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Nine of the Most Horrible Suicides of the Nineteenth Century

by Steve Kemple

Unlike today’s newspapers, daily rags of the Victorian era revelled in death, drama, and bloodshed. Headlines were filled with gruesome murders, bizarre accidents, and horrible suicides. Often, reporters invented details or indulged in wild speculation, because nothing sells newspapers like a spectacular headline. In those days, reading the paper was less an act of becoming an informed citizen and more a means to voyeuristic entertainment. Some of the best examples are articles about suicides, particularly when it involved shuffling the mortal coil in some creative or unusual way. For the past few years I’ve been collecting these articles on my blog Horrible Suicide. Here are a few of the most unusual I’ve found so far…

  1. Death by Spiders

One Fall day in the year 1898 Cora Smith noticed a spider crawling up the wall of her prison cell where she was serving a life sentence for murdering her father. Although her mother, Betsy Smith, was initially convicted of the crime and sentenced to life in the same penitentiary, Cora had later confessed to the deed, hoping her mother would be set free in return. Instead of letting her mother go they decided to lock them both up. This caused her a great deal of mental turmoil, and she saw the spider on the wall as a way out. The New York Sun writes:

She gathered spiders day by day until she had a large number tied up in a handkerchief. [...] The other night she ate the spiders and the next morning was found dead in her cell.  The handkerchief with the remaining spiders was found by her side.

You can read the whole article here.

  1. Death by Contraption

On the one hand you have your mad scientist. And on the other hand you have your aspiring cult leader. Then there’s One Wheeler (yes, that was actually his name) from the sleepy village of Dundee, Michigan. In 1877 he invented a bizarre and deadly machine to demonstrate his alleged immortality. On March 16 the St. Louis Globe Democrat reports:

The machine with which Wheeler killed himself consists of a strong framework, which supports a ponderous iron balance wheel, and numerous pulleys, wheels, steel springs, wire ropes and belts, most of them without any apparent utility to the unsophisticated eye.  The wheel is strongly bound with numerous old knives, sharpened irons, and in one case a savage looking broad-ax.  When set in motion by a stout steel spring, arranged on scientific principles, it will run fully ten minutes with frightful velocity.  The head of the victim was hacked and torn from the trunk, and sliced and cut into a thousand minute pieces.

His intent seemingly was to place his body in such a manner that it might work slowly under the wheel, thus pulverizing it inch by inch.  The end attained was brought about by a three-sided trough inclined to the machine.  The thing was neatly planed, and large enough to contain his body, but no more.  He probably set the hellish arrangement in motion, then placed himself in the trough, head downward, and slid under the revolving knives.  One arm was found in shreds, torn from the body. The arm was probably thrown upward in the agony of the first moment.

It seems One Wheeler also single-handedly (pun intended) invented steam punk.

But there’s more. A document was found nearby explaining the decidedly cosmic intentions of his patent pending device:

It is now 2:20 a. m. of Saturday morning, March 3, A. D. 1877.  My mind is fully made up to pass the ordeal of which I am to be the sacrifice.  The mysteries that lie unfolded in the physical part of man will in a short time be given to the world.  Having failed in my effort to satisfy scientific men of the soundness and utility of this grand discovery by experiments in the animal world, and knowing that such an invaluable secret is held only by myself, I shall, before six hours have passed, give the world sufficient proof of my reasonings.  The Almighty Being gave man faculties and placed before him powers, leaving him to penetrate their apparent mysteries.  But to one who has brought to light these hidden powers, everything is so plain, and we notice our actions to harmonize with its occult qualities we have no fear of a change in our constituent elements.  When this mighty, mighty agent controls and guards the course of our atomizing body, we advance one step higher in our change, nearing concentration at each successive stage, and at last enter perfection.  All is life for him who has life!  All is hope for him who has hope!  All is death for him who has death!  My physicatomic state after the ordeal I desire shall be taken in charge by Prof. Louis McLouth, who, by taking a portion of my “creative all-changing assistant material,” will cast a few particles over the dissectory remains and then place them in the receptacle of my galvanic allotropic power, where the elements will resolve themselves into a new combination, and I will appear a living evidence of the collateral discovery.

Maybe he was on to something? Maybe he actually transcended to another dimension or plane of consciousness? And what of this mysterious Professor McLouth? I have so many questions. In any case, here’s the rest of the article.

  1. Bravo! Bravo!

Signor Pieto Vaini, an Italian artist living in New York City, was known to have a flair for the dramatic. Like many creative individuals, he was prone to frequent mood shifts, so his friends didn’t think anything of his recent weeks of dark behavior. Then one September afternoon at a picnic, the Independent Statesman writes:

After several speeches had been delivered asked permission to speak, and quoted some beautiful lines of poetry in his native tongue.  He then drew a small revolver from his pocket and shot himself through the right temple.  The members of the party at first thought this was merely a simulation of suicide and began to applaud what they believed to be a fine piece of tragic acting.  They were soon horror stricken, however, by the discovery of the truth.  Just before Vaini fell he exclaimed in Italian, “God, who judges all, will judge of this.”

Maybe it was also a sly reference to the opera Pagliacci? You can read the article here.

  1. Wrapped in a Portuguese Flag (Or Not)


I find this one especially interesting for a number of reasons, mainly because it never really happened. At least not to Serpa Pinto (who died undramatically 10 years later in Lisbon). Here is what the New Orleans Daily Picayune reported on June 16, 1890:

A dispatch from London, June 12, says: Major Serpa Pinto, the African explorer, is chagrined because he was not consulted with regard to the Conceiro expedition which met with such a sad fate in southern Africa.  He committed suicide to-day in a novel and startling manner.  He made a funeral pyre of fourteen barrels of gunpowder, wrapped himself in a Portuguese flag and set fire to the fuse.  The desperate man was blown to atoms by the explosion.  He left a paper saying that he sought to secure a patriotic death.

It turns out these events did really happen, but the man wrapped in the flag was not actually Pinto but his colleague and fellow Spanish explorer António da Silva Porto. Porto, 72, didn’t immediately die from the explosion, instead suffering for several agonizing hours before finally drifting off into the great unknown. Serpa Pinto…Silva Porto…close enough, right?

If you’re ever in the city of Kuito, Angola (which was called Silva Porta until 1975), be sure to check out the Silva Porto statue, which, as far as I know, will not explode. In the mean time, check out the full article in all it’s erroneous glory.

  1. An “Accidental” Suicide


I guess that clears that up…

  1. Hey! Wake Up! Look At My Art Project!

It’s 1889 and you live above a coffee shop in San Francisco. Your weird roommate, Milo, has been acting stranger than usual lately, but you just chalk it up to his typical eccentricities. But tonight he really crossed the line. Around four in the morning you hear a series of groans and loud bangs in your room, and you open your eyes to see that blasted Milo excitedly trying to get your attention. Before you can remind him that you have work in the morning and he should know better than to barge into your room in the middle of the night, you notice his wild grin and the blood on his hands. Then you see it. Everywhere. He’s… oh god… and he’s laughing! The Daily Evening Bulletin described the grizzly scene as it occurred:

About 4 o’clock in the morning [Milo Ballabosich] got out of bed, and getting a couple of small penknives, cut a hole in his abdomen.  He then woke his room-mate, who at first thought there were burglars in his room.  When he saw what Ballabosich had done, however, he quickly dressed, and running down to where Officer Dower was standing on Davis street, told him that a man had tried to kill himself and asked him to go at once to the room.

Dower and Officer Mahoney complied.  When the door was opened the scene which the policemen saw was horrible.  There stood Ballabosich in the middle of the room with a fiendish grin on his face.  From the gaping wound in his abdomen he was slowly pulling out his intestines and strewing them around the room.  Several yards of them were deposited in various places on the floor.  Officer Dower, although he was sick from the disgusting spectacle, quickly rushed at at the lunatic, and, knocking him down, placed his wrists in handcuffs.  The man was removed to the Receiving Hospital.  Of course, no medical treatment could save his life and he died about 9:30 o’clock.  Dr. Foulkes examined some of the detached entrails and found that the deceased man had been suffering from a surgical affection of the intestines.  He was rendered insane by the intense pain, and the only idea he had in his lunacy was to gain relief from his suffering.  The disease is a sort of telescoping of the larger intestines, which become tied up in knots.  Dr. Foulkes says the pain caused is intense, and can only be cured by operation. The disease is very rare.

Come to think of it he never did clean up after himself. Here’s the complete article.

  1. If At First You Don’t Succeed… Submerge Yourself In Bran Flakes

Speaking of disembowelment… In 1855 F. C. Stamback, a Petersburg, Virginia flour inspector, decided to put an end to his misery. So he went into his basement with knives, razors, guns, and a large container of bran. The Daily Cleveland Herald writes:

Here he divested himself of his pantaloons and laid them behind a box partly filled with bran. He next got into this bran box, and must have used the penknife partly wounding himself, as it was cast aside clotted with blood, as were also the pistols, neither of which had been discharged.  He grasped the razor, and the first wound he inflicted upon himself was a circular cut of about four or five inches in the abdomen, from with the intestines protruded and fell on the bran box.  Finding that this would not terminate his existence speedily, he applied the razor to his throat and made a fearful gash nearly from ear to ear, by which death was cause almost instantaneously.

There’s so much going on here, not least being the gruesomely specific visual of warm, slimy entrails coated in bran flakes. Check out the article here.

  1. Beheaded by a Train


This one appeared in the Denver Rocky Mountain News on July 2, 1897:

Martin Van Buren Yendes, 59 years of age, and living at 2480 Sixteenth street, committed suicide at 3:30 o’clock yesterday afternoon, by placing his neck before the wheels of a moving train on the Burlington tracks, at Twenty-first and Wewatta streets.  His head was completely severed from his body and death was instantaneous.  Poverty and despondency is supposed  to have been the cause of the suicide.  Yendes was the father of Horace Yendes and lived in the companionship of his wife with the latter’s family on North Sixteenth street.

Seems pretty cut and dry, right? Well, maybe not so dry. Part of what makes this article so spectacular are the details:

The train stopped with its rear coach just opposite Twenty-first street, and the front a considerable distance, to the east.  Yendes was seen to approach and seat himself on the rear platform.  He saw a signal given to go ahead and stepping to the ground he walked ahead and past the first set of trucks.  He was seen to kneel and deliberately place his neck on the rail.  The next moment the train started forward and with a grind and a crunch, the head was completely separated from the body. The other two wheels completed the work, and when the car passed on not a shred of skin remained to connect the head with the lifeless trunk.  The heavy wheels pressed the arteries together in such a manner that but little blood escaped, and that little ran down under the man’s coat.

The scene which presented itself to bystanders as they rushed up was that of the body of a headless man lying on its stomach.  The coat collar lay against the smooth iron rail, while on the other side lay a ghastly head, with a hat a few inches from it.

This reporter milked the story for all it’s worth, and the front page article included multiple illustrations, including one depicting a determined Yendes lunging towards his death. It also features the testimony of two boys who witnessed his miserable and a less than sensitive portrayal of delivering the news to his family:

“What shall we do?  What shall we do?” [Yendes son] wailed.  “No work, no money, nor friends, and now father is gone.”  And then, as if to defy Providence, who had inflicted such misery, he rose cursing and hurled the furniture about the room.  The grief of the aged wife of the deceased mingled with the scene, and the young wife of the despairing son did her best to comfort her spouse and cried at the same time.

I’m sure the family took great comfort in being the next day’s headline, which you can read here.

  1. Face Off


That horrible movie with Nicolas Cage will do nothing to prepare you for this. During the infamous Haymarket Affair of 1886, while Chicago workers held a peaceful demonstration in support of organized labor, an unknown person threw a dynamite bomb into the crowd. The blast and ensuing riots killed both demonstrators and police officers, and in the chaos a number of political activists, most of them outspoken anarchists, were jailed without a shred of evidence against them. Among them was Louis Lingg, the well-known anarchist, who was suspected of having manufactured the bomb. But there was never anything more than circumstantial evidence.

Fast forward several months. Somehow Lingg has smuggled a fulminating cap (used to detonate dynamite) into his cell. On the night of November 10th he places the end of the cap in his mouth and lights the fuse. The lower half of his face is blown off, but he does not die. At least not yet. He remains awake. For. Six. Hours.

This is a spectacular piece of sensational journalism, which I found in the Portland Morning Oregonian. It’s definitely worth reading in its entirety, but here are a few of its shining, gruesome highlights:

Louis Lingg, the anarchist, will never speak again.  By an act awful as ever was act of human creature, the voice that cried “Hoche die snarchle!” was turned to silence forever.  What seemed a muffled and horrible echo of the fearful bomb at the Haymarket rang suddenly in his lonely cell this morning; that instant the man’s face, which, belying his fiend-like deeds, has seemed beautiful as an archangel’s, was made a revolting mass of blood and shreds of tangled flesh.  Louis Lingg was triumphant.  Despite all human efforts, he had effaced from his countenance every trace of God’s image.  For a single instant, with his back against the bars of Lingg’s cell door, the stalwart guard stood stupefied, while a puff of blue smoke from the dark recess behind, unnoticed, crossed his shoulder.

Then ensued a wild rush of deputies, the clanging of iron gates, and above the confusion and din the hoarse shouting of the guard, “It’s Lingg.  That came from Lingg!”  A rapid movement by the turnkey flung the cell door open and with an eager peer into the shadow two excited deputies jumped pell-mell in.  Their ejaculations of terror brought other guards quickly within a call.  An age of agony and suspense was passed by the jail inmates.  In the cells above and around there was a shuffling of feet on the stone floor and then hundreds of strained eyes watching down through the iron doors and bars saw a group of guards in shirt-sleeves struggling across the dimly lighted area, bearing the legs and arms of the body of a man between them.  The upturned face was a HUGE CLOT OF BLOOD.

And it goes on. Really. My favorite part of the article is when the doctors realizes that he is not only alive but conscious as well:

To all appearances the anarchist was stark dead.  His lithe, athletic form was clothed only in a short tunic, and his brawny limbs seemed rigid.  A small pool of gore was soon floating in the brown curls surmounting the broad shoulders, and on glance showed how Lingg had striven with dynamite to blow off his own head.  The entire lower half of the

once handsome face was gone, including the upper lip and jaw and under fraction of the nose.  Where it had been was now a jagged bloody gap, extending across to the ears and down to the Adam’s apple.

“Open your eyes, Lingg,” exclaimed the jail doctor who had just reached the room.

To the astonishment of the bystanders, Lingg’s eyes opened and looked calmly about him.  He was immediately raised to a table and propped up with pillows, was washed hurriedly while cloth bandages were passed around the lower part of the face and around the top of the head, hiding all but the nose, eyes and forehead, all the loose dangling bones and flesh being first cut away.  The gutta percha mouth of a fountain syringe was inserted in the great hole left by the dynamite.  By this method water and brandy were administered.  This was repeated at intervals, Lingg meanwhile gazing steadfastly about him, watching every move of those in the room, but apparently indifferent to what they did and caring nothing about the almost ceaseless slamming of the door only a few feet distant.  Every now and then, without any seeming immediate cause, a


Would sound through the bandages.  The listeners, aghast, would abandon the room, only to give place to a new set not yet weekend by the horrors within the death chamber.

The next day, on November 11, 1886,  the remaining anarchists were executed by hanging. Then, nearly seven years later, on June 26, 1893, the governor of Illinois gave a posthumous pardon to three of the anarchists, pointing out that their arrest, detainment, and execution were merely the expressions of mass hysteria rather than a function of justice. To this day no one knows who was responsible for the bomb.

As I said, this article is worth taking the time to read in its entirety. They Haymarket Affair is also a fascinating and important piece of U.S. history that’s worth learning more about at your local public library.


Steve Kemple is a music librarian in Cincinnati, Ohio who clearly derives entirely too much pleasure from this sort of thing. He also writes for the magazine Library Journal and has been known to wear a gorilla suit.


Funeral Etiquette for Cell Phones

Cell phones often go off when we least want them to. In church. In school. During sex. And at a funeral. As other funeral directors can attest, the oddest thing about a cell phone ringing during funerals is how many people will actually answer.

“Hello. Yeah. I’m at a funeral service. Can I call you back?”

A funeral director friend once told me that the pastor’s cell phone rang while he was giving the funeral message. He answered it. Confirmed the time for his afternoon golf outing. Hung up and continued on with the service. The family – according to the funeral director – was “pissed.”

If you’re attending a funeral, the best piece of advice I can give you is this: Turn your phone off.


But, they aren’t JUST phones. And it isn’t that simple. Funerals also double as family reunions. So, you pull you phone out. Show off your recent photos of your children and your relatives “oh” and “ah” about how much your children look like a young version of your great uncle Ned.

If you keep your phone on, turn it to — preferably — silent and — at least — buzzer.

Is it appropriate to text?

During a viewing and/or visitation, yes. During a funeral, probably not.

As with talking on your cell phone, if you’re going to text it would be polite to step outside or to a discreet area of the funeral home.   Sexting, though, is off limits at any time during a funeral.

Can I take a photo of Aunt June laying in her casket?

That’s up to Aunt June’s next of kin. And when you ask, ask before the viewing starts. People aren’t always able to think straight during a viewing, so the polite thing to do is ask while they’re thinking straight … which is before and not during.

Don’t just take a photo like this guy:

I’m bringing the kids to the funeral. Can they play “Angry Birds”?

It’s common sense, but turn the sound off. Everyone else doesn’t need to hear screaming birds and snorting pigs. And, it’s probably NOT appropriate for them to play during the funeral.

“We’re gathered here today to remember the tragic loss of ______” At which time your kid yells “yes” as he overcomes a level that’s taken him a combined 1,000 birds to clear. Not cool.

Also, video. If your children want to watch video on your cell. Either find a separate place that’s out of the way for them to watch. Or, get them to wear headphones.

What do I do when somebody else is breaking funeral cell phone etiquette?

The biggest culprits for committing funeral cell crimes are old men and women who aren’t cell phone savvy. Their phone rings in the middle of the service and they frantically pull it out of their pocket or purse and start hitting buttons. After finding the “silence” button, they breath a sigh of releif ONLY to have their phone start ringing again a minute later.

At this point they start muttering. And it’s at this point someone should step in because if you don’t their next action will be to turn it off, which will only create another loud “turning off” noise and more muttering.

The difficulty isn’t with the cell phone newbies, it’s with the cell phone addicted. The young people. And when young people commit cell phone faux pas, and you can tell that it’s annoying people around them, you have to confront them.

“Excuse me. Can you please turn your cell phone off?” Then wait until they turn it off. That’s what I do.

And if they don’t turn it off, pray for cell phone karma (example of cell phone karma in the video below)


11 Reasons You Need to Think about Your Death RIGHT NOW

life support   Google Search

One.  Paul Blart.

Two weeks ago we had a family that was verbally fighting over “what mom wants” for her funeral.  The fighting got so intense that one side actually brought a security guard with them to the funeral.

Don’t have Paul Blart security guards at your funeral.  Determine what you want at your funeral now so your family doesn’t fight over it later.

Two. The Cyborg Death.

Thinking about your death now, also makes us think about how we die.  Do you want to die with tubes hooked into your body, being sustained indefinitely by machines while your body lives on in a semi vegetative state?  I don’t.  And I’ve made it clear that I don’t.  If you want the cyborg death and you don’t want anyone “pulling the plugs”, that’s fine … but either way you should probably make it official by creating a LIVING WILL.

Three.  Breast Augmentation. 

That legal document (called “a will” or “testament”) that makes sure your stuff doesn’t somehow end up funding your ex-husband’s new trophy wife’s breast augmentation is important to do BEFORE you die.

Four.  Your debts don’t pay off themselves.

And if all the stuff you have is debt and darkness and you don’t want to leave your parents paying for your college or your children paying for your house, you may want to think about term life insurance.  Unlike General Motors, you don’t receive a bailout when you die.

Five.  Because you don’t know the difference between an executor and a power of attorney. 

Six.  The Stupid Tax.

Because the less you think about death (your own death and the death of your loved ones), the more likely you’ll be hit hard with the stupid tax.

The stupid tax applies to funerals: Did you know that if you can save money by planning for a natural burial and/or a home funeral?

Seven.  This.


Eight.  You Can Be a neo-Zombie.  

One organ donor can save up to eight lives.  So, be an organ donor and pieces of you will be walking around long after you’re gone.  You’ll be like a Zombie, but a living one … which is cooler.  It’s like a neo-Zombie.

Nine.  Fido Doesn’t Want to be Euthanized

You have godparents for your kids.  But do you have godparents for your pets?  Make sure someone is there to take care of your animals because if no one steps up they could go to the rescue.  And while nobody at the rescue wants to euthanize Fido, sometimes it has to happen.

Ten.  Dying Makes You Drunk

I know.  You’re not dying right now.  And Death probably isn’t scheduled into your calendar anytime soon.  But you think, “I’ll probably die of cancer at an older age and then I’ll get my house in order.  I’ll write my will, I’ll determine my Living Will, I’ll name my power of attorney and executor, I’ll make my prearrangements for my funeral, etc. etc.”

There’s a slight problem with that line of thinking.  Dying kind of makes you drunk.  Not drunk in the “let’s have a good time” sense, but drunk in the “I really shouldn’t be making big decisions right now” sense.  Dying often changes us.  And it often prompts us to make less than objective decisions.

So, if you want to leave all those big decisions up to drunk you, go ahead.  Just let me know, so I can take your money.  Bwhahahaha.

Eleven.  Life.

Because the more you think about death, the more you realize that all of this has an end.  And the more you realize that you, your parents, you friends and your family will eventually die, the more you can embrace this precious thing called life.

By embracing death, we embrace life.


Joining in Empathy: A Story about Being More than a Funeral Director


Photo from Renée C. Byer’s “A Mother’s Journey”

A couple years ago we had a late night house call.  My grandfather and I drove up to the house and an uncle came outside of the house to meet us, explaining the situation we were about to enter.

“You guys are here for my niece, Sara.

She’s 16 years old.

Been fighting cancer for four years.

She’s in the living room with her mother, Joan.”

We entered the house, walked to the living room and were greeted by about 20 family and friends who were scattered all over the living room, some sitting, and some standing, others laying on the floor.

It was late.  Or early.  2 AM.  Time gets confused by death.

When a terminal person is dying under home care it’s normal for a hospital bed to be temporarily set up in a large room, enabling larger groups to visit the dying.  In this case, the bed was in the living room, but the deceased wasn’t lying on it; which was very unusual.  We allowed them time to explain who Sara was, what she meant to them.  All families need this time.

They need to believe that through their stories Sara could be incarnated in us, so that we could love her the same … so that we could become a part of their family.  Once we’re apart of “the family”, we no longer represent a cold funeral director, but a tender caregiver.

After their stories, we asked them if they were ready for us to make our removal.  They confirmed that they had all said their last “good-bye”.

And then we asked, “Where is Sara?”

“She’s here”, said Joan the mother.  And then we saw her.  When we first walked into the living room we saw a small girl being held by Joan.  The girl looked to be around ten years old, and being that it was late we just assumed that this was one of Sara’s younger sisters who had fallen asleep in Joan’s arms.  But, it turned out, Sara had died in her mother’s arms and there she laid.  A small pile of bones, large enough to fill a whole room.

Like the transfer of a sleeping child from one adult to the next, I got down on my knees, slide my arms under Sara’s head and thighs, lifted her starved body out of her weeping mother’s lap and carried her to our stretcher.  The room was full.  Full of love.  Full of grief.  Full of tears.  And I was a part of it all.


I tell you this story because I want to make a distinction between empathy and sympathy.  Let me explain the difference:

Imagine being at the bottom of a deep, dark hole. Peer up to the top of the hole and you might see some of your friends and family waiting for you, offering words of support and encouragement.  This is sympathy; they want to help you out of the pit you have found yourself in. This can assist, but not as much as the person who is standing beside you; the person who is in that hole with you and can see the world from your perspective; this is empathy.  — Dr Nicola Davies

There are times (at funerals especially) when all we can give is sympathy.  When it’s outside of our ability to fully empathize with a person’s situation.  After all, the person laying in the casket isn’t my father.  This isn’t my daughter.  This isn’t my family.

And that’s our job.  You pay us to be directors.  You pay us to be the stable minds in the midst of unstable souls.  And we couldn’t handle much more.  We have to maintain a certain level of objectivity because there’s only so much pain, grief and heartache we can share until we too start to crash … burn out.

But, there’s other times when you can’t help but be drawn into the narrative, so that you enter the narrative and become a character in the story.  Not just a director, but an actual character in the drama of life and death.

We touch the core of our profession when we enter the narrative and become part of the story … when we become more than directors … when we become part of the family.


So, You Wanna Be a Mortician?

The following post will be my attempt to destroy your dreams of becoming a funeral director.  If you can make it to the end of this incredibly pessimistic post and your dreams are still intact, then maybe – just maybe – this “profession” is right for you.  I know I’ll get push back from other funeral directors / embalmers who will say I’m wrong on this or that — or that I’m being too negative — but the purpose of this post isn’t to encourage you, it’s to help you see if indeed this work is for you.

One.  Nobody who “wants” to be a funeral director will make it.

It isn’t something you want in the way that you want a boy/girlfriend or a new car.  No.  It’s more like marriage.  It’s a commitment that’s intended to last.  It’s not a job … nor is it just a profession … this business is a lifestyle.  And if you’re not ready to marry it, then move to another job that demands a less committed relationship.

Two.  Unless you’re born into a family business (God help you), it’s tough to get your foot in the door.

I don’t know which is worse: being born into a family business and being pulled into the death machine or actually wanting to enter the death machine on your own initiative.  The irony is this: those who are born into it don’t always want what’s being given to them; and those who want to be in this business are hardly ever given anything … they’ve got to earn it.

And some will earn it by pulling the night shift; others will start with washing hearses, mowing lawns and making trips to Wal-Mart to buy a cheap bra for Ms. Smith (whose family forgot to send one along with her clothes); and still others will be stuck making pick up after pick up after pick up.  Others may earn it by learning how much cream and sugar the other staff want in their Starbucks coffee.

And once you’ve put in ten years, you might eventually be allowed to do the meaningful stuff like meeting with families, etc.  And then you’ll be able to command other people to get you your coffee!  Power!

Three.  You won’t make much money.

Funeral home owners make decent money.  Unless you’re an owner, expect less than a nontenured public school teacher’s salary.  I know, I know … everyone thinks we’re loaded with the bills, when actually we’re just loaded with school loans and a lot of caffeine.

Four.  If you’re lazy and don’t have an intense work ethic, don’t apply.

You know what they call a lazy funeral director?  They call ‘em dead.  Because the only time most funeral directors quit working is when they die or get maimed by a unicorn.

Five.  If you’re not a patient person ….

Have you ever been around grieving people?  At times grieving people act like they’re out of their minds.  And, there’s times when grieving people can act … well … they act kinda crazy.  And it’s their right.  In fact, it’s the reason WE exist.  Their world has been pulled out from under them, they haven’t a foot to stand on and everything that they used to know is suddenly … gone.  And you’re here to help create semblance in the crazy.

And if you don’t have the patience to walk with a person whose mind is clouded with grief then funeral service isn’t for you.

Six.  You need to be a (somewhat) stable person.

I’m not really sure what a stable person is; but I do know what an unstable person is. An unstable person doesn’t know how to show up to work on time because he or she has been out drinking the night before with his or her friends.

An unstable person brings personal relationship issues into work.  “OMG, I know exactly what it’s like to lose a spouse ‘cause last night my girlfriend left me.  You and me are like soo going through the same stuff right now.”

An unstable person loses their cool too easily.  “Hey you in the second row!  I told you to turn your damn cell phone off during the service.  You’re interrupting everyone!”

Seven.  Getting your license can be complicated.

Each state’s (in the US) requirements for licensure is different.  Some states make distinctions between embalmers and funeral directors.  Some require three years of education, some less and others more.  Some states don’t even have a Mortuary School.  Most states (all states?) also require you to have an internship before you’re licensed.  And then there is the state test and the national test that you have to take.  And some states make you learn how to embalm a Sasquatch … because in some states Sasquatch actually does exist and it’s a well kept secret that Sasquatches like to be embalmed.

Eight.  You hit your pinnacle in this “profession” when you get older.

Generally, you work with older people and older people prefer to work with people within their generation.  So, it can be hard for a younger person to establish themselves in this business, but it’s very possible.  There’s no 18 year old prodigies in funeral service because being a funeral director is about life experience, not business acumen.

Nine.  It will be tough on your family.

Holidays.  Baseball games.  Weekends.  Death keeps no schedule and neither will you.  If you work for a larger funeral home, you may be able to work shifts.  But shift work in the funeral business is not normal shift work.  If you want to enter the funeral business, make sure both you and your family are prepared to see less of each other.

Ten.  There’s bad smells.

You take those smells home with you.

If you made it this far with your hopes intact, click here for Ten Reasons I’m a Funeral Director.


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