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

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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Dying in a Digital Age: 3 Ways the Funeral Business Has Been Transformed by Technology

You might say to yourself, “Funerals are not that difficult. Dig a hole, put the body in the ground.”

But what about writing an obituary via email by coordinating with a family member who is out of state? How about scanning treasured family photographs and putting together a memorial video moments before a visitation? Have you ever tried to track the movement of a deceased body from the place of death, through the embalming process, to a funeral, and then to the crematory for cremation? Trust me, we are very careful to be sure nothing gets lost or confused along the way. Planning a funeral takes a few more tools than just some packs of tissues on the pews and a shovel at a cemetery. We live in a mobile, instant access society and (contrary to popular belief perhaps) the funeral business is not immune to using technology in the workplace.

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1. Obits—One of the most observable technological changes has been for obituaries. Obituaries are still published in newspapers, but they are also regularly accessed on the internet. It used to be that a friend would have a few newspapers stockpiled to give you to tuck in the family Bible; now, obituaries are “shared” on social media sites like Facebook. It is also commonplace for funeral homes and newspapers to have websites where friends and family can go to read an obituary and leave a memorial message.

For funeral homes, email has become the new method of delivery for obituaries to newspapers, but every once in a while, we have to step back into the dark ages and send an obituary over the fax machine or read it out over the phone. Thank goodness hand delivering a photograph to the newspaper office is a thing of the past—scanning and sending as a .jpeg or .pdf is a real time-saver.

2. Music—The digital music libraries available at our fingertips are undeniably convenient, but there are few greater terrors as a funeral director than pressing the “play” button on an iPad or computer during a funeral and hearing the wrong music begin to travel through the pipes. Music can be one of the most personal and sacred elements of a funeral, yet many families these days opt for “canned” tunes or versions of old favorites sung by popular artists. I’ve even set up a keyboard to play recorded organ music at a graveside and held up a microphone to play a CD in a hearse stereo at a cemetery.

The words of the tried and true hymns still make their way into most funeral services, but in my humble opinion, there is nothing which quite compares to the harmony of the keys of a seasoned piano matched with seasoned voices singing in an old country church or the majesty of a pipe organ sounding in a grand sanctuary. A guitar solo or a bagpiper every once in a while are not bad either…

3. Virtual Files—Paper trails are important in courts, doctor’s offices, schools, and yes, even funeral homes. Each service we funeral professionals handle begins with a First Call Sheet of basic biographical information. The file balloons from there—containing everything from an obituary and a list of pallbearers to paperwork for an international flight and burial overseas. There are forms, bills, and vital statistics that are used throughout the process of planning a funeral, and all of it must be accurate and accessible. There are enough databases and shared folders and scanned copies to make your head spin. Even many Death Certificates are filed online these days with programs similar to the State of SC’s WebDeath system.

All of these records take up lots of space, but whether they are gathering dust in the back of the file room or stored away in cyberspace, death data and cemetery records make up a big chunk of local and national history and archiving them is an ongoing yet important challenge.

Smart phones give the general public instant access to service information and obituaries, and we funeral folks utilize the countless contacts and resources at our fingertips—GPS, weather forecasts, and Find A Grave.com to name a few. Emailing crucial documents to be signed and returned has become standard practice when serving families spread across the globe, and it will be interesting to see how our mobile society continues to incorporate technological advancements even in seemingly “low tech” fields.

As I post this from my iPhone, I’m acutely aware that striking a balance between “high tech” and “face-to-face” is extremely important not only in this line of work, but in how we move around from day to day, interacting with the public and within our close communities. Think I’ll step away from the screen for a while… Hope you find time to do the same.