Elon Musk has said that the internet has become the nervous system of the world.
And he’s right. Your community is becoming less and less defined by your geographical position and more by your cyberspace connection. The globalization of your relational connections is upon us.
Pluralism is dead. Pluralism assumed that our communities had set characteristics that defined us from them, part of those characteristics being geographical in nature. Now, we live in fragmented globalization, where our only real unity is our humanity, and our dividing characteristics are less and less apparent.
So that a Muslim is Facebook friends with a Jew and a conservative retweets a liberal and I, a Pennsylvanian, am wrapped up in the tragedy of the Oklahoma Tornados.
In fact, on my Confessions of a Funeral Director Facebook page, I posted this:
Within minutes, a number of people from the vicinity of Moore were commenting on how they had yet to hear from some of their family members. And then, it became real for me too. I was touching a people group that I barely knew through the internet, so that Oklahoma’s tragedy become mine.
My feelings – and everyone else’s feelings – were valid for the Moore community. And our support for Moore – both financial and physical – underscores our humanity. And yet, those feelings, a couple days removed from the tragedy are beginning to dissipate. In fact, unless you are directly connected to Moore, you may have already begun to forget about it.
Robert Dunbar believes that the human person / human brain only has the maximum capacity to understand /experientially know 150 people … everybody that we meet outside of those 150 will be relegated into a category and/or generalization that we’ve created from the milieu of the those 150. Outside those 150 is “the other.” Everyone outside of those 150, in some sense, aren’t human.
Dunbar’s hypothesis is now popularly known (thanks to “Cracked”) as “monkey sphere.” Here’s a bit from Cracked “Monkey Sphere” article
Those who exist outside that core group of a few dozen people are not people to us. They’re sort of one-dimensional bit characters.
Remember the first time, as a kid, you met one of your school teachers outside the classroom? Maybe you saw old Miss Puckerson at Taco Bell eating refried beans through a straw, or saw your principal walking out of a dildo shop. Do you remember that surreal feeling you had when you saw these people actually had lives outside the classroom?
I mean, they’re not people. They’re teachers.
“So? What difference does all this make?”
Oh, not much. It’s just the one single reason society doesn’t work.
It’s like this: which would upset you more, your best friend dying, or a dozen kids across town getting killed because their bus collided with a truck hauling killer bees? Which would hit you harder, your Mom dying, or seeing on the news that 15,000 people died in an earthquake in Iran?
They’re all humans and they are all equally dead. But the closer to our Monkeysphere they are, the more it means to us. Just as your death won’t mean anything to the Chinese or, for that matter, hardly anyone else more than 100 feet or so from where you’re sitting right now.
“Why should I feel bad for them? I don’t even know those people!”
Exactly. This is so ingrained that to even suggest you should feel their deaths as deeply as that of your best friend sounds a little ridiculous. We are hard-wired to have a drastic double standard for the people inside our Monkey sphere versus the 99.999% of the world’s population who are on the outside
With monkeysphere in mind, I wonder if the world isn’t becoming like some funeral directors when it comes to tragedy. Funeral directors see tragedy on such a constant basis that we seem to be accustom to it. So much so that we can forget who we buried last week.
In fact, one of the most common questions I get from acquaintances is this: “How can you not become numb to all this?” And the truth is, we aren’t numb to a tragic death … it affects us … it always affects us. But, that tragic death only sits with us for a couple days and then we can, to one degree or another, move along. It isn’t to say we aren’t compassionate, this isn’t to say we aren’t dedicated; it’s to say that we serve you when YOU have lost YOUR loved one.
And we, who are locked into the global nervous system of a fragmented community become so accustom to our nerves being touched by tragedy all around the world that we too feel compassion and act on that compassion, but we only feel as close as we are to the situation and sometimes we quickly forgetabout the whole thing in a matter of days … sometimes in a matter of hours.
Who here remembers Haiti? The Haiti earthquake of 2010?
The one that left an estimated 300,000 children orphaned?
When is the last time you remembered them?
This isn’t to say we don’t care. Just like funeral directors, when I’m working a funeral … I’m fully present. Fully aware of your circumstances and more than willing to do what I can to serve you. But, you aren’t my closest friend, you aren’t my relative and you probably aren’t apart of the 150 that I call “person.” You are other. And I can’t help it. As much as I try, you’re deceased isn’t my loved one.
Oklahomans are my fellow Americans. I’m connected to various people through Facebook. I donated to the Red Cross. I grieved for those children in the elementary school. I vicariously imagined the terror they must have felt. And we move on, while those in Moore, Oklahoma struggle to piece a broken world back together, we move on.
Is this wrong? Should we seek to overcome this “Monkeysphere”?
After reading this article, how does it make you feel?
A couple months ago, I wrote about my struggles with burnout and depression in a post called, “I Need Help.” This past week – in connection with May being Mental Health Month — that same post was reposted on “Q Ideas” website. The first time I posted on my own website, I received a lot of concern and encouragement from my friends and readers; when I reposed it, I received the same.
I so appreciate all the love and concern that’s been expressed, and I wanted to give an update on how I’ve sought for help.
We like to think of ourselves as autonomous creatures. And in many cases, we are able to make our own choices and will those choices into reality. Our autonomy can deceive us into thinking we can do this alone. That we are gods, able to control our own destiny and do “anything we put our minds to”.
For many though – like me – we’ve acknowledged a weakness in ourselves so deep that it’s not only caused us to redefine “human autonomy” but question its very existence. We’ve shed our pursuit of being “like god” and accept our humanity.
Most of us will acknowledge the fact that we are indeed limited and finite. But few will take those facts to their end admit that in many, many ways we are powerless. We are stuck in a hole that we can’t get out of. The walls are too high, too slick, the climb too difficult. We … can’t … get … out … on … our … own.
In order to get out, we admit that we’re powerless, that we are stuck and call for help.
Some of us don’t make that call. Some of dwell in the hole of our hidden problems and our closet depression.
A couple months ago, I was stuck in a dark hole. I needed help. I recognized that I was not the autonomous creature I thought I was. At this point, many become theonomous, acknowledging our need for a transcendent reality to come and save us. Others become synergistic, recognizing that our freedom from the pit can only be found when someone lowers the rope and you grab onto it.
Perhaps, though, we need to recognize both: we need something/One higher than ourselves and we need others when confronted with the reality of our incapability.
Since posting the “I Need Help” article on my website a few months ago (it was also a guest post at “Q Ideas” this past Friday), I’ve made a number of changes in lifestyle and it’s helped me.
One. I recognized my humanity and stopped trying to live like a god. Humanity has been trying to be gods for a long time. It’s a curse. So, I now have some time off. In fact, I was forced to take some time off. I’m usually on call for seven days a week. Now, I’m only on call for five days.
Two. I’ve taken that time to seek some help from others. I’m seeing a therapist. He’s smarter than me. Walked life longer than me. He’s helping me better than I can help me.
Three. Self-care. For caregivers – as some funeral directors attempt to be — the idea of self-care is heretical. Our creed is to PUT ASIDE OUR OWN NEEDS FOR THE NEEDS OF OTHERS. And we do this willingly, as it’s not only our creed … it’s who we are. We enjoying serving you. Until we reach a point when we have given all we have and are left empty … burnt out … depressed.
It’s at this point that our ideal creed is amended to read, “we put aside our own needs for the needs of others, and we care for ourselves so that we can continue to care for others.”
Self-care means different things for different people. For me, it means time off work, it means sleep, it means a whole lot more reading, it means going to the gym more often.
And in that self-care, we can serve longer and better.
Ironically, if’s through admitting our powerlessness that we gain power. We have the most potential autonomy when we find our dependence on God and others.
This week we’ve buried a 16 year old that died unexpectedly due to a heart problem that the doctors determined was “under control”; we buried a 32 year old who lost her three year fight with brain cancer; and, we buried two 50 year olds, one of which died in a tragic car accident, the other dying of cancer. All around Christmas.
Weeks like this make me stay up late at night.
They make me think about my own mortality.
Make me ask questions like, “Who will die first … my wife or me?”
Selfishly, I’d love to die first. But, it’s a 50/50 chance and I could be the one who closes my wife’s eye lids as she passes.
Realizing that a dying person’s hearing is the last sense to go before death, I lay in bed and think about what I’d say to her in her dying moments … I think about what she’d need to hear from me:
“I love you and want you to go rest with Jesus.”
“You’re free to go to Jesus … just know that I love you … wait for me!”
“Everybody is here with you. We all love you and we give you the freedom to go to Jesus.”
And all this assumes that I’ll have the privilege to be there when she dies. What if she dies tragically, like some of these people I’m burying this week who died alone, suddenly, without the loving words of their family being whispered to them while they pass from this world to whatever comes next?
“Damn it”, I think to myself, “I’ve been lying awake for an hour thinking about something I have very little control over.”
But I try to control it. I buy cars with a high safety rating. I push my wife to go to the doctors over the smallest ailment. I remind her to wear her seat belt … I often palpitate her breasts looking for those nightmarish lumps … and I make sure she eats well and buy her anything that promotes her health. A juicer. P90X. A Xbox Kinect that we can exercise with.
At times I feel like a tyrant with a benevolent heart.
It’s weeks like this that I’m fearful of the unknown inevitability of the necessary part of life: death.
And this fear, this benevolent tyranny, the late nights of worrying, of thinking about the different possibilities, etc. are all the occupational hazards of this business.
It’s the death that surrounds me that inhibits my living. That makes me the grumpy tyrant. The sleepless tyrant.
But … it’s also the death that surrounds me that encourages my living.
It encourages me to say “I love you” as often as I can.
It encourages me to forgive and extend grace to those I don’t think deserve it.
It encourages me to pursue my passions … to find what I love doing … and do it with all my heart … knowing that I’ll be the best person I can be when I’m doing what I love.
It encourages me to smile. To make friends. To dance even though I’m bad at dancing.
It encourages me to work less, live with less money so that I can pour more of the most precious asset called “time” into my friends and family.
Facing the mortality of my own life and of those I love is a dark reality.
But it’s a dark reality that I’m learning to lighten with every second I choose to live life to the fullest, so that when that time comes — whenever it may be — I’ll look it in the face with no regrets.
Last week we had a funeral here at the funeral home. I was outside parking cars in the procession line, like I usually do, when a hot rod truck, with yellow racing stripes and a flare-side bed pulls up into the procession line. Our parking lot is laid out in such a manner that the only people who just “pull up” in the procession line are the one’s who have done it before. Although I didn’t recognize the truck, as soon as I saw it pull into the procession line without any need of my direction I was pretty sure I’d recognize the face of the driver being that he or she was probably a regular at the funeral home.
Sure enough. It was Donnie Smith. Donnie steps out of his truck, we shoot the bull for about 20 minutes, him telling me that his dad (Donnie Sr.) has been running low on health while he’s been running high on the idea that his dad might be needing us in the not too distant future.
There’s some people that I know only through funerals, and Donnie’s one of them. We buried his daughter a couple years back, and being that Donnie knows half the people in Chester County, he finds himself at funerals nearly as much as I do. In fact, at this particular funeral– after he was done talking with me — we put him to work as the door tender and he was greeting everybody that came through the front door with his genuine smile and warm presence.
Sunday came along and I see a note on the desk when I got into work: “Donnie Smith’s body is at the Hospital: not released.” I figured it was Donnie, Sr., being how Donnie Jr. was telling me about his dad being low and being unsure how much time he had left.
When we take a death call, we usually write the age of the deceased on the “first call” sheet and I saw in the upper right hand corner something that confused me: I saw “57.” I thought, “Donnie Sr.’s got to be in his 80s … that ’57′ must refer to something unrelated to the death call.”
I was wrong. The deceased at the Hospital was Donnie Jr., age 57.
No warning, no time for his family to say “good-bye”, no time to tie up loose ends. He told me how he was taking care of his dad, looking out for his dad. Nobody expected this. He didn’t expect it. In life, there are few things that are worse than a loved one leaving without saying “good-bye.”
Today we had the service. Probably close to 300 people came through the church during the viewing.
Before we began the service, we invited the family upfront to the casket to say their good-byes. At this point, I usually stand at the foot of the casket and observe what is often one of the harder moments for a bereaved family to handle: the last moment you have to touch, look at and speak to the deceased. After the family said their goodbyes on a day none of them expected to come so soon, we close the lid.
While this family was still having their final moments around the open casket, I noticed something right in front of me: sitting in the front pew of the church were two little girls –one a blond, the other a brunette (which is how I’ll distinguish them from here on out) — both about the age of seven. One was wearing what appeared to be her white Easter dress, her hair combed straight and her shinny white dress shoes fitted to feet that were dangling back and forth off the floor. Next to her was a little blond girl, dressed in black pants and a black shirt. I’m guessing they were Donnie’s granddaughters.
As most the adults were crying, the blond reached her arm across the back of the brunette and held her, at which point tears started to roll down the brunette’s porcelain face. They didn’t know I was watching them, and as far as I know I was the only one looking at them, as all the adults were huddled around the casket; but I was taking in this little slice of life like a parched plant taking in the sweetness of a desert rain.
The blond got up, walked back to the second pew and opened an old Phillies cigar box that she was using as a kind of purse. She opens the lid, reaches into the box, pulls out a tissue from the stack she had neatly placed in the box and rushes back over to where she had been sitting only seconds before, catching the tears as they run down the grief filled face of her friend.
At this point I got emotional. There’s a certain sense of hardness that creeps in after years in this business. And I’ll be the first to admit that few things bother me … few things touch me anymore. Death makes us into altogether different creatures … we can become like rough skinned rhinos who need something incredibly poignant to piece our outer shell.
I watched this compassion from this young girl for a couple minutes and then I saw my grandfather nod my direction, causing me to switch back to my job at hand, which by this time was the task of closing the lid.
Who taught this young child to do such a thing? Sure, she may have learned it from her mom, or maybe from Donnie himself, but nobody told this child to love. She just loved.
I sought the little blond out after the service was over and I asked her if she wanted to take any of the leftover flowers from her grandfather’s funeral back home with her. She pointed to the big casket spray. Being that the florists fill the back of the casket spray with water, I got it for her because it was probably nearly as heavy as she was, and I carried it to the bed of her dad’s truck. I guess when we witness the pure heart of children, it inspires and multiplies kindness.
Funerals sometimes put on display the worst of life and the best in humanity.
The funeral industry as we know it now in America allows for some of the greatest examples of both human graces and disgraces. The disgraces are all too publicized, and rightfully so. Most of us may remember the 334 bodies found in the back yard of the Tri-State Crematory in Georgia. Instead of fixing their retort, the crematory simply placed the bodies in the back yard to decompose and in place of the actual cremated remains, they gave the families boxes filled with wood chips, cement powder and wood ashes.
Many of us have seen the Nightline reports where funeral directors were caught bypassing laws on a regular basis, trying to scam money off of the elderly and acting more like greedy salesmen than compassionate professionals. Unfortunately, there are many funeral directors who are all too willing to use disadvantaged people to their own advantage. It’s ugly. It’s exploitation at its most base level. Yet, it happens. The unfortunate result of mixing grief clouded minds and greed poisoned hearts.
But, there are those of us who work hard, with undying honesty and integrity, sweating yellow tinged stains on our white collars. We withstand the sweat rolling down our backs into our cracks on the hot summer days as we stand in the caustic sun at the graveside. My great grandfather used to mow the funeral home yard in his shirt and tie. We’re probably still the only practitioners who ask for winter suits … they only make the medium grade suits today because white collar workers just aren’t out in the cold. Our backs are one of the main occupational hazards in this industry. And we get dirty too … crimson red on a bright white cotton shirt. Our collars may be white but our hearts are bleeding blue.
There are those funeral directors who see their profession as a calling; who find a sacredness to their calling, as though there was something spiritual about their work. As though they are more so ministers than death merchants. They are understanding, compassionate, hard-working, service oriented people who are more concerned about the richness of life in death then the wealth of their bank accounts. There are those who give their services for free to the less fortunate and downtrodden. Those of us who push families to buy caskets under their financial means instead of over. There are those of us who go above and beyond our contract expectations; who spend that extra five hours making the car accident victim viewable so that the family can see him one more time. There are those of us who offer more than just pre-need and at-need services … those of us who are there for the family months after the fact. There are those of us who understand that our integrity and honest direction can make Death a lot less hard for a whole lot of people.
The ancient and famed Egyptian embalmers understood that to be good death practitioners you also had to have religious and moral over and under tones in your life. And although we don’t divine like Egyptians, there are those of us who view this profession first as a practice of spirituality and secondly as a business; and, who do both with a strong work ethic. That’s the mold that I’m trying to fit into. A blue, white and clerical collar.