An Elevator Story

An Elevator Story

Four years ago, I had to opportunity to attend a conference sponsored by the National Funeral Director’s Association (NFDA). The program, called “Meet the Mentors,” brought together 50 young funeral service professionals and 3 seasoned mentors in an interactive setting which fostered rich conversation.

I was one of the youngest attendees by a long shot, and was admittedly a tad bit anxious. My nerves were set at ease, however, when I arrived at the hotel and met a new friend almost immediately in an elevator. We both chuckled at the absurdity of the thing we call “a mortician conference,” and that all of our outfits involved something black.

The elevator theme resurfaced at the end of the conference with a final charge to our group: to develop a 1-minute “elevator story” as to why we were working in the field of funeral service.

My eyes were wide with the refreshed perspective downtime brings, and my gut response to the challenge was to dive head-first into the core of the topic. My thoughts ran deep; here is a note from my journal:

As witnesses to awful and beautiful things, sometimes within the same family or funeral service or body, we are linked to life-changing moments as part of our daily work. Where else, besides maybe at a birth, do complete strangers intersect at something so emotional, uncomfortable, and uncertain?”

The intensity of those notions is raw, and I often write on this blog from a similar vantage point. Looking back, I realize I connected with painful truths laced with beauty.

I returned to work after the event and my “elevator story” did not take on form until I was leaving a trade convention a few weeks later. I spotted a gentleman I recognized as I made my way to the escalator which led to the exit. With seconds to decide if I should turn around, I stepped onto the moving escalator and smiled to myself as I reached the bottom and turned right around to make the journey back to the top. The man I approached was/is the editor of a national funeral publication, and after an introductory handshake, I simply and shakily said,

“I am a writer….” 

When I heard those words out-loud, they sounded strange and big and intimidating. I also, recognized, however, the power of the fear I felt. Harnessing that power is not easy work. Sitting with thoughts and forming words on pages requires vulnerability and bravery and a vast amount of hope. That short and sweet “escalator story” led to wonderful opportunities for more writing and more experiences in the “funeral world.”

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Last month, I was part of another kind of “Meet the Mentors” event. This time my MBA cohort mingled with an impressive group of business leaders from the Charleston community. My “elevator story” was a little different this time around, and as I reflected on my five-year stint in the funeral world, I again zeroed in on the core of my work: writing. From thousands of obituaries to this monthly blog, I am drawn again and again to the written word as a form of expression and connection. Learning to write is a process, and I quote one of my favorite writers, Anne Lamott when I say,

“this business of becoming conscious, of being a writer, is ultimately about asking yourself, How alive am I willing to be?

Thank you, readers, for your continued support and your own bravery in coming here to read about challenging topics. You may see some changes on this blog in the coming months as I continue to process what I am learning. I hope you will be encouraged to share more of your own story, too.

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! 

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