We ended up getting several calls that week from people requesting funeral services. More calls than usual. I had just started working at this funeral home and the director who hired me decided this was the week he was going on vacation. Leaving me as the only funeral director available. We had some staff that would work part-time at night for viewings but no one else in the company could handle a call from start to finish.
The calls seemed to always come early in the morning 12:00am, 2:00am, 4:00am. Every night, morning, afternoon and evening I was picking up the dead, embalming the dead, meeting with their families and directing their funerals. In the midst of all of this I was calling the clergy, the cemeteries, the casket companies, writing the obituaries, dressing deceased, placing them in caskets, curling hair, applying makeup, arranging flowers, designing programs, vacuuming, mopping, and washing the fleet… if this has you exhausted, well, I have saved you from all of the other behind the scenes craziness that takes place to make a funeral happen. It takes people to accomplish all of these tasks when arranging several funerals at once, yet this week, it was only me.
I did have one extra set of hands though. The administrator of the office would help me place a casket on the church trucks (the wheeled device that the casket would sit on during visitations and funerals). She answered all of the phone calls, relayed messages for me and she printed the memorial folders as they were approved by the family. So, it wasn’t all dire… eye roll firmly inserted here, not because I didn’t appreciate or need the help, it just felt ridiculous that a firm had no other backup to cover things when staff was this low.
I love all of the things that I do in this industry of caring for the dead and their families. I enjoy going out at night and picking up the dead. I enjoy meeting with the families and arranging the details of a funeral. I enjoy dressing people and I enjoy multi-tasking all of the many things a funeral director usually juggles. This week tested my limits.
The drive from my house to the funeral home was a solid twenty minutes. There was hardly ever traffic through these back roads either day or night. Winding, curving roads of dirt that passed through cow pastures and at times were lined with huge trees that made wonderful canopies over the roads. So, even at twenty minutes the drive wasn’t bad, and in comparison, to the forty-five-minute drive through city streets to my previous job, this drive was enjoyable. Yet, during this week it was like the Indy 500! Back and forth at all times of night and day, long hours preparing the dead, making phone calls, meeting with families. I would head home hoping for a calm night and much needed rest, only to get the phone call that I was needed back for something. Back and forth and back and forth. I knew this road. I knew this road like the back of my hand. Then one day while driving, it was mid-day, maybe noon or so, I watched as a bunny darted in front of my car from the side of the road and I could not stop fast enough. I hit him, or her. I killed him/her and there was nothing I could do about it. I had never hit any living thing before now and I was crushed! A terrible lesson about driving cautiously on country roads. During this crazy week of hell, sleeping little and eating almost nothing, I still made these trips. I would try and sneak home for some rest in my own bed and to shower and to eat. The demands piled high and I kept on the with the wild schedule.
Then one night, it was well after dark, well after the town had gone to sleep. I headed home once again. I was driving my silver Ford Taurus. A beast of a car yet it took the curves smoothly and glided gently over the bumpy parts of the road, which was very comfortable and soothing and I was fighting to stay awake. I knew my route well, but I was exhausted, and I realized my eyes were closing, I was almost wishing for an old clunky car with bad shocks to keep me jostled awake. I opened the car windows hoping the cold, fresh air would give me the small boost I needed to get home safely. I then turned on the radio when I thought maybe I had fallen asleep for a moment, loud, blaring music, something I had to pay attention to. I shook my head from time to time to rattle by thoughts and clear the sleepiness temporarily.
The thing about driving on long country roads is that the dangers of killing a bunny is really the least of your worries. I remember looking up ahead of me at one point and even with my headlights on high beam, it seemed that there was no more road. Yet, there was movement, something fast! Still I couldn’t decipher what it was. With my blurred and foggy brain, I blinked hard to clear my eyes and finally realized that crossing the road in front of me was moving train! I slammed on the brakes and skid to a stop on the dirt road only just before ramming myself into the guard gate and the speeding boxes of pure metal just beyond. I sat dazed in my car, dust flying into the open windows, only then did I noticed the bright red flashing lights of the guard arms warning me of the danger ahead. Sitting there in my car, the dust cloud slowly dissipating around me and rock music blaring in my ears, I looked ahead at the moving train cars speeding across the road. I almost rammed myself into a moving train! I was so tired, I could not even see blaring red flashing lights in the darkness. I turned the radio off and put my car in park. I could hear the rumble of the train as it sped past, I could hear the screech as the metal wheels rolled along the metal rails and I realized just how close I had come to being the newest customer of a funeral home. And when would my body be discovered? It was late at night, there would be no passersby to find me for hours. No one would know I was missing since my schedule couldn’t dictate when I should arrive at home or work. It was a sobering moment. And it was very, very real.
I was ten minutes from home and I knew in that moment that if I got a call to come back, I would have to refuse, they would have to figure it out without me tonight. The train passed, and the guard arms lifted, the bright red flashing lights blinked out and I was left with only my headlights in the dark. The countryside was again still and quiet other than rustling trees, chirping crickets and the distant rumble of the train traveling happily away. I called my mother, knowing she may be the only person in the world awake at this hour and had her talk to me until I was home and safe. The next day I called the funeral home I worked at previously asking for my old job back, which they granted me with open arms. I will work, I will work hard but never again will I work so hard that I find myself almost wrecked on the side of a moving train.