Before you read this story I felt this a good opportunity to address that there are many industry professionals whom I admire and also tell their stories on social media platforms. It is important in our current society to address the many questions raised when it comes to death and how we care for the dead. I am working on adding a new page to my website dedicated to sharing links of these funeral directors. So in the next couple of weeks if you have any suggestions of who should be added to this page please message me on instagram @thembalmergirl or email me at email@example.com and of course you may always send me a message from the contact page.
Her hands were clutched in front of her. She made small, nervous motions as she walked. She was slightly bent from age like something heavy weighed upon her shoulders and her feet shuffled along the carpet. Her head was down, her eyes focused on the floor and she never looked up as she walked, seeming to be nervous of what was to come and why she was here. She was surrounded by her children who, whether on purpose or not, ringed her protectively as they all entered the funeral home. As I walked towards them, I adjusted my suit and checked that the buttons on my jacket were fastened, always wanting to look professional and capable. I observed the group for signs of defensiveness, fear, sadness, or any of the other “feels” that are typical of people who have just experienced a death. She came across that she was in need of comfort and support, her family around her were shielding and wary.
I greeted her first, extending my sympathies that the death of her husband was the reason we were meeting. I stretched out my hand with the intent of holding hers for just a moment and to hopefully create some sense of ease that is needed in these moments. She quickly recoiled both hands to her chest and sank further into her crowd of defender. Still never looking up but in a mighty voice contradicting her small frame she demanded, “Who are you?!” I took a small respectful step back and answered, “I am your funeral director.” In response she looked up into my eyes and with a glare belying her previously diminutive stature said, “Well, I … don’t … like … you!” Proving that sometimes I am wrong in my assessment of people.
In hindsight, moments such as these can be comical. But the distress experienced while the situation is occurring are real and painful. Some people fear the mortuary and the funeral director. Some believe that we are out to get their money and steal their loved one’s body parts to make the painful experience they are living more painful. Some choose to be cocooned in a world where death doesn’t exist for them because in our society, we are so far removed from death that it is a mystery to most. I admit, this is the easier way – until someone dies. Then, it becomes a trauma that no one should have to experience. It is hard to watch someone internally wrestling with what they perceived wasn’t even possible to the reality that it has happened and now they are living a nightmare.
In an attempt to take the hostility out of her comment and show her that I did not take her remark personally, I answered with a friendly smile and said “Of course, I understand.” I made my introductions to the rest of the family who were silently mouthing to me “I’m sorry.” I waved them off, assuring them that it was fine and then spoke to them all as a whole as to what they should expect during the time they would be spending with me. I then asked them all to follow me and turned around to lead them to the room where we would be spending the next hour or so together. As I walked away, I heard the widow say “I don’t trust her, let’s get someone else.”
Comments like these usually come from being in pain and in shock and not knowing what to do with these emotions, it can’t be taken personally. I knew at this moment that it wouldn’t matter who her funeral director was, she would feel the same about any of us. So, understanding this, I continued walking away, acting as if I didn’t hear her.
During the arrangements, most of the questions I asked the widow were ignored by her and had to be repeated by a family member. I would ask a question, a family member would echo my question to her, and only then would the widow give an answer. She was determined to show me who was boss, and I was obliged to let her think she was in control. This went on during the entire arrangement. During this time the family would give each other side glances, roll their eyes and sometimes even giggle at the absurdity of how their mother was behaving. At one point the daughter asked her mother “Why don’t you just answer the lady?” and again she said, “I don’t like her.” And so, we continued the ask twice, answer once regime. Which made me also giggle internally at the widow’s resolve to be difficult.
When it was time for them to leave I walked them to the door and said goodbye, addressing the widow by name. I heard her grunt and mumble something I couldn’t make out as she ignored me and walked out the front door. Her daughter stayed behind to apologize for her mother’s behavior which I could only respond with that she was in grief and scared and sad and her behavior was nothing for them to worry about. The daughter was truly embarrassed. I assured her that I was not offended and with a smile I told her that her mother has great personality. She gave me a big smile, thanked me again and left to join her family in the parking lot.
As a funeral director, I am subject to see all kinds of emotions. Sad, angry, numb, these are all things I expect from families during the time I interact with them. I didn’t feel threatened by the widow’s behavior, I felt sad for her pain. And to be honest it does make me giggle a little when sweet little old ladies are rude, as it belies the behavior we expect from our elders.
The next time I saw the widow was when the family came in for a private family viewing. I had her husband dressed and in his casket. I made sure his shirt was pressed and tie was straight. As the family walked into the lobby, I addressed the widow again, making sure that this time I stayed at a distance and didn’t reach for her hand. She looked at me but said nothing. I greeted the rest of the family with hugs and walked them to the door where I had their father’s body ready and waiting for their arrival. I talked them through what they would see once I opened the door, where the casket was located, what flowers had arrived and that they should take as much time as they needed, and that the room was theirs for however long they stayed.
I opened the door and allowed the family to walk in first. I stepped in behind them watching how the widow reacted to seeing her husband for the first time since his death. She walked up to the casket and placed a hand on his chest, her head was bowed forward and she was quickly surrounded by her children with their arms around her shoulders. I walked out of the room and quietly closed the door behind me.
The widow never fully warmed up to me, but she at least stopped being rude. She allowed me to direct her husband’s funeral and burial. Her children were no longer apologetic but grateful that I handled the situation so well and accomplished creating a memorable funeral for their father.
My hope for the widow is that she found a way to calm her inner turmoil and grasp the joy that her children and grandchildren will bring her as she learns to survive without her husband. I will continue to love the families I serve no matter how they act towards me.