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Remember Edie Norton

It’s rare that I share a funeral related story and include the deceased’s actual name.  Except for my personal family, I almost always change the names of those involved for the sake of their privacy.  I’m making an exception for Edith “Edie” Norton and Brian Wilson.

The world goes around because there are people who give more than they take.  Some of those people become well known, but most go about their lives unrecognized.  Edie never received recognition for her life’s work, likely because her life’s work was focused on just one person.

Brian Wilson had nonverbal autism and needed constant personal care.  At one year of age, Brian’s parents knew they needed help raising him, so they hired Edie, a young woman with a bachelors degree in psychology.

Because both of Brian’s parents worked demanding jobs, Edie was at Brian’s side 24/7.  Her “job” wasn’t a 9 to 5, it was a life commitment, one that she honored until Brian died last year at the age of 33.

A little over a year after Brian died, Edie passed away on November 2nd at the age of 69.  I met with her siblings to make the funeral arrangements (Edie never married or had biological children of her own). In the obituary, Edie’s family wanted it mentioned that she cared for Edie as a son.  But Brian was more than a son, he was the center of her day, the center of her daily actions, her daily thoughts and her life.

I want you to know about Brian and Edie.  Edie life and death won’t be covered by the news, but she cared for someone who couldn’t care for himself.  And although their lives were somewhat isolated, and although their names won’t be written in the annuals of human history, they did find the magic that makes the world go round.  And I’d like for you to remember their names today.

Look for the helpers

The guy behind me plowing a path through the snow to a gravesite is Ed.  Last Friday, I showed up at a somewhat secluded cemetery to inter cremated remains with the deceased’s family.

When I drove in (an hour before the family arrived), Ed was plowing the cemetery drive.  I rolled down my car’s window, he shut his little snow plow off, and I yelled out, “are you the one who ordered this white stuff?” He chuckled and said, “No, but I’m the one getting this shit out of the way.” I had no idea who Ed was, never met him before.  I introduced myself and he explained who he was.

It turned out that Ed is just a neighbor who saw that the cemetery hadn’t been plowed.  He also figured out that there was a graveside service and decided that he’d plow the cemetery with his small plow so we could get into it.

Ed was easily into his 80s, hunched over, grey haired with a sailor’s mouth. “What kind of service you have today?” He asked. “It’s a private cremation interment, only the deceased’s mother and grandson are attending.  The mother uses a walker” I explained.  I had brought a shove because I figured I’d have to shovel a path from the drive to the gravesite, but as soon as I told Ed, he started his plow and carved out the path you can see in the photo.

This business is full of experiences that viewed alone would destroy your faith in humanity.  There’s the murders, the accidents, the death of children, but for every one thing horrible, there’s 10 Eds who restore our faith.

You’ve heard the Fred Roger’s quote about looking for the helpers (I’ll put the quote in the comments so you can read it again). Seeing the Eds — the helpers— is the privilege of working around death.  Because there’s so much in humanity that’s horrible, but then there’s complete strangers who curse like a sailor while cutting a path through the snow for a bereaved mother and grandson who make the horrible just a little better.

Look for the Eds.  And if you can’t find them, you know what to do because it’s written deep in your heart.  The helpers aren’t saints.  The helpers are me and you.  The helpers see snow and they plow it.

#confessionsofafuneraldirector

Some events I’ll be speaking at …

Up until recently, I haven’t been open to speaking engagements, mainly because getting off work is a job all in itself.  And I don’t like to fly … so there’s that.

But, with the addition of new staff at the funeral home, I’m a little more flexible.  Anyways, here are some things on my calendar.  If any of these events are applicable to you, I’d love to meet you … assuming I get up enough unction to step onto the plane (which I will because noise canceling headphone really help).

Ontario, Canada
Sunday December 9th, 2018 11a.m. – 3p.m.
Only 75 tickets available
*Counts as Full Continuing Education Credits*
Please RSVP by Dec. 1st to riversidefuneralhome@hotmail.com
This event is for Canadian funeral directors.

Parkville, Maryland
Thursday, February 7th at 7 PM
St. John’s Lutheran Church
7601 York Road, Towson, MD 21204
The event is free and all are welcome.
This event will be religious in nature.

Bernalillo, New Mexico
Friday, March 8, 2019
This event is for the New Mexico Funeral Service Association

Funeral directors are human too

When I work with younger people, I’ll usually give them my cell number so they can text me whenever they want.  Texting is just so much less stressful and easier for those of us who grew up with cell phones, and it seems to be a comfort for the families when they know they can reach me via text anytime of the day.

This is a text exchange I had with a young mother who birthed stillborn twins.  And I don’t share this to brag about my supposed sainthood in providing a free funeral to a bereaved mother.  It’s the opposite really.  Saintliness implies something extra good, or extra human, or god-like.  This act was very much just basic, normal humanity.  This is nothing exceptional.

Most funeral directors enter and stay in death care because we’ve experienced death and want to use our experience to help others who are experiencing the same.  The best of us are grieving people helping grieving people.

Every funeral director I know heavily discounts, charges cost, or gives both services and goods for free when their “customer” is a child.  It’s not a rule we were taught in funeral school. It’s not unspoken code.  It’s just human.

And I guess I want you to know that death care workers are not saints, and unlike the many stereotypes, most of us aren’t sinners out to exploit the grieving public.  We carry the same grief you do, and we know how far a little goodness and grace can go.  So next time you see us in real life, or portrayed as a charlatan on TV, know that we’re neither saint or sinner.  We’re very much like you . . . and just like you, when we see a grieving mother, we do what anyone would do by giving the best we can give.

#confessionsofafuneraldirector

Finding the magic in life

A few years ago, Pop Pop stepped away from making funeral arrangements for a few reasons, namely that at 87 he’s outlived and buried most of his contemporaries, an accomplishment that would make some feel lonely, but for him it feels like completion.  He was here for his friends and family when they needed him, and now that most of them are gone, he focuses on other things at the funeral home.

Even now, every once in a while, someone Pop Pop grew up with will die, so he puts on suit and tie and takes charge of the funeral arrangements.  Today was one of those days.  A 91 year old friend of our family passed, and Pop Pop met with her family.

I came down in the middle of the arrangements to grab some information (and snapped this photo in the process) so I could type an obituary draft for the family to read before they left.  Pop Pop’s proud of me being in the business, as any family patriarch would be.  When I entered the arrangement room to get the info, he started doing what grandfathers do when they’re proud of their grandson.

After talking about my book (he’s read it four times, or so he says), he started talking about passing off the business.  He said, “I’d give it up, but I can’t.  I’ve always loved my job, there’s nothing else I’d rather do, so why stop doing what I love just because I’m 87?”

There’s a number of things that make for a good life, and one of them is finding what you love, and somehow or another making it your profession.  It’s rare that we do what we love, but when we do, it not only benefits us, it benefits everyone our work touches.

Pop Pop’s love for the business and the people he serves has benefited those people just as much as it’s benefited my Pop Pop.  He might be 87 years old, but when he’s working with his people, it’s like his 87 year old body momentarily drinks from the fountain of youth.  That’s the magic you find when you do what you love.  And that magic spills over to the people you love.

#confessionsofafuneraldirector

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