To the Very Last Person to Ever Touch My Daughter on Earth
October 18, 2019 7:44 PM   Subscribe

I honestly have no idea what compels someone to become a funeral director. I can't imagine many high school career counselors hear that one. In your case, this was a family business, but you could have done anything. Instead, you chose to comfort the brokenhearted. You chose a profession where you see people at their weakest and most vulnerable. During the times where we are so lost we have literally no idea how we will behave. Some sit stone still, others rage. Some cry, others are in denial. Families fight in front of you, bringing up old, unnecessary wounds when all that should be done is to write the obituary and get it into the paper.
posted by Johnny Wallflower (50 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
 
Someone really damn generous, that's who.

I tell my kids that our neighbor, John, and his family, will be there in the worst times of their life with gentle advice and patience and tissues.

RNs and FDs, man -- I don't know how they do it but I'm glad they do.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:56 PM on October 18 [7 favorites]


Also, thanks for making my eyes sting, Johnny.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:57 PM on October 18 [1 favorite]


Well written... thanks for posting.

There is a long list of people who deserve this type of acknowledgement and appreciation: doctors, er staff, emt’s, and all of those that encounter us at the end of the journey. To those of you that fill those roles in this world , thank you...
posted by HuronBob at 8:01 PM on October 18 [8 favorites]


I can't imagine many high school career counselors hear that one.
I work at a college, not a high school, but as luck would have it I talked with someone today who is considering pursuing mortuary science, and yes, it's a family business. It's almost always a family business, in my experience. Which is interesting, because the people who go into that line of work typically know exactly what they're getting themselves into. Actually, it's pretty common for them to have lived in the funeral home when they were growing up, which must make for a weird childhood.
posted by ArbitraryAndCapricious at 8:06 PM on October 18 [8 favorites]


paging ColdChef!
posted by lalochezia at 8:06 PM on October 18 [21 favorites]


Actually, it's pretty common for them to have lived in the funeral home when they were growing up, which must make for a weird childhood.

Apparently it does according to Alison Bechdel, of Bechdel test fame.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 8:17 PM on October 18 [5 favorites]


I have a friend who is good at this job - it trades on the currency of trust and reputation, leveraging his people skills and empathy.

It is also seems to be a very very lucrative business. He drives a luxury car and I suspect is doing the best financially out of us. It's like a wedding, but even worse - the pressure of keeping up appearances, only the best will do because it's something you only do once - but unlike a wedding where you have a year to plan, compare costs and negotiate - with a funeral you have only 2 days to sign the contract. Most people don't haggle or seek competitor quotes, and it can cost around 30k depending on what segment you're targeting. If you're rich, of course grandpa is getting that 6k casket, nothing but the best!
posted by xdvesper at 8:20 PM on October 18 [2 favorites]


At the same time, the best funeral directors know how to help their less affluent families feel good about choosing the most economical casket.

I certainly don’t mind that it’s lucrative—it’s one of the few careers where emotional labor pays. And it takes a toll. Yes, there are the routine deaths, old people in declining health who’ve had good long lives, but there are a lot of hard deaths, too. And no matter what, the undertaker has to get the job done.
posted by ocherdraco at 8:30 PM on October 18 [12 favorites]


What my curious mind wonders is... what motivated the first person in a family to become an undertaker/funeral director?

Like I get that it's a family business after that. The living with the closeness to death and the understanding of endings and a life living counseling the bereaved is something which, if you grew up with, would set you at a bit of a distance, but a needed and beloved distance, from the rest of the culture which doesn't deal with any of those things well. Choosing that profession, I can imagine, would seem natural.

But that first person in that family... what made THEM choose that? That is the curious question.
posted by hippybear at 9:05 PM on October 18


My family were funeral directors. Not my parents, but my grandparents and great-grandfather. What inspired great-grandfather to choose that, I don't know. Though they also were in the furniture business. Build a casket, build a table, similar skills for each, I guess.

In my mother's generation, only her brother wanted to do it, though two sisters got licensed in order to help out at times. No one in my generation wanted to continue, and my uncle's now retired. I remember Christmas dinners where they had to leave because they got a call, because they'd come in at all hours of the day. I remember my uncle comforting my classmates when a brother of one of us committed suicide. We lived in a small town, about two thousand folks, so everyone knew everyone, which had to make things like that harder.

My parents now live in the family funeral home, with the chapel area along the side, a basement beneath that served as the prep room and casket display area, and a rickety old elevator connecting the two. These days the elevator just takes the Christmas decorations up and down.
posted by rewil at 9:21 PM on October 18 [18 favorites]


But that first person in that family... what made THEM choose that? That is the curious question.

Call me cynical, but...money?
posted by Sys Rq at 9:55 PM on October 18 [2 favorites]


I haven't read any source documents from anyone who has become the first in their family to choose funerals as their livelihood. I'd be welcoming to read that account.
posted by hippybear at 10:08 PM on October 18 [1 favorite]


Hippybear, you might enjoy some of Caitlin Doughty's autobiographical writing.
posted by carmicha at 10:24 PM on October 18 [1 favorite]


I seriously considered trying to become a funeral director when I was in high school; it came up on my aptitude test results right next to actuary and city planner and lots of things I'm sure I would have been terrible at. Those tests weren't much help at narrowing things down.

IIRC, I've also known personally known a handful of funeral directors, every one a truly nice, caring person. They all said burnout is a real problem; most of them had taken time out to do something else for a while at some point in their lives.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:31 PM on October 18


paging ColdChef!

Yeah I know he only drops in occasionally these days but I think he knows a thing or two about what it's like to be in a family funeral business....
posted by atoxyl at 11:26 PM on October 18 [2 favorites]


what motivated the first person in a family to become an undertaker/funeral director?

A friend's brother is a funeral director; the first in his family. It started out as a money thing. The person he started with was looking to retire and no one in his family wanted to take over. Friends brother was a family friend looking for work and was offered an apprenticeship (do they call it that the funeral business?) and when he was ready to take over the retiree retired.

The elaborate funeral industry we have now though is a fairly recent thing. 100-150 years ago most people (IE: just about everyone who wasn't rich) had funerals in whole or in part conducted by family/community. The deceased would be washed and dressed at home by family; caskets were constructed by the wood worker in the family or a local carpenter and were generally pretty plain; and interments were at the family church graveyard or private family graveyard.

unlike a wedding where you have a year to plan, compare costs and negotiate - with a funeral you have only 2 days to sign the contract. Most people don't haggle or seek competitor quotes,

Pre-planning/pre-paying is definitely a thing (though consumer advocates generally say to only pre-plan and not pre-pay). In that way it's a bit easier than a wedding in that you can have a long time to pay and there aren't nearly as many people attempting to tell you how to do it. If you are feeling especially ornery you can avoid input from anyone.
posted by Mitheral at 11:36 PM on October 18 [4 favorites]


It must be good working a job where your clients are dying to see you.
posted by b1tr0t at 11:53 PM on October 18 [4 favorites]


unlike a wedding where you have a year to plan, compare costs and negotiate - with a funeral you have only 2 days to sign the contract.

Reminds me of a gravediggin' story.

My great-uncle was the gravedigger in a rural county where there was a very traditional Jewish community, whose members believed in burial without embalming as soon as possible after death. So he and my uncle - his assistant for a while - would work through the night to have the grave dug and ready for the burial within a day or two.

This was over fifty years ago, mind you, in a not particularly affluent or cosmopolitan area, so they were still using tools that weren't even state-of-the-art back then: shovel, pick, and a kerosene lantern for those overnight rush jobs.

So, one dark midnight, my uncle is down a six-foot hole finishing it up for a Jewish burial the following afternoon. He starts hearing strange noises. Now, he's still pretty new to the job, and he's an eighteen, nineteen-year-old kid when it comes down to it. But he's in charge of the cemetery that night, so he takes a deep breath, grabs his Iantern, and starts climbing to the surface to check it out.

Now, the randy teenage couple who had pulled into the graveyard with their headlights off, coasting in neutral so the only car noise was tires on gravel, didn't know anything about Jewish funerals or inadequate equipment budgets. They just knew that the minute they got in the back seat and got their clothes off, a gaunt-looking, six-and-a-half foot tall figure with long, black hair and big dark circles under its eyes, waving a flaming lantern over its head with one hand and clutching a rusty pick in the other emerged from a grave directly in front of them. Or perhaps just from an open gateway to the bowels of Hell, conveniently located in the county boneyard.

Uncle screams. Fornicators scream. Boy fornicator starts the car, puts the pedal to the metal, does the world's speediest U-turn, and books out of there so fast he breaks the cemetery gate and pulls it off its hinges.

As soon as Uncle catches his breath, he finishes up, goes home, and tells Great-Uncle. Next day, Great-Uncle mentions it in passing to the local storekeeper, just in the context of, "Now I gotta spend all day trying to fix that damn gate, etc." Storekeeper gets a funny look, then takes him out back, where a very pale Son of Storekeeper is trying to pound the dents out of his convertible. S.o.S. ends up paying for gate repairs.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:02 AM on October 19 [110 favorites]


Well, there’s Bernie, for one...
posted by progosk at 1:04 AM on October 19 [1 favorite]


My mom's childhood best friend married into the family that ran the town funeral home (yes, they had also run the furniture store back in the day). Her husband Philip was there as we lost my grandparents, and he cared for us when we lost my 14 year old cousin. It is a very high calling, and this was a lovely essay.
posted by hydropsyche at 4:20 AM on October 19 [5 favorites]


My ex-wife got into the FD path around 30. She wanted to help people through hard times and knew she had the moral and physical stomach for it. What she wasn't prepared for was an industry full of cynical people backstabbing each other and preying on the bereaved. I'm not saying it's a strictly terrible industry, but corporatization has certainly sent it hurtling in that direction.
posted by es_de_bah at 5:05 AM on October 19 [2 favorites]


We just got back from Mississippi last week where we laid to my rest my Father-in-law. There was a meeting with the funeral director with forms to sign and so forth. His name was Rob and he was a beefy, linebacker of a man, but very polite and genial. The thing that struck me was his professionalism. He was kind, yes, but mostly he was focused on the task at hand so everything went smoothly and we had less to concern ourselves with. I know that's pretty much the job description, but we appreciated it all the same.

He also had a sense of humor. My Father-in-law had hired him years ago and gave him a few details to guide us in the final process. For coffin type, he wrote down "Think Cardboard". Rob and Mrs. Mosley and I all had a chuckle at that, and then he proceeeded to show us exactly that, which is what we picked. Thanks, Rob.
posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 5:09 AM on October 19 [10 favorites]


For many years my mom lived with a funeral home to one side and a detox centre to the other. (She called it “halfway between death and recovery”.) She said they were both great neighbours and the funeral home guys especially so — very happy to shovel the snow and ice from the front walk of my elderly mother.

And as for being the first in a family to go into the business, I’d say that yes, there is an economic rationale that might motivate people to do it. Indeed, it is probably very straightforward in forecasting future trends. Looking at a population, it is tricky to predict just how many cars or pairs of shoes or computers they will need in their lifetimes, but with funerals it is much easier to foresee the eventual requirements.

I mean, there are other things in life which you typically need only one of, but I might in my life get zero tuxedos or two. I am relatively certain on the number of funeral services I am going to need.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 5:23 AM on October 19 [4 favorites]


Netflix Canada has The Casketeer which is a pretty awesome reality show about a funeral home.
posted by warriorqueen at 5:27 AM on October 19 [3 favorites]


This was a lovely essay.

Hi, I'm a third generation funeral director. Ask me anything.

As far as starting in the business, most funeral homes ARE family businesses. Back in the day, the funeral directors would be your carpenters or furniture salespeople, because they had the caskets.

My grandfather was the first funeral director in our family. He got into it because he drove ambulances in high school. Ambulances and hearses were similar back then and some of them did double duty. My grandfather drove ambulances and was hired by the local funeral home to also drive the hearse in processions. He and his brother both became funeral directors.

We did, indeed, grow up in the funeral home. The casket showroom was twenty steps from my bedroom. I absolutely made out with girls in the chapel.
posted by ColdChef at 5:45 AM on October 19 [90 favorites]


A lot of my mom's family still live in the same small town where she grew up, which is served by a multi-generation family funeral home that has buried every single one of those relatives who has died in my lifetime (I'm 54). At one family funeral ten years ago or so, my mom mentioned that the man who had been running the funeral home for years had been one of her high school boyfriends. Despite knowing intimately the dysfunctions of my mom's extended family, it has always seemed meaningful to me that there is this close association between her family, that funeral home, and a certain small Methodist church (where all the weddings were held, and also post-funeral luncheons).

My mom died seven years ago, and my father chose not to have any kind of funeral or memorial for her. My mom's last surviving sibling died a few years ago. My generation, and the ones younger than me, are scattered—and there aren't nearly as many of us as there were in my grandparents' and parents' generations. As in many other things, I feel like through my mom's large extended working-class and farming family I got to experience a way of life that was already coming to an end by the time I was born. But maybe that's true of every new generation, I don't know.
posted by Orlop at 8:56 AM on October 19 [9 favorites]


I'm not a funeral director but it was the family business for four generations (five if you count me working at one through college). It's uncanny to read all the experiences that mirror my own, but I guess there's a lot of small towns out there! I really appreciated being able to provide a good experience for the bereaved - it's important work.
posted by Dokterrock at 10:02 AM on October 19 [3 favorites]


100-150 years ago most people (IE: just about everyone who wasn't rich) had funerals in whole or in part conducted by family/community. The deceased would be washed and dressed at home by family; caskets were constructed by the wood worker in the family or a local carpenter and were generally pretty plain; and interments were at the family church graveyard or private family graveyard.

I hope this can be me when I die. I hope I'm rich enough to have a private graveyard, or have intimates who do, because

with a funeral you have only 2 days to sign the contract. Most people don't haggle or seek competitor quotes, and it can cost around 30k depending on what segment you're targeting. If you're rich, of course grandpa is getting that 6k casket, nothing but the best!

I don't want this for people I love. Scatter my ashes and put up a shrine to me, Chinese style, in whatever corner or shed is convenient, remember me by my writings, photographs, and deeds, and never let me become someone who burdens others with my presence, disposal, or legacy. Regrets are part of life, and I have them, but nothing will comfort me more in my passing than knowing those I love live on carrying forward the best I can give them.

I should start a diary and begin documenting things. Private things. The world is a beautiful, complete, complex place, and maybe if I put enough of those together in a form that will survive time, I can forgo the need for a funeral director when I pass.
posted by saysthis at 11:02 AM on October 19 [3 favorites]


Maybe they do a lot of good, but the funeral industry is also rife with corruption. They can take advantage of people at their most vulnerable and run them up with thousands of dollars in unnecessary expenses. They are like used car salesmen who can take advantage of people's ignorance of their alternative options.

Funeral directors have a powerful grip on state lobbying that prevents lower cost alternatives.
posted by JackFlash at 11:36 AM on October 19


Maybe they do a lot of good, but the funeral industry is also rife with corruption. They can take advantage of people at their most vulnerable and run them up with thousands of dollars in unnecessary expenses. They are like used car salesmen who can take advantage of people's ignorance of their alternative options.

I respectfully disagree with this generalization.
posted by ColdChef at 1:47 PM on October 19 [10 favorites]


Also: the average funeral in America is closer to $7000. Far from the $30,000 mentioned above. And you’re not required to have a funeral. Much in the same way that a large wedding isn’t required.
posted by ColdChef at 1:49 PM on October 19 [13 favorites]


I think Washington state recently legalized what I've joked about wanting after I die: that I be run through a giant cuisinart and poured into a hole and then have a tree planted on top of me.

I mean, not that, but similar?
posted by hippybear at 1:54 PM on October 19 [1 favorite]


I'm not saying that all funeral directors are crooked. That would be unfair. But there is a lot of corruption going on.

One example, this case in Louisiana where the Louisiana State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors sent the monks a cease-and-desist letter, complete with threats of jail time and fines, which cited a law restricting the intrastate sale of caskets to licensed funeral directors who have embalming equipment and a funeral parlor.

They wanted to prevent the monks from selling direct to the public to preserve their monopoly and profit margins.

And don't get me started on the unnecessary embalming fees for bodies that are quickly cremated. And how hard the funeral directors lobby fought against the reforms that hippybear linked to.
posted by JackFlash at 2:08 PM on October 19


Of course, the corruption in the funeral industry, which I know nothing about but I'm sure verified awesome person ColdChef knows something about, is not the actual subject of this FPP.

My parents have already made their own funeral plans, which I respect. They know what they want, and their church has a wall with niches where funeral urns are placed (I don't remember the name of this kind of thing) and they've already bought two places in it and they've already made all their arrangements. They're very active in the church where they will be interred where they've been attending for 60 years or so and neither my sister nor I live there anymore.

I admire that they have chosen this for themselves since both their children are not a regular part of the lives they live. I also admire that they've lifted this burden from their children so when it comes time to mourn we won't have this flurry of pressure and decisions to make.

I don't know how common this is, but as we're all aging (my father is 81, but still pretty vigorous), this is a thing on my mind more and more.
posted by hippybear at 2:20 PM on October 19 [1 favorite]


And don't get me started on...

Then don’t. Please.

I’m perhaps rather biased, being friends with the funeral director who is currently in this thread, but jeez, lay off it, will you? The essay linked here is about someone doing a deep kindness, and that is something that funeral directors do all the time. (Or ColdChef does, at least.)

No matter how much you’re getting charged for a casket, the funeral director is the one who’s getting up in the middle of the night to retrieve your loved one, who is negotiating their body through hallways and down steps while maintaining their dignity, and who is dressing them to be seen one last time.

They are the ones responding to the family when a high schooler kills himself, when an evening bike ride becomes a hit and run, or when a pregnancy ends in stillbirth. They absorb the messy emotions that get thrown at them, the secrets they get told, and not infrequently take on the task of explaining death and its accompaniments to children and young people.

Unlike my field, medicine, where in this country providers are conveniently insulated from having to discuss costs and so can easily blame “the system,” the funeral director has to discuss those things directly. But the work they are doing is hard.

One time, ColdChef and I were talking about death in the hospital (like we do) and he asked me about the training I’ve received in medical school to deliver the news that someone is dying, or has, in fact, died. Unsurprisingly, he was appalled to learn how scant it is, how little we learn about the ways talking with families changes depending on the death that has occurred, and how most of our learning how to deliver this news happens on the job, once we’re residents.

When I have to do that work, as I inevitably will, I will be drawing on my many conversations with GJ, on his deep humanity and desire to do right by the families he serves.

Sure, the economics of the funeral industry and deceptive practices among some funeral directors are worth talking about. But just as most wouldn’t come into a thread about an individual doctor doing kind, brave, and emotionally difficult work to have yet another policy discussion about the failings of US healthcare, let’s not do that here.

Instead, let’s look at the vast goodness in the work of individual funeral directors, like the one we are so lucky to call our own, and celebrate it.
posted by ocherdraco at 3:28 PM on October 19 [51 favorites]


My family were in the funerary business in the past and got into it in the 1800s because they were carpenters (or so I'm told). I understand that most of the first people who got into the job when it became a specific job had that kind of background.
posted by branca at 6:04 PM on October 19 [1 favorite]


I can't imagine many high school career counselors hear that one.

My brother did his high school work experience week at a funeral home. I think he chose it aa joke (his first preference he gave the career counselor was "drug dealer" but she said that was a no go.)

But he found it pretty worthwhile and interesting.
Didn't end up pursuing it as a career though.
posted by lollusc at 8:07 PM on October 19


My family was well and thoughtfully served by a locally-owned mortuary when we needed them.
posted by Cranberry at 11:54 PM on October 19


But that first person in that family... what made THEM choose that?

Somebody has to deal with the bodies. It's better than leaving 'em for the wolves, as no-one would want that for a relative.
posted by scruss at 11:39 AM on October 20


I've told the Missus that being left for the animals to eat is fine by me, but she shares your opinion.
posted by Johnny Wallflower at 12:58 PM on October 20 [1 favorite]


I've told the Missus that being left for the animals to eat is fine by me...

Recently saw this exchange online between my friend and her husband:

-Garbage bin blew into the creek. Going to fish it out.

--You want to wait until I get home?

-Nah. If I die, scatter my ashes in the creek.

--If you die, you'll already be in the creek.

-Fair enough.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 3:24 PM on October 20 [3 favorites]


@hippybear, the area in a church where ashes are stored is called a columbarium. My church has one, and services are regularly held there during Holy Week and on All Saint's Day.
posted by dancing_angel at 6:09 PM on October 20 [1 favorite]


With respects to growing up with in a funeral home - my best friend in high school's family ran a funeral home; her aunt was actually the first to start the business (the story that was always given was that she wanted to become a sculptor in Greenwich Village, her ma wouldn't let her, so she chose this instead). And I always got the idea that the weirdest/most uncomfortable parts were when other kids made it weird - unsurprisingly, people could be mean and make jokes about it, but it was also smaller things like kids refusing to call her directly and calling me instead because they'd get so freaked out about the funeral home receptionist answering the phone. Honestly, her place made the most sense as the meet up spot most of the time - there's a waiting room! With a hot cocoa machine! But even some of our friends would get freaked out about meeting there, much less other classmates.

The rest of the weird stories mostly involved having to interact with people when they're dealing with high emotions, essentially being invisible at a private event - similar to the stories you get from doing catering, really.

Said family was also Latinx, and a good amount of their funerals were for the Latinx community. The two things that I remembered hearing about was about was having to reassure family that they'd bury the undocumented and they'd bury people who had obvious gang tattoos or had died from gunshot wounds. They've had to beef up security in the last ten years due to changing gang norms, but I don't think their choice is ever going to change - everyone deserves a funeral.

Another friend of mine is working on becoming a funeral director after doing other types of death work - I've gotten the idea that they're drawn to it because the work is so needed - we're so afraid of discussing death that we're wholly unequipped to deal with it.
posted by dinty_moore at 7:53 PM on October 20 [2 favorites]


With so many gravediggers in the family tree (We know of six so far, the earliest in Nottingham, England in the 16th century), I am kind of surprised that none of their immediate families ever tried to branch out into the undertaking side of the business. From an outsider's perspective, it seems maybe a little more white-collar and aspirational, if you're going to be working with the dead anyway. Or maybe they did, and there's just no record of it.

Like others in the thread, our family has been dealing mostly with one family-owned funeral home for generations. As with so many funeral homes in smaller municipalities, it's the biggest, fanciest, best-preserved Victorian house in town. Arriving in an unfamiliar place, you can spot one nine times out of ten before you see their sign. It's kind of comforting in its way!

They also own one of the two ambulance companies in town, which struck me as odd the first time I heard of it but seemed eminently practical once I stopped to think about it. (It was one of their ambulances in which I was riding when it got broadsided by some damn fool running a red light, but that's another story.)

I'm sure this has been linked from MetaFilter in other discussions, but I feel like it probably belongs here, too. The Order of the Good Death is a good resource for people interested in examining and changing the way we view death, end-of-life issues, and what happens to our bodies after we stop using them. Founder Caitlin Doughty's Ask a Mortician YouTube channel has a devoted following, and a ton of concise, well-researched, insightful, and often funny videos on death-related topics. (Sub-series include "Iconic Corpses," "Deathstinations," and "Morbid Minute.")

P.S. If you ever get the chance to see the deeply weird cinematic gem The Loved One (1965), you should take it. Did I mention it's deeply weird?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:46 PM on October 20 [2 favorites]


I really appreciate this essay and some of the conversation here. I've been thinking lately about how ... lacking our public discourse is. In all the media and websites about getting married, for example, there's about a 5000-to-1 ratio of conversation on the superficial hubbub (wedding flowers, dresses, shoes, invitations, cake, ring, shower, engagement party, bridesmaids) to conversation on the important life transition that is taking place. The same is true for most other transitions, too -- society doesn't really encourage people to spend time in stillness taking in what's really going on. Similarly, I don't blame anyone for the fact that this thread headed in a direction of the hubbub (cost of caskets). But I really appreciate the conversation about the underlying meaning -- someone's passage into death and supporting the family in the emotional tasks of saying goodbye, celebrating their loved one's life, and grieving their passage. I thought the essay did a really nice job putting some of that into words. Is there more out there that is worth reading by or about funeral staff?
posted by salvia at 2:02 AM on October 21


I know someone who recently (in the last decade) went into mortuary science without it having been a family business.

For her, it was because of the experience of losing a close friend during high school - I don't have all the details (and they're hers to divulge) but I understand that the actions of the funeral home were very impactful for her and that it was important to her to be that for someone else.
posted by mosst at 11:42 AM on October 21 [2 favorites]


Great essay and true to my experiences with local funeral directors. Being from a small town, every funeral i have been directly involved with for my family has been directed by someone I know and who knew our family member. For one family funeral, there was some personality conflict with the mother of the deceased and the person who did the make up on the dead, so my mom had to do her cousins makeup to keep the peace. It hadn't occurred to me to think of what it would be like to not know the funeral directors personally when planning a funeral.

I have seen these funeral directors discreetly keep warring family members on opposite sides of a church. i have seen them refuse payment for a 2 year olds funeral. i have seen them piece together the shattered body of a loved one so they could have an open casket funeral. I have seen them be so attentive to minute (and just a little loony) details written by someone who is no longer alive. I appreciate those who choose to serve people this way. It takes a lot of grace and frankly humor to do it well.
posted by domino at 12:18 PM on October 21 [4 favorites]


This story is disconnected, but somehow seems related:

A few hours after my father-in-law died, after the hospice nurse had certified death, we called the mortuary where he had previously made arrangements. Two gentlemen came to pick up his body. They were wearing dark suits. My mother-in-law started laughing out loud. “Why are you wearing suits?!“ she said.

She did not explain why the suits were funny to her, and they replied with something polite but meaningless like “Ma’am, this is just what we always wear.”

I know that they wear suits in order to convey respect for the deceased and the family — for the same reason one defaults to wearing a dark suit or dress to a funeral. But I know that in my mother-in-law’s mind, she saw them doing a physical job where a suit would be impractical — like wearing a suit to dig a ditch. She would have considered it honorable and respectful for them to wear practical clothing for their job, and the suits struck her as ridiculously overwrought.

It must be hard as a funeral director to thread the needle of people’s varying cultural expectations like that.
posted by snowmentality at 2:01 PM on October 21 [4 favorites]


As with so many funeral homes in smaller municipalities, it's the biggest, fanciest, best-preserved Victorian house in town. Arriving in an unfamiliar place, you can spot one nine times out of ten before you see their sign. It's kind of comforting in its way!

The funeral home in my dad's hometown that recently handled my grandmother's funeral is in what was her family home. I remember visiting my great-grandmother there when I was very small, and my grandmother even lived there for a few years after her mom died. It was very strange going to her visitation there. My dad took my cousins and I on a tour of the old house part, probably going into areas the public doesn't usually wander into (nothing technical or scary, just administrative).
posted by hydropsyche at 2:09 PM on October 21 [2 favorites]


The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade is an excellent book by funeral director/poet Thomas Lynch.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:01 AM on October 22 [4 favorites]


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