Gillian Rodriguez is a licensed funeral director and embalmer in the state of Texas. She has been fully licensed since 2013 and has been in the funeral industry since 2011. She is now the aftercare director for Parting Pro, a rapidly growing software company for funeral professionals.
How did you get into the industry (family/passion)?
Funny story. I set off after high school and earned my bachelor’s degree in Psychology in 2007- about the same time the recession was really gearing up. Realizing one million (plus or minus) students were graduating with my same degree every year, I decided I need to differentiate myself. I’d previously completed internships in forensics, where I loved the science but missed the connection with people. I’d also completed an internship in grief counseling, where I loved working with people but missed the hard sciences. I took time off to soul-search and really determine what I wanted to do, and then it hit me. Funeral Directing. The challenge of it appealed to me in a way I still can’t explain- I wanted to step into the lives of people who needed it the most, and be their helper. Fearing my parents’ total disapproval (they were envisioning law school or another post-grad program, I think), I sheepishly mentioned my interest. My mom grinned ear to ear, and said it made perfect since, given my heritage. How could I have escaped this connection? Of course, she was right. I would be the fourth-generation funeral director/embalmer in my family, and the first woman in the succession. So, was it family? Was it passion? Without hesitation, both.
This industry is hard. Why do you do your job every day?
I have an inexplicable desire to approach the hardest, worst situations in the world and act. The challenge of not only directing, but really helping the families who needed it most, traversing this universe of shock, grief, terror, anger, sadness, relief, happiness and joy in their memories…and everything in-between? Yes, please. The families that are the “hard” families, with the most complicated situations and loss? Those are my people. The ability to reach the un-reachable is something that drives me every day, even now.
What is your favorite part of the job?
My job has taken me into a new challenge of our profession- communicating with colleagues across the country about death care technology. As the Aftercare Director for Parting Pro-the most innovative software in the funeral profession- my job is tasked with bridging the gap between the nostalgia and familiarity of yester-year (typewriters? carbon paper contracts?) and the technology of the future (digital ID verification, online arrangement experiences and digital case management). It’s no longer sufficient to have a website that tells families to call your business. Your website must now offer an interactive, online experience. Families can buy a diamond ring, a car, a house and more online- why is our profession lagging in meeting families where they need us, in their new-found online communities? You can still be the neighborhood funeral home, while recognizing that a virtual “neighborhood” exists, too. So my favorite part? Intellectualizing how to take our profession into the future, with compassion, values, and service at the forefront.
How do you balance work and home life? What do you do for self-care?
Wait, there’s a balance? Just kidding! First, I want to acknowledge that I didn’t pop out of mortuary school knowing about this balance, the need for it, or how to achieve it. That was a rather painful learning experience that took years to master. I realized I was working myself to death for a lifestyle I could never participate in, because I was working myself to death. Which brings me to my self-care: Saying “no.” Sounds simple, but it’s not. Learning how to say no was, and still is how I practice self-care. Does this mean I don’t work hard? No. It means I’m selective in the work that I do, and relish the peace found in the quiet moments that are mine to own. I think, as women in this profession, we often believe that we have to work harder, smarter, better, stronger, and “more” in order to prove our place. But it wasn’t until I realized that mentality was total bullshit and self-destructive, that I was able to pour myself into my total life experience.
Outside of work, what are your hobbies/interests?
I’m consumed by learning. My hobbies/interests at the moment are graduate school, where I’m earning a Master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. Immersing myself in intellectual stimulation may sound like torture to some, but for me, it’s my time. It’s my mental space to re-claim and grow my own understanding of people, their lived-in experiences, their meanings. My focus is on applications of emotional contagion and indirect trauma, as well as combining artificial intelligence with bereavement counseling services online to one day, broaden accessibility to these resources for all.
If you choose, tell us about your family, kids, spouses, pets etc.
My family, without a doubt, is the only reason I can do this. Any of this. When I was considering graduate school, my husband simply looked at me and said, “I want you to have your dream.” My son, who’s three, well…while I think the hours away from each other are hard on us both, the hours spent together are that much more savored and treasured. He’s my absolute sunshine (and knows it). My dogs are my other children, and there have been many, many times I’ve cried into their soft fur at night in total grief for the family I served. My village deserves every ounce of credit for my professional, personal and academic successes.
Tell a story about a family you have served.
While working at an internship, I remember serving a family of a fallen serviceman who was killed overseas. I’d never been exposed to this level of service, had no idea what “high profile” meant or anything to do with the ceremony and honor of that type of service. I was completely naive, not prepared, and shadowed the entire process in my own shock and awe. The day of the arrangements, my brother told my family he would be deployed, and all I could envision was this family at the funeral home. About the time I broke down, and decided that I couldn’t be a funeral professional, I realized that if something like that were to happen to my brother, I would want someone to take care of me, in the way I desired to care for that family. It was more than a desire. It was a compelling need. A determination to perfect it. My brother was deployed to South Korea and we were blessed with his safe return. Naturally, the military perfected 99% of the service, but the small time I had with his widow inspired me to contact The American Widow Project, and promote their materials throughout as many funeral homes as time would allow.
What message would you like to give to the public about our profession?
I am human. I am not Lurch Adams. I am not a morbidly-consumed evil-wisher, waiting to prey upon a family when tragedy strikes and my pockets are empty. Nay, I’m a rather normal person. If you see me in the grocery store, I’ll probably have my son, shopping for the same food you eat. If you call me at 3 a.m., I’ll probably sound foggy for the first three seconds because…I actually sleep. When you feel pain, I feel pain. I’ve just learned little tricks to sustain myself long enough to get to my car and cry the entire way home. I know how to care for you when your over-sized sunglasses aren’t quite big enough to conceal your dissolution into grief. Simply, I’m a person too, and I want to help.
This is the last in the Who We Are Speaking of Series for December 2018. Please submit details and contact information for your favorite funeral director to be placed in the spotlight for future series to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
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