When Funeral Directors Play the God Card: How I Approach Religion as a Funeral Director
There’s a number of similarities between the work of a pastor and the work of a mortician. We, like pastors, find our schedules based off the needs of others. We find ourselves continuously surrounded by mysteries and silence. We are invited into the sacred space of death; and like pastors, we’re expected to be some kind of guiding symbol through the dark valley of loss.
Like pastors, we are given great power. And we have too often abused that power by exploiting those we are meant to serve. We too – like the church – can also abuse God and religion for our own personal agendas, distorting the purity of our profession for the sake of personal gain.
In fact, too many funeral directors exploit God and religion in order to find a competitive advantage.
I remember sitting at my desk during mortuary school, probably sketching some worthless piece of pen art on the pages of my textbook. I was – like usual – having trouble paying attention to the professor as he waxed on about various means of gaining a competitive advantage in the funeral industry. And then he said something that knocked me out of my stupor.
“One of the best ways to gain customers is to go to a large church. Get as involved as you can. Meet as many people as you can. Make your donations visible. And, if you can do it, find another large church and attend there as well. Use religion to your advantage.”
At that time in my life, there was still a purity surrounding religion and God. My faith hadn’t been examined and broken down atom by atom like it is today. My trust in the goodness of humanity and the goodness of God and the love of God was as black and white as day and night. And the idea that we should use something so powerful – something with some much potential goodness (think Mother Teresa) – for a competitive advantage made my stomach turn in anger and sadness.
Today, I watch as too many of my industry colleagues (one specifically who is a competitor, who attends the two largest churches in the area, and who sat under the very same professor) take my funeral professor’s words to practice. I watch as God and church and religion become a stepping stool to a higher echelon of community endearment. And just like twelve years ago, my stomach still turns.
My faith has changed from twelve years ago. Years ago I was taught to believe a lot to believe it all with certainty; today, the opposite seems to be true. There’s parts of my faith where mystery and doubt have bred silence and where that silence has bred a form of agnosticism. But lying at the core of what’s left is still the belief that love is the meaning of things. That God is love. That our highest form of humanity is found when we love. That the universe is held together by love. And that love is how we conquer the fear of death.
A couple months ago my disobedience to my professor’s words went on full display (against my expressed wishes) in a local newspaper article. Words that were spoken in private became fodder for the public. This is what was printed:
But more than 10 years of work in the funeral industry has changed Wilde’s once traditional Christian faith, he says.
“When you see tragedy firsthand, it affects your view of God. You either change your view of God, or you lose faith. I think I’ve done a little of both.”
Though he still enjoys studying theology and religion, “I’ve become (slowly) apathetic towards God … . I know this sounds awful, but I don’t think he’s involved enough in the world.”
Still fascinated by the idea of a suffering God in the person of Jesus, Wilde says he no longer finds much meaning in the concept of a resurrection.
“I don’t see the intervening power of God in the death of a child … or in an overdose.”
For the past year, he says, he hasn’t attended church with his wife and 2-year-old son.
This article was immediately met by an onslaught of personal inquisitions. I received phone calls, emails, texts from people that I love who were concerned for my soul. Family members cried because I was now an apostate. And even though I’ve started to go back to church, I know many now see a question mark as my religious status instead of an exclamation point.
I still don’t know the long term effects of such a personal admission being printed for the public eye. I don’t know who will stop using our funeral home because “Caleb Wilde isn’t one of us.” Because “Caleb is a heretic.” I do know that my professor was right: Religion is a powerful thing. And religion and death are wonderful bedfellows. I’ve felt their power. When I doubted, I lost more than parts of my faith; as a funeral director, I probably lost parts of my business.
But, perhaps ironically, by allowing myself to doubt parts of my faith, I’ve managed to gain its purity. Because I’d rather be honest about my doubts, honest about my fears, honest about my silence. I’d rather embrace transparency and feel the ire of my community.
As a business owner in the funeral industry, it’s a great temptation to allow my identity to be molded by what I perceive to be the public’s wishes. It’s a temptation that all business owners face. But for funeral directors specifically – while recognizing the immense power and connection that religion has with death — the temptation to mold our faith for purposes of public approval may be the greatest temptation of all. It’s a temptation that I hope you don’t fall into. Because faith matters.
And the truth is that when we allow our faith to be swayed for the purposes of public approval, it is much worse than doubt and silence and disbelief.