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.