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I'm a sixth generation funeral director. I have a grad degree in Missional Theology and a Certification in Thanatology.
And I like to read and write.
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Posts by Caleb Wilde
Over the past couple months, I’ve been contemplating why the West (America, Europe, etc.) has so much aversion to death, while other — less “developed” — cultures see death as less alien. I’ve come up with two major reasons:
Our modern world takes death care away from families and puts it in the hands of “professionals”, thus industrializing death. Instead of the dying dwelling at our homes, we give them to nursing homes. For more of my thoughts on this, here’s an article I wrote.
The modern world also likes providing answers to life’s questions. So when death comes with its silence and mystery, we are rendered uncomfortable.
Two. We lack ritual. And at this point I’m probably losing you. Mentioning the word “ritual” is this context is as revolting as having missionaries knock on your door at 8 PM asking you if they can talk to you about Jesus. For many the word “ritual” is on as nauseating as words such as “tradition”, “Victorian etiquette” and “plain tofu.”
There’s three reasons (that I can see) that the idea of ritual (especially religious ritual) is so odious to the modern person:
1.) We tend to be individualistic, which isn’t necessarily bad, but it produces a lack of community and a lack of ritual.
2). We tend to dislike tradition (again related to our pioneering spirit).
3.) We are becoming post-religious.
The following is my (rather poor) attempt to explain why the lack of ritual increases our aversion to death.
Muscle memory is what separates theprofessionals from the amateurs.
Muscle memory is what enables musicians to thoughtlessly play complicated music with near perfection.
Muscle memory is the product of laborious habit that makes incredibly difficult tasks seem like minutia.
I just came back from indoor rock climbing.
I’ve seen athletic and strong newbies come to the gym and they look like fools trying to climb routes. Falling down on their bums, scraping their arms up and getting all nervous when they get to the top of the route.
Climbing is a combination of strength, technique and muscle memory. And while newbies may be strong and athletic, if they don’t know how to move their bodies on the wall, they’re destined to fall and fail.
Grief is similar. The walls of bereavement are very intimidating to even the spiritually and psychologically strong. It doesn’t matter how whole you are, you will fall and you will fail.
Unless you enter through the trodden technique and muscle memory of ritual.
The muscle memory of grief is ritual. Ritual allows us to take the incredibly difficult task of mourning and find a way to persevere, even when it seems we shouldn’t.
Muscle memory is usually something you or I create through practice. I climb routes at the climbing gym, my muscles get used to moving a certain way.
You practice the guitar day in and day out and your fingers move like jazz.
This is where the whole muscle memory analogy starts to fall apart when we relate it to grief.
While a professional’s muscle memory is something he or she created, death ritual muscle memory is something our community has created and it can only be “learned” within community.
You didn’t create it. It’s something we inherit … or something we can join.
This from Alla Bozarth in “Life Is Goodbye, Life is Hello: Grieving Well Through All Kinds of Loss”:
Funerals are the rituals we create to help us face the reality of death, to give us a way of expressing our response to that reality with other persons, and to protect us from the full impact of the meaning of death for ourselves.
The problem is this: so many of us have disconnected ourselves from community, tradition and a religion that we’ve never received the graces of grief ritual.
If we have community in place,
if we embrace tradition in times of death
and we’re willing to involve the motion and movement of religion,
we may find life and meaning in a task that many onlookers see as insurmountable.
Ritual doesn’t allow you to overcome grief (grief may never be overcome). It doesn’t allow you to work through your grief faster. Nor does it make death more tolerable. And it certainly won’t make you a “professional.”
Ritual allows you to confront a seemingly impossible task in the context of community.
Why is the West so adverse to death? Because devoid of ritual, confronting death is like asking me to play Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23.
The following post was submitted by a funeral director who wishes to remain anonymous. While the names have been changed to protect the privacy of the parties involved, the circumstances and events that you are about to read are entirely true.
Jane Doe had been a prominent and well-known local politician. She had been on hospice for a short time. Upon arriving at Jane’s, typical suburban house, at the end of the culda sac, I counted about 15 cars parked around her house. I couldn’t help but think, “Wow! Jane was very well loved, and there are a lot of cars here for 2am.
Upon ringing the door bell, I was greeted by John, her husband of 30 years. He couldn’t help but apologize for “waking us up at such an ungodly hour”. After speaking with John, and asking if he was ready for us, he replied, “Yes” and invited us inside. Internally I thought this will be straight shot, piece of cake pickup.
What I failed to gather was the mood of the people in the house … the quiet before the storm. Jane had been in the living room. Me and my partner gather our required equipment, and made the 50 foot journey to the living room. I began my speech, “if you would to stay and watch and help, you’re more than welcome too. Please do not feel as if you have to leave the room.” No one wanted to help us move Jane, but they all decided to stay and watch.
Upon getting Jane onto the stretcher, I was entirely unaware of the mass hysteria about to unfold in front of my eyes. After I moved Jane onto the stretcher, I began to tighten the strap when Jane’s body, due to the force of me strapping her in, belched.
Mass hysteria erupted. I was literally tackled away from the stretcher, 911 was called, and the teary eyed people now became violent, as to them I was taking their very much ALIVE loved one who had not died. I was sat upon, as the police and ambulance were on their way. What was probably only 3 minutes seemed like an eternity and I could only think of one thing, “where is this hospice nurse?!”
Upon the authorities’ arrival, I was able to explain my predicament. And that the belching that had occurred was a natural and actually fairly common phenomena for the dead. The police officer, fireman, and ambulance driver cracked a knowing smile and helped me restore the peace as I took Jane into my care.
They even escorted us to the funeral home. John, upon seeing me the next afternoon to make arrangements, immediately burst into laughter, saying, “Sorry about last night, my family loved her very dearly.” My only response was to politely say “I would have done the same thing had I not known better.”
Note: I wrote this article over the weekend and I wasn’t going to publish it until Wednesday, but since I just spent my entire night [11 PM to 5:45 AM] picking up three deceased persons, I thought it’s probably appropriate to post it now. After I hit “publish”, I’ll be off to bed and back to work by noon. Ah, the joys of a small family business.
If you’re in the Parkesburg area and want to donate coffee* to my bloodstream, you’ll find me at 434 Main St.
*I prefer a medium cup of Dunkins Donuts with cream and sugar : )
The following burdens are not necessarily funeral service specific, but many, if not all, come with this profession. Those of us who stay in this profession do so because we find serving others in their darkest hour extremely rewarding, yet there are burdens to be borne. Here’s ten.
One. A Lack of Personal Boundaries.
The phone rings at 3 AM in the morning with a hospice nurse on the other end of the line telling you that so-and-so has died, that so-and-so’s family is requesting your services and that the family of so-and-so is ready for you to come and pick up so-and-so.
The phone rings at 6 PM the next day. Someone needs to see so-and-so … he simply can’t believe so-and-so is dead and must come to the funeral home at once to see so-and-so.
While those of us who stay in this business do so because we love serving people, the lack of personal boundaries can lead to depression.
Depression, because my son’s baseball game was at 6 PM, but somebody in so-and-so’s family needed to see so-and-so this very minute. Depression because the emotional needs of others somehow always trump my personal life needs. And all of a sudden “I’m not a good father” and “I’m not happy with my life.”
Psychologist Carl Rogers described how he “literally lost my “self”, lost the boundaries of myself…and I became convinced (and I think with some reason) that I was going insane”. When we in human service, and death service, become pulled into the whole narrative of death and dying, we can lose ourselves.
An iron stomach I have not. Putrid smells, this business has many. This is a burden that comes home with me … a burden that my wife often notices shortly after I walk through the door.
Five. Life Secrets, Death Secrets and Practice Secrets.
When a person commits suicide or dies from an overdose, there are times when the family simply wants to keep the manner of death a secret from the public.
I don’t mind carrying the burden of a secret, but when you live in a small town where suspicion can run rampant, secrets can become heavy.
Some things we see will remain with us forever. They are so disturbing, so terrible that we do the world a favor by not sharing them.
Six. Isolation by Profession.
Death makes us different … not necessarily unique, just different. This difference creates a chasm between us and those not immersed in death. Sure, police, doctors, psychologist, etc. have chasms created by their professions, but ours – because of the fear, sadness and undefined hours of our practice – creates us into something other.
Seven. Death itself.
Death can be a beautiful experience in the life of a family. But when that death is tragic and unexpected, death is a heavy burden for both the family and for those who serve the family. Specifically, when the death is a young person, our entire staff becomes agitated and moody.
Many funeral homes are small businesses that don’t have enough staff for shift work. In order to serve our families (so that they’ll return), we have learned that the way to overcome the depression and potential psychosis that can come with a lack of personal boundaries is to marry the business. We make the work our life. Such work addiction pleases the families we work for, but can leave our personal families destitute.
And while many of us don’t carry the burden of workaholism, we do carry the burden of fighting off the addiction.
Nine. Death Logistics Stress.
Every business has stress. Some more and some less. And while funeral service can’t claim a quantitative difference in stress, it can claim to have its very own type of stress. To grasp the type of stress surrounding a funeral, imagine planning a wedding in five days, except where there’s joy, sadness exists, and where there’s usually a bride, a dead body lies in state.
Ten. Dress clothes …
… in the summer heat. Dress clothes in the dead of winter. We are one of the few — armed service members are the only others I can think of — professions that wears suits outdoors as a matter of practice. There’s nothing like having sweat drip down your back and into your crack. Well, nothing except maybe freezing your dress shoe covered toes in a foot of snow.
Today’s guest post is written by Samantha Allington.
On Thursday 8th September 2011 I was 19 weeks and 3 days pregnant when my waters broke at home. I knew in that instant that my baby wouldn’t survive but I still wanted to hang on to the little bit of hope that some miracle would happen and my pregnancy would proceed safely against the odds.
I was rushed in to hospital by my birth Doula where I was checked over by the doctor who confirmed I had lost amniotic fluid. After a scan to measure the fluid levels I was told there was not enough water to support my baby’s lung development and that due to diabetes I was at high risk of death too.
I had to face the hardest decision of my life and after spending from then till the Monday following refusing outright to terminate my pregnancy, I finally conceded to allow the medical team to induce labour at just 20 weeks gestation. There would be no intervention to save my baby as I was under 24 weeks pregnant and hospital policy didn’t permit resuscitation at that age.
I was in an abusive relationship with a violent partner and I chose to go through labour and birth with only my Doula present. It was a harrowing experience to say the least but I was still determined to make my baby’s birth as natural and beautiful as I could. I wanted it to be special and memorable, for my last moments with my baby to be precious.
We had a candle lit room (LED tea lights and colour changing lotus flowers), aromatherapy, crystals and the Obstetrician permitted me to have a natural birth without any electronic monitoring (no wires or drips) so that I could move around freely. The midwives allowed us the space we desired and only came in to check once in a while how contractions were developing.
Finally it was time to give birth and despite holding on for as long as I could refusing to push, my daughter finally entered the world at 5:28am on 14th September 2011 at just 20 weeks and 2 days gestation as the sun was rising.
She was about the size of a Barbie doll at just 20cm length and weighing a tiny 10.5 ounces. Despite her tiny size she was perfect in every way, with ten fingers, ten toes, perfectly formed ears and a little pink nose, I even noticed in the right light she had the fairest eyelashes I’d ever seen.
I spent 2 days alone with her in the hospital, holding her, kissing her and trying to take in every little feature so that it would be burnt to memory forever. I didn’t want to let her go or say goodbye, I wanted those days to go on and never end, but of course they did end and I had to leave the hospital.
Arriving home it was time to start planning her funeral, she’d never get a birthday, Christmas, Easter or a wedding day, her funeral was the only special occasion she would ever have, and the only thing I could do for her to make it as important and special as I could. I contacted the charity Children Are Butterflies who work alongside B Hollowell and Sons funeral directors. They fund children’s funerals and the lady that runs it was lovely.
Due to the abusive relationship I was in, I was again alone in planning my daughter’s funeral but Ann made everything go easier and smoother. She was so kind and supportive towards me and I know I will be eternally grateful to her for all she did.
The funeral was beautiful. We had a Hearse that was made from an old London black cab to take Poppy-Rose to her last resting place and a beautiful white woollen coffin with an embroidered name plate. The funeral was white, pink and butterfly themed. Poppy’s coffin looked so tiny at the front of the chapel resting on a Moses basket stand that was far too big. We read poems and I gave her Eulogy before moving to the graveside for her internment. Each guest was given an incense stick to light and place in the ground around her grave and a paper butterfly to write a message on for her. As we said goodbye a beautiful red butterfly flew across her grave, unusual for the time of year here in England.
I wanted to share my story because often talking about baby loss is considered taboo but especially in cases of termination for medical reasons. This leaves so many women (and families) feeling isolated and alone in their grief. I wanted a chance to give my side of the story, to show you how much we all need that little bit of help, compassion and love. We don’t all have family to stand by us; some of us feel so alone in our grief. We go through all the usual feelings such as sadness, despair, anger but often we also feel guilt and self-blame and this can only be made worse when we are silenced by others negative judgements , we need to be allowed to speak out and to share our stories, our personal journeys with others.
Today’s guest post is written by Jessica Fowler.
The funeral home was filled with young people. While I waited in the viewing line on a ramp that lead into the chapel, I looked around at the men and women, mostly in their 20s, dressed to impress. If you cropped out our bodies with a Photoshop tool and pasted it on to a picture of the outside of a nightclub it would make a perfect billboard. Instead, we were on our way to say goodbye to another person we knew who died because of substance abuse.
Most of us had been in that line before or would be again soon. If you put all of the people between the ages of 18 and 30 from my county in a room together, you could spend days trying to find a single person whose life hasn’t been fractured by substance abuse. There is a different feeling in the air when you attend a funeral for someone who overdosed, a chilly undertone that no one wants to directly address. The unspoken fact that nearly everyone around you has grieved for this person already before, in their own way, because losing someone to addiction is like losing them twice.
When my father overdosed in 2006, there was no trace of the man who brought me roses when I was sick. There was nothing left of the person who built pinewood derby cars with my brother for the church youth group. There was no sign of the husband who gave my mother a gift every day for the 12 Days of Christmas. He was gone long before that needle stuck into his veins, before he left his house, his job and his church. He was gone the second a distracted doctor wrote him a prescription for Adderall, scribbling away a decade of sobriety without a second thought.
I mourned the man my father was long before he took his last breath. I grieved for his convictions, the principals that he traded for a poison. It doesn’t happen fast—years go by where you feel as though every time you answer the phone, it’s going to be the news you have been dreading. When you find yourself on the bottom of another person’s downward spiral, it suddenly becomes so clear how you arrived there. That unstoppable force consumed the person you loved long ago.
It’s not hard to find a scapegoat to blame. If it’s not the doctors, it’s the dealers. The shadowy figures who lace heroin with Fentanyl. The coroner’s exact words were, “John died from a bad batch of heroin”…as if there were any good kind of heroin. A dozen others died that same weekend from the same “bad batch.” More than 16,000 people a year die from opioids, but somewhere in some shadowy corner of this world, someone who wanted to make some extra money decided that that was not deadly enough. The drug baggies the police found were stamped with smiley faces.
I remember a brief “before” time when my father was still alive when I didn’t think a drug as monstrous as heroin could affect my life. Then, a few months after my high school graduation I heard that a girl I went to school with had overdosed. She was, in my memory, one of the most gorgeous girls I had ever known and the type of girl a person would say had “everything going for her.” Less than a year later, the same drug took my father.
Now, when I look around at the tear-streaked faces, my mind instinctively wonders, who’s next?’ That may sound like a cynical thought, so I should mention that we were waiting in line to view the body of a man who stood in this same funeral parlor, flesh and blood, only four months ago when his brother died from a heroin overdose. To even try to imagine the grief of his parents who lost both of their sons to this demon substance is impossible. Your mind just shuts down because even the thought is too much to bear.
While we’re waiting, I watch as a young guy ahead of us, dressed in a long white T-shirt and shorts, trips and stumbles while moving up the ramp. His voice travels down the long passageway, angry words I can’t make sense of. I don’t have to know what he is saying to know that he is on something. Even from far away, I can see a wild, unsteady look in his eyes. There are others here too who have that same spaced-out look. I want to shake them and force them to wake up to the reality around us.
We walk through a room with photo display boards and a memorial video. I can hear a familiar piano melody and I know the song immediately. “How to Save a Life” by the Fray, the unofficial anthem for those left behind because of substance abuse. My throat catches when I see a video of the two brothers standing together in their Baseball uniforms. Children in a world that hasn’t started to sink beneath them yet. When I kneel at the casket and see someone so young, it’s hard to believe my own eyes.
I hug his dazed parents and express my condolences. In truth, it is hard to look into their faces for longer then a few seconds. To see the exhaustion that I have seen in my own face and in the face of my family reflected back feels like opening an old wound. Reliving that pain is something I can bear, but my fear of standing where they stood again was something I could not.
I remember when my mother first told me that my father was an addict and that an addictive gene ran through our blood. She told me I was old enough to know why my dad didn’t drink and had to go to therapy, and why we were sent to live with my grandmother when he went to rehab. It was during the blissful clean years, when I only knew a loving father and the word addiction was like a bee buzzing by my ear, keeping me from the outside world where I could play. I couldn’t know that the words she was telling me would echo back later. That I would be fighting with her in a struggle to save my brother from his dependency on alcohol. That the cycle of addiction would continue to repeat throughout my life.
When my brother and I were watching my dad unravel, we swore we’d never end up like him. We swore our lives would be different. I imagine those parents said the same thing after they lost their son—that they would do anything to save the other. But words and vows are worthless against the power of addiction. Before it claims your life, it claims your personality, your beliefs, even parts of your soul.
I don’t deny the culpability of the addict. I know it’s a disease of choice. I’ve known others who have crashed on the rockiest of rock bottoms and are now living wonderful lives, fully in control of their own destiny. But no matter how hard you try to stop making excuses for the addict, it’s the only way you can justify loving someone who is already gone in every way that matters. It’s like loving someone who is possessed.
It’s one thing to lose someone. It’s another to lose someone again and again and again, to that same unstoppable force. I feel like I am losing my brother against something that I can’t fight. I’ve tried before and lost, and I’m terrified of losing again.
Jessica Fowler is a fiction writer and poet from the suburbs of Philadelphia. Her short story, “Anchored” was recently published in The Philly Anthology (Vol. 1). Jessica studied journalism at Temple University and when she is not working on fiction and poetry, she is busy writing articles and blogs for funeral directors as the Public Relations Specialist at ASD – Answering Service for Directors. Jessica is also an avid outdoor enthusiast who loves hiking, camping, biking and swimming. To read more of Jessica’s writing, visit her blog at characterisfate.wordpress.com.