Being a funeral director is not easy,in fact, it is extremely stressful. I always referred to it as being a wedding planner with only 3-5 days to plan the whole wedding. I ordered flowers, made church arrangements, hired a pastor, ordered the casket or urn, made sure all the legal paperwork was filed, printed and folded service cards, it was enough to make your head spin, but that’s not why I was a sad funeral director.
Almost everyday was a new family, a new story, a new tragedy. I understood that. What I didn’t understand was “How do I help them?” That may sound silly when the obvious answer is “Plan a memorial service that will help the family honor their memory.” But during my 3 years as a funeral director working for a mega-corporation (Yes, you read that correctly, CORPORATION not a family business like you thought. There are still family run funeral homes but they are becoming more and more scarce.) I felt like I should do more, there SHOULD be more. When tragedy hits a family your truly get to see what makes a family, how their stories are weaved together. As a funeral director my duty was pretty basic, ask cremation or burial, get all the vital information for a death certificate and burial permit, plan a service (if the family even wanted one). Some days this was simple work : “Mom wanted to keep it simple, direct cremation, no service.” Other days…”I don’t know we want, my seventeen year old son shouldn’t be dead, I shouldn’t be sitting here. We have no money, how will we get through this?!” As different as the scenarios where both people felt pain, both wanted help, and both made me realize that something was amiss in our dealings with the dead.
Changes in myself and my funeral home started after I saw the documentary “A Family Undertaking”. The film introduces families who are caring for their own dead and working through death. I saw families and communities come together and grieve and celebrate. And that’s when fireworks went OFF IN MY BRAIN! That’s what I was missing. Community, tradition, celebration. Families came to me because they didn’t KNOW anything else. The “traditional funeral” had only been a tradition for the last 50 or so years. Before that it was the families, the neighbors, the church members who rallied around a family and helped care for those families and the deceased. It was beautiful, sacred and meaningful. Something needed to change I knew this with all my heart. And then something did change. I got pregnant with my first child.
Life is amazing and unexpected and then it ends. That’s the way it is and always will be. I left the funeral industry when I was 7 months pregnant and never looked back. A seed had been planted in my heart, and a baby in my belly. As I began a life as a mother I also began my life as an advocate. I knew the funeral industry was shifting. We had all seen rises in cremation, no services, the most inexpensive option. I knew that money was only a portion of the issue here. We as a society had forgotten our roots, our community was spread thin and fraying, and the heart and sacredness of caring for our dead loved ones had been passed onto complete strangers.
I had been that stranger, and even though my heart was there for those families, like most funeral directors, I was just a blip in their radar. A stranger who was chosen to help in this huge transition and then never to be heard from again. Just as birth is a momentous occasion that takes months of planning and months of recovery, so is death. But somewhere in the folds of time our society forgot. We decided death was unsanitary, it needed to be hidden and unseen, and when the time comes have a stranger take care of it and then try to move on as quickly as possible.
Well, my beautiful friends, I am here to tell you this hasn’t been working. You may think it has but you don’t know what you have been missing. There is a healing that comes from sitting with a dead body. There is a healing that comes with bathing and blessing that body. There is a healing that comes from celebrating a life lost with friends and community. And you don’t need a funeral home, a stranger, to do any of it. I am here, no longer as a stranger, but as an educator. To shift the American views on death and caring for our dead. It can be a beautiful thing.