(223 comments, 542 posts)
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
Earlier this week a contentious discussion brewed on my Confessions of a Funeral Director Facebook page. And I’d like to address the topic in my blog’s forum.
The discussion was kick-started when I posted this status:
The second comment on the above status was from a fellow embalmer named Allison, who said this:
Allison’s initial comment eventual prompted this comment from a former embalmer named Kristie.
First off, let me say it’s possible for an embalmer to be both 100% for tissue/organ donation and not enjoy the process of preparing a donor. It’s possible for us to be both professionals and human. I’m one such funeral director. I am firmly and unequivocally a supporter of those who choose to find life in a tragic death, and yet when a donor body comes through the morgue door, it’s not Christmas morning.
I know that the best donors are usually young and they usually die from tragic (not necessarily violent) circumstances that leave their body in decent condition to be harvested.
I have immense respect for families who — in the midst of incredible tragedy and darkness — find a way to overcome their pain and chose life by allowing for the harvesting of a body they love so dearly. This act of donation is one of the few genuinely unselfish acts to be found in humanity.
Yet, while I recognize the intense moral beauty and life saving value of organ donation, I’m less than excited to embalm and prepare a donor’s bodies.
Each funeral home and funeral director is different. Some funeral homes are large enough to have shift work; still others are large enough to employ full-time embalmers, who basically embalm body after body all day. Some funeral homes have secretaries, prearrangement directors, at-need directors, full-time pick-up people, etc., etc. But for many of us small firms, we play role of embalmer, secretary, pick-up/livery person, funeral director, at-need director and pre-need director. We’re on call 24/7 and rarely have an uninterrupted holiday.
Our personal lives are not just blurred with our professional lives, they become one and the same, often resulting in sad endings. Divorce. Depression. Burnout.
Our pay doesn’t always justify what this profession takes from us. According to the BLS, the average embalmer makes $45,060, which isn’t bad until you consider that the salary often comes at the expense of our souls. I’ve worked 20 hour days. I’ve worked 100 hour weeks. Most months I get two days off. This month, my weekend off happens to be this weekend and with the snow coming, I may have to work the plow on one of my “days off.” And when I am home, it’s hard to get comfortable as I’m one phone call away from going back to work.
I was up until 12 midnight writing this post and then at 3:30 AM I was called into work. I won’t be finished work until roughly 5:30 PM.
Here’s a picture of me at the nursing home at 4:40 this morning. The smile is real … the nurses were making fun of me for taking the photo.
And although this isn’t about me and the burdens I carry, I will say that my experience isn’t exceptional. The at-need demand, emotional and long hours take their toll on us as people.
So, when the heart is donated and I have to raise six arteries instead of one, I don’t smile.
When there’s bone donation, I don’t look forward to moving the Styrofoam rods around to make the appendages look natural.
When skin is grafted, I don’t smile when I’m cleaning the seepage off the floor.
When I get various liquids on myself because of the intrinsic messy nature of donor bodies, my face doesn’t crack a grin.
Unless I’m listening to stand-up comedy on the morgue’s radio, I don’t embalm bodies with a smile.
I appreciate Kristie’s assertion that she has never thought about complaining when preparing a body. And I appreciate that she always sees it as an honor. I will be the first to admit that Kristie is probably a better person and funeral director than I am. Maybe her suggestion to Allison (that Allison should find another profession) applies to me as well.
But, I, in contrast to Kristie, think it does us funeral directors well to be honest. Maybe not in a public forum like I’m doing now, but we need to recognize that we’re both professionals and human. We love to serve you, but there’s times when we too need to be helped. We need to fight that perception that to be a professional means being an unfeeling robot. We need to ask for help, sometimes we need to seek counselling. If you’re a funeral director and you don’t embalm donor bodies with a smile, it’s okay.
This is not a post that you “like”. It’s a post that unsettles your lunch hour. After all, this post contains photos of a 141 year old body that’s been dead over 88 years.
Here’s the context.
Vladimir Lenin — the head Comrade of the 1917 Russian Marxist Revolution — died on January 21, 1924. In that same year — after a supposed outcry from the Soviet people to preserve Lenin’s body for future generations — he was embalmed and placed in a Mausoleum where approximately 15 million people have visited and viewed his body.
Today, Lenin’s mummy is still open to the public every day from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm, except holidays, Mondays and Fridays. Visitors still wait in lines to see Lenin’s body. Entrance to the Mausoleum is free of charge.
Apparently, the main preservation problem that Lenin’s body faces is that it develops dark black spots on the skin. In order to help said dark spots, they bath the body with different preservative agents.
Here are some pictures of the bathing process:
Being old isn’t always defined by the amount of times you’re rode the earth around the sun. My grandfather is 82 and he has more spunk and energy than I do. In some regards, age is an attitude … an outlook on life.
Here are ten characteristics I’ve noticed that define the “old outlook” on life.
One: Increasingly skeptical
Two: Increasingly isolated
Three: increasingly worried
Four: Increasingly moralistic
Five: Increasingly unwilling to try new things, hear new things, embrace new things, see new things …
Six: Increasingly tribalistic
Seven: Increasingly protective of things over people
Eight: Increasingly sedentary. There’s a difference between retiring and becoming sedentary. Old people do the latter.
Nine: An increasing idealization of the past
Ten: Increasingly becoming more and more like a dead person.
WHAT ARE OTHER CHARACTERISTICS OF THE “OLD OUTLOOK”?
Back before Twitter, before Facebook, before Gmail, around the same time that Hotmail was cool, there was this place called the “Myspace.” And on this “Myspace”, it was a common practice for the members of the “Myspace” to answer a litany of random questions and then post one’s answers to said random questions so that all one’s friends could see the answers.
Let’s go back to the age of indestructible Nokia cell phones, to the time when you connected to the internet through dial up, and let’s pretend it’s once again cool to have frosted tips and answer random questions.
One. Are you a death virgin (have you had anyone close to you die?).
Two. When you die, do you want embalming, cremation or other?
Three. Who is your current crush? (Had to throw that one in there for old times’ sake)
Four. If you could choose, would you rather die having sex, or die while saving an old person from drowning?
Five. Would you rather die slowly (so that you could say your “good-byes”) or fast (so that you could have minimal pain)?
Six. Does the most epic way to die necessarily involve Chuck Norris?
Seven. Do you believe in the afterlife?
Eight. On a scale of one to ten (with 10 being the highest), how would you rate your fear of death?
Nine. Should voluntary active euthanasia be legal or illegal?
Ten. Have you ever touched a dead person? If so, how would you describe that experience?
Eleven. If you died today, would you be happy with your life? If no, what would you regret?
Twelve. What do you think is worse: outliving your spouse or outliving your children?
Thirteen. If you could come back as a ghost, who would you haunt?
Fourteen. Worst death ever in a movie?
Fifteen: If you believe in God, do you think he knows the day, hour and minute when you’ll die?
Reach back, grab some nostalgia and answer these question in my comment feed.
As the news flashed across the screen, “230 Dead in Club Fire” I sat remembering five years ago when I unzipped two small body bags. I remembered the smell. The smell that lacks a comparison; a smell that sticks to your clothes; a smell so permeating that your piss smells like it for days after.
Enclosed in each body bag was the small body of a burnt child. I was unzipping the bag to see if they were viewable. Charred. Blackened. Bald faces. “No”, I thought to myself, “there will be no public viewing.”
And my face, my face looks down as I let things outside of my control paralyze me from the inside. Motionless, I sit as I remember that mother as she screamed out her grief in the funeral home.
When we think about the inevitable, how do we lift our heads? How do we not just close our eyes and ask for the mercy of eternal sleep?
You will die.
I will die.
Maybe painful. Maybe today, robbing me of watching my son grow. Or maybe I die old, the last of my family, alone. Or, maybe I will see my son die, unable to stop an inevitability that is stronger than I.
And yet, I’m reminded, as I sit paralyzed that although from dirt I was made, I am no longer.
“Stand up, child of God, so I can speak to you. Stand up. You were made in my image, you will create. You will create what is good. Stand up, so I can speak to you.”
So I stand. I will not be paralyzed by what I cannot change, I will learn to smile. I will be vulnerable. I will stop and look at the stars, the flowers, the beauty of the snow, the fading transience of a passing sunset. I will always have time to talk to you, to stop and help you and to be your friend. Each day will be my masterpiece; each day, as I lay down my head to rest, I will see that it was good.
I will be the creator of the good. I will be like God. I will speak it into existence.