A Picture Says a Thousand Words

She holds her hand up as if to block the sun from shining into her eyes. It is a knee-jerk reaction, about as reflexive as my pulling the visor down when light beams through the windshield of my car. Her brother stops mid-sentence–he was saying something about how he wanted the 23rd Psalm to be printed in the King James Version. His voice wavers as he looks away from the screen with tears forming in his weary eyes. I start to move before either of them says anything else. The understanding in the moment passes wordlessly between us as the conversation continues. My index finger follows a well rehearsed motion of clicking the computer mouse as I minimize the photograph of their father featured on the display screen in the arrangement conference room.

A few minutes ago when this family walked into the funeral home for their appointment, they handed me a frame holding a lovely portrait of their father. He looked like he had gotten all gussied up for someone’s graduation and his smile went from ear to ear. I commented on his nice blue tie in the picture and we laughed as they pointed to the same tie they had brought for him to wear in the casket. It was the only one he had. Before we sat down to talk, I dutifully scanned the photo to the computer so they could review it with the obituary before I sent it to the newspaper for publication. But a quick glance at the image on the screen seemed to overwhelm them. I couldn’t help but imagine the flood of memories it brought to their minds–and, for that matter, the pain of loss it stirred up within them in that moment. Even though they had held the picture in their hands as they walked through the door, there was something about seeing it on the computer; something about seeing it outside of its usual place that made their hearts sting. The context of the photo had changed, and it wasn’t a source of comfort for them at that time.

Perhaps these children were thinking that, like this picture, their dad won’t be in his usual place when they go to his house next time. He won’t sit in his usual spot at church and he won’t tell his usual jokes. His usual clothes will remain folded in the drawer, and he’ll be wearing his blue tie instead. They will surely have their memories of him to hold onto, but for right now, the pain is raw and uncharted, and their words don’t come easily.

They said he looked so handsome in his blue tie at the funeral. And I’m sure the picture found its way to a spot on a new wall. Maybe they will remember him well as they show it to his great-grandchildren and tell them all about the man he was. Their family photographs will serve to help them hold each other close in the near future, but today in this room, the picture is hidden from view because it simply said too much.

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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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