When you bring together an educational consultant, a creative social studies teacher, a funeral director, a Penn professor, a supportive principal and a bunch of sixth graders, the result at Bordentown Regional Middle School is a unique educational experience. The preteens got to be part of a multidimensional program combining ancient Egyptian culture, the process of making mummies, and a history of funeral practices up to the present.
It all started with a study of ancient Egypt in social studies teacher Tom Ridolfi’s classroom. One highlight was creating and presenting the sarcophagus of a pharaoh, decorating it with hieroglyphics and sayings, and then “mummifying” a stuffed animal and a doll by taking out their brains and internal organs.
Then, through the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, a Penn professor taught an online class about the process of mummification as the students explored each step in their classroom using fabricated mummies.
Mummification is a 70-day process, Ridolfi says, including preservation with Natron, a sodium compound that also was the source of the chemical symbol for sodium, Na; wrapping in linen cloths, treating with resins. His students are actively involved. “They are not just sitting there learning about pharaohs; they get to practice what the ancient Egyptians used to do, without touching a dead body,” Ridolfi says.
The museum also shared an artifact loan box with replicas of ancient Egyptian ceremonial objects. Ridolfi cites one item that reinforced what his students had already learned. The Egyptian mummifiers, he explains, believed that the heart controlled the body, but threw the brain away. The students were able to handle a replica of the hook they used to “keep jabbing the brain until it was liquid and came out the nose.” In fact, he says, “they thought the brain was snot; they thought when you are sneezing you are losing a little bit of the brain.” Artifacts also included the tools used by scribes and the paper they wrote on, made from reeds grown on the banks of the Nile.
Factoids like this really appeal to middle schoolers, Ridolfi suggests: “The kids love anything with gore; it grabs their attention.”
Last but not least the students got to hear about the history of funerary practices through the present from Robert Pecht, owner of the Bordentown Home for Funerals.
Bordentown resident Kate Reilly, the consultant who brought together the pieces of the mummy program and a former principal of Peter Muschal Elementary School, had gotten funding for the artifact box from Dance Tips in Plainfield, but she still needed $500 to cover the online program for four different sixth-grade classes. “I was thinking, mummies, death, who do I know?” she says, so she tried Pecht, whose response was enthusiastic. “Not only was he thrilled to sponsor the classes,” she says, but he agreed to speak to the students himself.
Pecht shared several interesting facts in the development of funerary practices worldwide that he planned to share with students.
“The Greeks and Romans transitioned from actual burials to more cremation,” he says, noting this made sense especially for soldiers who died in distant battles. Another Roman practice was hiring paid mourners. “It was a status symbol—the more people that would come to your funeral, the wealthier you were.”
The term “undertaker” comes from the 19th century when, Pecht explains, any professional, including a cabinetmaker who built caskets, was considered an undertaker, because they were “undertaking” a task. The term “wake” grew out of people wanting to make sure a person was dead. “Doctors were not experts in pronouncing people dead, and there was a big fear of being buried alive,” Pecht says, noting that caskets were built “with different failsafes” to ensure this did not happen.
In America, the practice of embalming started to take root during the Civil War, because this was the only way to return dead soldiers to their families. “They had embalmer tents on the battlefield next to the surgeons’ tents,” Pecht says. What solidified the practice of embalming was Abraham Lincoln’s 40-day funeral procession on a train back to Illinois. Thomas Holmes, who became the father of American embalming, had to make sure the president’s body remained viewable.
Today New Jersey law requires that a person be either buried or cremated within 48 hours, unless the funeral home has a refrigerator. If not, the person has to be embalmed, Pecht says.
Pecht’s father and his eight brothers and sisters, he says, “were all bakers out of Irvington and Newark,” and his mother’s family were “longshoremen or construction workers out of Brooklyn. Pecht himself had not intended to become a funeral director, but his goal was to join the Secret Service or the Drug Enforcement Administration. But after serving in the US Navy he got a part-time job with an answering service, where “a bunch of the clients were funeral homes.”
Pecht got friendly with the manager of a local funeral home, who told him he was looking for someone willing to work part time. Within eight months of Pecht working there, his grandmother developed Alzheimer’s disease and died within the year. His manager had him take care of the details surrounding her death. He recalls, “I went to JFK Hospital and brought her back to the funeral home, and he asked if I wanted to stay when he did the prep. I got her undressed and washed her hair.”
The next day he brought his mother in and they made arrangements for the three-day viewing, from 2 to 7 p.m., the “old, Italian custom,” followed on the fourth day by the funeral mass. “My mom had a very difficult time,” Pecht says. “The gentleman I worked for was very good and was absolutely super helpful for my mom. I thought, ‘Maybe this is what I’m supposed to do.’”
A few months later he joined the accelerated program at the American Academy of Mortuary Science in New York, also known as the McAllister Institute of Funeral Services. The 14-month, Monday-through-Friday program ranged over microbiology, pathology, organic chemistry, embalming, restorative arts, accounting, business, mortuary law, grief counseling, psychology, and public speaking. Then he passed the national board examination to become a licensed funeral director. Recently his older brother also became a licensed funeral director.
About his chosen profession, Pecht says, “I wouldn’t change it for anything in the world; I’m able to help people through the worst, most difficult thing they’re ever going to go through.”
When Pecht and his wife Stephanie moved to Bordentown, he talked to her about its being a close-knit community where he expected they would develop strong friendships and relationships, but he also warned her about the potential downside of owning a funeral home. “You have to realize that sometimes those people you’ve made friends with, who trusted you—you’re going to have to do their funeral, to provide that service for them.”
Pecht bought the property for Bordentown Home for Funerals, formerly Hartmann’s, in March 2004. In the last few years he has gotten involved in green funerals and burials.
Ridolfi grew up in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, where his father teaches high school biology.
He talked me out of going into teaching,” he says, because of the economics. Instead Ridolfi got a business degree at Norwich University in Northfield, Vermont. He worked as a stockbroker for a couple of months, but was not happy and decided to pursue the dream of teaching he had had since high school. He earned a master’s degree in education at the College of New Jersey.
During a computer class he got an email about an opening at Peter Muschal Elementary School, where he had done his student teaching, suggesting that he apply. He was interviewed by Reilly, who was then the principal. “I asked him why he wanted to be here,” Reilly recalls. “He said he wanted to be in a school for a career, not moving to different places. He wanted to find a home and be in the same school forever.” Based on his great reputation as a student teacher, he got a job there teaching math and science.
After the middle school was built, he moved there, joining the the social studies department a year or so later. He now teaches sixth and eighth graders. He met his wife, Patty Ridolfi, at the middle school, where she teaches language arts.
After retiring as a principal and before becoming a consultant, Reilly worked in a variety of positions, each for two years, a limitation imposed by her pension: director of education in Hopewell, assistant superintendent in Moorestown, principal of the Barack Obama Green Charter High School in Plainfield, and head of the Ellison School in Vineland.
Reilly hopes to continue the mummy program next year and possibly expand it. She notes an additional plus of bringing in new approaches: “we will learn something about teaching.” She congratulates principal Joseph Sprague for being “such an advocate of bringing new experiences to kids” and Ridolfi for his willingness to put in the extra work that something new requires.
Sprague suggest that the virtual element in the program is particularly valuable for the children, because they are likely to encounter conferencing technology in college and at work. Reilly emphasizes how important the physical connection, provided by the artifact loan box, is. “When the students are holding something in their hands and see the professor holding it, it makes the connection between the two real,” she says.
The University of Pennsylvania, Reilly says, is “thrilled” at Pecht’s role because they “have never seen an extra part where somebody comes in and does present-day practices.”