Funeral Directing

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

As a Funeral Director, Here Are 10 Questions You Should Never Be Afraid to Ask Me

One.  Can I ask you a weird question?

THERE ARE NO WEIRD QUESTIONS.  Dying, death and death care are clouded in a sense of mystery.  After our loved ones die, they’re whisked away by the hospital staff, or by a funeral director.  Once at the funeral home, the body is either transformed through embalming or cremation.  That whole period — from death to disposition — offers all too many questions for the deceased’s loved one.  This is why there are no weird questions.  Ask us anything and everything and we’ll give you an honest answer.

Two.  Can I help?

Firstly, this is YOUR loved one.  It’s not ours.  One of my sayings I like to tell families to reaffirm that idea is this: “you’ve loved and cared for them up to this point, so don’t stop now.”  There are some things we can’t let you help with, like embalming, but there are a hundred other things like dressing your loved one, helping in the transfer, doing the hair, makeup and even riding in the hearse.

URL: https://www.flickr.com/people/timomcd/
Title: Pig’s Heart
Year: 2011
Source: Flickr

Three.  Can you fix …?

If you’re having a viewing, it’s always good to pre-view your loved one before the public viewing.  If mom’s hair is off, if the clothing isn’t on correctly, if it isn’t your mother lying in the casket … you need to ask us to fix that problem.

Four.  Can I see your General Price List?  

The General Price List shows the itemized list of our prices so you can make an intelligent financial decision when shopping for a funeral home.  In fact, the Federal Trade Commissions requires us to give you this list.  The FTC states, “You must give the General Price List to anyone who asks, in person, about funeral goods, funeral services, or the prices of such goods or services.”

Five.  Can I have a little longer with my loved one?

OMG, yes.  And any funeral director who responds otherwise should be fired.  Remember, this is your loved one, not ours.

Six.  Can you rub my back?

Embalmers generally massage the arms, legs, and face of the deceased to help with fluid distribution.  So, we are able to massage.  And even though your body might be strained from grief, we’re probably gonna say “no” to this question.  Sorry.  You’ve got be dead to get that service.

Seven.  Can I watch …?

This is a valid question.  Again, most funeral directors will say “no” if you ask to watch an embalming, but just about anything else is on the table.  Many crematories will even let you hit the “start” button.

Eight.  How can I save money?

Funeral directors should have YOUR best interest in mind, not their own.  If you want an inexpensive funeral, the funeral director knows how to cut corners better than anyone.  (And, just as free advice, this question should be asked BEFORE your loved one passes.  Call around.  Ask funeral homes for their GPL.  And find one that you’re both comfortable working with, AND, is inexpensive.  You could save a couple thousand just by shopping around.)

Nine.  “Can you cut out the heart of my husband and have it cremated separately so I can put the heart ashes in a cremation locket?  I want the cremation locket of his heart next to my heart.”  

This was an actual question a widow asked a buddy funeral director.  He said “no.”

Ten.  Can you help me with …?

If we got into this work for anything than other than service we’re doing it entirely wrong.  It’s not bad if we make money, but the main reason we’ve maintain a place in society is because we’ve helped you in your hardest moments.  Good funeral directors are service oriented, and the best ones are both service-oriented and intelligently helpful.

*****

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):

Honest and Practical Talk about Wanting a Traditional Funeral When You Don’t Have Any Money

The biggest problem that I have with the funeral industry is that we’ve made honor a commodity.

Let me explain by taking you on a short imaginary journey where unicorns exist and Fred Rogers is still alive.  Unfortunately, in this imaginary world, your Dad dies suddenly at 60 years of age.  Your dad worked hard his entire life, was generally overlooked by his peers, and was never given the respect and honor you knew he deserved.  For his funeral, you want to make things right.  You want to give him an honorable and respectful send-off.  And you want the works … embalming, a nice casket, a nice cemetery lot, upscale flowers, a big funeral luncheon with all your dad’s favorite foods … all of it.

One problem.  You don’t have any money.  What do you do?

I know, I know … you’re saying this isn’t you because in this imaginary world you’re choosing cremation, or sky burial, or a Viking Funeral.  Maybe you plan to lay your body at the altar of science.

Back to the real world: This “making death a commodity” is a long-held tension, dating back thousands of years.  The plainness of the Jewish funeral rites is a reaction to this tension.  The rich were having opulent funerals while those less wealthy would “sell the farm” to give their family something on the same level as the rich.  In the Babylonia Talmud, it’s written:

Formerly, (it was customary) to bring out the rich for burial on a dargesh (a tall, stately bed, ornamented and covered with rich coverlets) and the poor on a plain bier, and the poor felt shamed; they instituted … that all should be brought out on a plain bier, out of deference for the poor …

Today, things have flipped.  The rich and those with higher education have a much higher cremation (per data collected by CANA).

Based on my experience, this is how I’d explain that data: those that have been disrespected in life often want to be respected in death.  If a family or people group have been subjected to socioeconomic, political, legal, cultural, or institutional oppression, there’s a desire to give in death what wasn’t given in life: honor.  Honor in death means many things, but here in American, it has too often meant a “traditional funeral” and burial.  For many Americans who have felt dishonored, cremation — the less expensive option — is often seen as another layer of disrespect.

And when a family sees a traditional funeral and burial as THE ONLY WAY TO HONOR THEIR DEAD, therein lies the problem that’s been created by the American Funeral Industry.  

Because …

If you want a full traditional burial, the cemetery lot, cemetery opening, the vault, and the casket (the vault and casket can be bought from third-party suppliers, or bought from the funeral home) are going to start at around $4,000 (this number varies by location … cemeteries cost more the closer you get to a city, so it could be more or less depending on where you live and where you die).  If the funeral home charged NOTHING for their own professional service, there are still thousands of dollars in play just for plot purchase, plot opening, and the vault that 95% of cemeteries require.

I look forward to the day when that $4,000 can be cut in half with green cemeteries that don’t require a vault, use a less expensive and bio-degradable casket, and — in some circumstances — can have the grave dug by the families themselves.  But until the day when there’s a green cemetery close to everyone’s home (because proximity is always a major concern), that $4,000 for a traditional funeral is a starting point even before the funeral director is involved.

On top of that estimated 4K, funeral homes — like ours — charge for our work, time, facilities, etc.  Our funeral home charges approximately $3,000 for our “services” start to finish, which includes embalming, dressing and cosmetology, logistical and form filing work, the use of our cars and equipment, use of our facilities, the funeral directing itself, backrubs, vodka, dragon rides, and anything and everything else you want us to do (if you nix embalming, it’s less, obvs, much less if you nix the vodka).

Other funeral homes — especially the ones with exorbitant debt — can charge double or triple what we charge.

Let me throw some thoughts at you …

The fact is that many funeral homes are too expensive.

Any many funeral directors have a complicit and implicit bias towards poverty and those who find themselves a part of it.

But funeral homes aren’t banks.  We don’t finance funerals.  We don’t offer loans.

Most funeral homes require payment (or proof of payment, i.e. an insurance policy or irrevocable burial reserve) upfront because we have been beat one too many times.  

If the price is a major concern, shop around.  A funeral at our funeral home costs thousands less than our competitors.  One phone call could be the deal-maker or deal-breaker.

Funeral homes do give pro-bono funerals, but those funerals are rarely for people who lack funds, and they rarely cover the cemetery fees.  Pro-bono funerals are usually for tragic and complicated deaths, such as infants and children.

GoFundMe hardly ever works (and the funeral home won’t accept “I started a GoFundMe for grammy’s funeral” as proof of payment).

Asking churches for money can only do so much.

Trying to find an uncle or aunt or grandparent or distant relative to finance the funeral IS THE BEST OPTION.

But here’s the real honest talk.  You ready?
A traditional funeral and burial is only ONE WAY to honor the deceased.
Honoring the deceased is about the community they’ve created.
It’s about that community coming together and expressing their love.
Honor doesn’t need ornate caskets, pretty hearses, and large gravestones.
Honor doesn’t need a funeral with flashy clothing in a flashy building with flashy flowers.
Honor is about love.  And whenever love is shown in celebration of that person’s life, you’ve honored your loved one.

*****

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):

“Will You Help Me Pick Up a Body?”

This is a question I’ve had to ask a few of my friends ever once upon a busy day at the funeral home.

House removals are different than hospital and nursing home removals.  “House calls” as we call them often involves obstacles (like stairs, furniture, dogs etc.) that one person cannot overcome alone.

While hospital and nursing home removals usually only require ONE person to make the removal, house calls require TWO (sometimes more depending on the place of death and the size of the deceased).

There’s three of us at the funeral home who are capable of making house removals.  When one out of those three is on vacation, leaving two behind, things can get sticky.  Every once upon a busy day when we are picking up more bodies than our personnel can handle, I’ll have to randomly call in some back up … which usually ends of being one of my buddies.

Last year I called two separate friends on two separate occasions.

When I called both of them, I gave them this line:

“Do you want to make $150 dollars for an hour’s worth of work?”

“Sure!”, they said.

And when I told them HOW that $150 was to be made, both were still willing.  After telling them what to wear, how the whole procedure would work and what they should expect, they both did a wonderful job.  In fact, on one occasion, we arrived at the home of the deceased and the family fed us pizza.  I paid my buddy $150 and he got free pizza too.  Good deal.

This past Friday I was in the too-many-calls-with-too-little-personnel situation.  Both of the friends I had called before were on vacation, so I called up another friend.

“Do you want to make $150 for an hours worth of work?”

“Sure”, he said.  And then he asked, “Do I have to touch a dead body?”

“Yes.”, I said.

“Then $150 isn’t enough.  I don’t want to touch a dead person.”, he stated.

I totally understood his position, told him I’d hold this over him forever and was able to find someone else who was willing to touch the dead.

So, how much would I have to pay you to help me go on a house call?

*****

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):

Some of the Mistakes I’ve Made as a Funeral Director

Funeral directing can be a lot like parenting.

If you have just one kid, you can usually keep the chaos at bay.  When there are two kids, life can get hectic real quick.  When there are three kids or more?  The six-month-old is crying because he’s hungry, your three-year-old has magically found the fragile wine glass you had left out the night before, and when you ask your six-year-old for help, he starts to sass you because “he was right in the middle of his game.”  All that happens in the span of a minute while you’re trying to cook dinner.  For those of us that know the chaos, it’s not “can I stop the chaos”, it’s “how much can I limit the chaos?”

Mistakes happen.  The three-year-old drops the glass, you drop the egg that you were about to crack for the quiche, and your six-year-old slams down the PS4 controller in protest, while you trip over the six-month-old and cut your knee on remanents of your broken stemware.

Running funerals are the same (without the quiche and the wine … although wine at funerals isn’t an awful idea).  You have one funeral going, and it’s fairly simple.  You can give your undivided time to just that one family.  But all of a sudden, two more people die and now you have three funerals that you’re juggling, doing your best to maintain a semblance of order.

At this point, mistakes can happen.  You do your best to create checklists and accountability measures.  You do your best to overcommunicate the small details, but sometimes mistakes still happen

“Well, why don’t you just hire more staff?  When you have too many kids, you get some help.”  Oh, sage-of-the-internet-who-assumes-everyone-has-less-intelligence, let me answer that by saying this: things can get so busy all at once (which is the weird and unpredictable nature of this business) that it’s like going from one child to 10 children in a matter of hours.  One minute you have too many staff at the funeral home, and the next minute you’re short staffed.

I met with a family the other week who instructed me to place a specific t-shirt at the foot of their husband’s casket during the public viewing.  The day I was supposed to dress him, I got sick (I get semi-yearly days of utter brain fog that supposedly results from my Lyme’s Disease), leaving my grandfather to do my work.

In my sickened state, I forgot to tell Pop-pop to put the t-shirt at the foot of the casket.  He put the t-shirt on the deceased.

I pulled myself out of bed for the funeral the following day, and when I saw what had happened, my heart sank.  I apologized profusely to the family.  They forgave me.  That was a couple weeks ago and I’m still upset about it all.

But shit happens in life and shit happens in death.

Have you misspelled words in an email?  I’ve misspelled words in an obituary.

Have you dropped a cup of coffee before?  When I first started, I had a loaded stretcher collapse on me in the middle of a parking lot.

Have you ever confused your kids and put one to sleep in the wrong bed?  Funeral directors might put a body in the wrong casket.

Have you ever thrown something in a fire, only to have that thing explode and cause 10K worth of damage?  Well, I’ve missed a pacemaker or two in my career and reaped the consequences.

Maybe you’ve had a random collapsible stretcher loaded with a dead body and you were trying to get it into the bed of a van at a nursing home and it just wouldn’t collapse … and you tried and tried and a crowd started to gather as they watched you struggle to get the loaded stretcher into a van, and you just couldn’t and you almost started crying, and then after five minutes of trying to get it in the van you realized you were pulling the wrong leaver and you were almost at the point where you just wanted to crawl in the back of the van with the dead person and be dead too?

No?  Just me.

As a parent, I realize my mistakes.  I learn from them.  I correct them if I can.  And I tell my kids when I’m wrong.  I don’t act like a know-it-all around my kids.  I don’t give them the impression I’m a saint.

It’s hard for funeral directors to be honest with their mistakes because the whole process of putting a funeral together is SO EMOTIONALLY CHARGED.  It’s not like I gave you Quarter Pounder instead of the Big Mac that you wanted.  I can correct that mistake.  We get one shot to do everything right.  A mispelled name in an obituary can cause a firestorm.  A pacemaker exploding in a retort can cost $10,000.  Combing the hair the wrong way on the deceased can incite a flood of tears in the family.  Everything needs to be done right.

But let me tell you from experience, it’s so much easier to be honest with your mistakes than it is to put together an elaborate lie or blame it on someone else.  As tempting as it is to make excuses, I’ve learned that mistakes are human and apologies cultivate our humanity.

Love you all 🙂

P.S.  If you’re feeling brave, I’d love to hear about your mistakes as well!

 

*****

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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