When people ask me about my job, I usually start by saying that I work in my family’s business. I avoid mentioning what kind of business. When pressed, I’ll admit that it’s a funeral home. This is usually met by a barrage of questions, which I sort of welcome and sort of hate. First, it requires that I talk a lot, which triggers my anxiety, causing me to talk more and later, have insomnia and a panic attack. Second, is there a bigger buzzkill than talking about death? I always hope that perhaps this person’s family used us before, and they can just talk about how nice we were… and maybe I can turn the conversation around to talking about their loved one. But that hardly happens. At the same time, I wish it was a conversation that could be had more casually. And it will never be more casual if we never have the conversation.
Usually, it goes something like this:
“Do you, like, touch the bodies?” (Usually said with a grimace.)
“No, I work in the office. But my dad and brother embalm.” This either takes us down a rabbit hole of people barely hiding their disgust at the thought of being near men I deeply love, or with their admitting a strange fascination with bodies. But usually it’s followed by:
“Oh…what kind of things do you do?”
“Officey things. Kind of like any other small business office person.” How do I describe what I do? I mostly answer phones and emails, pay bills, mail invoices, file insurance paperwork…you know, work in an office. But it’s different too. When I answer the phone, it could be any number of horrible things on the other end. One time a call was so awful, so personal, I put the caller on hold, ran away shaking, threw up in the sink, then got back on the phone to professionally get all the pertinent information. When I do paperwork, I’m writing obituaries, family trees, designing a headstone for someone’s beloved.
And then there’s this: “I’ve bet you’ve seen some crazy things.”
“Yes. Yes I have.” But not what you’re looking for. You want to hear about bodies sitting up, decomposed bodies, ghosts wandering the halls, death at a funeral, family fights that end in police. Here are the crazy things I’ve seen: I’ve seen a father trying to climb into the casket of his 7-year-old son to hold him one last time. I’ve also seen a 1-year-old attempt to sit on his mother’s casketed chest. I’ve seen friends come together to make a casket for a man who died too young, and parades of Packards, Harleys, and and American Flag flying Pick-Ups honoring a fallen member of their group. I’ve seen couples come again and again and again to bring us their lost babies. I’ve seen suicide train victims put back together, and gunshot wounds disappear under the skilled hands of my father. I’ve seen things I won’t even type here, for fear of admitting it exists.
“I don’t think I could do it. How do you do it?” “You’re right. You probably couldn’t. I compartmentalize.” I remind myself that I need to be the strength for people. My professionalism is a buoy in their grief-ocean drowning. I shove all that sadness, that sense of injustice, in a closet in my brain. And when it fills, I go home and weep it all out. Then I remind myself that none of those griefs were my griefs. My people are still here. And even those days when I fear the loss of my people…I lean heavily on my faith to see me through.
Sometimes people ask: “So, are you guys less busy with all the cremation going on? Do people even have funerals anymore?” Or more rudely, “You know, people don’t need even funeral homes.” “Well, yes, you kind of do. You’ll need somebody.” You can’t cremate or bury in your back yard…not without a heck of a lot of legal problems. And try explaining the dead body in the back seat when you get pulled over. While it’s true that more people are choosing cremation, that’s hardly less work for us. And it’s true that some funeral director rejects run little more than garbage disposal operations out of their vans in which they will eventually take your loved one from their place of death and bring them to the crematory and might get the cremated remains back to you for a low, low price. But when most people find themselves with a family member dead, they want someone they can trust to handle that beloved body. Our job has little to do with the choice of cremation or burial. We’re surprisingly flexible. Tell us what you want…we’ll do it. Have a budget? We’ll figure out something we can do with it. We don’t do this job for the glory of it, or the money. There are much better ways to make money. We do it because somebody has to. And we’re really good at it. But it’s a really hard job, in more ways than one, and we do have to make a living.
“I don’t want anybody to look at me/I want to just be cremated and scattered/I just want to be buried in a pine box in the backyard.” “Ha, ha. We hear that a lot.” But my mind screams: Oh yeah? Well guess what- it’s not your decision. You’ll be dead! It bugs me a lot when people say stuff like this. It’s all vanity. Your death is not about you, it’s about the love you’ve earned. Whether you’re being falsely humble or vain, it’s not your business to tell those who love you how to grieve. If you’re family wants to see you, let them. If they want to bury you where they can visit and plant flowers, let them. If they want to throw you into the wind, let them. If they want to respect traditions, let them. Let them let others comfort them. Let them let others feed them. Let them grieve, and don’t pile guilt upon it.
“I just don’t think I could be around all those dead bodies.” “Oh, you get used to it. And really, I barely see bodies.” My job is NOT about dead bodies. My job is about the grief-stricken. For every dead body that passes through our doors, we are met by the grief-stricken tenfold. Nearly everyone I meet is having literally the worst day of their lives. They are exhausted, shocked, uneven at their best. They are thoughtless, self-centered, and scatter-brained; and I’m amazed that they get it together enough to walk through the door on time. I sometimes wish my job were about dead bodies. They would be easier. But I can’t comfort a dead body. I can’t guide them through the next steps on their journey. And that is what makes my job worth doing.