The Next Chapter

This coming week marks a milestone in my life. It is my last full week in my job as a funeral director. I am starting a graduate program at the College of Charleston, so I am taking a step down from full time work while I go to school. I am not sure what the future holds, but I intend to keep writing here. Who am I kidding?! … I will always write. I may not always write about death and funerals, but I will always write. 

As I take a look back to the beginning of this blog, I want to recount a story I shared in the very first post I published. {Read the whole post here!}

The story began nearly six years ago as I stood outside a church during one of the first funerals I worked. I met a lady who, among small talk, told me how she had worked hard all her life and how she wanted to reward herself upon her retirement. She stood there, glanced around at me and my colleagues as we held memorial bulletins in our hands, and said, “Yes, ma’am, I worked hard all my life. I didn’t stand around in a suit all day worrying about which way to hold my hands.”

I thought her words were snide and insensitive then, and my opinion has only grown stronger!

When I run the numbers, I estimate I have been personally involved in close to 2,000 funerals in the past 5 years. That is more or less 1 funeral per day (holidays included). So many obituaries! So many caskets! So much paperwork!

Many careers — especially medical and legal professions — put us in the paths of people from all different backgrounds and all walks of life. Some people are genuinely appreciative for the work we do, but some people are on the opposite end of the spectrum.

One of the most difficult parts of my job is to face the scrutiny of people who have never stood in my shoes. When I think back to the lady’s words which stung me on that church porch, I try put myself in her position. From her point of view, I was standing there not doing much of anything. She couldn’t — or wouldn’t — see what mattered.

The work of a funeral director is varied and situation specific, and it takes patience and adaptability to do it well. Some days the sheer volume of cases is crippling. Other days the sea of grief threatens to overtake. In the days following a death, many times the difference between what is seen and what is not seen is because a funeral director steps in between the two and bridges the gap.

The business which is so often said to be cloaked in secrecy is actually made up of long hours, midnight death calls, panic attacks about obituary typos, and countless tragedies which, to us, become every day occurrences.

I may not speak for every funeral director, but there are certainly things I wish I could change about the funeral business. I know, however, that this work and the families I have served have changed me for the better.

As I start a new chapter, I recognize that I will continue to wrestle with the cultural and spiritual attitudes toward death and funerals. Moving forward, I hope to honor the dissonance with my words. And with respect. Always respect.

Keep reading with me as I reminisce! 

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Grounded

   As the preacher steps forward to shake hands with the son seated in the front row, I hear the clang, clang, clang of the tent against it’s metal poles. The sound is welcome amidst the silence which followed the closing prayer over the grave. The casket has yet to be lowered, but we cannot avoid that task much longer. I follow him so I can have a quick discussion with the family before we continue our work for the burial. I must ask them if they prefer to stay seated or if they would rather go on to the lunch waiting for them before we start.
     This particular conversation takes many forms depending on the circumstances, but it is always one of high honor.
Ignoring the many eyes fixed on me as I make my way forward, I bend down to address the front row. One knee usually hits the ground, and I choose to plant it there momentarily. My position allows me a new perspective. Instead of standing off to the side, praying the rain holds off or the flowers don’t topple over, I am now humbled, intent, concerned about the emotions and the people right in front of me. There are almost always tears to face. Sometimes my words are met with blank stares and I feel the need to slowly repeat myself.
     The finality of the moment is weighty. It’s importance is not lost on me. My knee rests until an answer is given, and I stand to make an announcement of the verdict.
     There is a palpable sense of dread in the air. Some eyes in the crowd look almost scared. I am never sure if they fear having to stand witness to the burial or if they fear being asked to leave.
     As I stand, I instinctively reach to brush off my knee. Dust clings there as if to remind me I am still stuck here on this earth. There is something which approaches holy that happens as I stand between the living and the dead; between the now and the not yet. I may be echoing author Thomas Lynch by saying, “We’ve come as far as we can go…”
     It’s true: there is not much left to do. This body will be committed back to the earth on which we stand. I cannot help but think, however, there is so much more yet to be learned. Whether that earth is covered by artificial turf or if it is washed over by ocean waves lapping the seashore, it is all the same. We ultimately come to a place where we can no longer deny the reality which is set before us. The casket is lowered or the ashes are spread, but we must eventually move. Grief will endure long after the body is out of sight, but we can learn to approach each tomorrow with a deeper understanding of our movement as we walk with each other upon this sacred ground.

Coming to you …not live… from Ohio!

This past week I had the opportunity to present at the Ohio Funeral Directors Association annual convention in Columbus! This was my first big speaking event, and it was an honor to interact with mortuary students and young funeral directors at the unique venue for the presentation: Easton’s Funny Bone comedy club. If you’re interested in what I had to say, check out the audio recording while you’re on the go (click to play below). If you have more time on your hands than you know what to do with, I am also including the full length PowerPoint recording to download for your viewing pleasure…

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The Beginning of the End- Starting out in Funeral Service