There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and that the “what do you do for a living” question that will always come up in a group of newly acquainting people.
When the answer is “I am a funeral director” the reactions are a solid “oh” with that certain facial expression that I find oddly fascinating or “what made you want to do that job” as if I am from an alien planet and no human on Earth would actually choose to take care of the dead.
Next to follow is always:
Several people will slowly walk away because the conversation could become uncomfortable.
I will be asked 2 more predictable questions:
- What is the grossest thing that you have ever seen?
- Do you get to put the makeup on the bodies?
Questions that I have never been asked are:
What do you find amazing about your job?
Do you remember the people you have met?
I understand to some degree why I have never been asked these types of questions. To most, my stories would be depressing and unwelcome. Why would anyone want to be sad and uncomfortable at a social event?
On the other hand, I wonder– do you really want to know the grossest thing that I have ever seen? I highly doubt it so why did you feel the need to ask?
The strangest part of being in these situations is that I am the uncomfortable one. I am busy internalizing how I can keep you as comfortable as possible despite your own questions.
I ponder whether being grossed out or being made to feel sad is the better option for a dinner party. Probably neither which is why funeral directors often just smile and nod. We listen for a few minutes while people poke at the cost of a funeral and comment how funeral directors must be super rich. It’s an extremely superficial dance that we do for the sake of your comfort.
All of that is so unfortunate because I have had the opportunity to be a part of some incredibly wonderful, personal, heartbreaking and private moments. All experienced with complete strangers.
Upon the birth of my son 6 years ago I retired from the profession. I hold many memories dear and would like to share a few of them with you. Consider them a peak into my heart and mind. As you read them please allow them to make you think. These are my near death experiences.
The Dying Man and His Wife
This memory starts with me at the Funeral Home busily dealing with my daily duties when in walked a couple. Now, to be perfectly honest there are few things worse than people walking into a funeral home without an appointment. I stopped what I was doing and escorted them into an arrangement office and asked how I could help them. The husband did all of the talking and at first I felt a bit intimidated by him. He had many questions about the cost of a cremation and made it perfectly clear that he would not allow me to rip him off. We chatted for quite some time and as I answered his questions I could feel a relationship developing. He ultimately confided in me that he had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and would soon die. He was in his late thirties or early forties and had a young family to leave behind. Even as a funeral director who deals with death on a daily basis, that will always be an overwhelming concept for me to take in. When the conversation ended they both thanked me very much for my time and were upfront about the fact that they were considering other funeral homes.
Later that day I took a call from the dying mans wife. She let me know that they had decided on a funeral home but more importantly they wanted me. She asked if she could call on me when her husband died and wanted me to ensure her that I would help her through. I was honoured to make that promise and a few weeks later I made good on it. I went to their home, sat with her for a while and when she was ready I transported her husband’s body back to the funeral home. We met several times following his death. She was strong and brave through it all. I think of her often and hope that if life were to deal me that same hand that I would have her strength and grace.
While some people have few people to lean on during this difficult time, others come together as a religious or cultural community. I have been the director for several Sikh services and simply put, in the Sikh culture the dead body is washed and then dressed in traditional Sikh clothing, prayers and a service will take place and cremation will occur.
My role would be to embalm the body and prepare it for the family to come in and do the dressing and bathing. In the case of a female, the female family members would come to the funeral home with brand new towels, soaps, oils and clothing. I would step aside as they carefully tended to their duties. When they were finished we would place the body into the casket together and signal that the informal time of visitation will begin. The members of the deceased persons community would come to view the body pay their respects and place a monetary gift in the casket.
I am not sure if this is how each Sikh family chooses to do things, I only know that this is what I have experienced and it was beautiful. These women were not afraid or intimidated by the dead body, at least they never let on that they were. There was no crying or signs of mourning. I would assume this is because they believe that the soul never dies and the dead body is merely an empty shell. Following the short funeral service which consisted of several prayers, we would take the body as a group to the crematorium and everyone would assist in placing the casket into the cremation chamber and a family member would start the cremation. What I found particularly wonderful about these services was the fact that I did very little in terms of directing. The community knew exactly what to do and they all played a part in ensuring that the deceased’s soul could be released and to become one with God again.
A work day in the funeral home is unpredictable. There can be days that are spent in the office taking care of paperwork or days that are spent solely in the morgue. Some days we are out on services or picking up bodies from their place of death. In BC we have the option of putting into place a planned home death. Instead of dying in a hospital one can chose to die at home.
On this particular occasion, I took a call that there had been a home death and we were asked to come and pick up the body. It is always an unknown as to what we are going to encounter on a home removal and we do our best to be prepared for everything. We approached a beautiful home on the outskirts of town and were greeted by several family members. They were crying and hospitable and graciously invited us in and led us to a bed where the body of a female lay. She had been terminally ill for some time and the effects of her disease had been cruel to her now tiny frail body. She was beautifully dressed and cared for. Her small dog, a pug was cuddled up on her legs and was as heartbroken as anyone I have ever seen. He stayed with us as we prepared her and placed her onto the stretcher. It was extremely difficult for me to see this little fella mourn her death and to have to take her away from him. As we made our way down the vaulted stairway the family had gathered in the living room. There was a musical tribute being played for her and they all escorted her out. They did not do any of this for religious or cultural reasons; it was simply out of love. I witnessed the lifelong love for a wife, a mother, a sister and a daughter pouring from these people and I will never forget that day.
Not everyone gets a heads up that death is coming. The world can come crashing down with zero notice and forever be altered.
A Mother and Her Dead Son
I immediately think of 2 mothers when think of tragic deaths. At different times, each of these women received the call that their son had died while away from home. In both cases I was asked to arrange for the body to be brought home for visitation and funeral services.
There were many unknowns as to the condition of the body that we would receive but to a grieving mother that part doesn’t matter. It is of utmost importance that she have her son home and in her arms one last time. Along with other funeral home staff I worked tirelessly to make this happen.
There is nothing more powerful and extraordinary than when a mother is sitting with the body of her dead son. The grief is raw and all encompassing, it is beautiful and tender. Each mother caressed her son’s hair for hours. Each mother held her son’s hand and gazed upon his face memorizing every inch of it. After their final goodbye I received a hug from each of these women. It was a hug more intense than any that I have ever received in my life. It was as if their arms were wrapped directly around my heart and that my friend is a feeling that very few people in life get to feel.
I have had the honour of assisting friends through death. I have participated in funerals for my own family members. My heart is as strong as it is fragile. I feel extreme empathy towards everyone that I have encountered but grieve with them I could not. That was not my job. I was placed here to be a guide through the most difficult time of someone’s life.
There should only be 2 guarantees in life: death & taxes. If the “what do you do for a living” question must come up in a group of newly acquainting people then my wish is for all to embrace the answer with open heart and mind. Ask questions that are relevant and conscious. You never know –you just might find yourself wanting to say I am a Funeral Director!
Has a Funeral Director changed your life for the better or the worse? I welcome your comments and emails.