Each and every job has its hard parts. Here are 10 aspects of the funeral industry that I find difficult.
One. The Silence
Silence is the voice of death. It’s antithetical to the pursuit of Americans. Most of us are programmed to want answers to our questions, truth to our doubts, words to our emptiness and meaning to our voids. But when I’m sitting with a family making arrangements for their dead loved one’s funeral, sometimes I look them in the eye, I say “I’m sorry for your loss”, and then comes the most difficult of all things: the absence of answers, the lack of truth, the void of our existence and the silence of death. We just sit, acknowledge the silence, and embrace the sacred moment.
Two. The Money
Aside from the silence, tallying up the bill is always difficult for me. It’s not that our funeral home is expensive. We pride ourselves on being the least expensive funeral home in our area. It’s not that we’re trying to rip people off. We do believe our prices are fair and honest. It’s just that bringing up money when we’re talking about death seems like sacrilege. Sure, we have to pay our bills. Sure, paychecks are good. It’s just difficult for me, and I imagine many other funeral directors as well, to capitalize on death.
Having mature women flirt with me is … not that difficult. Yeah, I actually like that part. What funeral director doesn’t mind the occasional, “If I was 40 years younger” comment?
Four. Tragic deaths
These are the kind of deaths that come home with us. You just can’t help it. There’s not a funeral director that isn’t affected by the death of a child, the car accident, the overdose or the suicide.
Some people have major problems and baggage that get fanned to flame by grief and bereavement. Often times, they take their problems, their anger, their frustration and instead of dealing with their grief and bereavement, they take it out on us. If you’ve been in the business long enough, you know not to take it personally, but it’s nonetheless difficult to take a capricious verbal lashing for no apparent reason other than transference.
Six. Morticians not Magicians
There are some faces that we can’t restore.
Some bodies that are too far gone.
Sometimes it’s nearly impossible to make the dead look alive.
Sometimes, the process of securing a doctor’s signature, getting cremation approval from the county and the line up at the crematory means we can have everything finished in the time you want it to be.
I wish we had a magic wand, but there are things we can’t do. Wishing we could, but knowing we can’t isn’t an easy idea for you to accept, but it’s even more difficult for us to accept as we like to think we’re more capable than we really are.
Seven. The Night Calls
There’s no amount of coffee that can compensate for the lack of sleep caused by a 2 AM night call.
Eight. Meeting Our Own Demons
There are certain things in life, like marriage, or our kids, that have a tendency to summon our hidden demons. I’ve often said that I was a great person before I got married and then I saw just how selfish and prideful I really am. Death and the funeral industry can have a similar effect. Death culture is like the refining of gold; all of our impurities, our stress, our own anxiety, and our pride can come seeping out in the heat of the moment. But that very heat, while revealing our difficult demons, can also purify us and make us more beautiful.
Nine. Dress clothing
I like nice suits and I’m an absolute shoe addict, but wearing a suit on a sweltering mid-summer Pennsylvania day is an exquisite form of torture. I don’t believe in hell, but wearing a black suit in 100-degree weather is pretty damn close.
Ten. Personal Relationship Strain
I suppose every friend will disappoint you once in a while; but funeral directors will probably do it more often. We might miss your birthday party, we might have to leave in the middle of dinner.
Death has this way of keeping an untimely schedule. And as death’s minions, we’re tied to that schedule. Whether it be in the middle of the night, or in the middle of your wedding, when death calls, we have to respond. That respond-ability marks having a personal relationship with us somewhat difficult.
I’m coming up on 10 years licensed, a significant milestone considering that my embalming professor told me that 70% of funeral students never make it to the decade mark. To be honest, I never thought I’d make it this far. After I graduated mortuary school, I told my dad, “I think I’ve only got about 10 years for this business.” At the time, the constant barrage of death and dying, the night calls that I was always running and the dynamics of death culture had me doubting my resiliency. I also had aspirations of becoming an academic (something I’m still pursuing because I’m a nerd). But, here I am 10 years later, more committed than ever to the funeral business, so I thought I’d list 10 reasons why I’ve been able to stay. These reasons aren’t a catch-all for every funeral director, but they’re reasons why I’m still here.
Admittedly, I don’t wear a smile when my cell phone rings at 2 AM in the morning for a death call. Although I’m eventually kind, courteous and congenial when I go on the midnight call, even after 10 years those midnight death calls still wear on my like a weight. The chaos of death isn’t a healthy lifestyle with its unscheduled hours, its highly emotive culture and the demands that come with it. I think most funeral directors will agree that this business is not easy. But something happens to me when I see the family of the deceased. One minute I’ll be tired, unhappy and beaten, and the next minute I’m full of compassion, energy, and resiliency. There’s still something wonderful about the service aspect of this industry that keeps me here, that sustains me during the tough hours.
Ten years ago I didn’t have enough appreciation for the people we rub elbows with. Death has a way of drawing out the beauty in humanity, which is why funeral directors are privy to some of the most beautiful people in the world. Whether it be the hospice nurses who give so unselfishly, the flower shops who help us out at the last minute, the sextons that waive fees for infants, the pastors who work tirelessly to help families, and any angel who has ever given us free coffee. If I ever left the funeral business, I’d miss crossing paths with so many wonderful people.
From tweets about tying shoestrings in preparation for the Zombie Apocolypse, to finding the lighter moments at funerals, I’ve managed to make a distinction between serious and solemn. Death is a serious matter, but it doesn’t have to be solemn. That permission to laugh and lighten the mood has been a key part of my resiliency in this business.
If there’s one word that is utter sacrilege in a smaller funeral home like ours, it’s this tiny two-letter word. We simply don’t use it. I mean, when can we ever say “no” to a family that just lost their loved one?
But if we’re to survive, we have to introduce it into our professional vocabulary. Death has a way of being more demanding than life, especially the personal life of a funeral director. Death constantly clears our personal schedule books. We’re supposed to go to our son’s baseball game, but there’s an evening viewing. We’re supposed to have Christmas dinner, but there’s a death call. We’re supposed to go on a date, but there’s a family that wants to come in and make arrangements in the evening.
We have to find a way to allow ourselves to live our own lives in the midst of death. Sometimes that means hiring others to do some of our work, and sometimes that means creating better organizational systems and sometimes it simply means saying “no.” If I hadn’t learned to say “no”, I would have burnt out of this business years ago.
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 you’re doing is meaningful for the person you’re doing it for.
That verbal affirmation is huge in sustaining those of us in the dismal trade.
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t like the term “calling”. I’ll also be the first to admit that I never felt called to this business.
Callings aren’t predetermined nor are they divinely ordained. Neither are they mystical or set in stone. They’re not our “dream jobs” that can only be obtained with supreme talent, intelligence and luck.
A calling is when we hear the voices of those needing our help. Callings can arise in the darkest jobs, in the most monotonous of tasks and at the “lowest” positions. Callings are something we learn to love. Callings are something we choose to do because we develop an ear to hear and an eye to see. A person who is “called” is a person who has seen a need and answered so many times that it becomes a part of who they are.
Now, more than a decade in, I’m staying in this business because this call is something I now answer so naturally that it’s become a part of who I am.
When I was younger, I thought money didn’t matter. I’m older now. Consistent paychecks are good.
I love hearing tales of death and dying. Call me morbid, but I just find so much wonder, sacredness, spirituality and beauty in death stories. The stories are my ballast.
Empathy Vs. Sympathy
There’s a saying in the funeral business that goes something like this, “treat every family as though they were your own family.” That’s a nice sentiment, but it is not entirely practical.
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. 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 are 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.
Sometimes all I can do is sympathize. Other times, I empathize. Allowing myself the permission to do both has been key.
I’ve been close to being burnt out. Landed in the hospital. Reevaluated life. I started to seeing a psychologist. I started anti-depressants. I started writing more. I started going to the gym more. Saying “no” more often. I started to realize that if I wanted to take care of others, I had to take care of myself. Self-care is the unselfish act of selfishness and I know for a fact that I’d be out of this business if I didn’t practice it.
Although I may come across as a beta male, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m no saint when it comes to self-centeredness. I sit somewhere between the egoless Mother Theresa and egomaniac Donald Trump. Self-care and a healthy application of “treat yo self” are essential for those of us in care-giving professions, but the line between Trump and self-care isn’t always so clear. The very fact that I blog probably means I’m more of an egotist than I care to admit. All that to say: as much as I dislike people with bloated egos, I’m guilty too.
Perhaps ironically, the local church tends to be a gathering place for narcissistic personalities. I don’t think it’s a cause of religion, but rather that churches are always looking for volunteers and workers and will gladly give leadership positions to anyone who might be willing, despite their character deficiencies. Of course that isn’t always the case, but in the church funeral that I worked today, the church appointed funeral concierge had an ego the power and size of a supernova.
John was horrible (name changed for obvious reasons). When we arrived at the church to set up for the funeral, John (who is a church deacon) decided it was his job to micromanage our every move. I’ve seen Johns throughout the course of my ten year career. In my personal life, I keep a healthy distance from those that tend to overly assert themselves and their opinions, but in my professional life I have little choice but to work with and even attempt to serve those with caustic narcissistic propensities.
There’s been a couple Johns that have been so overbearingly bossy that they’ve even made the family members cry. I remember one such John tell a young granddaughter, “You can’t wear a skirt above the knee in this church!” Unfortunately, she wasn’t wearing “no run” mascara.
This John didn’t make anyone cry, but he was a talented John. He was able to simultaneously dish out commands while bemoaning the fact that one of the “irreplaceable” glass vases on the church sanctuary chandelier was broken by the “stupid cleaning lady.” He managed to tell most of the family members that “his” glass was broken (he also continually called the church “his” church) and he can’t imagine how people can be so insensitive.
By the time the service was about to start, John was barking about how I was to put the pall on the casket and at this point I lost my funeral director cool and responded, “Do you want to put the pall on yourself or are you just interested in bossing me around?” He snorted and whispered something under his breath.
To contrast John, the congregation was full of a special and select group of individuals who rarely seem to be tempted by the lures of power. The deceased person (named Jennifer) had Down syndrome and all of her friends had come to say their final good-bye. Most of the people I know with Down syndrome have a beautifying effect on their family and friends. It’s not necessarily because DS produces more happiness (studies show that depression plagues those with DS), nor is it because caring for someone with DS makes everything easier (although there are reports that divorce rates drop in families that have a DS member), but it seems that position prominence, egotism and power hunger have little persuasion on these treasures of humanity. It’s as if that extra chromosome 21 provides a trade off where there’s less mental capability but more character capacity, as it provides immunity to those things that make people into assholes.
The contrast was very stark. They often are at funeral as people let down their nuanced guard. On the one hand there was John and on the other hand there were people who could care less about power and control. And the reminder that love is better, more human and more meaningful than power was also on display. This funeral was for a small girl with Down syndrome who didn’t have any power connections in life. She wasn’t a supervisor at her job, she didn’t hold any church positions, nor was she known to be an authority in any field of knowledge. And yet, the church was full. It wasn’t full because of her place in the world, but because of her place in people’s hearts.
Love isn’t like math. Basic math is something that is easy to remember. It’s hard to forget that 2 + 2 = 4. But the basics of human connection, like love and empathy, are seemingly so very simple and yet we need to be reminded over and over and over again of their value. Today, the value of love was on display at Jennifer’s funeral. Today, at this funeral, while John was abusing his power at church, the church was celebrating a life that found a way in the world through love.
Today’s guest post is written by Pastor Dieter Reda:
Death has been called he great equalizer. Kings and paupers and everyone in between must die. That includes preachers and post mortem health care professionals (a.k.a. Funeral Directors). Not only must we all die eventually, but before that we also must deal with the death of one or more people that we love. And then what do we do? Do we call on another professional to serve us, or do we show how competent we are and do it ourselves?
I once knew a Funeral Director who embalmed his mother. He said it was his way of grieving, and “the last thing I could do for her”. I found that to be creepy, but who am I to judge. As a pastor I have literally “heard it all” and that was part of it.
In January of 2010 I officiated at the funeral of my mother. I know there are two schools of thought about that topic too, so let me explain. My mother was, as most good mothers are, very proud of her son . She was hugely supportive of my decision to enter the ministry, and a tremendous encouragement and support along the way. In fact one of my more difficult pastoral assignments was a church in my home town. Mom and Dad transferred their membership to that small congregation. Their desire to support their son was stronger than the desire to have a great pastor. You see, | was young, and most young professionals (in any profession) know it all. But I digress. In the time that we lived in close proximity, Mom had witnessed several funerals that I conducted, and there were a few others that she and I attended together. She would offer her commentary, which when considered together could be regarded as her final wishes. Whenever she saw a casket that she didn’t like, she would say, “don’t you dare put me in something like that”. So we didn’t. She told me more than once that she did not wish to be cremated. I assured her that we would remember to honour her wishes. And then there was a certain funeral hymn that she heard once too often. “I don’t want that sung at my funeral”. And so we didn’t. However I wasn’t above using the offensive song in a service while she was still alive. I deliberately tried to make eye contact to see which of us would lose our straight face. Her head was buried in her hymnal and i endured a hailstorm at lunch. And then came the day, with the quiet request, spoken only once, “I want you to bury me.” I said that though this is a hard request, I would do my best.
The day of her funeral came. My message was prepared. The service was led by her pastor in the church where she worshipped. The pastoral staff there had helped to plan the service, and I was glad that they were in charge. The parts that we had agreed that I would lead would be a message, as well as leading the graveside service. I know that only God could give me the strength for that difficult task. Surprisingly, someone asked me shortly after the service how I could do such a thing dry-eyed. I assured the person that I had done more than my share of crying before the service, and that there will surely be more to come. Funny isn’t it, how there is always someone who thinks they know how something could be done better?
The other school of thought on this matter is, that if one is a professional like a pastor or funeral director, one should focus on just being a son or whatever, and allow others to do the heavy lifting of the funeral. In other words: grieve, and allow people to serve you rather than having to always serve others others. There is wisdom to that, and I don’t think that I am some kind of exception. We found a way to do both: to honour my mother’s wishes and at the same time allowing her pastors to do the pastoral work. During the funeral I did not sit on the platform with the other clergy, but sat in the pew with my family, and I soaked up everything that the other pastors said and did. While she was dying, I behaved totally like a son, and not a pastor. I had stood or sat at scores of deathbeds and helped people cross the valley of the shadow, but for my mother I couldn’t do it. I am thankful for her pastors who gave her what she needed, and who came to her bedside and gave us what we needed, right after she died.
The bottom line: as professionals we are no less human than anyone else. Losing a loved one hurts, and the fact that you are a professional who deals with death day in and day out will not protect you from that pain. So don’t pretend that it does. If you are a funeral director, you will need a funeral director at that time, and if you are a pastor, you will need a pastor. That doesn’t mean that you can’t be involved with your special gifts and expertise. That can be both therapeutic and honouring to your loved one.
It has been 5 years since Mom has been gone. Not a day goes by that I don’t think of her. Sometimes, without thinking, I reach for the phone to call her, and then reality sets in once again. But looking back on it, I am glad that I did exactly what Mom wanted, both in terms of my own involvement as well as every other aspect of her funeral. My Dad saw how difficult it was, so he told me that he would not be making the request that Mom did. However, I know that I will do for him what I did for her. Now that he is 89 and suffering from cancer, that day is drawing closer, but I know I will find the strength when the time comes.
Dieter Reda has been an ordained Minister for the past 34 years and served various churches in central and western Canada. Since 2003 he is senior pastor at Mission Baptist Church in Hamilton, Ontario (Canada). His blog of pastoral musings on various issues is at www.dieterreda.com and you can follow him on Twitter @Dieterreda.
Many people tell me “I don’t want a funeral. Just burn my ass and throw me in the woods.”
But funerals are both much deeper, much more important and much broader than most of us assume. They’re neither “just for the living” nor must they be the traditional viewing, priest, eulogy and funeral director format (although none of these things are bad … especially the funeral director *wink* *wink*). Funerals can be both deeply spiritual events and celebrations mixed with music, poetry and beauty.
Here are 10 things that give funerals both a deep and broad sense of meaning and value:
Individual Celebration / Mourning
The internet/Facebook/TV give us so many amazing stories. And the negative is that they give us so many stories! It’s like a smorgasbord of narratives and it’s easy for the individual to get lost among the celebrities, the pop sensations, the stars and the pro athletes. But it’s the individuals that make our community run and their stories get overshadowed … except at funerals, when we can rope off the smorgasbord, turn down the volume, ignore Kim Kardashian’s latest stunt, turn our cell phones off and celebrate and mourn one life.
Sigmund Freud stated that you have two choices: accept death or deny death. Freud also believed that religion was often a neurotic attempt to deny the reality of death. And, to some degree he’s right. But, when we look for hope, when we look for transcendence and when we look for immortality in the face of death, it doesn’t always fit into Freud’s binaries … it’s possible to accept death through some form of hopeful transcendent understanding of death.
Whether that hope is in heaven, or in the continuation of the deceased’s family or a more natural (i.e. green burial) type of orientation, or all of the above, it’s important that we find hope through the message of a funeral. Hope is what gives a funeral special meaning that helps us rise from the pits of darkness.
Death creates a hole in our lives and our world. It’s like an earthquake that shakes the world we once knew. Funerals are a time when we can reaffirm meaning, love, community, goodness and even humor. They allow us a space to come together and affirm that life is changed, but it still continues on. Funerals are a storytelling practice that keeps the identity of our family alive even when one of our members has died.
In my many years as a funeral director, there are few things that are more gratifyingly awkward and entertaining than a spontaneous drunk eulogy. Someday I’ll video one of these events, lawyer up and put it on YouTube.
To deny a person a funeral is to deny them an act of dignity.
Tony Walter writes “(funerals) mark that something valuable, a human life, has passed. Whatever else a funeral does or does not do, it must do this.”
This explains why so often impoverished and/or marginalized peoples will spend proportionately exorbitant amounts of money and time on the funerals of family and friends. They have been so devalued in life, that the funeral acts as one final statement of dignity. On the other hand, in a culture like the West — where we sit in social hegemony – we see less need for the dignity of a funeral; thus direct cremation, direct burial, etc..
Public acknowledgement of life and death
We like things to be private. And there’s good reason. Being public with our opinions, our religious values and even our sports teams get’s messy. But if we live in community, we die in community. And funerals give the community a time to come together an grieve, because …
Grief shared is grief diminished
The more we can share our grief, the more we can allow others to reach out to us, the more we allow ourselves to be vulnerable and accept help and love, the healthier we can walk through our bereavement.
On a psychological level, funerals and disposition (especially when the body is present), help us to see and accept death. Without a funeral that acknowledges the death of our loved ones, the dead can too easily become psychological ghosts. Funerals transition the deceased from alive to dead, and help us on the path to accepting the death of a loved one.
The walls of bereavement are very intimidating to even the spiritually and psychologically strong. It doesn’t matter how strong you are, you will fall and you will fail.
Unless you enter through the trodden paths of ritual.
The muscle memory of grief is ritual. Like the masterful pianist who makes impossible tasks seem natural, so ritual allows us to take the incredibly difficult task of mourning and gives us a way to persevere, even when it seems we shouldn’t.
Free food from post funeral luncheon
Aunt Eunice’s special potato salad. Uncle Bob’s homemade mead. Grandma’s collard greens. Good Lord. Pass the baked beans.