for sitting in a room adjacent to the casket to talk and have coffee and snacks. “I feel for the mourners, the widows, and immediate family members that they can’t sit in another room and have a cup of tea and get some nourishment and then greet their friends and family and feel somewhat energized,” he says.
To try and push the bill forward once again, Kennedy submitted a two-page letter to the Joint Committee on Public Health this week, advocating for the bill’s passage.
“At no point did I intend for my bill to be looked upon as an affront for the deceased—merely as a way to help comfort family members and mourners at an already difficult time, nor was it intended to mandate that funeral directors provide these amenities—only that the prohibition be lifted,” says Kennedy.
In his letter, Kennedy said that the argument that allowing immediate family members access to refreshments—like coffee, tea, or sandwiches—poses a health risk, because it’s in the same vicinity as a corpse, is “less than persuasive.” He added that many funeral homes in the state double as residences for the people who own them, and food is likely in the house. “For decades, wakes and funeral services were conducted in the deceased’s home, where food and refreshments were served to attending mourners … Just as a host would extend hospitality of food and refreshments to visitors in their residence, that same courtesy should be extended to visitors at a funeral home,” Kennedy wrote in the letter.
Kennedy says family members at wakes and other services are often on their feet for close to 10 hours at a time, and with the occasion itself already being draining, a lack of refreshments can leave loved ones “tired, thirsty and hungry; an added burden in their time of sadness.”
Calls to several funeral homes in Boston reiterated the rule that they are not allowed to have food readily available to visitors, and one service, which asked not to be named, said all they have to offer is water from a bubbler. Other states that have a similar bans include Connecticut, New Jersey and New York. Pennsylvania lifted a ban on food being allowed in funeral homes in 2012.
Kennedy says that if the bill were finally passed, after all these years of pushing it through Beacon Hill committees and hearings, the necessary steps would be taken to ensure “complete public safety and well-being,” in terms of food being served, so that nothing would be near any chemicals used at the funeral homes for embalming or other practices. “I’m very traditional and come from an old Irish family. In the old days, they had the wake at the house. You would have food and drink for all your family and friends. It was a tradition to be a host to the visitors and supporters that came,” he says.
Boston magazine reached out to the state’s Funeral Directors Association for a comment on the ban, but did not receive an immediate reply. The bill was met with some skepticism by funeral directors in Massachusetts in 2011.
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