In my beginning years as a funeral director apprentice, I faced many challenges with being a small female. I had to prove that I could handle every job that was required for the task at hand. This included moving the deceased, big and small, from all types of places. One of the first times I went on a house call (when we are receiving a deceased from their house), the person was fairly large and in a mobile home. This meant tight hallways, small doorways and almost always stairs. He was located in the very back bedroom of the home. The hallway was a straight shot but the medical cot was not able to make the turn into the bedroom itself. This meant the man had to be carried into the hallway and the director in charge had never worked with me before. He went into the house and assessed the situation, he came back out and told me that we had to call in for back up. Before I let him do that I asked to go inside and see for myself if I could handle the task at hand, he agreed. The man was bigger, the hallway narrow and uncompromising, yet, I felt that I had to do this. We have a device called a flexible cot, a flexible material with sturdy handles to carry a body through the turns and twists of narrow places. I was young and new and ambitious and convinced the funeral director that I could handle this task. We took the gurney as far as we could down the hallway, then we took the flexible cot into the room where this man was. Carefully we rolled the man from one side to the other to maneuver him onto the flexible cot and arrange him so that we could also hold the handles firmly as we walked. Once we had transferred his body onto the flexible cot, it was a full on lift straight from the floor and walk into the hallway. This required some turning of his legs and trying to sidle him through the narrow doorway and allow the director and me to squeeze through as well. This was only the first hurdle. Next, we had to get the gurney out of the hallway and over the railing of the porch and then down a flight of about 6-7 stairs. There is no easy way to do this. It is a literal lift and strain as high as you can reach while moving in compromising positions kind of task. Every thirty seconds the director asked how I was doing. I am sure he expected me to give up at any minute and not be able to complete this with out getting help. To his surprise and mine a little too, we got the cot into the hearse and said goodbye to the family. The second we started driving away, he looked at me and said, “You are strong.” I said thank you, “No, you are really strong.” He repeated, “From now on you have the nickname of Brick House, just like the song.” And there it was, my nick name, Brick House! I laugh every time I hear that song now. Remembering the night that I got it.

If you are unfamiliar with the song, I have included a youtube video. I am sure I am not the person the commodores were thinking when they wrote the song but it works for me.

This is one of the saddest stories I can remember. I went on a first call. It was a small home, it was fairly shabby, the stain peeling off the wood on the front porch and siding, the yard was trying to be grass but just couldn’t get its way around the empty pots, lawn furniture and grimy toys left about. I walked in and was greeted by the sister of the deceased and a niece and nephew. I sat with the family around the kitchen table to go over some details. The lighting was poor and the 1960’s countertops were dull and scratched and covered in used dishes. This was not an unfamiliar scene, it isn’t even a negative, it was just the setting I was in. I asked if they had thought about services and what they would want to do as a tribute for the man who had died. Every person in the room was in tears and solemn and quiet. The sister told me that they wanted the best for her brother. A big funeral with a casket and viewing and burial. She told me he was a war hero, he served his country and had been wounded, he had lost both legs and had been bed ridden for several years. He should be honored and cared for as a king. So, I pulled out a folder that detailed our service packages and pointed out the one that best served what they were describing to me. A viewing, a service and a burial. We talked about the local cemeteries and which one they would like to use. Almost immediately I was met with hesitation at the cost. After some discussion, I explained the other options we had available, services can be beautiful in many different ways and budgets. It is never easy to talk about money, especially when a death has occurred and the family is raw and in shock and broken. We decided they should think on the matter and that they would come in the next day after some sleep and could decide on the details then. I asked to see where his body was so I could bring my partner in and transfer him to our cot to take him to the mortuary. We walked down a narrow hallway to the end of the house. Halfway down the hallway the smell hit me, it was awful. I walked into the room the size of a closet and saw this poor man laid out on his bed with no sheets and a myriad of stains that I could not have guessed what they were. He was skin and bones. He had no legs and I could already see and smell that he had bed sores (when a person lies in bed so long in one position the tissues cannot get blood flow and so it starts to decompose). He was wearing a t-shirt and a diaper, neither had been changed in a very long time. His hair was long and scraggly and his facial hair had not been trimmed in months. (As disturbing as this may be, it wasn’t uncommon. I saw this type of, what I call neglect, pretty regularly. Most people in that area could not afford could care and so it was up to the families to handle a job that is 20 times more difficult than you would imagine.)  I explained to the family how we would be taking him from the room to the hearse waiting outside and took my leave to get the cot and my partner. Once we got this man in the hearse and was set to drive off, I was approached by the sister pleading to take good care of him, he was a hero and deserved to be honored. I assured her that I would and left her sobbing in the front yard. My heart broke for so many reasons, his deplorable conditions, her absolute grief.

The next day, the family came in to discuss funeral details. We sat for about an hour going over different options to give him a fitting tribute within their budget. I could not take payments and there wasn’t any insurance, even the government couldn’t pitch in enough money to supplement what little they had for the funeral he deserved. The most economical choice of cremation was even more than what they had to spend. I gave them some resources and told them that we would somehow figure this out. They thanked me and said they would call later that afternoon. They never called that afternoon or the next day. The day after that I made a call to them and discovered that the phone number I had was disconnected. So, I did some searching in the phone book for the names of the family members I knew and came up with nothing. I then decided to wait another day to see if they would show up or call. After about a week of failed attempts to contact them, I drove to the house only to find it empty and silent. So, my next step was to call the medical examiner. In these cases, the medical examiner in the jurisdiction would take possession of the body and make further attempts to find some family who will claim them. Weeks turned to months. I periodically checked with the medical examiner as to what happened to this man and as of the last time I checked he had been in their morgue for four years.

I cannot adequately describe the disappointment I felt in this family. As a funeral director, I am here to generate some type of closure, present some way of creating a tribute to the deceased. This man’s abandonment goes completely against my code. If only this family would have come back, we could have figured it out. I get that funerals are expensive and most people cannot afford what it costs but we have to come to some decision, some way of taking care of the body and give the family a ceremony. I have imagined what the sister of this man might be going through, she can only feel remorse and will never get closure at abandoning her brother. Maybe I am wrong and she found a way to move forward but her pleas ring in my ears even today, please take care of him, he was a hero.

For a few years of my career I managed a funeral home in North Carolina. It was a small funeral home with minimum calls. My job was to try and increase call volume and bring awareness to the location. In my young and ambitious way I was constantly trying to find creative ways to show the community that I was around and that the funeral home was operating. Death is considered a mostly taboo subject in our current society, so I wanted to find ways to bring it out into the open and sometimes that meant using a shock factor. I went online and purchased casket key rings and casket shaped chocolates to hand out and then I designed pamphlets to hand out when I spoke at seminars. In this small town I had some resistance from people within the industry. I got comments like, “That is so irreverent”, or “This will backfire and you are going to give us all a bad name”. When advertising my seminars I always included on the flyers that there would be a question and answer session which encouraged, “Ask ANY question you want”, “What are you curious about? Your local funeral home explained” and “The truth about your funeral director”. The very first seminar I held was at a senior center in town. I laid out the casket paraphernalia and pamphlets and listened to the comments “Is that a casket?” and “Is it ok to eat these?”, some cringed a little and pulled their hand back until their neighbor unwrapped one and made it acceptable. As I talked of preplanning and its benefits and details, the room was losing interest. So I switched my energy and gave the time over to the room. “Ask anything you want,” I said, “and I will answer completely honestly, everything is on the table.” In the back of the room was a small clique of women who were whispering and giggling, hands over mouths and hunched backs to giggle privately, so of course I picked on them. “Let’s get a question from here, what do you want to ask?” So here is the big let down, the question was not even memorable. I was so disappointed. I was waiting for some question about blood or nakedness. In fact since that moment, I almost never get any interesting questions, at least not interesting to me.

Of course this got the town talking about the young funeral home manager and her out of the box ways. I ended up with a small following and in all the questions that were ever asked, most of the time the person was disappointed because the answers to their questions are not what Hollywood has taught them, things are not as they seem in the movies or in your mind. The day-to-day operations of a funeral home and the tasks that we complete everyday are just not what you envision.

I also spent some of this creative energy in the funeral home itself by stripping down the bathroom and giving them fresh paint, I covered the walls in decals like butterflies, deer, trees and every stall had some quote stuck on the wall. This may not seem like a big deal but in a small town in North Carolina all those years ago, it got some attention. The biggest jump in decorum was bringing food into the visitation or viewing room. I assumed there would be some resistance of having family and friends eating finger foods with the body in attendance but you never know until you try. I was even surprised when the first time it happened, everyone there was thrilled with it. After a few viewings with food involved, the word got around and it started to be that when I met with families, they were requesting the food. So not only did it go over well, it went almost viral. Soon I was serving food at almost every viewing I held. Of course there were a few families who were uncomfortable with it, so we would take the food to the lobby instead. Soon the solemn, stand in line with soft background music event, turned into mingling, snacking, chocolate chip cookie and red punch kind of event.

I am always curious as to how far I can push the envelope and most of the time it seems I can push pretty far. Your experience in creating an amazing tribute for someone you love is so important to me and suggesting things that are out of the norm just creates an even more personal experience. I would love to hear from you and what you have done or thought about doing for a funeral. Or what you have seen or experienced at a funeral that could be considered shocking to others.

I have meaningful conversations almost every day. Whether I am sitting with a family who has just experienced a death, or calling to follow up on how they are doing afterwards. These conversations evoke a myriad of emotions and subjects. The questions are endless and the answers are complicated. There are no guidelines on how to answer the questions that come with these situations. In some professions you have a cheat sheet of responses appropriate to the subject. They are predesigned to bring assurance that things will be done correctly. Read the response line for line and people will feel better. This is more complex.

 

Questions and of some of the potential answers:

 

“When can I see my dad?”

“How did he die and what type of preparation work needs to be done?, “Which location are you at and do we have the staff to transport him for the desired date and time?”

 

“I want the funeral tomorrow, you can do that right?”

“Is the building you want the funeral to be in available and will the cemetery allow for a burial that quickly?”

 

“Can I get the death certificates today?”

“Has the doctor signed the death certificate?”, or if it is a medical examiner case, “Will there be a cause of death or do we need to wait for further investigation?”

 

“Can I pay you in a month?”

“Probably no but if you have insurance that is verifiable and assignable then maybe yes.”

 

“Can you make her look like this picture?”

“If the picture is 30 years old, probably not and is that really what she looked like in the last 10 years of her life?”

 

“Will you make sure his ex-wife doesn’t come to the funeral?”

“Are you making this a public event? If you advertise an obituary in the paper, then probably not. If it is invitation only, we can only ask her to leave, not actually kick her out”

 

These questions are real and valid and deserve real answers. We, as funeral directors, have to decide on the spot how to respond to you and everyone in the room. So to address the title of this post.

 

Where am I going?

Eventually you are going to be ok. You are going to learn a new normal and you are going to find a way to survive. You will find you do not have a choice but to move forward after the casket is lowered into the grave. Or you receive the urn of ashes. You can breathe a little because the only focus at this point is how you are going to continue moving and breathing. The thing is you have to go on. You have a job or kids or grandkids that need you to move forward in some fashion. It is OK and appropriate to fall and struggle and resist. Yet the truth will eventually lead to the fact that you need to acknowledge or reconcile with yourself that movement is healthy.

 

What am I doing?

You are doing what has to be done. Someone you love has died. This is real. It is a thing that has to be handled. There is no way around it. In some way you have decide what happens to the body and if there will be words or ceremonies in some capacity. Will you bury in a cemetery or cremate and place an urn in a niche or scatter the ashes? Every decision you make in those moments of grief are right. Your healing depends on these decisions. So you must make a decision.

 

I am reading a book from David Sedaris called “Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls” in one chapter he is talking about parenting and the difference between how parents raise children now compared to when he was young. In earlier times when you did something wrong you were punished for it and learned not to do it again or the next consequence was more severe and so on. More and more we see that parents are more lenient, it is almost a crime to spank or yell or say no to your kids. The children run the household and parents are afraid to anger them or they suffer the consequences and so on. I am one of the lucky kids raised with rules and structure. I fought it, I hated it, I railed and kicked and screamed about it but I learned. I respect others and their property, I earned my dollars with my own hands and do not expect others to pay or pave my way through life. I appreciate those lessons, I became an adult through those lessons and even though I understand a parent treating their child like they would have wanted when they grew up, it feels like a grave mistake to become so lenient on our kids that they are allowed to experience these adult situations when they are in no way ready. So I am going to share a story that I was reminded of while reading this book.

 

A mother’s best friend

 

It’s not easy to prepare a child for a funeral. They are small and smooth and fragile and they are dead. The young are naturally beautiful in a different way than the elderly. No laugh lines or sun spots. Age has not claimed the lip lines or strained the joints to turn and twist. It’s like a sin almost to see them lying on my table for the preparation of their funeral. However, it is gratifying to place them gently in a casket, like a jewelry box for the perfect diamond or pearl. There is rarely a need for extra color to contour cheekbones or accentuate lashes, those things haven’t experienced enough life to look aged. Then there was a girl, 13 years old, I met with the family before I ever knew what happened to her. As I started asking the family questions to learn who she was and how to serve them, I noticed that the mother was sad but in a different way. Her daughter had committed suicide and I have seen what that can do to a parent. Her grief was muted though, like someone hit the pause button on a VCR and it didn’t take quite right so there is a slight jump in the stillness of the picture. She was obviously devastated, the tears flowed and the eyes sunk, yet there was something else. I asked to see a picture of her daughter and as she pulled out her phone and handed it to me she said, “She was my best friend.” There it was, I still didn’t get it yet but that phrase stayed with me. The girl was beautiful and all the family praised how she looked so much older than she was. Every picture I was shown she was dressed to the nines, full makeup which was heavy on the eyes, short skirts, high heels and one picture with a drink in her hand. If I had not known better, I would have guessed her 18, 20 years old. In the mixture There were pictures of her without the layers, stripped down to a 13-year-old child who needing nothing more than structure and rules to guide her in making good life decisions. As we talked about her funeral the family insisted on having a friend come and do her makeup. So I requested to the care center that she be brought to my location with only a base cosmetic. She was beautiful, angelic in her youngness. I looked at her for a long time. Asked her why she was dead-even though I had a suspicion. Shortly before the friend was to come and do the make up the girl’s mother called and said that her friend was too distraught and could not do it and asked if I would just do it instead. She sent me a picture and strict instructions on how perfect and bold her daughters make up must be. How was I to do this? This 13-year-old child lying in front of me, so beautiful and perfect just that way and I am asked to mar her sweet face with globs of red and black. Even with all my breathing I struggled through every step. This should not have happened and I should not be doing this. During the funeral the mother got up and spoke. She talked again about her best friend and how the neighbor kids loved to hang out with her. I remembered the pictures of her daughter with skirts and heels designed for sexual appeal, the thick black lines around her stunning eyes and lips lined and red to appear bigger, poutier, kissable. It was hard to listen to her mother tell me how they got her birth control. It was hard to see the pictures of her drinking while posing in a slinky dress. It was hard to hear her mother stand at the podium in front of all of these people and tell them that she let her daughter run her own life. She couldn’t tell her no. She couldn’t stop her from drinking and having sex so she encouraged it and gave her tips and helped her because she was a good mother. I am angry at her for putting me in a position to have to foul such a beautiful child. I am angrier that she didn’t have the courage to be a mother and chose instead to be a best friend. I am not a mother, I don’t want to sound like I am criticizing, yet I cannot help but think if this girl had been encouraged to be 13 years old, she would still be here and her mother’s best friend in a different way.

I have always loved to write. For as long as I can remember I have written my thoughts in the form of stories and poetry. In High School my classmates would pay me money to write poems for their crush or get advice on how to word a letter to someone. There are some random stories and poems of mine published in obscure publications throughout the years. I have even written short eBooks for companies and small entrepreneurs as a ghostwriter and spent several years earning extra cash writing website content for many different companies. I even owned and published a local magazine for a year. However, the standing theme with me has always been “When I write my book” or “When my book gets published”, never before moving any further than saying those words, aside from keeping the files of stories and thoughts on my hard drive. This step in sharing with the world these moments of my life and how I feel about them has given me even more energy to turn the words into reality. As with any skill, I am certain my writing will continue to get better. I find that I stray from the nuances of great sentence structure and flawless punctuation, so in time and with a few classes these things will assuredly come more naturally. With that being said I thought it would be fun to share the very first story I wrote when I decided to write a memoir. It is an addition to my post “First Day”. It was actually the first thing I did on my first day before the funeral service. I have written several stories of that day, eventually you will get to read them all.

 

How to dress a dead man

 

I walked into the embalming room to dress a Chinese man. The funeral is later today and he has 7 layers of clothing to put on. Never before seeing a deceased person so close without them already being prepared, my nerves well up and my stomach flops and then determination kicks in. I want to do this!  My coworker and I walk up to this man’s body and discuss the procedure for getting him dressed for the long rest. 7 layers of clothing and we don’t know which goes on first, or second or last. So my coworker leaves the room to look over the paperwork again. I take this precious opportunity to dig as far as I can in understanding that this will be my working life from now on. Sitting with dead bodies, waiting to be prepared, preparing them. He looked like he was sleeping and the closer I got the more real he became. I got closer and closer to his face, I looked at his lips, I studied his eyelashes, eyebrows, the pores in his skin. In those few moments I know I just saw him sleeping. His chest raising up and down ever so slightly, his eye twitched just a hair as his dreams made him restless. My coworker returned and we proceeded to figure out the order of the layers so this man could be placed in his casket. Never will I forget this first experience of stretching my understanding and learning to train my brain that this person, is not breathing at all.

At the time I started the journey toward being a funeral director, a funeral director was still widely considered a man’s profession, especially in the South, and the lanky lurch stereotype is what most people thought of when driving by a funeral home. I am none of those. I stand 5 feet tall and am average weight for my height. From the time I started classes (lots of females in my class by the way) I was looking for a job in a funeral home. Pay didn’t matter, hours didn’t matter, the job didn’t matter; I just wanted to work in a funeral home cleaning, painting, washing I didn’t care. Not surprisingly I didn’t get any calls back. I hand delivered every resume, shook hands with every manager, funeral director and secretary attached to every funeral home I could possible get to in a reasonable amount of driving time, still nothing. This didn’t matter, I was going to be a funeral director and someone was going to hire me for any job. I appealed to one of my classmates who was working at a funeral home ideally located between home and school. I had spoken to the manager there and was told nothing was available only to find out later that he was actually was looking for help. So between my classmate and one of the directors already working at the location and my follow up calls every day, he finally relented and hired me as an assistant but I would only work if they needed me. I was hired at funeral home!  After all the paperwork was filled out and the name badge ordered, you could not find me without my phone on my hip waiting for that call that I needed to vacuum something. Nothing. I would check the battery in my phone, have someone call my phone to make sure it was working. Still, nothing. So after some time and lots of frustration, I resumed to making daily calls to see when I could come in and help.

 

 

Finally I got the call, one of the funeral directors asked me to help him over the weekend with a funeral! So I made sure my suit was pressed and shoes were shined, I found the most professional shirt in my closet and I swear I did not sleep a wink. I got to the funeral home well before starting time and was given a little tour and some basic instructions of what I was going to be doing. There was going to be some set up and pre cleaning I would be observing how the others ran a funeral. This funeral was for the Chinese man who left behind a wife and children. They wanted a traditional Chinese service, which is not, by American standards, traditional. I learned quickly with that one funeral, that grief is expressed differently for everybody. I also realized that what I was learning at school was not necessarily what I was going to experience in the real world. The subject matter was totally relevant, yet the difference between reading the books and standing in the middle of organized mayhem was really incredible. The cultural differences in funeral customs is pretty vast and terribly amazing. As I was given instructions on how to set up the table that would hold the dollars of pretend money to burn and set the baskets for family and friends to leave envelopes and letters for the family, I felt like everything was in slow motion. I absorbed everything I was told and watched very carefully to what the other funeral attendants and the director were doing. I looked for details like straightening the tablecloth, picking up the candy wrapper off of the floor, emptying the trashcans and then it happened, this pivotal moment in understanding what I was doing and understanding that I had made it this far is so much more than just figuring out what to do for a career. It was an amazing epiphany that it can be done, dreams and passions can be realized and acted upon. Angry as a teenager, lost and confused in all my school years, feeling like I had no identity.  In that moment I knew I was important and I could make a difference in a big way. Knowing that the family of this man had no idea who I was, that this was my first experience and I was proud to pick up the trash, hand wash the fleet and wipe down the bathrooms. I still contributed to their experience in saying goodbye to this important person in their life.

The most asked first question I get when I tell people what I do for a living is “How did you get into this business?” Then “Why would you want to do that?” So, why would I want to hang around dead bodies all day? And, comfort their grieving loved ones? In every sense my answer is “It’s a calling”. I am not a stranger to death, I have felt the horrible grief that comes with losing someone you love, expectedly and unexpectedly. Yet this one day changed what I thought was my career. I was working for a junkyard in Las Vegas, I loved the work. Tinkering in cars and ripping at their guts and bones and tendons, fulfilled me. I loved helping customers build or repair their projects for show or reliable transportation. My title was inventory management, I decided what trucks still had viable parts and which ones met the crusher or shredder. I had great determination for proving myself in an industry most people considered a man’s world. I loved the grease and sweating in the desert sun, keeping an inventory of every vehicle and its location, how long they had been picked at and the value of the parts left. When the new cars came in, I got to decide which ones stayed, which ones went and which ones got hidden away for the rarity of their pieces and I loved it. Then in the matter of a month or so, two of my coworkers experienced tragedy. One lost her husband unexpectedly and one lost both parents fairly close together. This was not the first time I was near when someone I knew who was experiencing a death, yet, for some reason I listened to these experiences differently. I heard over and over, the funeral director did this, or the funeral director did that. Can you believe what the funeral director told me? How could one person influence the experience my coworkers had so much that they hinge on their word, advice and suggestions so readily? A person they just met and was in charge of caring for their loved one and they gave so much weight to their experience. I was baffled and fascinated. I called a local mortuary and in the 20-minute conversation I had with an embalmer, I was hooked. I knew I was changed and my life just got richer.

 

It’s a really tough profession, especially when you are good at it. The mother who lost her child too soon, the wife whose husband was killed in an accident. Who in their right mind would want to deal with that day in and day out? I think it’s safe to say that when people think of a funeral director, they think of dead bodies, the blood, the fluids and the things we do to make those left behind more comfortable.  Yet, our hardest job is you, the ones left behind. We answer to you and your family and everything we do is catered for your personal experience. Your mother, father, sister etc. are all special. They were in your life in a certain way that is much different than another family member. We hear you and we listen to the tiny nuances of personality like her favorite flower, his favorite team, the special ice cream dates with the grandkids. Then we suggest things that tribute that person and celebrate everything they were to you in the best way possible.

 

I am certain that there is no emotion stronger and more unpredictable than grief. It can turn you on your head and rip a family apart in a matter of moments and the funeral director is standing in the middle picking up the pieces and arranging them in a way to get you through to whatever the next step is that is waiting for you. We can be the shoulder to cry on, or the person to yell at.  We have to remember to be the brain and the heart because in grief you literally do not possess these things.

I am sure there are some of you reading this to hear the gross stories and descriptive accounts of the untimely deceased people that I have placed on a gurney and buried in cemeteries. I myself have a curiosity and love for the human body and its working and non-working parts. However, in any profession that includes the uncomfortable grossness of our living or dead bodies, there should never be a person to exploit unprofessionally what is experienced in those moments. I am not saying there isn’t, I am saying there shouldn’t be. Just like with any other job. Things go wrong. People are people, circumstances present themselves at a bad time and human emotion gets in the way of decorum … these things happen. So yes, it can be funny, it can be incredibly sad, it can be horrifying and it can be perceived as uncaring. Yet, when placed out in the open for public consumption there are considerations to what others have experienced and how one tells the story might create a negative experience. That being said, I love my stories. Some are funny, some sad, some a little irreverent but you will never read about anything so descriptive or unprofessional from me that would play to the morbidly curious crowd.