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About that couple that fell off a cliff while they were taking a selfie (boring thoughts only a funeral director would think of)

via facebook

News stories like this are absolutely horrible.  The emotional toll that these deaths will have on their family and friends will be debilitating on multiple levels.  You just don’t recover from this type of news.

As a funeral director, though, I look at such a situation through a different lens, especially since this couple weren’t Portuguese natives.

These are the initial reports:

Australian Michael Kearns, 33, and his British girlfriend Louise Benson, 37, were standing on a wall overlooking the picturesque Praia dos Pescadores beach in Ericeira early Tuesday, when their phone slipped, Perth Now reported.

Authorities think the pair reached out to grab the cellphone, lost their balance and fell 98 feet to the rocky beach below.  — Via New York Post

Fishermen discovered the bodies and reported that it was like a “horror scene” and that the couple’s bodies were “shattered.”

At our funeral home, we only tend to handle international ship-outs or ship-ins about every other year.  Most of the people in the Parkesburg area are local.  They’re the type of locals who rarely travel across the Mississippi, and hardly ever travel across the Atlantic or the Pacific.

Unless you’re a funeral home that deals specifically with a certain demographic (maybe a city funeral home whose main clientele are Greeks who want to be shipped back to Greece when they die), most funeral homes — like ours — aren’t experts in international shipping of human remains.  Why?

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BECAUSE EVERY COUNTRY IS DIFFERENT.  Almost all countries require the body to be shipped back to the homeland in what’s called a hermetically sealed (airtight) shipping container so that no fluids leak out during transportation OR sometimes you can bypass the hermetically sealed container if the body is embalmed (fun fact: when you fly, there’s a chance a corpse is being shipped in the cargo bay).  For the US, the corpse either has to be in a sealed container or embalmed.

Sometimes the cause of death has to be determined before shipment can take place because if the death was caused by an infectious disease, shipment is much less likely to take place.  And as you may know, the cause of death for accidental or suspicious deaths can take weeks to determine, leaving the family of the deceased waiting and waiting and waiting for the shipment to take place.

THE PAPERWORK IS A MILE HIGH.  For Michael Kearns and Louise Benson, their bodies are subject to both Portuguese rules and regs, AND British and Australian rules and regs.  For most of us in the funeral business, the paperwork for international ship-outs can be so difficult (often times you have to know the right people at the Embassy) we contract it out to a company that deals solely with international ship outs.

Often times, the official approval from the receiving nation can itself take weeks.  In other words, the bodies of Michael and Louise might have to extend their stay.

THE MONEY.  To have a body shipped to the US will generally cost somewhere around $5,000, but it often tends to be more.  I have a Greek friend who shipped his son back to Greece for a cost of $20,000 (this wasn’t through our funeral home).

CREMATION IS USUALLY THE CHEAPEST AND LOGISTICALLY EASIEST OPTION.  If you can stomach it.  The problem with cases like Michael and Louise is that — at least for tragic deaths — the family usually wants to see the body.  There’s this nagging feeling that “he/she just can’t be dead.  I don’t believe it.”  And the only way they can confirm that it’s actually true is to see the deceased with their own two eyes.  That desire makes cremation a tough choice.

SHATTERED BODIES.  This is just such a tough case for the families.  Not only are they dealing with sudden and tragic deaths of their loved ones in another country, but their bodies are wrecked.

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IT’S NOT A LAUGHING MATTER: Here’s the problem with the word “selfie”, specifically as it relates to Michael and Louise.  Pamela B. Rutledge Ph.D. writes, “Selfies frequently trigger perceptions of self-indulgence or attention-seeking social dependence that raises the damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t specter of either narcissism or low self-esteem… If the people in selfies aren’t famous or being paid to pose, then it must indicate a moral failing and they are labeled bragging, attention seeking, self-focused or narcissistic” (Via Psychology Today).

I don’t think Michael and Louise’s death would have made the news if they simply fell to their deaths.  But because they fell taking selfies, it almost humorous or at least a moral lesson.  Because they died taking selfies, the perception is that it diminishes their deaths … that we can snicker at their deaths like we’d snicker at a drunk who walked in front of a train.

But it’s not funny.  And their deaths shouldn’t be diminished.  What their families will go through over the next week or so will be absolutely horrible as they negotiate what they need to do.

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If you like my writing, consider buying my 2017 Nautilus Book Award Gold Winner, Confession of a Funeral Director (click the image to go to the Amazon page):

The Unknown Underground of Funeral Director Fight Clubs

Photo Author: emilykneeter
Author URL: https://www.flickr.com/people/emilykneeter/
License: Creative Commons Attribution License

Unlike the Chuck Palahniuk novel and subsequent movie, these fight clubs don’t happen in basements.  They happen in Facebook groups.  And unlike the movie, these Fight Clubs aren’t a way to let out existential steam…. these fighters are out for blood.

There’s SO MUCH ARGUING IN THE FUNERAL INDUSTRY!!!  For those of you that are in closed Facebook funeral groups, you know.  My god, you know.  It get’s so serious in these groups that one faction will try to have the funeral licenses removed from another faction.  One faction will report perceived offenses to the state board, hoping to get an enemy they’ve made in one of these Facebook groups fined or fired.  And it’s worked.  On more than one occasion, these Facebook funeral director fights have gotten people dismissed from their jobs, in some cases blacklisted.  Livelihoods have been ruined by these kerfuffles.

It’s gone so far that one faction will hack another faction’s funeral home website.  One faction will splinter off from one group to create another group that makes fun of the original group.  One faction will bully the other to no end until the victim leaves the group.

It’s dirty.  It’s drama.  It’s a legit reality TV show where there are about a dozen main characters and the rest of us just sit back and watch the shit show.

Embalmers / funeral directors are like the Protestant / Evangelical / Baptist Churches.  It’s common knowledge that Protestants / Evangelicals / Baptists have a history of breaking off from each other to create new churches that distinguish themselves by being different than the original.  I know because I grew up in such a splinter church that broke off from another because we had a disagreement over the morality of the insurance coverage offered to the pastor.  I learned a couple things along the ways about people, opinions, maturity, and unity in the midst of individuality.

If you’re in the funeral director fight club, you have absolutely no desire to hear me out.  Most of you have already expressed your feelings of antagonism towards me.  But for those of us who watch the funeral director fight club, here are my thoughts on where things can go wrong:

TWO DIFFERENT WAYS CAN BOTH BE RIGHT

You live in New York City.  Your buddy lives in Nashville.  You’re both driving to Orlando for a family vacation at Disney World.

The best way for your buddy is to drive the 75 straight to Orlando.  The best way for you is probably 95 all the way down.  It’s utterly silly for you to argue with your buddy by telling him that “95 is the only way to Orlando.”  Because different locations require different approaches.  And your starting point often determines your journey.  As long as you both end up in Orlando, you did it right.

If you’re in funeral service, different locations require different approaches.  It’s sometimes possible that both funeral director combatants are right because we all come from different towns, different cultures, and from a different set of expectations.  What’s right for funerals in Parkesburg might be wrong for funerals in New York City.  What’s expected of me in Parkesburg, might not be expected of me in Nashville.  What you emphasize might be different than what I’m expected to emphasize.

DON’T BASE YOUR IDENTITY ON YOUR JOB

Because if you do, when people question your job, it’s like they’re questioning you.  When they question how you do your job, it’s like they’re questioning how you live your life.  When they question your job performance, it’s like they’re questioning your value.  When they question your job acumen, it’s like they’re questioning your intelligence.  When they disagree with how you do things, it’s like they’re disagreeing with your lifestyle.

If the funeral business is your identity, any discussion about how you do your job, the correct way to do your job, etc. becomes incredibly and intensely personal.  Because I’m not just questioning your job, I’m questing your very identity.

When discussions about funerals become charged, I step away.  Not because I don’t have an opinion, but because my identity is wrapped up in this business, but this business is not my identity.

FUNERAL FUNDAMENTALISM:

Here’s how religious fundamentalism works.  There are three tiers of belief.  The strong set of beliefs is what you could call “core beliefs”.  These are the beliefs you hold most deep, and they usually have to do with who and what you love.  Secondary to “core beliefs” is what you could call “values”.  Values are practices and attitudes that we believe best enable us to serve our core beliefs.  And the last category is what you might call “opinions.”  This is the category where two people who share the same “core beliefs” and “values” simply differ and it’s no big deal (unless you want to make it one).

Fundamentalism doesn’t recognize these tiers.  For the fundamentalist, everything is a “core belief.”  Everything is worth fighting over.  Opinions aren’t just opinions.  Values aren’t just values.  There is no context.  There is no relativity.

The funeral fundamentalist has a problem with anything new.  They have a problem with creativity.  They have a problem with younger people offering a contextual perspective BECAUSE THE CORE BELIEFS HAVE ALREADY BEEN SET.

NARCISSISM

There’s a fine line between being a funeral director and being a narcissist. 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.

Unfortunately, many funeral directors become narcissists (the funeral industry also has a tendency to harbor narcissists who gravitate towards the pomp and professionalism of funeral service). And while it would be easy to simply call these guys and girls “jerks”, the situation is usually more complex. For many, the tendency for funeral directors to become self-absorbed isn’t a product of nature, but of nurture. And recognizing the environmental factors that produce narcissism in funeral directors is a big step in making sure we keep focused on the heart of the funeral industry: serving others.

Until the stupid fighting stops, you’ll know where you can find me:

via GIPHY

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If you like my writing, consider buying my 2017 Nautilus Book Award Gold Winner, Confession of a Funeral Director (click the image to go to the Amazon page):

When you have depression it’s like it snows every day.

***I didn’t write this.  And after some research to find out WHO did write it, I was led here — a Reddit Suicide Prevention Megathread – although the author’s name isn’t cited.  If you know who wrote it, let me know because I’d love to credit them.***

Author: Lisa Jacobs
Author URL: https://www.flickr.com/people/bunnygoth/
Title: IMG_0940
Year: 2013
Source: Flickr
Source URL: https://www.flickr.com
License: Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs License
License Url: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/
License Shorthand: CC-BY-ND

When you have depression it’s like it snows every day.

Some days it’s only a couple of inches. It’s a pain in the ass, but you still make it to work, the grocery store. Sure, maybe you skip the gym or your friend’s birthday party, but it IS still snowing and who knows how bad it might get tonight. Probably better to just head home. Your friend notices, but probably just thinks you are flaky now, or kind of an asshole.

Some days it snows a foot. You spend an hour shoveling out your driveway and are late to work. Your back and hands hurt from shoveling. You leave early because it’s really coming down out there. Your boss notices.

Some days it snows four feet. You shovel all morning but your street never gets plowed. You are not making it to work, or anywhere else for that matter. You are so sore and tired you just get back in bed. By the time you wake up, all your shoveling has filled back in with snow. Looks like your phone rang; people are wondering where you are. You don’t feel like calling them back, too tired from all the shoveling. Plus they don’t get this much snow at their house so they don’t understand why you’re still stuck at home. They just think you’re lazy or weak, although they rarely come out and say it.

Some weeks it’s a full-blown blizzard. When you open your door, it’s to a wall of snow. The power flickers, then goes out. It’s too cold to sit in the living room anymore, so you get back into bed with all your clothes on. The stove and microwave won’t work so you eat a cold Pop Tart and call that dinner. You haven’t taken a shower in three days, but how could you at this point? You’re too cold to do anything except sleep.

Sometimes people get snowed in for the winter. The cold seeps in. No communication in or out. The food runs out. What can you even do, tunnel out of a forty foot snow bank with your hands? How far away is help? Can you even get there in a blizzard? If you do, can they even help you at this point? Maybe it’s death to stay here, but it’s death to go out there too.

The thing is, when it snows all the time, you get worn all the way down. You get tired of being cold. You get tired of hurting all the time from shoveling, but if you don’t shovel on the light days, it builds up to something unmanageable on the heavy days. You resent the hell out of the snow, but it doesn’t care, it’s just a blind chemistry, an act of nature. It carries on regardless, unconcerned and unaware if it buries you or the whole world.

Also, the snow builds up in other areas, places you can’t shovel, sometimes places you can’t even see. Maybe it’s on the roof. Maybe it’s on the mountain behind the house. Sometimes, there’s an avalanche that blows the house right off its foundation and takes you with it. A veritable Act of God, nothing can be done. The neighbors say it’s a shame and they can’t understand it; he was doing so well with his shoveling.

I don’t know how it went down for Anthony Bourdain or Kate Spade. It seems like they got hit by the avalanche, but it could’ve been the long, slow winter. Maybe they were keeping up with their shoveling. Maybe they weren’t. Sometimes, shoveling isn’t enough anyway. It’s hard to tell from the outside, but it’s important to understand what it’s like from the inside.

I firmly believe that understanding and compassion have to be the base of effective action. It’s important to understand what depression is, how it feels, what it’s like to live with it, so you can help people both on an individual basis and a policy basis. I’m not putting heavy shit out here to make your Friday morning suck. I know it feels gross to read it, and realistically it can be unpleasant to be around it, that’s why people pull away.

I don’t have a message for people with depression like “keep shoveling.” It’s asinine. Of course you’re going to keep shoveling the best you can, until you physically can’t, because who wants to freeze to death inside their own house? We know what the stakes are. My message is to everyone else. Grab a fucking shovel and help your neighbor. Slap a mini snow plow on the front of your truck and plow your neighborhood. Petition the city council to buy more salt trucks, so to speak.

Depression is blind chemistry and physics, like snow. And like the weather, it is a mindless process, powerful and unpredictable with great potential for harm. But like climate change, that doesn’t mean we are helpless. If we want to stop losing so many people to this disease, it will require action at every level.

Edit: Feel free to share this with anyone or anywhere you think it might help. We aren’t alone. Even when there’s warm bodies around when we are cold we still shiver. Offer a blanket.

Why I’ve Stopped Being Nice (And Why You Should Stop Being Nice too)

Somewhere along the way, “being nice” became a supreme virtue in the United States.  In fact, I think it may have taken the place of it’s predecessor … “being tolerant.”  I never liked the word “tolerant”, and I’ve come to dislike the word “nice” for the same reasons I cringed at “tolerant”

“Tolerant” is an easy virtue to dislike, not because I think we should insulate ourselves from those who aren’t like us.  Not because I’m racist, homophobic, or a religious bigot.  I don’t like that word because all it does is ask us to “put up” with differences.  I’m a white, heterosexual male.  I don’t tolerate African Americans.  I don’t tolerate homosexuals.  I don’t tolerate women.  Tolerate is something you do with an annoying younger sibling.  Tolerate is what you do when you’re stuck in traffic and can’t do anything about it.

I open my heart to understanding a person and perspective that I can only see if I’m willing to put myself in someone else’s shoes.  I don’t expect them to teach me (that’s not their job).  But I do ask them questions and I listen to their responses because I’m interested in loving, understanding and celebrating differences, not just tolerate the differences.  I celebrate my LGBTQ friends, POC, and religious diversity because I’m doing more than tolerate, I’m learning.

“Nice” is equally as empty a term.

As a funeral director, I’m expected to be supremely nice.  Like, the nicest person ever.  Like, picture the nicest person you know and then double their niceness is the kind of nice funeral directors are supposed to have.  And there was a point in my career that I thought “being nice” was one of the main parts of my job.  But, no longer.

I stopped being a nice funeral director when I saw how nice people tend to be enablers.

I stopped being a nice funeral director when I saw how nice people can’t communicate personal boundaries.

I stopped being a nice funeral director because I learned how to say “no.”

I stopped being a nice funeral director when I saw nice people getting burned out in this industry.

I stopped being a nice funeral director when I saw that grieving people don’t actually want a nice funeral director.

I stopped being nice when I saw how it’s as fake as the “how are you doing?” greeting.

Nice is what rich people are when they’re dealing with poor people.  It’s the next step after tolerance.  It’s tolerance, but with a smile on top.  It’s what a CEO is when he does some PR with his minimum wage workers.  It’s what white people are when they go to third-world countries.  It’s how you act when a salesman calls your phone.

“Nice” is an okay virtue, but it’s so far down my list of important virtues, I don’t even try anymore.

I do, however, try to be empathetic, recognizing and embracing the humanity in those around me.

I do try to be vulnerable by making myself open to different perspectives, and honest about my own.

I try to be intelligent and educated, so that I know what I know and — more importantly — know what I don’t know.

I try to be present, fully engaged with the person(s) I’m talking to (And I’ll admit, this one is the one I fail at the most).

I try to be welcoming and hospitable by enabling people to be themselves around me and not what they think they should be around me.

I also to be true to myself and set healthy boundaries for my personal life and family.

But nice?  Nah.  I’m not trying to give off the impression that I’m nice.  In fact, when people describe me, I hope “nice” is one of the last words they use, because I’m no longer trying to be a nice person or a nice funeral director.  I’m pretty sure it’s one of the least important virtues if it’s a virtue at all.

 

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If you like my writing, consider buying my 2017 Nautilus Book Award Gold Winner, Confession of a Funeral Director (click the image to go to the Amazon page):

A Letter to the Good Funeral Director Working at a Bad Funeral Home

Author: Stephan Ridgway Author URL: https://www.flickr.com/people/stephanridgway/ Title: Raj’s funeral Year: 2011 Source: Flickr Source URL: https://www.flickr.com License: Creative Commons Attribution License License Url: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ License Shorthand: CC-BY

You joined this business because at some point in your life you realized that you could do something good in death care.

Maybe you lost a loved one, and you wanted to use your pain and experience to help others walk through the difficulty.

Maybe a funeral director’s love and helpfulness inspired you to want to be the same.

Maybe you felt called to the dismal trade, knowing that deep inside you resides a resilience that few other people possess.

Whatever your reason for working in death care, the end was clear: you pursued this profession because you knew something good could come of it.

Then you started to look for a job.  And the market was much tougher than you realized.  The business was harder to crack than you could have imagined.  The family-run funeral homes that you wanted to work for didn’t have any open positions.  And the large, machine-like homes only offered positions with tough hours and cheap pay.

Whatever your story, you either ended up at a funeral home that you thought was great, or you ended up at a funeral home that was less than ideal.

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For some of you, you worked your way up from the bottom.  You put in your due.  The night shifts.  You worked on holidays.  You cleaned the prep room.  You parked the cars.  You mowed the lawn.  You worked with Larry, the son-in-law of the owner who constantly makes off-color and sometimes sexist jokes.

Or maybe you got stuck with Robert, the owner’s nephew who slacks off, rarely pulls his weight, and constantly complains.

Then there’s John/Johanna, the supervisor.  When he/she’s in front of the public, he/she’s the consummate professional: caring, compassionate and consistent.  But when he/she’s out of the spotlight, his/her ability to supervise is nowhere near his/her ability to be a funeral director.  His/her temper is short, he/she blames failures on everyone else except himself/herself and the only time you’ve ever seen him/her smile is when he/she’s bragging about himself/herself or leaving for vacation.

You’ve finally worked your way up the ladder and now you’re making arrangements … doing the thing you’ve always wanted to do.

Except, you’re not just expected to care for people, you’re expected to care primarily for the bottom-line of the business.  The tag-line of the funeral home would imply that families come first, but the truth you’re realizing more and more is that it’s really the dollar.

Upsell the caskets.

Upsell the packages.

Push embalming.

Obfuscate, obfuscate, obfuscate so that families don’t know the money saving options.

Use lines like, “This is the casket your loved one deserves.”

And, “This casket honors your dad’s life like no other.”

Or whatever line the kids are using these days.

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First off, if this is you, I’m sorry.

Unmet expectations are difficult to digest.  Lousy supervisors make a difficult job even more demanding.  And finding out that — for some funeral homes — it really ISN’T all about service … finding out that many of these dudes are in it for the money … that discovery is enough to deflate the reason you pursued this career in the first place.

There’s a couple options for you at this point:  Sometimes, the good funeral director in a bad funeral home holds onto his/her job.  They kowtow to the system because — let’s face it — it might not be the best income, but it’s a job.

Some quit.  Let me correct myself … many quit.  They’ll go looking for a better funeral home with better people.  And those funeral homes are out there.  They really are.

Others will try to start their own funeral home, or buy out an old one so that they can implement their original vision of what death care should look like.

But for many, they wash their hands of this industry and make the healthy choice to find another profession.

To the good funeral director currently working at a bad funeral home, I’m not going to promise you that it get’s better.  Some things don’t get better.  Some things need to be burnt down (I’m talking figuratively of course).  Some things can be changed, through hard work and a labor of love, to be something better.  Some things need to be abandoned.

Whoever you are.  Wherever you’re at.  Let me say this: death care needs you, but you don’t need it.

If you entered this business with a heart to serve, YOU are what families need when they encounter a sudden death and have minimal funds.  YOU are what families need when they just want someone to honestly tell them their options.  YOUR ability to bring some sense of order to chaos is exactly what we need.

But, let me be clear: YOUR DESIRE TO SERVE DOESN’T NEED THIS INDUSTRY.  That heart to serve can play out in so many different professions.  EMT.  Nursing.  Coroner.  Medical Doctor.  Anywhere, really.  Because the world always has a shortage of people who genuinely want to help others, and if you genuinely want to help others, you’ll never have a shortage of opportunities.    

 

 

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If you like my writing, consider buying my 2017 Nautilus Book Award Gold Winner, Confession of a Funeral Director (click the image to go to the Amazon page):

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