I was so excited to share our work with the community. Hopefully more and more families will know that home funerals are an option for them. Watch the video by clicking the link below!
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.
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.
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.