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“Welcome, Sister Death!”

“Keeping Away Death” on The Fulton County Department of Health and Wellness

My first couple years in the funeral business nearly destroyed me.  Growing up as the son of a funeral directing family, I had danced around death for most of my youth.  When I finally danced with it upon full-time employment at my family’s funeral home, all I could see was darkness.  I had a death negative narrative, a pair of lenses that viewed death as devoid of goodness and full of fear.  I suppose most of us do.

In my book, I list five reasons this narrative is so strong; such as the professionalization of death care, the religious belief that death is a punishment for sin, and our evolutionary heritage.  This narrative doesn’t exist in every culture, but it’s so strong for us in Western culture even death’s personification is this scary and dark figure we call the “Grim Reaper.”

The rise of the cold and bony Grim Reaper began during the 14th century, as the Black Death swept over Europe leaving anywhere from 25% to 60% of Europe’s population dead.  Those infected suffered high fevers, seizers and possible gangrene of the extremities.  Such an awful death produced a fear among the healthy, who regularly abandon their affected spouses and children.  Not surprisingly, Death was depicted as the Grim Reaper, a bony figure with no flesh and no feeling with a scythe that mows down the living with reckless abandon.  What is surprising is that this personification of Death didn’t die out with the Black Death, but remains THE depiction of death in Western culture today.

After my closeness with death nearly destroyed my own life, I knew that I’d either have to find something more in death, or I’d leave the business.  As I searched, I began to see that death wasn’t entirely bad … it was deeply human.  I write in my book, “I tremble to say there’s good in death, because I’ve looked in the eyes of the grieving mother and I’ve seen the heartbreak of the stricken widow, but I’ve also seen something more in death, something good.  Death’s hands aren’t all cold and bony.”

Death isn’t the Grim Reaper.  It isn’t unfeeling.  It isn’t subhuman.

Marzanna is death personified in Baltic and Slavic lore.  Unlike the “Grim Reaper” with the bony hands, or other popular personifications of death, Marzanna takes on the gender of a woman, as she’s not only associated with death but the rebirth of death in nature.  Neil Gaiman brought a Marzanna type depiction to his comic book series, The Sandman.  Gaiman’s Death is a beautiful, youth goth woman who is kind, relatable and nurturing.  She’s nearly the exact opposite of the Reaper, a welcome sight to be sure, and one that continues to be a fan favorite.

As much as I like Gaiman’s personification, there’s another personification of death that comes from St. Francis of Assisi (1181/1182 – 3 October 1226) that is more intimate still than Gaiman’s Death.

St. Francis committed his life to serving the poor, a commitment that inspired a following in the Catholic Church known as Franciscans, and a Pope who took Francis as his papal name.  St. Francis of Assisi is also the patron saint of animals and nature, a facet of his life that is surrounded by folklore stories that tell of him preaching to birds and taming wolves.  Folklore aside, St. Francis’ “Canticle of Brother Sun and Sister Moon” speaks of his intimacy with nature and love for it.  In the Canticle, Francis goes through many of the natural occurrences — moon, sun, wind, water, fire, earth — framing each part as his sister or brother.  To end the Canticle, Francis takes a surprising turn and thanks God for “Sister Death.”

As someone who felt deeply connected to nature, we shouldn’t be surprised that Francis saw Death as something intimate, something natural.  Francis believed that all nature was good, although some of it needed redemption.  It’s said that when Francis was dying, he told death to praise God, which was his way of calling death to not be painful or harrowing, but good.  He believed death to be such an ingrained part of the natural order that it too — like all of nature — harbored a sense of goodness, even though it can often be cruel and terrifying.  Like the fable of St. Francis and the wolf, he saw past the cruel and hoped for the good.  According to the Transitus, at his life’s end, Francis proclaimed, “Welcome, Sister Death!”

Assisi’s “sister death” is a visage of death that asks us to see death as intimate, as something we’re deeply related to.  It’s not some scary, distant creature of evil like the Grim Reaper, although neither is it a happy, painless experience.  It isn’t something other than us, it’s a part of us.  Death is ours.  If we’re looking for the face of Death in a narrative that isn’t death negative, it’s St. Francis’ Sister Death, a face that closely resembles our own.

This reframing helps us interpret life’s end as something not cold and distant, but something that is entirely human.  Death, after all, is ours.  And I do believe if I had entered my dance with death with a different image, a different personification of Death, my view of it wouldn’t have been so disheartening.  How we view death influences how we experience it.  It’s time for a new visage, and maybe St. Assisi’s figure can help.

This is the first in a series of articles dealing with the “10 Confessions” of my book.  If you’d like to order the book, click on the image below:

  

 

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:

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