AIDS funeral: Coping with the double pain

It happened eight years ago, but Bill Urban tells the story with the pain still fresh in his voice.

Urban, who is homosexual, went to a funeral home to view the body of a gay friend who had died of AIDS. The casket bearing the body of Urban's friend rested in an arched doorway.


The friend's family had been seated in a room on one side of the casket. The gay friends of the deceased man were seated in the opposite room, on the other side of the casket.

"My friend's death should have brought all of us, his family and his gay friends, together. Instead, his death was used as a weapon to keep us separated from each other," said Urban, the editor of the Alternative, a local gay monthly. Urban was diagnosed as having acquired immune deficiency syndrome three years ago.


Yesterday, as he addressed a workshop on "AIDS and Funerals: Resources and Challenges for the Clergy," Urban said the experience with his friend's death inspired him to battle the prejudices and fears that keep a family from burying one of its own with dignity and the sense of a life's completeness.

The workshop, sponsored by the AIDS Interfaith Network (AIN) and held at the United Methodist Conference Center in southwest Baltimore, explored ways of heightening the sensitivity of the clergy and funeral professionals to AIDS-related deaths. About 30 clergy and lay people attended, representing several Christian denominations and Judaism.

"This is a problem that has existed for quite a while -- how people who die of AIDS are treated at the time of death," said Andy Rose, the executive director of the National AIDS Project in Washington.

Rose organized the workshop with the Rev. Harry Holfelder, AIN chairman and the pastor of First and Franklin Street Presbyterian Church.

"Clergy are often confused about how to do a funeral service without seeming to condemn the person's lifestyle," said Rose, "and funeral homes sometimes aren't so willing to have physical contact with the body of the deceased. It all adds up to the final insult for these people, not being treated appropriately after dying of AIDS."

Holfelder urged the participants to instruct each other by telling stories. "We're not here as experts, we're here as people who are learning about the HIV experience and the human family," he said.

The stories came. Greg Wise, a former United Methodist minister and an official of HERO, a privately funded AIDS patient service in the city, told of a man with AIDS whose mother was a Baptist minister. Her congregation voted to bar her own son from the church after learning he had the disease. Wise also told of attending a funeral at which the minister condemned the deceased for his gay lifestyle.

The Rev. Barbara Sands, a member of the staff at the United Methodist Conference Center, reminded the audience that AIDS afflicts not only gay men. She related the story of a young mother who is impoverished and has been shunned by her family because she has AIDS.


Most calls to the interfaith network no longer come from gay men but from heterosexual black women, Holfelder said. The group donates $300 to the cost of a funeral for a person with AIDS, but it may try to boost the amount to $500 by asking local churches to hold a special collection for the funeral fund later this fall.

He also announced that the network was compiling a list of "sensitive clergy" who could be called on to perform a funeral service if the person dying of AIDS was dissatisfied with his regular minister.

Elaine Mack, the mother of a man who died of AIDS, offered C positive story, describing her son's funeral service as "a celebration of love. That showed how a loving and accepting service can be done."

There were also stories of funeral homes tacking on an extra charge of up to $500 for people who die of AIDS if an autopsy has been performed. Although the practice may seem questionable, it is not illegal, funeral industry representatives said yesterday.

"I tend to feel that this excessive pricing is overblown and unnecessary. It happens, but the few bad apples can cast a shadow over a lot of good professionals in the business," said Maryland State Funeral Association president Ellen Rapp.

However, Karlynn Brintzenhofe, a social worker at Johns Hopkins Hospital's AIDS unit, said the practice goes beyond a "few bad apples" and is, in fact, common at many funeral homes in the city.


Sally Lowe, the executive director of the funeral association, said it is not unfair to charge extra in such instances, because working on a body with an infectious disease requires more time and special equipment. She added, "But $500 extra is excessive."