Transitions

Transitions

One visitation is ending as another one is scheduled to begin. I usually do my best to avoid a scheduling conflict, but there are only so many hours in a day. The allotted times overlap by about 30 minutes, and I feel the need to stand in the hallway between the rooms until the swap takes place. 

 

The first family is wrapping up early, and I am not sure why I am still standing in this spot, but I stay put. My post affords me the perspective of monitoring all entrances to the building, and I adopt the pretense of “Directing Guests to the Restrooms” when all the while I am primarily here to safeguard the transition.

 

Photo slideshows need to switch, but I wait until the last second to pull the plug on the TV. Doors are subtly closed and flowers are quietly shifted, but there is a muffled stir of activity in the background as the last few relatives say their final goodbyes. I move slowly but surely to close the casket after they leave, and we quickly refresh the refreshments in the reception area. A sparkling pitcher of ice water finds its place on the table next to the coffee, and I reach to toss an empty tissue box into the garbage. Right on cue, the second family rounds the corner. My pulse races as I move toward them as slowly and deliberately as possible.

 

img_0897I recognize it is this deliberateness which sets me apart in this moment. I have chosen to stand here in the in-between, not only between the two rooms, but between the living and the dead. This choice is one which I often question; it does not seem quite sane. Family after family enters these doors and each time I learn a little more about death, and a lot more about life.

 

More guests arrive as the clock ticks forward. They make their way to greet the family, circle by the casket, then their conversations settle around the refreshment table. An occasional laugh breaks out amidst the hushed tones. My eye catches the water pitcher as the disappearance of the last few drops signals a refill.

 

We carry on to each next thing, cycling through ups and downs as transitions between milestones mark time for us. Our view changes as life unfolds, and we can only hope to walk the journey with friendship and laughter, even at the very end.

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! 

img_0891

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.