The worst thing that every happened at one of our funerals, happened a little over three years ago, during a combination snow and ice storm. We were holding a funeral at an old Catholic church.
In case you aren’t familiar with the architecture of old Catholic churches, allow me to paint you a picture. The buildings themselves are almost always built out of stone, and unlike modern church buildings, are not built with handicap accessibility in mind. In fact, they usually have 10 to 20 steps leading up to the church entrance.
This particular funeral took place in just such a church, except it had about 25 icy steps from the front door down to the sidewalk. The church was situated on the main street of the town, across from the pharmacy. We parked our hearse at the bottom of the steps, but off to the side.
In some churches, we are able to get in on our own, without any pallbearers. At old churches, pallbearers are a necessity. Luckily, this family bought a rather inexpensive, light casket, because only four pallbearers made it to the funeral. Many people stayed home, unwilling to brave the slick treacherous roads.
After the funeral mass, we called the four pallbearers out of their seats, each grasped a handle of the casket, and carried it to the front door. As we opened the front door and stepped onto the first step, the icy wind slammed into our faces. The lead pallbearer lost his footing on some ice on the top step. To steady himself, he gripped the stair railing, releasing the casket so as not to yank it down with him. As he stumbled, the other front pallbearer hit the same patch of ice, reached for the railing, and let go of the casket, too.
At this point, helplessly watching from behind, I thought, “Well, at least we’ll escape liability” (because of the poorly salted front steps of a negligent church).
You can imagine what happened next. The back two pallbearers couldn’t handle the weight of the casket and let go. It slid down the twenty steps, picking up speed as it went. It sounded like a steam engine as it hit each step with a loud “thump thump thump.” It was flying by the time it reached the bottom. The pallbearers were yelling. We were running, but because of the ice, I couldn’t get enough traction with my dress shoes to catch up to it.
I had no chance of reaching the casket before it hit the road. All I could do was look on as the casket shot across the street and shattered the front window of the small neighborhood pharmacy. The lid popped open when it hit the window (it was a cheaper, non-gasketed casket). The front counter of the pharmacy finally stopped its slide abruptly, ejecting the dead body to a vertical position. The pharmacist, who had been watching the whole event from behind the counter, found himself staring into the eyes of the corpse as it opened its blue dead lips and asked, “Do you have anything to stop this coffin?”
Good writing happens when you are whisked away from your own reality and placed into another reality. It happens when someone else’s narrative becomes apart of your own.
Valuable writing happens when you’re whisked away into a perspective that you don’t understand. It happens when you begin to see multiple dimensions of a narrative you previously saw as one dimensional.
The following guest post by Jocelyn Ressler is that rare piece of writing that’s both good and valuable.
***Trigger Warning***: If you’re sensitive to writing that deals with self-harm and suicide, please don’t read this article.
Do not tell me my scars are beautiful
I did not do this to myself to look beautiful
To appeal to some fucked up
perception of what beauty is
What scars are
What scars represent
Was I beautiful when I was biting my lip
pressing scalding metal to my flesh?
Was it attractive when my mom laid me down on the floor
blood pumping from my arm
the day I went too deep?
Would you tell me I’m beautiful if I didn’t have scars?
Would you have looked twice at me
without the crisscrossing white lines
and the purple blotches?
Wouldn’t it be sad
if the most beautiful thing about me
is the hate that I carry on my body?
“Scars are tattoos with better stories”
Better for who?
Nobody looks at my arms and sees
a good story
A good time
A good memory
Looking at myself
I read the stories
Stories of chaos
Stories of pain
Some marks I remember making so clearly
Others are a mystery
Some of the lines spell out thoughts
Short blurbs of my conscience
on my calf
across my chest
“Die” or “Death”
on my stomach
on my right thigh
on my left
on my arm
“I know better”
on my leg
Looking at my tattoos
I see the stories there too
Stories of hope
So tell me
How are scars better stories?
Are they preferable?
I’d rather hand over some cash
for an inked man to press needles to my skin
Than give up my life
to take a razor to the same skin
“Never be ashamed of your scars”
Am I to be proud?
If I had harmed anyone else
the way I harmed myself
would you tell me
not to feel remorse?
Why wouldn’t I be ashamed?
I am living on the border
of a society that glorifies my behavior
and a society that condemns it
will ever understand
“Maybe you should cover your arms; kids will be there.”
“Are you emo or something?”
“Why haven’t you just killed yourself?”
“You’re cute. Messed up skin kinda doesn’t help you though.”
“What are you going to tell your kids?”
“Why are we on a team with the emo girl?”
“Stop trying to get everyone’s attention.”
“Why are your sleeves rolled up?”
“I wasn’t going to tell you, but that looks really ugly.”
“You’re wearing a jacket to homecoming, right?”
And today in a coffee shop:
“Have some self-respect.”
Please read Jocelyn’s most recent piece, “Frozen in Time.”
There’s a fine line between being a funeral director and being a narcissist. We’re called to be directors, to display confidence, knowledge, authority and strength during people’s weakest moments. But this environment that asks us to lead can too often enable us to self-enhance. We talk over our heads, project authority in situations that are best left to the family and tense up in disdain whenever we’re questioned..
Unfortunately, many funeral directors become narcissists (the funeral industry also has a tendency to harbor narcissists who gravitate towards the pomp and professionalism of funeral service). And while it would be easy to simply call these guys and girls “jerks”, the situation is usually more complex. For many, the tendency for funeral directors to become self-absorbed isn’t a product of nature, but of nurture. And recognizing the environmental factors that produce narcissism in funeral directors is a big step in making sure we keep focused on the heart of the funeral industry: serving others. Here are seven factors that tend to produce narcissism in the funeral industry and therefore keep us from being the public servants we’re called to be.
Families come to us in despair, their minds clouded by grief and the unknown. They pay us to be the stable minds. And they give us power. They give us power every time they trust us with their deceased loved one and their grief. And when they give us that power, there’s a certain satisfaction that comes with treating that vulnerability with as much honor as we can.
But sometimes that power can bloat our egos.
Being told, “You’ve made this so much easier for us.” or, “Mom hasn’t looked this beautiful since she first battled cancer”, or “You guys are like family to us” means a lot to me. It’s important to know that what we’re doing is meaningful for the person we’re doing it for.
That verbal affirmation is a big reason why I continue to serve as a funeral director.
But that praise doesn’t mean we know it all. It doesn’t mean we’re never wrong. And it certainly doesn’t mean we’re the unquestioned authority on all things funeral.
We get up in the morning, put on our nice clothes, park in the parking lots of our grandiose funeral home and pull out our grandiose Cadillac and Lincoln funeral coaches. Pomp has a tendency to make us think we’re important and to make us forget that all that pomp isn’t for us, it’s for the family we’re serving.
Four. Lack of Criticism.
So, when people ACTUALLY do question you, when your beliefs are questioned and when you’re criticized, it’s important for us to remember that we’re here to help families, not give them all the answers. Our pride isn’t in ourselves. Our pride is in service; and criticism — as hard as it is to hear — is often a very healthy way to enhance our understanding of how we can better serve.
Five. Secrecy and Professionalism.
Leon Seltzer writes, “(Narcissists are) highly reactive to criticism. Or anything they assume or interpret as negatively evaluating their personality or performance. This is why if they’re asked a question that might oblige them to admit some vulnerability, deficiency, or culpability, they’re apt to falsify the evidence (i.e., lie—yet without really acknowledging such prevarication to themselves), hastily change the subject, or respond as though they’d been asked something entirely different.”
The secrecy (which is often clouded in a pretentious form of professionalism) of the funeral industry often allows an out for narcissists. If their work is questioned or criticized, they will often pull the professionalism card
Six. Micro Markets.
There’s nobody that knows the people in your community better than you. You are the best person to serve those that walk through your door. YOU have poured yourself into the community, you have give your holidays, your late nights, your overtime for people. And sometimes we feel like we know our market so well that we know it better than the ones we serve. I’ve seen it happen. You may have invested decades into your community, but that doesn’t mean you these are “my families” and “my people.”
In a culture of death denial, we are one of the few segments of the population that think about death on a regular basis. And in a culture that rarely thinks about death, it doesn’t take much knowledge to feel like a “death expert”.
Let’s just make a couple things clear: funeral directors aren’t psychologists, we aren’t philosophers, we aren’t grief experts and because there’s such a vast array of funeral customs and practices, we aren’t even funeral experts. Sure, you know your demographic, but your demographic is a very small sample of global funeral customs. Narcissists have grandiose sense of self-importance and often times this leads to funeral directors thinking they are the end all be all of death education.
Today’s guest post is written by Janie Garner
When my son was killed at 17 years old, I knew I would visit his grave a few times a week for the rest of my life. This was an obligation. Not visiting him would be tantamount to neglect. These were my son’s bones, all that was left of him on the earth. Someone had to visit and remember, and it was my responsibility.
I haven’t been in almost a year. He died almost 4 years ago.
The first several times I went, there was no headstone yet. I am a Navy veteran and Alex, as my minor child, was entitled to be buried in a national cemetery. I went and looked at the fresh dirt with orange plastic netting on it, to prevent the ground from eroding. I looked at the printed card and metal stake. It was winter. I sat or sprawled on the grave for hours at a time, until my hands turned blue with cold. We had an unusually snowy winter. I sobbed and tried to bargain with God to take me instead. As you can see, that didn’t work out for me. People came over and asked me if they could call someone, and if I was ok. I must have been quite a spectacle if strangers were that concerned about a woman crying over a fresh grave.
I wanted to say: No, I am not ok. You are a well-meaning but stupid human. Get away from me. Can’t you see I am trying to mourn my kid, or freeze myself to death? Instead, I said “Thank you, I am fine “.
Then it became spring and I showed up several times a week to watch the plugs of grass spread across the hole. The netting was taken away at some point. The stone was set, and I spent hours tracing his name with my fingers, and punching myself in the leg as hard as I could to distract myself from the psychic agony I felt.
The first time I saw his name (and mine) on that headstone, I screamed and fell to my knees. It was so much more permanent than the card and the stake. The US Government had provided a monument that said he was dead forever. It was lined up with thousands of stones exactly like it. There was an empty space next to his grave, for my husband Paul, an Army veteran. I would be buried on top of my baby. My name and pertinent dates will be carved into the reverse of his stone. Our various atoms will perhaps eventually mingle again, as when I carried his body inside of mine.
His bones are in the company of heroes. The national cemetery will be perfectly maintained for as long as the US Government exists. There are literally hundreds of deer, completely unafraid of humans. They walk among the monuments peacefully. They also eat the flower arrangements. Alex would enjoy that.
Six months passed. I found myself dreading each visit. They spread further and further apart. I became completely hysterical and inconsolable during and after each visit. I was guilty for not going as often as i should. I became mildly suicidal every single time i visited. There was no winning this one.
My Father-in-law was diagnosed with terminal cancer when Alex had been dead for 10 months. He was dead a month later. He mentioned that it was too bad that he couldn’t be buried next to Alex, his much-loved Grandson. I am the nurse in the family, so i took care of him. He died at home, with us.
Naturally, when he died we gave him my husband’s spot. Paul will be buried with his father, a decorated Purple Heart and Bronze Star Vietnam Veteran. I will be buried with our son. We have created a family plot in the middle of a National Cemetery.
Alex’s grave was disturbed when they buried his grandfather. This caused me to be unable to leave my bed for weeks. The grass took some time to grow back, and it became my habit to lay in the dirt and/or mud between them, with one hand on each grave. This winter wasn’t as snowy, but it was wet.
If I was mildly suicidal before, now I was in great danger of ending my own life. I started only going on holidays, birthdays, and death days. This made me less suicidal, but more guilty.
I felt like I was failing to properly honor my son. I still do, but I cannot take the emotional tornado caused by seeing my baby’s name on a headstone twice a week. I was dying inside a little more each time I visited. I have the florist deliver flowers to the graves occasionally. Other family members visit sometimes, and I know the cemetery is cared for. I can do nothing else. I have nothing left to give.
I feel like the custom of visiting graves is barbaric, at least for grieving parents. There is nothing under that stone but a decomposing body. In this case, the body of the child who was NEVER supposed to die before me. The body that died and completely invalidated my life, The body I didn’t protect well enough.
The body I failed.
Because that’s really what the problem is. No matter how many times you tell a grieving parent that their child’s death was not their fault, they will never believe you. Somehow, in their own minds, they are to blame. My son was killed when he was hit by a 9 ton tow truck, operated by a distracted driver. I was 40 miles away. I blame myself.
So visit if it comforts you. Do not visit if it tortures you. Your kid doesn’t care. Either the Atheists are right and he knows nothing about it, or he is in Heaven and way too busy partying it up with God to notice worldly stuff.
At least, that’s what I tell myself.
I asked this question to the Confessions of a Funeral Director community:
If you’re in (or going to be in) the funeral trade, what reason(s), experience(s) and/or event(s) inspired you to take the plunge?
These 20 very short stories help dispel the idea that funeral directors are innately money-hungry creepy people. Creepy people who stuffed their first piece of road kill at the age of 10. People who were born and wrapped in a black baby blanket and put in a coffin shaped crib with hearses and trocars dangling from our crib carousels.
Yes, death makes us different but most of us entered death care as normal, good-hearted people who want to make a living while making a difference.
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