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101 Things I’ve Done as a Funeral Director

Note: there’s no body on the stretcher.

When you’re a funeral director, your primary concern is people: both the dead kind and the living.  And when you serve people, you do some weird things to meet that end.  Death is all wrapped up in life, in the mundane, the messy, the maddening parts of living.  Since, death is wrapped in life, it’d only make sense that those of us in death care do a bunch of things. Here are 101 things I’ve done.

  1. Helped change a random baby’s diaper at a viewing.
  2. Removed a dead person’s adult diaper.
  3. Warmed up a bottle of baby formula.
  4. Wiped a deceased’s person’s ass.
  5. Cleaned the funeral home’s toilets
  6. Cleaned the morgue floor.
  7. Cleaned the blood of the deceased off of his bathroom floor.
  8. Shoveled snow at the funeral home
  9. Shoveled a path through the snow back to the deceased’s trailer.
  10. Gave the deceased’s German Shepherd some water while it sat in the visitation line at the funeral home.
  11. Comforted a dog as we carted his friend/owner out of the house.
  12. Comforted a family with some coffee from Dunkin Donuts.
  13. Made a McDonald’s run for a family during a funeral.
  14. Parked cars in a funeral procession line.
  15. Fixed a car’s door while it sat in a procession line.
  16. Washed a car in the procession line.
  17. Washed the hearse a thousand times.
  18. Washed vomit out the back of the removal van.
  19. Washed blood out the back of the removal van.
  20. Carried a dead person down multiple flights of steps.
  21. Carried a dead person up from a basement.
  22. Carried a dead body in rigor mortis fireman-style off of a toilet.
  23. Embalmed old people
  24. Embalmed young people.
  25. Embalmed my grandfather.
  26. Embalmed a motorcycle accident victim.
  27. A burn victim.
  28. Suicides of all varieties.
  29. A person run over by a train.
  30. Drove the deceased’s family to a train station.
  31. Drove the deceased’s family to the airport.
  32. Chauffeured the deceased’s family to a cemetery.
  33. Chauffeured the deceased’s family to a bar.
  34. Pushed people in wheelchairs into the funeral home, through cemeteries, and out of the way at nursing homes.
  35. Helped carry crying people’s purses.
  36. Helped carry crying people’s water.
  37. Helped carry crying people.
  38. Once used smelling salts on someone who fainted at a graveside (wouldn’t do that again).
  39. Once fall into a grave.
  40. Once helped someone out of a grave.
  41. Helped lower numerous caskets into graves.
  42. Helped clean up the tent and lowering devices at the grave.
  43. Got cemetery dirt on my suit.
  44. Got blood on my suit.
  45. Got vomit from a dead body on my suit.
  46. Got vomit from a baby I was holding at a viewing on my suit.
  47. Ripped my suit so far that my underwear was showing.
  48. Sweated in my suit.
  49. Nearly froze in my suit.
  50. Dressed many a man in their suits.
  51. Dressed many a woman in their burial clothing.
  52. Put a teddy bear in the casket with the deceased.
  53. Helped kids put cards in the deceased’s casket
  54. Watched people put whiskey in a deceased’s casket.
  55. Watched people put a dime bag of pot in a deceased’s casket.
  56. Watched people jump into a deceased’s casket.
  57. Helped pull them out of the deceased’s casket.
  58. I’ve closed the lid of a casket.
  59. I’ve closed the mouth of many a deceased.
  60. I’ve closed the eyes of the deceased.
  61. I’ve closed autopsy Y incisions.
  62. Embalmed autopsied bodies.
  63. Seen all the insides of an autopsied body.
  64. I’ve held a brain.
  65. Held a heart.
  66. I’ve held the hand of a grieving mother.
  67. Listened to the cries of a grieving mother.
  68. Listened to the laughter of children at funerals.
  69. Performed magic tricks for children at viewings.
  70. Played hide-and-go seek with children at viewings.
  71. Played hide-and-go seek as a kid in the casket showroom
  72. Worked night viewings.
  73. Gone on death calls in the middle of the night.
  74. Gone on death calls in the middle of a snow storm.
  75. Used my Subaru Forester for a death call during a snow storm (the stretcher just fits).
  76. Used an old Land Rover for a death call during a snow storm.
  77. Negotiated with Insurance companies on behalf of families.
  78. Negotiated with doctors on behalf of families.
  79. Negotiated between family factions during funeral arrangements.
  80. Stopped fights at funerals.
  81. Played bouncer at funerals when families don’t want a certain person to attend.
  82. Removed people from funerals.
  83. Removed catheters.
  84. Removed pacemakers.
  85. Forgot to remove pacemakers that consequently exploded in the crematory.
  86. Taken pictures of tattoos before the person was cremated.
  87. Made picture slideshows for families.
  88. Restored and photoshopped photos for obituary notices.
  89. Wrote thousands of obituaries.
  90. Filled in as a makeshift altar boy.
  91. Helped fold a flag at a graveside service.
  92. Said a prayer at a graveside service when the pastor didn’t show.
  93. I’ve been the soundman at churches.
  94. Been the DJ at viewings.
  95. Helped men at viewings tie their ties.
  96. Joked about tying dead people’s shoe strings.
  97. Joked with families to help relieve the tension.
  98. Hugged thousands of people to help relieve the tension.
  99. Listened to people to help relieve their grief.
  100. Allowed death to shape my story.
  101. Wrote a book about it all.

 

20 Things Funeral Directors Say

This post is collected from the Confessions of a Funeral Director Facebook community:

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If you’re interested in the life of a funeral director, here’s my story, told with humor, spirituality, and transparency.  

10 Ways the Funeral Industry Has Failed

Don’t worry, I’m going to write a post about the ways the funeral industry has succeeded.  But for now, here are ten ways we’ve failed.

One.  Disconnected from Community

This is where things start to go horribly wrong. If you don’t have a personal investment in the community, if you don’t love the customers you work for, if you don’t live around them, send your kids to the same schools, shop at the same places, you lose the accountability of love and connection.  Once that accountability is lost, death care ethics are on a much more slippery slope.  This is why — for the most part — local, privately owned funeral homes are more likely to retain their good name, while large, corporate funeral homes tend to be slightly disconnected and slightly more likely to see this as primarily a business.

Two.  Bad at receiving criticism

We’re notoriously bad at receiving criticism.  To be fair, nobody is good at it.  I mean, who likes to be told that we’re a bunch of racketeers over and over and over again?  I know I don’t.  Unfortunately, some of that criticism is true!  We’re good at listening to market changes, in fact, our funeral director magazines are packed with advice on how we can respond to our customer’s wishes, but when constructive criticism comes from a customer, most of us are too biggety to listen.

Three.  Intentionally Kept our Practices Hidden

God forbid we tell you what we do with your loved one.  God forbid we publically write about what we do with your loved one.  God forbid we blog about it (GASP!!!).

Four.  Pushed Embalming Too Hard

Embalming is THE American Way of Death, or at least it was The American Way of Death.  Yes, Jessica Mitford popularized that term with her book that holds the same title, but it was funeral directors who coined the term.  The term was coined in a response to criticism from religious circles that claimed embalming was a pagan practice (the Egyptians did it for religious, but not Christian reasons).  In response, funeral directors said, “No, embalming isn’t pagan, IT’S AMERICAN!”  But that America was the America of nearly 80 years ago.  America isn’t the same, but funeral directors still want it to be.   MAEA!  Make America Embalmed Again!

Five.  No Support System for Funeral Directors

This is on two levels: funeral directing — like many professions — started as a trade, where the apprentices were trained by masters.  Most states (all states?) still require a year of apprenticeship in order to gain licensure, but that apprenticeship needs to continue long after we become licensed.  We need mentors to walk us through this trade.  Two: we need support groups of some kind that can catch us when we’re falling from the burnout and compassion fatigue that too often comes with this line of work.  Currently, most of us have neither.

Six.  Too Often Erred on the Side of Business

We should be erring on the side of service.  This perspective changes the way we approach money, and it changes the way we approach people.

Seven.  Narcissism Checks

We’re called to be directors, to display confidence, knowledge, authority, and strength during people’s weakest moments. But this environment that asks us to lead can too often enable us to self-enhance. We talk over our heads, project authority in situations that are best left to the family and tense up in disdain whenever we’re questioned.  There needs to be better checks and balances in place to keep us from sliding towards narcissism.

Eight.  Too Much Professionalism

There’s not wrong with being professional.  In fact, funeral directors should embody respect, courtesy, and kindness.  But, professionalism says something more.  It makes a distinction between those who are the professionals and those who are amateurs.  Let’s be very clear about one thing: a funeral director’s education, a funeral director’s experience makes them good at helping families with their funerals, but LOVE, and only love, makes someone the best of professionals when dealing with their own deceased.  That is, it’s love, and not foremost education and experience, that gives you authority with a dead loved one.  In an attempt to embody professionalism, we funeral directors have stolen death care from the true professionals.

Nine.  Like Most Industries, WE NEED MORE WOMEN

Amen and amen.

Ten.  At times, we’ve failed you

Most of the women and men in the funeral profession are good, smart and service-oriented.  But some of us aren’t.  And even the good ones can fall into the traps of this business.  For that, we’re sorry.  We’re sorry if we’ve failed you.  We can do better.  We will do better.

If you’d like a personal, transparent view of what it’s like to be in the funeral profession, please consider supporting my writing by pre-ordering my book:

 

 

 

 

On that Decaying Foot that Popped out of the Ground in a New Jersey Cemetery

 
You may have seen this article floating around the interwebs about the decaying foot that popped out of a neighboring grave as the family of Cleveland Butler was burying him in his grave (pictured above).
 
A couple things: this doesn’t seem to be an Onion article, although that is exactly what I thought it was at first glance.  It’s been in the New York Daily News twice (HERE and HERE), so it’s either a REALLY good hoax, or it’s true.  
According to the article, the Mount Holiness Memorial Park Cemetery doesn’t require an outer burial container (vault / grave liner), as you can tell by the photo. The blue casket of Mr. Butler is simply being lowered into the ground, sans burial container, as noted by the cemetery caretaker.  Most cemeteries require an outer burial container partially so body parts aren’t popping out, but mainly so the cemetery doesn’t have casket sized sink holes from old, collapsed wooden caskets (photo below).  Outer burial containers are — how shall we say it? — superfluous.  But, they’re part of the American Way of Death, part of the “keep death clean” mantra of ‘Merica.    
 
Speaking of the “keep death clean” mantra, let’s give a slow clap to whoever embalmed that foot.  That foot has been dead for almost 50 years, it has been exposed to the elements, and it still has its footiness.  The fact that embalming has the ability to preserve dead bodies for such an extended period of time should give us pause: how long will bodies untouched by the elements actually last?  Some funeral directors who have witnessed disinterments have claimed that they’ve seen bodies 70 years dead that look like they were buried yesterday.  Meaning that your grandmother, maybe even your great grandmother, maybe even your great, great grandmother could be six feet below the ground in nearly pristine condition, like the day they were buried.  I find it facinating as both an embalmer and as someone who has studied cultural attitudes of death.
Per the New York Daily News, the daughter of the deceased said,

“I’m so overwhelmed.  I’m very stressed, depressed because I’ve never, ever been to a funeral before and seen anything like this.”

The family is considering a lawsuit, and I’m not diminishing the family’s feelings or experience.  After reading the article, it does seem like the cemetery could have handled things a little bit better.  Although they may not have been able to stop the foot from popping out on Mr. Butler’s casket, they could have been more sensitive in explaining to the family how it happened.

With that said, I do feel the culture of “keep death clean” has amplified such experiences.  For many cultures, seeing death and caring for their dead is a part of their lives.  There is a disconnect between the living and the dead here in America.  We’ve tried so hard to keep death clean that whenever we see the dirty of death, we’re surprised and traumatized.  In a sense we’re all to blame.  The funeral industry is to blame.  The cultural posture of death denial is to blame. The medical industry that keeps death clean and hidden is to blame.  And the fear that most of us have towards death, and dead bodies, are to blame.
I feel deeply for the Butler family as such an experience is definitely traumatic, but I also hope that the future of our relationship with death allows us all to see the dirty of death without being surprised or disgusted.  Death holds too much humanity and goodness for us to keep it separate from our everyday lives.

If you’re interested in seeing the dirty of death, and yet the beauty of it, I wrote a book about it:

10 Reasons I’m a Funeral Director

 

 

I wrote this blog post four years ago.  The photo I used in that post had wee little Jeremiah resting on my chest.  Four years later, and Jeremiah occasionally comes to the funeral home “to help dead people”.  Times have changed — for one, my hairdresser now trims my eyebrows — but these reasons have remained.

One: Service.

A couple years ago, a granddaughter was giving her grandmother’s eulogy at the funeral home.  She shared that before she would take naps at her grandmother’s house, her grandmother would warm a blanket in the dryer, and as the granddaughter laid down, the grandma would drape the warm blanket over her.

After the service was over and before the family closed the lid on the casket, I grabbed the blanket that the family had laid in the casket and warmed the blanket.  When I gave the warm blanket to the granddaughter, she couldn’t withhold her tears as now she draped it over her grandmother.

Situations like this arise regularly in the funeral profession.  And, as a caregiver by nature, I find great satisfaction in seeing others have more meaningful death experiences because of my efforts.  I enjoy serving.

Two: Perspective.

Emerson said, “When it is darkest men see the stars.”  We try our best to deny the darkness of death by consciously and unconsciously building our immortality projects.  We hope that we can live immortally through such projects.

And then death.  Weeping.  Our projects come tumbling down.  And it’s in those ashes, in the pain, in the grief, through the tears, we see beauty in the darkness.  This is a perspective that funeral directors are privy to view on a constant basis.  And, in many cases, the darkness can be beautiful.

Three:  Affirmation.

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 a big reason why I continue to serve as a funeral director.

Four: Safe Death Confrontation.

When I was a child, I’d lay in bed and imagine myself dying at a young age.  I imagined Death as a Monster.  That fear, though, has dissipated as I’ve both worked around Death and I’ve grown to be comfortable with my own mortality and the mortality of those I love.

Perhaps there’s no greater freedom than to live life with a healthy relationship with Death.  That healthy relationship allows you embracing each moment, realizing that we are not promised tomorrow.  This good relationship with Death has been given to me by the funeral profession.

Five:  Kisses.

From old(er) women.  Big sloppy kisses from older women.  And what makes it even better is if they follow up the kiss with a, “If only I was 50 years younger ….”

Six:  Power and Obligation.  You give us power every time you open up your family life and your grief to us.   And when you give us that power, there’s a certain satisfaction that comes with treating that vulnerability with as much honor as we can.

We honor your loved one as we prepare them.  We honor you as we serve you.  The power you give us, and our obligation to that vulnerability is the grounds that produce honor.

Seven: Lack of the Superficial.

There’s so much BS in the world.  We pursue bigger cars, bigger houses and bigger salaries that we become so materialized we can barely stand honesty, vulnerability and spirituality.

That all changes around death.  Suddenly, you wish that the time you spent pursing that raise had been spent with your dad.  Suddenly, you find some honesty about your life, some perspective and maybe even some spirituality.

I hate BS.  I love honesty.  I love spirituality. And I love watching as death helps us become human.

Eight: Informs my Perspective on God.

Whether or not funeral directors are religious, you’ll find that almost all are spiritual.  Whether or not they believe in God, death has a way of making us look at the deep, the beyond and the transcendent.

For myself, so much of my faith has been informed by the doubt of death.  I see God in a whole new dark.  And it’s good.  In fact, I’ve come to believe that God dwells with the broken because – it would seem – God too is broken.

Nine:  Constant Challenge.

Somebody said, “It’s the perfect job for someone with ADHD because there is constant change.”   Constant change and constant challenge.

Whether a call at 4 AM; or a particularly tragic death; this job is always pushing us and (hopefully) makes us into stronger people.

Ten:  Our Associates.

Today, a nurse – on her own free time – tracked down the hospital release for us.  I told her, “You’re wonderful.”  Every time we interact with hospice nurses, I always praise them for their work, for their love towards the family.  When a church provides a funeral luncheon, I try to tell the workers that they are providing grace in the form of food.  When a pastor totally connects with the family, I tell him/her how great a job they’re doing.

When somebody dies – during the hardest moments of life – we see the best in people.  As I said in the beginning, sometimes the darkness is beautiful; and, sometimes the darkness makes us beautiful.

There’s many a burden to be borne in this business; which is why I have to remind myself of the reasons I remain a funeral director.

If you’re interested in how I’ve processed death and death care, you can shower yourself death stories by preordering this.  If you don’t like it, my mother promises to buy it back.  

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