I have had the honor of being taught by some exceptional embalmers and funeral directors. The knowledge I have gained is exponential in that I have built on what these men have taught me as a mortician. So many factors go into this profession, not just embalming techniques, not just meeting with families, not just perfect placement of the body, cosmetic color, fleet maintenance, building maintenance, handling family infighting, background music choices, ultimate funeral home cleanliness, there is this and so much more involved in creating a funeral. In the years that I have been taught and have taught others, I have lost some of these people to death for various reasons and it always hits like a brick. It is not easier, as a funeral director, to lose someone I loved or was important to me. While I have many stories of these dearly departed souls of my past, this story is about the funeral of a mentor who I held in the highest regard.
For a big part of my career in funeral service, I worked under a man who was the director in charge for the firm. It was small and family owned. Good days, bad days, boring days, hyper busy and never eating days, we did it all together. I learned the hard lessons here, little sleep but lots of laughs. This man taught me embalming techniques, the difference between a trust and life insurance, how to park cars and lead a funeral procession, how to grow a garden, paint the parking lot lines, fix plumbing and electrical… you name it, if the funeral home needed it, I was given a lesson on how to repair it or run it. We spent days talking about life and all its crazy and fine points. We played pranks on each other and like a well-maintained machine we got to where it only took a hand signal or certain look to understand what was happening and what needed to be done. The good, the bad and the ugly was the daily in our routines. I became part of the family inside and outside of work, so, it was an incredibly difficult decision to accept a management position in another state and leave the comfort of what I knew. Moving onward and upward in my career meant leaving the quaint life I had built behind. With so many years of my career ahead of me, I felt the opportunity looming like a mountain begging to be climbed.
Life moved on as it always will, and I often thought of my small-town work family. I visited a few times and got caught up on the town gossip. Every time I went back it was like I never left. Then, one day I received a call from an old coworker. We talked and caught up on things, it was just like old times, until she gave me the news. The man I had worked under for so many years had died unexpectedly. The shock was unreal! He had been in good health and active in life. There were no words. I made my way back to my old home, the flight was somber, and I almost felt like when I arrived it was going to have just been prank, a joke. It wasn’t.
Upon arrival, I didn’t know what to expect. After saying hellos and discussing the tragedy laid out before us, it was time to see the man in the casket. I walked up to the door of the big viewing room, the casket was already in place, the man dressed and cosmetized. This room was the largest viewing room in the building, it had two big white square pillars, floor to ceiling, jutting up through the center, surrounded by a sea of emerald green carpet. On the outskirts of the room were intricate antique end tables with couches and chairs adorned with leaf patterns in maroons and greens perfectly accenting the dark wood of the furniture. I knew this room, I had placed many caskets in this room and I thought I knew what to expect. However, upon approach, the expanse of what was set out before me was like a pit of vipers that I had to navigate. So many people I had placed in here for a viewing, so many flowers I had arranged for the ease of someone else’s grief. This day was never supposed to happen. With deliberate steps and small breaths, I made it to the casket, where my mentor lay motionless in his repose, I was just waiting for him to sit up, or blink, or breathe, knowing with my experience, this was not going to happen.
In my years at this place, I had worked closely with so many wonderful people. These men and women were at the heart of who I had become. So many trials, laughs and struggles that we had all helped each other through and many funerals, so very many funerals. From the administrative staff to the directors and embalmers, this had been my life, learning what it meant to care for others and all the nuances attached to it. My old coworkers were a blessed distraction, also coming from other locations. We had all moved on and we had all come back for this. Apprentices turned funeral directors that had worked with this man were there and it was decided, as homage, that we would direct his funeral together.
It was an incredible honor to stand beside all of these directors, some of who I myself had taught, and give our mentor the funeral he deserved. We coordinated everything, it was a show, presenting his legacy of funeral directors as a tribute. As the crowd came in and took their seats in the chapel, the reality sank in deeper. We all worked in concert like so many funerals before in this place. I was given the task of helping to roll the casket to the front of the chapel and then, all of us together, walked down the aisle to the back of the chapel and turned around to check our work like so many times before, only to see the casket off center! The bane of our mentor, even in our horror we chuckled at the faux pa, he would be lecturing us at this moment “You had one job!” Such careful planning, so in sync were we, the tiny details were handled without flaw, and then we screwed up the crucial placement of the casket! No one outside of the industry would ever notice there was a problem, but every funeral director for miles around would scream at the incredulity of an off-center casket! And I was a part of it. I did it. I was part of the blame. So, of course, we ran to the lobby and laughed our asses off! It was a great send-off to screw up the focal point of the whole funeral and then we shed a tear that we were sending off the man who we had worked with for so many years. It was truly bitter-sweet.
There was a period of open mic (where anyone in the crowd can stand up and say something) and most of us, including me, talked about our stories. I shared about how my experience was learning more than just funeral service. At the end of the funeral the crowd dispersed, we said our goodbyes and as people left I knew that I would not see them again, my life had moved on and away from this place.
There would not be a burial, our next destination was the crematory. So, me and a long-time coworker and friend volunteered for the job. We took the body of a man so revered and placed him on one of our cots, then wheeled him to the small hearse for his final ride like we had done so many times but always, before now, with people we didn’t know. Once at our destination, we unloaded the casket and placed his body into a cardboard box (required for cremation). The crematory operator was waiting for us and had the retort (cremation oven) ready. We stayed and helped get the process underway and then got in the hearse and drove away. The end to a life who left a legacy.Picture provided by Pixabay