One of the great blessings in my life is that by guess or by golly, by accident and certainly not by design, and to my own amazement and surprise I have been fortunate to work with thousands of funeral directors across the globe in my career, which is now long, and has not been totally uneventful.
I have to confess that I have not found a more wonderful group of people to work with than funeral directors. Oh, yes, there have been moments when I could have pulled my hair out, and yes I left several meetings wondering why people did not agree with everything that I said, but overall, over a perspective of 40 plus years I have concluded that funeral directors are really nice, caring, and very concerned people – no matter what the anti-funeral people say, and in the end how many people are going to listen to them?
Clearly every career has its blessings and its curses. I can’t think of one job where some time, some place a person goes home walking on a cloud of happiness and success, or goes home in the depth of despair and laments the day they decided to get involved with “this job!” Even the eternal optimists and Pollyanna’s of the world have the bad day.
I suspect the only people that really are plotting and scheming to ruin the day of the funeral director are the few anti-funeral people who continue to rant and rave about the long held lessons taught by their guru and inspirational leader, the now long dead Jessica Mitford. I have held the opinion that everything I have read from the anti-funeral people when dissected is in reality just a turn, a spin on the contents of Jessica Mitford’s book “The American Way of Death” which was written over 45 years ago. Mitford’s thinking today is ancient history, and the anti-funeral people have not come up with much new “stuff” save for their eternal war cry that “Funerals (and now burials, cremation, body donations, everything else in life) costs too much” and “Funeral directors are crooks.” The anti-funeral muckrakers dearly love to tell other people what to do and to give firm and self-righteous instructions and advice on how people ought to be spending their money. I have put this thought in print many times but it is worth repeating here; the anti-funeral people frighten me, I am very wary of them, and I do most anything I can to avoid them and for one simple reason; they are a vexation to my funeral spirit – to my genuine love and devotion to funeral service. It is wise for TVB to stay my distance from them and never ever under any conditions trust them. I will have more to say on this topic at the conclusion of this article. Anti –funeral people are not blessings.
Blessings – what a wonderful word. In fact it is such a powerful word that the church has been teaching and preaching about the subject of blessings for two thousand years, and the church shows no signs of slowing down in addressing, interpreting, and reminding thousands, millions, billions of people what blessings truly are, and that a simple life lesson needs to be learned and learn well by everyone on earth concerning blessings just – COUNT THEM.
I have thought about the blessings of being a funeral director long and hard, and feel the need to share these simple thoughts. Remember folks this is TVB writing so don’t expect too much.
I have concluded that funeral directors are just different from most everybody else on the earth – and thank God we are different. I used to see this type of difference, this type of being separate from the crowd in the medical profession, and I still see it at times in the clergy, but the medical profession has clearly succumbed to big business, and the clergy – I will leave that subject alone in this article, for now.
Funeral directors are different. I don’t know of many vocations where its members are so willing to invest their emotions in the lives of the people they serve than funeral directors. I actually cannot think of another profession where the professional gets as emotionally and hence personally involved in such an intense way with the people who pay them for their services than funeral directors. Yes, every profession will claim this intense relationship but when the subject of death is involved I think many other professionals prefer to make a hasty retreat and let funeral directors pick up the ball and create the relationship, and THAT IS A GOOD THING. This is a real blessing for us and for the community we serve. Funeral directors do not run away from death.
I have certainly seen the medical profession simply evaporate when someone dies. Until I see the day when a hospital once again allows a funeral director to walk into the front door with the cot to remove a dead human being instead of us being directed to the door next to the garbage dumpster to remove a dead human body I will hold onto my long held view that the medical profession does not have much interest in dead bodies or in death. There are some exceptions to this observation but not many.
I have often times asked myself “Todd why does this preacher give a well thought out funeral oration that lasts for a while and the name of the deceased is mention, as compared to this other preacher chap who gives a five minute funeral oration and then can’t get out of the mortuary fast enough?” Yes I have seen the church leadership evaporate when somebody dies. There are some exceptions to this observation, but funeral directors do not evaporate when confronted with death.
Few if any career choices require the ability and perspective to deeply deal compassionately yet at the same time professionally and financially with people who are experiencing the death of somebody significant to them. To be sure there are callous, burned out funeral directors – but honestly folks, not many. Nurses deal personally and professionally with people but I have not ever encountered a nurse who also is involved with the financial payment agreements between the patient and the hospital, nor have I ever seen a nurse really worried about who and how the towel they just used is going to get laundered and how much that laundry is going to cost and who pays the laundry bill. I also don’t know of an instance when the chief hospital administrator asks the orderlies on the floor how much brain surgery ought to cost, and then takes the advice.
When I was operating mortuary colleges and dealt with the future of this great profession I found I ended up evaluating student’s not based just on their grade point average or even their ability to pay the tuition (a position got which me into a peck of trouble with my higher ups and betters) I privately evaluated them on this one factor: did they possess that extraordinary capacity for emotional involvement that is needed in crisis management to help friends, and strangers alike when death entered the picture. Honestly I had students with a perfect 4.0 GPA who were the most selfish, self-centered, narcissistic human beings I had ever encountered, and I would not under any conditions had called them when I needed a funeral director. However I had students who had a 1.999999999 GPA, but they were blessings, they had the funeral director spark, and because of my belief in them I would end up giving them the 100th of a point, and I never regretted doing this although I was not popular with not just a few of the regulatory agencies that I was compelled to deal with. Yes, I was too easy – guilty as charged – however I have never once buried a copy of somebody’s GPA with them in their casket.
The capacity to build a trusting relationship with a stranger in say less than ten minutes which is usually the time a funeral director has to accomplish this simply means that people who become funeral professionals are different from the average person, and this difference should be celebrated, shouted from the roof tops, and never ever discouraged or minimized. It is a true blessing.
The human attitude that most funeral directors possess of universal compassion for the least of these is certainly an admirable trait and I want to suggest it is admirable in the extreme, and also a trait that drives the anti-funeral people nuts because they can’t control what is in a funeral directors heart and if funeral service is anything it is a matter of our hearts.
The anti-funeral people have attempted for years to create the profile that funeral directors are creepy, weird, and strange beings. Their efforts are always doomed simply because of our ability to help grieving families with not only their business arrangements but also in handling and understanding their grief and no matter what that ability is impressive to say the least. The anti-funeral people not only can’t do this, they don’t want to do this. Too much work, too much of a personal investment, much easier to sit at a computer and blast away than to jump into the deep end of the funeral directors swimming pool. I personally believe that hundreds of thousands of human being are living their lives more fully concerning overall mental health because somebody in funeral service had this blessing of talent, knowledge and skill in their very being. I also want to suggest that the world desperately needs more people like funeral directors that can combine kindness and compassion even in the light of some of the most distasteful circumstances that can happen in any community.
Let me further make my point. When was the last time you went to Wal-Mart or a café, or the dentist or Hospital and the clerk or waiter, or hygienists or physician referred to you as their “family?”
What a superb service idea and concept we in funeral service arrived at years ago – our customers are our “families”. Would you prefer it when you bought your shoes, groceries, car insurance or video games or got your teeth cleaned that the people serving you, or supposed to be serving you, would view you and treat you like you were part of their own family? There is a reason why people like funeral directors.
I believe that funeral service is probably the only career where total strangers to the funeral director can consistently expect such treatment. This is a blessing to our communities.
Another blessing which is seldom talked about in our great profession is the funeral home itself. In reality, no matter if the funeral director owns the building or pays the rent, in reality the funeral home belongs to the families that are being served.
To be sure the funeral home is only a substitute for the family’s real home, but in the end when somebody is dead it ends up being no less their own home, for a while. I believe this is one of the real blessings of being a funeral director. I remember a veteran funeral director telling me once that when I opened the front door I was in reality welcoming our client families into THEIR home. The funeral home is a place maintained for the families so that they feel not just comfortable, but that they may hopefully feel right at home. I have always liked the old home concept in funeral home buildings.
Every city I have ever visited I have noticed that overall the funeral homes are the most beautiful buildings in the town. Funeral homes, overall, are not only marvelous they are also homey. I personally always liked the old funeral homes with a front porch and the new ones that have a good old-fashioned front porch. Good stuff!
Ever taken a hard look at other places of business in your town? Go take a tour of your tax accountant’s place of abode, or take a look at the waiting area at your dentist’s office or your psychiatrists place. My psychiatrist’s office is a museum to the memory of Dr. Sigmund Freud, which might well have silently contributed to my own deteriorating mental health issues over the years, which I would be happy to share with the reader in another article. Oh, by the way – ever visited one of the anti-funeral people’s offices?
I have concluded that the beauty of most funeral homes is an unconscious way of buffering the perceived ugliness of death. I also believe this is the motivating reasons behind beautiful caskets, beautiful flowers, etc.
I am keenly aware today that strip mall funeral offices are present, and I believe that is ok. Sympathetic service is sympathetic service no matter where it is rendered. I once knew a funeral director who owned a funeral home and not one piece of furniture matched and he did an adequate and livable number of funerals. So yes the funeral home can be beautiful, but the real beauty of funeral service is what is in a funeral directors heart.
With this said I have to share that rarely if ever have I seen one building in any community where a financial contract for funeral goods and services can be signed one minute, and then there are emotional farewell kisses to the deceased in the same building within 48 hours. That is a blessing.
Blessing is a nice word, curse is not. However life is difficult, and how many times have you heard someone use the word curses? Even the Wicked Witch of the West yelled in frustration at the top of her evil lungs “Curses, curses, curses” when Dorothy and Toto escaped.
We all contend with curses, some real many imaginary. So are there curses in being a funeral director? Yes to be sure, there are, and I hope these observations don’t unduly offend anybody – it is just my perspective.
Is being compassionate a curse – Lord I hope not, but being too compassionate too often translates into being blinded to the harsh realities of life and that can translate into being a curse quickly
In my own career I found myself years ago being so honestly compassionate, so quick to sympathize with the families I served that I ended up being blinded to the stark and harsh and I mean harsh realities that I was operating a business. I understood grief, compassion, caring, and being concerned but trust me folks my banker did not understand most of those concepts, and in the end I had to file bankruptcy. Certainly I cannot blame my business failure totally on my compassion, but the truth be told I simply did not balance it out – too damn young I guess – youth is wasted on the young. If I only Knew 47 years ago what I know today………..
I over loaded my families with services, and free services to boot. In so doing I was giving away more of my profits than I ought to have. My competitor down the street really was in charge of my pricing and I got that inside information as to what my competitor was charging from some of the traveling salespersons. It was a pretty shaky system. Oh, by the way, my banker was not void of all emotions, he certainly experienced intense acute grief when he found out I had filed bankruptcy.
Todd was the freebee king, I was the Santa Claus of funeral service, free services everywhere. I added and added service upon service, but failed to add up my blasted ledger book until it was way too late. Those “little items of consideration” those “sundry items of service” that I was so proud of and which I hoped drove my competitor nuts really added up over time and translated into lost revenues and lost profits. My attitude that I was going the extra mile for “my” families was simply not really that appreciated by my families and was certainly an irritant to my banker. Poor chap, I drove him booty! I was just overdoing it.
The bottom line in all this was that my compassion and concern as a funeral director was a total blessing in dealing with families but it ended up being a curse in taking care of my business and my banker. I discovered way too late that the risk involved of the extra mile of service enhancements which I was so proud of was not in my performance of those extra services but in my utter failure to charge for those services. Things have definitely improved in this area, mostly due to a great form called the General Price List, but anybody reading these words and if my story rings a bell I offer this simple thought – balance compassion with business reality.
To this very day I find it remarkable and just plain funny that the anti-funeral people always accuse funeral directors of making huge profits, of making tons of cash, money everywhere when in reality the innate compassion of the typical funeral director really creates just the opposite – I really don’t know a funeral director who made their financial wealth in the funeral business alone.
My curse was this: I just did not get the hard truth of life that as owner of a funeral home that I had just not a high responsibility to my clients, but I had an equal responsibility in a fiduciary way to myself, my heirs, my employees and my community to earn a fair profit. I was mighty guilty of letting my warm feelings for my families cloud and disturb the way I did business, and I paid a heavy price.
Here is another curse – possibly not a curse, but a characteristic of most funeral directors that causes us pain and anguish. Most funeral directors are so sensitive to their families’ needs that funeral directors themselves become very delicate and mighty vulnerable. Because of this silent psychological influence funeral directors are highly sensitive to perceived slights (real or imagined), and we are mighty vulnerable to any type of criticism (real or imagined).
Let’s explore this issue of criticisms further. I believe firmly that the real tragedy, the tragic legacy of the work of funeral critic people like Jessica Mitford was not the implementation of the FTC Rule, (which they still take full credit – which is a lie) the real tragedy of the people whose entire lives seem to revolve around tearing funeral directors to pieces is the damage that their wicked, wicked criticisms has caused on the self-esteem, on the self-respect, on the basic self-image that funeral directors have of themselves. Most in funeral service will humbly deny this, but in working with thousands of funeral directors for over 40 years I know they find a good old fashioned ego massage very attractive. The media beats us up constantly, many ministers beat us up constantly, and certainly the disciples of Jessica still beat us up any chance they get, and over a period of almost a half a century of this insane tit for tat I believe the results have been just plain hurt feelings.
I know of criticisms that funeral directors have taken to heart so much that they take them to bed with them, mull on them, it keeps them awake at night, and God forbid the criticism comes from a client family and the psychological results of those criticisms and their effects on our psyche too often has a lasting effect, which is usually not good.
Another reason I believe that funeral directors are extremely vulnerable and sensitive to criticisms is that really beyond the media, the anti-funeral people, and some clergy, funeral directors are in fact rarely if ever criticized. This is absolutely true, the Gallup Polls have clearly indicated for years that funeral directors are highly esteemed in their communities. Let us recall that the infamous Federal Trade Commission hearings were originally launched because the FTC received 177 complaints from families in American when during the same time approximately 2 million funerals were conducted.
For my part I have tried to toughen up by trying to observe and hence understand better how much and how often other people in business and the community get criticized all the time. I personally criticize many people who perform services for me. I don’t like the old lady that works at the dry cleaners because after 10,000 years of dropping off my suits she still can’t get my name right, and when I brought this glaring lack of customer service to her attention she did not even look up at me. However our funeral service world is much different.
I believe firmly that most every funeral director works extremely hard. Being a funeral director is not an easy job. Most every funeral director I have dealt with is a terribly obsessive meticulous human being who watches every tiny, little, minute, issue concerning service to their families. I call it professional nitpicking. And nitpicking is a really good thing, but it also has a price, because when a funeral director knows they have crossed every “T” and dotted every “I” in preparing for a funeral and then a criticism arises most of us are devastated – in fact maybe too devastated if such a thing is possible in a world where the truth is you only have one chance to do it right. However our high level sensitivity in nitpicking about our funerals many times is not sadly realized nor totally understood by people who make constant natural criticisms about everything and everybody just as a way of life – those folks are out there.
I went to the dentist the other day. All my life I have detested dentists. I criticize them constantly and with unabashed boldness will tell the dentists, the dental staff that I place dentists and snakes on the same level – I am terrified of both – and I am never ever never ever going to change my immature attitude. I told this dentist/snake idea straight out to the lady who was going to clean my teeth and folks she could have cared less. She just told me to sit back and here is one for you – RELAX. I realized that this dental lady, this lady who was going to freak me out, cause me pain and anguish was in her world just going about her daily routine, and didn’t care much about my emotional health, or the lack thereof. In fact she actually seemed bored by the cleaning, while all the time my knuckles were white gripping the dentist’s chair and if I could I would have been yelling and cussing her out but she had me in an extremely vulnerable position with suction tubes, gauze, and strange sounding machines packed tight in my mouth. Here is a confession: If anybody would ever compare snakes to funeral directors I would be so offended that violence or at least a good old-fashioned tongue lashing would be in the works. The dentist lady just let my remark roll off her back.
When the dental torture was finally over I was emotionally and psychologically spent and I looked to her for some sympathy, some concern, and some compassion. I got nothing, absolutely nothing. She did not even ask me how I was doing. Nothing – next appointment. She was just going about her daily routine and she had her routine down to a science. She no doubt has had hundreds of dentist cowards like me, but obviously she has just gotten used to it. She was tough, not thin skinned. She had developed a callus. In fact I have observed that most everybody who deals with the general public has developed a callus to the never ending criticisms that they have to endure daily
Not so with funeral directors. I want to suggest that we get criticized by our families so rarely that when it happens it is nothing less than a shock to our entire system of psychology and mental health. BUT THANK GOD MOST FUNERAL DIRECTORS ARE NOT CALLUS. This issue of lacking a “callus” is truly a blessing, but also is truly a curse, but we need not imitate the dentist teeth cleaning lady. Funeral directors are not known for being emotionally callus, and the ones that are overly callus play right into the ancient stereotype of the cold-blooded, creepy merchant of sorrow – the undertaker with the tape measure. The typical funeral director thinks more with his heart than most people, and because of this vulnerability funeral directors take very personally any criticism even when we know from a purely rational point of view that the criticism is unwarranted and sometimes downright crazy. Yes! Some family members we all have served are unstable, and not just from grief. A callus here and there is a good thing.
I once served a family who were composed of a group of wisenheimers. This group had a wisecrack to say about everything, and I as usual took the wisecracks to heart – a big mistake. When the family came in to see the remains and upon looking at the deceased one of the brothers looked at me and said, “Are we in the right room, I mean who is this in this box?” I damned near fainted. I went upstairs and almost cried. I took the comment to heart, it destroyed my week, and even to this day 40 years later I still get emotional about the incident, but today the emotion is not sympathy it is pure disgust at the jerk that made that comment. Truth is the dead person looked marvelous – I had done a good job.
Later, after the funeral was over, the wise guy came up and told me he was just “picking” at me. I was not amused and I could have popped him right upside the head.
Here is the curse: I was thinking more with my heart than with my brains and the consequence was that I got all upset, and I mean really upset. I even considered discounting the entire funeral to correct my deficiencies as I saw them. I mean folks I believed the wise guy, I took him very seriously.
I bet I made 100 phone calls in a two days period asking my friends and trusted associates what I should do. Every one of them, even the President of the funeral directors association assured me the guy was probably a crank; however I suspected that even the people I was talking to for comfort and understanding would have reacted the same way as I was.
The wise guy ended up thinking my misery was humorous; he had really gotten one over on the undertaker. Ha, ha! Looking back I can see that I was a raw nerve simply because I had never had to cope with a family making such a hurtful and glaring criticism. Yes, to be sure there were families that nit-picked on this and that, but I was always able to correct the situation. Because of my sensitivities and hence vulnerabilities I was unable to think rationally about the unwarranted criticism I had received. I needed, as strange as this sounds, to develop a small callus to such events, which I have certainly done over the years, but I had to grow up concerning the inevitable issue of criticisms, because the truth was more unkind remarks were in my future – it was a matter of professionally growing up.
THE CURSE OF CURSES – THE DREADED “LOST CALL”
The lost call has to be the most treacherous form of psychological trauma that a sensitive funeral director can endure. This is all the more magnified in small town American where everybody knows everything, and people actual seem to keep count as to what families go to which funeral home.
Nothing derailed my psychological mental health more than the glaring knowledge that a family had rejected me and called the other funeral home in town, and the slap in the face was even more disastrous when I knew bloody well that we had served that family in the past. Not fun, and who do you and I talk to about the lost call? Not many people are going to warm up to a conversation where the undertaker is pitching a fit about losing a call – not many, and if you do share the frustration and rejection who do you trust?
I remember very well taking this one particular elderly lady, who seemed to be at deaths door weekly, in our ambulance from the nursing home to the hospital. According to her family every ambulance trip we made would certainly assuredly be the last. This cycle of being at death’s door went on for two years. Then the old lady would suddenly recover from her near death experience and the family would call me to haul her back to the nursing home. This cycle went on and on for several years, and true to my sensitive nature of being helpful to others I never once billed the family for all the ambulance trips. Not one dime exchanged hands between the old ladies family and the funeral home, but I rationalized that if I was really nice to them like furnishing free transportation when the elderly lady died I was certain to get the call. And besides I was only charging $25.00 for an ambulance call. I figured I could make a lot of lost $25.00 ambulance fees with the expectation of receiving several thousand dollars to do the funeral or so I thought.
One fateful afternoon, the day after I had taken this old lady to the hospital for the 183rd time the newspaper arrived, and the elderly lady had died and the family had called the other funeral home in town to do her funeral. I was stunned, my eyes welled up, I was so horribly hurt, I felt betrayed, and I felt anger. That family might as well have put a slug in my brain and heart. Compounding this was the fact I was totally confused and mystified as to what I had done to create this lost call catastrophe.
The truth is I wasn’t bothered in the least about losing the funeral sale (money? Who cares about money?) What I was at my wits end about was because I personally had lost the family. The consequences of my private hell were not pleasant, and particularly for people who were easy targets behind closed doors, like my family. Behind closed doors they and my dog caught all my repressed anger and frustration and I am ashamed to admit such behavior, but I had basically lost my mind, and to make matters worse when I went down town people would stop me and say, like Job’s comforters in the Bible “We sure thought you would have buried so and so.” Or “Didn’t you take her to the hospital a dozen times, why did they call the XYZ funeral home?” I wanted to shout at the top of my lungs to those people but did not of course was: “Take her!!!!! Take her!!!!! Yes a hundred dozen times I took her hell I hauled that old lady one hundred times, back and forth, in the middle of the night, in rain and sleet and for what? Heartaches that’s what heartaches nothing but heartaches!” Of course I smiled the professional funeral directors smile, made some small meaningless talk while all the time repressing furor, and suppressing my anger and went home and shut the door and poured a drink and went nuts all over again.
Six weeks after my lost ambulance trip client’s funeral was conducted by the other funeral home I ran into the deceased woman’s son on Main Street. He smiled broadly at me and walked right over to me and said, “Gosh almighty Todd we want to thank you for how nice and kind you were to Mother during the last couple of years, we all appreciate you so very much, you were so excellent on the ambulance.” I couldn’t take it any longer, I felt a little flame of confrontation growing in my brain and it got bigger and bigger until I was ready to burst, so I swallowed hard and gently asked, “Did we do anything to offend you or your family or mom on the ambulance calls, I just need to know because you used the other funeral home for her services?” I could not believe I even asked the question because I was taught to suck it in, forget about the lost call, and move one – great advice coming from funeral directors who actually behaved worse than I was when THEY lost a call. I learned the behavior from them!
The son looked at me and put his hand on my shoulder and said “Heaven’s no, Todd you were great, really mother really liked you.” I could feel my heart hit the pavement. Then the son said, “You know my wife and I talked about this at some length and being in a small town we decided that we really needed to be fair and since we had given you all of the ambulance business, we decided we would give the funeral to XYZ.” I just stood there looking like I had the IQ of a rabbit. I later learned that some “brain” in our little town had convinced this family that Social Security was paying me directly for all the ambulance trips and that they didn’t have a thing to worry about.
I did not, for once, do anything wrong, but I suffered the tortures of the condemned and damned over this lost call – it was a curse. In this families mind they innocently had a perfectly legitimate reason for using the other funeral home, made sense to them even if the fact was based on hearsay. Looking back I think I ought to have sent some bills to them.
Interesting turn of events huh? I suffered, and made everybody else miserable over basically nothing. Talk about a disconnect! I thought I had been betrayed, while the family thought they were being fair and equitable. My conscious was driving me crazy while the family’s conscious was clear as a bell.
It seems clear that funeral directors live in a world where sensitivity is a blessing and a curse; it hurts in a big way when families do not appreciate, or appear not to appreciate our innate gift of being sensitive.
I had to toughen up. I had to get thicker skin a little callus if you will. I had to learn a hard lesson that no matter what I can’t be perfect all the time and I can’t be all things to all people. Mistakes, miscommunications are just an inevitable part of life, no matter what Zig Ziegler says.
One way I toughen up was to get OUT of the ambulance service in 1982.
With all this said here is another lesson I learned in my life. If mistakes are going to be made, if errors are going to happen, funeral directors need to error and make mistakes on the side of kindness, sensitivity and compassion rather than mistakes and errors on the side the selfishness, aloofness, and callousness. We need to toughen up, form a callus here and there, but not to the glaring extent that other professions have done. If funeral directors compromise sensitivity we are truly headed down a slippery slope.
THE IMPOSSIBLE CURSE
I have spent most of my professional career trying to explain the values and benefits of the funeral experience to anyone who would listen. I have tried to contribute by writing, speaking, teaching and helping people embrace the subject of death and funerals.
Throughout the years I have known that the basic subject that funeral directors are asked to cope with, deal with, help with, is in the end an impossible subject to be assigned to tackle, and there are many anti-funeral people who take full advantage by demanding from the side lines that funeral directors tackle the impossible, and then jump all over us when the impossible task cannot be fulfilled, and I am not talking about the task of doing and giving funeral services, no one does that better than funeral directors, I am talking about the impossible subject of human death.
I have concluded that funeral directors, particularly in this rampant out of control death denial and death anxiety age we live in have to face up almost constantly to the obvious fact that our job is different than any job on earth. Funeral directors are in the unique position of offering a type of service that may well be needed, but is rarely wanted. It is a sticky wicket.
The Pollyanna’s of the world (which I have little use for) have proclaimed to me in a futile effort to instruct me in a better way of thinking and hence make my observations and experiences more contemporary that, according to them “No one wants to have to call a doctor, or a lawyer, either because Todd that is most times not a good situation.” I want to throw up when I am tossed that terribly naïve and nay offensive position. I have been in medical situations where I damned well wanted to call a doctor, and would do anything he or she told me to do – and money was no object. I have found myself in great need of a lawyer when there has been deep private trouble, and was damned glad to get and pay for the lawyer’s advice and counsel. But even I don’t want to speculate too much what it would mean in my private life to need to call a funeral director. This is heavy stuff to be sure, and no matter how people rationalize the subject there is little positive to the subject of death, it basically terrifies people.
Funeral directors are special people no question about it, for few if any professions can deal with a subject like death, and deal with that subject exclusively and in doing so sustain the public’s anxieties about the subject, their avoidance of the subject and at times their glaring ignorance of the subject and then when a death occurs here present in our profession are people who can help guide the survivors, help counsel them, walk with them, and direct them to and discover in the end making wise and helpful decisions.
However none of what I just said changes the core fact that no one wants to have to call the funeral director. It is a cardinal strength of funeral service that our members not only understand this situation, but are respectful and yes sensitive to this reality. The death rate is 100%, but no one outside an insane asylum would be foolish enough to tout that fact in today’s world to Archie and Edith Bunker, even clergy squirm and Hospice workers giggled and squirm in their seats when I share this unarguable and inevitable statistic.
Here is an example: I know firsthand of zoning commissions that will welcome the zoning application of a gas station in a neighborhood that will be opened twenty-four hours with one thousand neon lights glaring into people’s bedrooms throughout the night, but the same zoning commission will flatly turn down the zoning application for a new funeral home to be built in the same neighborhood Public meetings after public meetings will be held on the funeral home zoning issue and parent after parent will with self-righteous indignation prophesize that if a funeral home is built in their neighborhood the little children living in proximity will end up being another “Sybil” having to deal with sixteen personalities because they saw a funeral coach drive by while they were riding the tricycles.
I have seen all my life businesses trying to create increased demand for their services and products, and the results have been often times highly successful – remember the phrase GOT MILK? Milk drinking soared. Of course most everybody likes milk. Even the sainted Hospice organizations today are trying in a big way to create increased demand for dying people now there is a change in attitude for you to ponder – marketing for dying people and Hospice marketers are some of the most well trained promo people I have ever encountered.
However no matter what funeral directors cannot create an increased demand for our services, no never. The funeral profession and its members are unique and special. All professions claim this, but I can think of very few who really can prove it like we can.
THE SUBJECT OF DEATH – THE KING OF TERROR (Blessing or Curse? You decide)
Every funeral director I know I believe ought to have a Ph.D. in experiential expertise concerning the blunt, harsh, raw date realities of death. However people I have discovered have learned the lessons of a basic primal fear of death – we are not born with this, it is learned, but for most it is a lesson well learned. The fear of death can be a lifesaver because it often times stops people from doing stupid things like jumping off a mountain or play chicken in an automobile or experimenting with drugs. For most people I would like to suggest the fear of death really surpasses all other human fears. In fact most every religion has at its very core their central belief system is an attempt to answer this ancient eternally haunting question “What happens to me after I am dead?” Some of the most powerful and influential religious movement on the earth have emerged basically because they came up with an answer to that glaring question.
The reason that funeral directors and the subject of death are so important is that in the end every human beings relationship with death is so important, and funeral directors usually emerge as the one primary single living symbol of death in any community. This is where all the undertaker jokes emerge from – not from humor, but from primal fear.
I have concluded that the fear of death is not just a primal fear, it is THEE primal fear.
To be sure death can be viewed as a welcomed visitor in the sick room, but even that attitude is much more of a psychological grief coping mechanism, and certainly a good one, rather than a statement that one actually welcomes death, and particularly their own death.
I have the thought that death is, for many, is the ultimate bad thing, and this ultimately bad thing attitude of people spills over and is associated with funeral service more than with any other career or profession on the face of the earth – the clergy don’t come close, and neither does Hospice or hospitals for people today actually view Hospice as someplace to get physically well, and most have always viewed the hospital that way. Remember most hospitals whisk death people off to the morgue in camouflaged laundry hampers. Telling is it not?
The association between funeral directors, and what we symbolize – death, and people’s ultimate fear of death will never be broken, it never has been and never will, which fact makes the work of the funeral director a difficult calling to be sure.
I have concluded that one of the reasons that funeral directors have always been praised and lauded in the public’s Gallup Polls is because in the association between the primal fear of death, and deaths 100% predictability common ordinary people actually marvel that there are people out there, you and I, funeral directors, who can foster guidance and positive relationship building when many others turn tail and run.
The anti-funeral people are quick to indict us for being weird, strange, and as one famous funeral critic told me directly to my face “funeral service is in unbelievable bad taste” but the common ordinary people find support, understanding, sensitivity, and compassion when they walk across the threshold of the funeral home, which in and of itself is a powerful symbol for crossing the threshold crossing metaphorically from the world of living to the world of the dead. Powerful stuff!
POSSIBLY THE MOST HURTFUL CURSE OF BEING A FUNERAL DIRECTOR?
Make no mistake the epidemic of death anxieties and death denials have taken a monumental toll on the psychological world of contemporary funeral service. Popular culture invariable shows the funeral director (not my personal good friend the local funeral director) but some other unidentified funeral director in a poor light. I have written on this subject in the past, but I need to repeat that the image in popular culture of the undertaker with wringing hands, the vulture like appearance, and a person who is creepy, morbid and ghoulish is a curse that we contend with and have contended with forever. Screenwriters in Hollywood almost universally depend on this untrue image, and even the widely popular television program “Six Feet Under” presented the funeral directors as horribly dysfunctional people.
In real life many people literally cringe at the mention of funerals and funeral homes and funeral directors as though by their cringing death would become an unnatural part of the reality of having been born and living life, and that death by their cringing can somehow be avoided and one easy way to do it is to avoid thinking about funerals, funeral homes and funeral directors. We have all experienced this, have we not? Yes we have all seen this and experienced this and our reactions many times is one more of pity for the cringing person than of personal embarrassment or regret. People totally unaware and yes even blissfully unaware that they are well on the road to their own death by the simply ticking of the clock seem just to not understand. That is truly a pity.
To know, however, that such immature people, such naïve people, such thoughtless people and such unsophisticated people are out there does not change the consequences for the funeral director. Even to know that these pitiful people represent a possible small portion of the population does not make me as a funeral director, the undeserving victim of their mindless prejudice feel much better.
As a funeral professional I do not want anyone to think of me as being a bad guy or gal – not in any way, and not by anyone. Funeral directors are not bad people, we know it, everybody who knows us personally knows it, but still it is no fun for funeral directors to know that even a few people in our universe automatically associate us with something unpleasant and therefore conclude that we as human beings are also somehow unpleasant.
I just don’t know many other professions like funeral service, where in some minds the automatic reaction evokes a feeling of creepiness and in my opinion at root even a feeling of revulsion.
Probably the closest profession akin to funeral service in a community is the Coroner’s Office. Do people look at the County Coroner as creepy? No they do not. Even the coroner is different from us, because in our popular culture the coroner has now been elevated by the media to the position of a super crime fighter, a modern day Sherlock Holmes. It started with “Quincy” and today its legacy is “CSI”, “Autopsy”, “Snapped”, “48 Hours” and the like. Coroners today are invariably portrayed as valued allies with law enforcement officials in crime-fighting, valiant scientists helping to right a criminal wrong, to identify the criminal with tiny microscopic specks of evidence helping to right a grievous wrong and in a heroic manner identify the criminal and hence free the innocent suspect. I have found it very predictable that no television program which revolves around the dramatic, heroic and yes sexy exploits of the County Coroner ever takes the time or the opportunity to reference the fact that hundreds of County Coroner’s across this country are licensed funeral directors and embalmers.
It appears safe to conclude that funeral directors rank alone among the professions in suffering the unjust opprobrium of a certain irreducible portion of the general population because of our embryonic association with people’s ultimate dread, the king of terrors – death, and my friends I personally think it is unlikely that this reality of being a funeral director will ever change. We deal with this tension, this curse daily and do an excellent job in doing so.
However in closing these thoughts let us take faith in the blessings of being a funeral director. No matter what, this is a wonderful career and a great profession. We all have our cross to bear – no one is understood and appreciated by everybody all the time. I don’t think we can do much about changing the world’s attitudes towards their primal fear of death, but we can as funeral directors not walk straight into predictably lost credibility and dignity the way Richard Nixon did in 1973 when he proclaimed, “I am not a crook.” A funeral director would certainly suffer a similar reaction by even bothering to say that he or she is not creepy. We have to play to the winners, and take the high road. Remember people like funeral directors, well not everyone, but in my mind the winners do.
I had a dream some years ago which I thought was somewhat ironic about some people’s automatic reaction to funeral directors as somehow being bad people, creepy people, weird people. In my dream I was already in heaven (yes I made it friends) and I saw people who had while on earth laughed at funeral directors and accused them of all sorts of ills and chills and of being in “unbelievably bad taste”, and of being composed of really odd and strange people. But now interestingly in my dream, in heaven the slights, and insults, the cruel remarks were being righted. I stood in heaven and saw one funeral directors after another being fitted with their wings and the anti-funeral director group, the people who made all the jokes these souls who on earth did not like us or funerals one by one came up to the newly winged funeral directors to apologize for how terribly they had misjudged us while on earth, and here is the final blessing; every funeral director graciously forgave them, one by one.
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