What’s Your "Comfort Level" with Death?

My mother and brother recently came to ‘Clinnon’ to tend to some business at PC. While they were in town, they stopped by to see me at work. Naturally, I gave them a little tour of the funeral home.

As I led them around, I noticed how consciously aware I was of their reactions to different things I showed them, and that I was especially careful when leading them into a visitation room with an open casket. You see, I know from growing up going to visitations and funerals with my parents that saying that my mom does not particularly ‘like’ open caskets is an understatement. She tentatively approached the casket, stopping well outside of arm’s reach. My brother was not much more adventurous. They asked a few questions and then we carried on with the tour.

The isolated experience with my mom and brother didn’t mean much to me at the time. In fact, I sort of forgot about it…… UNTIL……

Somebody died. The family came in the next day to finalize arrangements. We had a brief conversation. I led them down the hallway for an initial viewing of the body, which we had embalmed, dressed, and casketed. I opened the door to the private viewing room and motioned for them to enter the room. All of this was very ‘normal’ to me. Then, it dawned on me…. Why was I doing it like that? It was like I didn’t want to intrude on their personal space with their dead loved one. I was standing back, expecting them to go into the room and do their ‘grief thing’ while I went back to what I had been doing before they arrived. It slowly occurred to me that they might not actually want to go into the room…. at least not alone. Some of them (probably all of them) might be unsure, confused, or absolutely terrified. I wondered if I was doing them a disservice by hanging back in the doorway, or if I was doing exactly what I should be doing: giving them space.

As funeral professionals, it’s sometimes hard to gauge peoples’ “comfort level” with death right off the bat; it’s something we have to ease into with families. It takes time. It takes conversations, and eye contact, and buzz words, and a little bit of awkwardness, and probably too much ‘professional’ distance on our part. We don’t have a personal history with many of the people we interact with on a daily basis, so unlike the situation with my own family, we have very little to go off of unless the individuals actually tell us how they feel. ….And it’s amazing how clammed up and inconsistent people get around death.

What about you? What’s your “comfort level?” Open casket or closed? Would you want space? Or more direction? It’s all very subjective and dependent on the circumstances.

A talk from a convention I went to earlier this year is echoing in my mind as I write this. The topic was along the lines of how much the field of funeral service has changed in the past few decades and how little actual funeral home design and basic merchandise has changed. One point made was about caskets: At the end of the day, a casket is a casket is a casket. (Unless it’s a coffin….but that’s another story for another day).


Caskets in general freak people out. Open caskets, in particular, really freak people out. Add in the fact that there’s a dead loved one in the casket, and you’ve got some serious emotional issues on your hands. Denial is no longer an option. Death is all of a sudden within arm’s reach. Grief is raw. People simply don’t know how to react. I understand more fully now that I have a responsibility to focus more on ushering people through this process instead of just motioning them forward into it. I trust that this is a quality that will come about in time and with experience and in all the little ways that make this job more than a job but a true vocation.

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