Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a funeral director? The media portrays the death care industry in a way that I disagree with. Whether it is cartoons of coffins and grim reapers, Halloween or scary movies, the majority of it is unrealistic. In fact, I find being a funeral director is completely opposite to mass media representation. If I had to sum up the work I do in one word, it would unequivocally be sacred.
I think it is safe to say that a typical day for me is probably a very untypical day for most. Below I will be pulling back the curtain and unveiling what a funeral director really does and how we cope with the emotions that come from this particular line of work.
A Not So Normal Day
My day starts out with calling a grieving mother to let her know that her child is in our care. I set an appointment with her for later that day so that we can discuss and plan the details of her son’s service.
Together we sit for approximately two hours as we discuss every element necessary to pay tribute to him. I help her plan every detail of the service from the flowers to the guest book to the poem on the memorial folder. Each decision is important because it represents a unique part of his life. Then comes the time to choose the casket. What mother wants to choose their child’s casket? I don’t want to show them to you and you don’t want to see them. But together we sit and we find one that is his favorite color. You don’t want to do it but you know you must and it is my job to help you through the process.
I often wake up in the middle of the night the day before a service, worried I have forgotten something. I sit there going over in my mind each part of the service reassuring myself that I ordered the flowers, that the casket arrived, and that I didn’t miss a thing. This is going to be one of the hardest days of your life and I am here to make absolutely certain that I ease the burden by understanding and handling every aspect for you not to make it more difficult by missing an important detail. However, the reality is that I am human and I do make mistakes.
The day of the funeral is here. I arrive at the funeral home several hours early in order to make sure all the preparations for your loved one’s service are exactly to your specifications. Sometimes I like to think of myself as an event planner and I am, but for a very solemn and honorable event. Everything is set up and I await your arrival. I walk with you to see your loved one for the first time since they took their last breath. This moment is sacred to me and I hold it in high regard. I have to be able to gauge how many steps to walk with you without uttering a word. Is this something you need to do on your own or do you need a hand to hold? Either way, I am always there either right beside you or hidden in the distance ready to reach a hand at any given moment. I sit quietly in the back row at the service to make sure each part of the ceremony flows precisely as we discussed. The service concludes and I walk to the casket with you one more time, but this time to say goodbye. Sometimes you are ready and this intimate moment is solemn but sweet. A lot of times, though, you aren’t and this moment is excruciating for you. I do my best to hold back the tears because this isn’t about me. However, sometimes I simply can’t. I am sorry but it hurts to see you in so much pain. I understand, though, that this is part of your grieving process and recognize those tears are necessary.
I wish you didn’t have to be the person sitting in the front row of the chapel but I will always be there in the back row when you need me. In fact, this is where I sit every single day.
How do I do this job?
I am also a listening ear and a shoulder to cry on. I try my best to get to know your whole world in the short time we have together. I take on a little bit of your grief with every family I meet. I know I can’t take your pain away but I also know that is part of the grieving process. I sit with you and just listen because that is exactly what you need. You need to talk about your son, daughter, spouse or parent. You worry your friends are tired of hearing the same stories or putting the burden of your grief on them. Sometimes it is much easier to grieve the way you really need to with a stranger. I am honored to be that person for you and I will not stop being that person.
I am constantly asked, “How do you do this job? How do you deal with so much sadness every day? Who takes care of you?” I think every funeral director will have a different answer to these questions. We all have our ways of coping. Something I think we would all agree on is that your grief and your pain are so much greater than the sadness we may feel and it is truly an honor to be the person to guide you through the most painful days of your life. The answer is that, to most of us, this isn’t a job…it is a passion. Knowing we may have lifted even a small portion of your burden and our help set you on a positive course in your grief journey is the reason we do it.
I have learned many valuable lessons in my career as a funeral director. First, the grieving process is natural and necessary for people. Trying to deny or avoid grief only leads to greater pain and as a funeral director, I can help you begin that journey through my knowledge and experience. However, the one lesson I value most is this: I treasure every single day that I am given because life is a gift. I do my best to treasure the people in my life because they, too, are a gift and their presence in my life is not guaranteed. We never know when our time will come or when we will have to sit in the front row of that chapel. I can’t express enough how important it is to cherish all of life’s little moments and tell the people in our lives how much we love them. You never know when it will be your last chance.
Author Jessica Harston, Funeral Director: FD-4085