Spelling Bee

Funeral jargon is a bear. Sometimes I wonder if undertakers of yesteryear decided to make up words to sound refined. Nowadays, the vocabulary can get plain confusing. Most funereal words are derived from Greek, Latin or French roots and their pronunciation can be tricky. Spelling them can be trickier. Even the options “to sound them out” or “to use them in a sentence” might not get you very far. The origins of many of these words are fascinating….Here is a list of a few of my favorites! Hope you find it interesting.

Columbarium– (Latin) “Pigeon house or Dove-Cote,” structure or wall for placing containers of cremated remains

Cremation– (Latin) “To burn,” reduction of a dead body to ashes by fire

Crypt– (Crypt) “Secret or hidden,” a vault or room for keeping remains

Embalm– (French) “To apply balm or ointment or to preserve with spices,” temporary disinfection and preservation of tissues and restoration of a natural appearance

Entombment– (French) “Place in a tomb,” generally used for burial in mausoleums

Eulogy– (Latin) “Praise, good or fine language,” a brief speech to offer praise and celebrate the life of someone who has died

Exhume– (Latin) “To unearth,” to take out of the ground and move

Hearse– (French) “Framework for holding candles over a coffin,” a vehicle for transporting a body or casket

Interment– (Latin) “Between or among,” to bury

Mausoleum– (Greek) “Magnificent tomb;” a building housing tombs above ground

Morgue– (French) “A sad expression or solemn look,” a place where bodies are kept to be identified or claimed

Obituary– (Latin) “Register of deaths,” record or announcement of death; biological sketch

Pallbearers– (Middle English) “One who holds the corners of the pall at a funeral,” Also known as casket-bearers. Historically, and in some religious orders today, caskets are covered by a cloth called a “pall.” The term now, however, generally refers to 6-8 men charged with transporting the casket. [Not “Paulbearers,” …unless of course they are bearing a man named Paul…]

Niche– (Latin) “Shallow recess or nest in a wall,” small opening in wall to house cremated remains

Reposing Room– (Latin) “Cause to rest,” More commonly known as a “Visitation” room or parlor

Vigil– (Latin) “Eve of a religious festival,” a ceremony of watch

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Singing in the Rain

Funeral directing is one of those “all-weather” jobs. Rain, shine, sleet, snow, sweltering humidity….the show must go on.

It’s kind of like the US Postal Service, but with hearses instead of those cute little white mail trucks.

Rainy days can be especially challenging. Cemeteries become seas of black umbrellas as mourners gather for gravesides. Shoes sink into soggy ground and chilly water starts seeping into the socks meant to keep toes warm. Open graves fill with water that must be pumped out before the casket is lowered into the ground. The thought crosses our minds that maybe we should’ve stayed home and sat this one out.

We mortician types are known to keep spare umbrellas in unique places so we can grab them at a moment’s notice. I even have one or two small ones in the pockets of my raincoat. I’ve also stashed some trashbags in pockets to cover sound equipment during outdoor services… Just one of those tricks of the trade you pick up along the way.

There have been days when I thought my nose was going to freeze and fall off before the preacher said, “Amen.” There have been other days when sweat doesn’t just drip–it pours down every inch of my skin. It’s one thing to have to empty your shoes of rainwater. It’s quite another thing to empty them of sweat, but I have done it.

Whatever the weather, we funeral directors are often seen wearing dark suits. There are raincoats and overcoats and umbrellas galore in nooks of our closets, and you might even catch us with those little hand warmer packets in our pockets on a cold day.

We go on out whether the forecast is good or bad and only hope we are prepared for what we meet. And if it starts raining during a funeral, we’ll brave the monsoon to get an umbrella for you from our hoard. Maybe the term, “wet rat,” should be added to our job description?

All joking aside, I’ve experienced some of the most poignant moments at funerals taking place in challenging weather conditions. One that comes to mind was at an old country church late on a Friday during the summer. The weatherman had not predicted rain, but an afternoon thundershower popped up nonetheless. As the church service came to a close, my coworker and I listened in from the brick lined porch outside the sanctuary. The congregation sang “Amazing Grace,” and the words of the old hymn rang out against the heavy rain falling around us. I huddled close to the wall of the building and watched the raindrops come down like a cleansing flood. We gathered umbrellas for folks to use as they exited the building and ran to their cars. Mud splashed and children squealed. Little old ladies set their jaws to grin and bear it. The words of the song, however, lingered in the air for the one we were there to lay to rest–“Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home!”


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A Touching Story

I sat down to eat my lunch at one of the two-seater tables. I wasn’t looking to take up much room–just wanted some time for my legs to rest and to enjoy the food. It was a casual place, and people talked amongst themselves and smiled politely. I noticed the older couple mostly because they were sitting across from me. They weren’t talking, but that didn’t seem too abnormal. The more I glanced in their direction, I noticed their hands touched ever so slightly as they rested on the table. When they had to move them for eating purposes, they gently went back to touching as if it were as natural as breathing.

Her cellphone rang as she was halfway through her sandwich. Through the mingled sounds in the room, I heard her say the words, “surgery, again, wait, scan, silicone, Tuesday.” Her eyes started flooding with tears and she handed the phone to her husband. He finished the conversation for her as she finished eating between deep breaths. They both seemed disappointed when he hung up and handed the phone back to her. From what I could tell, they were trying to talk to one of their children about getting in a visit with the grandkids before her surgery next week. The schedules weren’t lining up and the miles between them weren’t few. I watched the man’s eyes as they talked. He looked down at his empty plate as she scrolled through Facebook on her phone.

I don’t know their story, or where this road is taking them. It’s a cancer story, though, and those are not easy. His eyes were sad, but the tone of his voice was hopeful. I quietly pray he is able to comfort his wife and support her in this journey. It’s a path of unknowns; twists, turns, bumps perhaps.

I wonder if they’ve talked about what happens when she’s gone. I wonder if he has thought ahead to a time when his hand will rest on the table alone or if he’s hoping against the odds.

I wonder if they’ll get to see the grandkids this weekend or if her heart will ache as she heads towards “surgery, again, Tuesday.” In many ways, this could be the beginning of her goodbyes. I hope I’m wrong and that it’s merely a chapter in the middle of her story. But if it’s not, if it’s closer to the end of the book, I hope her hands will touch his softly until their last words are shared.


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