Drinking in the Stories (What It Means to Be a Funeral Director)
I work with both my dad and my grandfather. When I first started at the funeral home as a young, eager 16 year old, I told my Pop-pop, while we cleaned the storm windows with generic Windex, “I want to gain as much wisdom from you as I can.” He shot back, surprisingly, by telling me, “Don’t learn from me. I don’t have any wisdom.” Thankfully, I’ve disobeyed his imperative. Over the past 15 years, I’ve watched, studied, listened to and imbibed his trade; I’ve even learned to be a damn fine window cleaner (wipe the smudges off in a circular motion).
Between my dad and my grandfather, they have 141 years invested into the Parkesburg community. My grandfather was born in the second floor of the funeral home; they both went to school here, grew up in Parkesburg dirt and someday their bodies will return to its soil. They’ve cried with this community, buried this community’s dead and served this community through their involvement with the Parkesburg Fire Co., the volunteer ambulance crew, various civic organizations and church groups. They’ve created an extended “family” larger than the geographical boundaries of Parkesburg proper.
When someone dies and their family calls us, it’s often the case that we’ve buried multiple generations of their family. Some of them remember my great grandfather (God rest his soul), some of them went to school with my dad; others were neighbors to my Pop-pop on Third Ave. The connections are varied, but all relationships – as often happens in a small community of 3,600 – are strong.
And so, when somebody comes into the funeral home and there are a couple minutes of spare time, the stories flow. Just today, Denny Hart stopped by the funeral home to pick up his mother’s death certificates. Denny’s had a rough year: his brother-in-law, cousin and now his mother have all passed from cancer. Somehow my dad meandered the conversation to Denny’s dad “Sal”, and as Denny and my Dad traded stories about Sal Hart, their stories finally connected (like most stories at the funeral home) in the story of Sal’s death. Sal was killed in a tragic auto accident the day after Christmas when Denny, now 41, was 9 years old. Denny remembers that night … the last words from his dad … “I love you, Denny” … the phone call from the police … the hysteria of his mother.
I, a fresh 32 years old, don’t have much to add to this conversation. I don’t remember Sal. Unlike my Dad, I’m still finding my niche in Parkesburg, content to be an understudy in a six-generation linage of funeral directors.
But I drink in these stories. I listen attentively as my grandfather swaps (sometimes tall) tales with his buddies; as my dad opens old chapters of his life. I read those chapters; I study those chapters.
I drink in the narratives of Parkesburg until they become a part of my blood; until the stories flow into my heart and are pumped through my arteries and veins, circulating through the entirety of my being. I drink in the stories so that this community becomes married to me and I to it. Funeral directors, after all, don’t just fulfill a need within our community, we – in many ways – are entrusted with our community’s soul. And if there’s anything I’ve learned from my dad and my grandfather, it’s that I can best serve my community when it becomes a part of me.