How I Overcame My Fear of Death with Love

 

doallthingswitlove

Before my first job, at Stout Family Funeral Home, I had a phobia of death and dying like many Americans. I would hold my breath when I drove past a cemetery or  quickly avert my eyes if I saw a hearse driving down the road. If I had to actually enter a cemetery I refused to get out of the car. At the age of 18  I was in tears shaking with utter fright sitting in a parked car while my friends explored an old cemetery. If me from the future told that 18 year old girl she would one day work with the dead I think she would have fainted on the spot! So how did I get here?

I was 20 years old and living in a small town in Southern California. The only funeral home was family owned and my boyfriend at the time was the apprentice embalmer.  One day he asked if I could “help out”. My chest clenched up and my palms began to sweat. Hesitantly I said yes, to what I thought would be a one time errand, little did I know my life would be forever changed.

My first job was simple enough: Drive this casketed body to the airport cargo area. I never saw the body or even the casket. The body had already been loaded in the back of the van. They gave me the authorized paper work and just like a UPS delivery man I was on my way. At the airport the cargo men unloaded the deceased for me and I drove back. I think I was smiling the whole way saying out loud I did it!! I did it!! I faced my fears and survived! Little did I know my next job wouldn’t be so simple.

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A few days before my 21st birthday I was asked to go to the hospital to pick up a body. After my first “dead body experience” at the airport I was feeling good. I had continued to help out at the funeral home the last few months typing death certificates, getting death certificates signed by doctors, working memorial services, ect., but none of that prepared me for these words, “Lauren, we have a still born we need you to pick up.”

Instant fear took over my body.  A baby!? How do I even do this!? The lump in my throat grew as my eyes well up with tears. And just as quickly as the tears started to come and the fear took over a calming voice came into my head, “Do this unthinkable act with love.”  As I sit here typing this I still get chills. It has been over 9 years and I can feel that moment and hear that voice.  I sucked up my tears and said, “Ok, I am ready.” With a baby you don’t take the gurney like you would for an adult. Some people put the baby in a box, I decided to bring  a blanket. When I arrived at the hospital I gave the nurse all the paper work so she could release this tiny baby into the funeral homes care.  She asked if I had anything to carry the baby in and I handed her the blanket. She gave me a sweet smile and walked down a hall.

As I stood waiting for the nurse to return all those old fear came rushing back. I felt weak in the knees, light headed, and that heavy heart feeling took over. “Breathe, Lauren, Breath, do this with love, don’t start crying now” I repeated this in my head over and over trying not to cry for what felt like half an hour. And then I saw her walking towards me with a wrapped up bundle. I took in a huge breath and held out my trembling arms. The nurse gently handed me  the baby and I walked out of the hospital quickly so not to be seen by others and just in case I started bawling my eyes out.

I hadn’t driven the van we usually used for “removals” because I wasn’t in need of the gurney. Instead I had driven my VW Jetta. As I pushed the button with one hand to unlock the car while holding this tiny baby in my other  I thought , “Where do you put a dead newborn in the front or back?” My analytical mind had taken over by this point, most likely to save me from my exploding heart. I placed the baby in the passenger seat. Safe and sound. I walked to the drivers side and sat in my seat. I looked over at this wrapped up buddle of somebodies lost dreams. I thought of how much someone loved this baby and what an honor I had been given to care for him in this moment. I started my car and Frank Sinatra voice  came on singing to me and the baby…..”Would you like to swing on a star? Carry moon beams home in a jar…”

I will never forget that day or the love I felt, or the fear I overcame. That was the beginning of my journey.  And I am thankful.

 

 

 

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Embalming : A Quick History and Why You Don’t Need it!

embalming civilwar

Here is a  brief history lesson on embalming in America: During the Civil War soldiers of the North were dying far from home and the families couldn’t bare the thought of their loved ones being buried in Southern soil (or so the stories go). Field Doctors began to practice techniques to preserve the bodies so they could be shipped back to their families for burials.  The techniques were primitive removing the blood and then using a cocktail  of alcohols to “pickle” the organs. This would kill the enzymes and slow down the natural decay of the body. The technique was modernized by Dr. Thomas Holmes(the “Father of Modern Embalming“) and used through out the war.  President Lincoln was the first president to be embalmed so his body could travel by train across the states, but after the war many people thought this procedure was invasive and unnecessary and embalming faded into the back burners until the 1920’s.

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During the 1920’s embalming became a thing of prestige. It was expensive and still very new but the families with the most money would hold grand funeral parties to show off their embalmed loved one in their home. The embalmer was still coming into the home and preforming the procedure (which, as someone who has seen quite a few embalming’s, finds it crazy to think about)  then the body would be laid out in the family room or parlor….didn’t you ever wonder why funeral homes are called funeral “homes” and have a “parlor/viewing room”??  During the next few decades the funerals homes took over what the families had been doing for hundreds of years making it a booming industry for casket makers, car companies, florists, and of course the embalmer.  Embalming fluid companies traveled the USA “certifying” funeral employees and the term embalmer became readily known and even a licensed profession thanks to boards (usually made up by prestigious  funeral homes).  The use of  “Propaganda” that an embalmed body is safer for the public because an un-embalmed body is full of disease and will spread germs also boosted the use of embalming procedure on the middle class American. Not surprisingly this was also the time when woman were being told that childbirth was dangerous and your baby could die and get sick if you had them at home so off to the hospitals they went. Both FASLE! (But that’s for another post.)

So what DOES embalming do? Quite simply it slows down the decomposition process. Yes, I said SLOWS, but you cannot stop decomposition it will happen eventually. Embalming fluid(formaldehyde)  is extremely hazardous. Embalmers where protective gear to not only protect themselves from blood borne pathogens but from the carcinogenic embalming fluid! This toxic fluid is pumped into a body for the purpose of a viewing (most funeral homes include embalming into service packages so even if there is no viewing embalming may be preformed) and then the body and all that toxic fluid is buried into the earth(along with a steel casket). That is roughly 827, 060 GALLONS of embalming fluid a year going into the earth!

Why don’t you need to embalm a body? Well to start it is not required by any state. There is no law anywhere that says you must be embalmed. Even for transportation on an airplane the body can be placed on dry ice in a special “traveling casket.” Many religions including Judaism and Muslim don’t allow embalming their dead as part of their religious traditions. The next reason? You can “preserve” a body for viewing using dry ice. It will slow down decomposition and give the body a more natural look because, hey, it is natural for a body to be un-embalmed anyway! And as a bonus you wont be adding to the pools of embalming fluid being added to the Earth.

I am just scratching the surface here. Planting seeds. Change is happening.  There is so much we don’t know because we have been so detached from death and dying in America. Each week I will do my best to enlighten you and hopefully you will take the information you learn and enlighten someone else, and so on and so on. Talk about it. Question your own beliefs on death and dying.  Thank you for being part of the change. And welcome to Returning Home.