Part I: Second Thoughts
It was 7:55 a.m. and I recall sitting in my car, which was parked out in front of the funeral home. My stomach was feeling a little queasy and I found myself wondering if this was such a great idea after all. You see, I like to know first-hand what my clients do, and some of my clients happen to be in the funeral industry. Can you see where I’m headed here?
But wait, there’s more to this story. I was curious. I was curious to know what kind of person would choose this profession and why. I was curious to know what a typical day would look like at a funeral home or if there was such a thing given the clientele. And truthfully, I was curious to know what it would be like to be around dead bodies all day.
That sounded morbid, didn’t it?
Actually, let me be more specific. I was curious to know if my views on life would change after spending a day helping out at a funeral home…a day which included working with both the living and the dead.
So that’s why I was there. I wanted to experience the experience and was granted permission by the owner/CEO. In fact, he was so appreciative that I wanted to learn more about his industry that he promised to expose me to as much as he could on the day I was scheduled to be there.
And that’s also why I didn’t want to get out of the car. That day had come and I was afraid of what I had gotten myself into.
Just then a car pulled into the spot next to me. It was Harold Banes, the operations manager; the same man I was scheduled to meet with at 8 a.m.
He pointed toward the front door. “Come on in, Greg,” he said smiling. “We’ve got a full day planned for you.”
I jumped out of my car and ran up to greet him, heart pounding a mile a minute.
“Hey Harold. I’m looking forward to today,” I mumbled, lying through my teeth. “But go easy on me,” I pleaded. “Remember, I’m a rookie.”
“This is your first time?” he asked, looking rather surprised.
“Afraid so,” I replied.
“Not to worry,” he said. “I think you’re going to get a real good sense of what goes on here on a typical day.”
We walked through the lobby and down a set of stairs. After two quick lefts, we moved into what’s called the preparation room; a specially designed room equipped for preparing the deceased for final disposition. We headed over to one side and sat down at a desk with chairs. The room was very cold with bright lights shining down on us from above.
I glanced around and suddenly my body froze as the details of the rest of the room came into focus. Along the walls were specially designed shelves reserved for the bodies of the deceased who were scheduled for viewings and needed some final touch up. I’ll spare you the details but let’s just say it was going to be a very busy morning for the make-up artist.
“Are you okay?” asked Harold, seeing the shock on my face.
“I’m fine,” I replied, knowing that I wasn’t. “I just didn’t expect to see all of this quite yet.”
He nodded. “It is hard to get used to.” He looked around and paused. “These aren’t just corpses to us. Each body represents a life…a life with incredible stories and experiences. It’s our job in this room to prepare these bodies for viewing so that their loved-ones see them at their best and in a state of peace. If we can do that, we’ve done our job.”
Goosebumps rolled up and down my arms. ““You really are passionate about this,” I said, feeling very impressed.
“This isn’t a job to me,” he said, “this is a calling. I’m here because I want to help people at one of the most difficult times in their lives. Ask around,” he said, “you won’t find anyone whose here because of the paycheck.”
“But doesn’t it get depressing being around so much death?” I asked.
He shook his head. “We serve the families, Greg, and they are very much alive.”
As Harold continued to talk, I found my attention drifting over to the other side of the room where four bodies, covered with sheets from the neck on down, lied peacefully. I remember feeling an overwhelming sadness as I tried to imagine the lives they each must have lived. And yet at the same time I felt honored to be with them during this final phase of preparation. I wanted to reassure them that they were each being treated with the utmost respect and dignity at the end of their lives and that they didn’t need to worry. They were in good hands. They were in Harold’s hands.
“Greg, I’ll ask Leslie to show you the embalming room when you two return from the hospital”
“The hospital?” I asked.
Leslie walked in as Harold rose. “Greg, meet Leslie. She is studying to be a funeral director and has been with us for five years now.”
Leslie was a very beautiful and confident woman with a strong grip to her handshake. “Ready?” she asked.
“I think,” I said.
“Greg, you and Leslie are going over to Children’s Hospital for a pick-up.”
I looked over at Leslie and then Harold. “Wow, just as I thought I had been through the worst…”
Leslie shook her head. “Honey, the day has barely begun.”
Part II: Children’s Hospital
“Why the unmarked white van?” I asked as we headed out to Children’s Hospital.
Leslie paused to think for a second. “It’s unassuming. It doesn’t draw attention to itself or to what we are doing and it makes it easy to slide in and slide out without much fanfare, so to speak.”
“That makes sense,” I said, before changing the subject. “Tell me something, does what we are about to do impact you in any way?”
“Of course it does,” she said, “especially when it comes to children.”
“How do you cope with it?”
“I focus on being professional and doing a quality job; that means being there for the families and helping them cope with their loss. But inside,” as she pointed to her heart, “I’m feeling their pain…how could I not! “
“So what is it we are about to do?” I asked.
“We are picking up a premature baby who died from complications last night.”
A sudden heaviness engulfed my body as we pulled into a reserved spot in the back of the hospital.
Leslie had her game face on now. “Let’s go.”
I followed her as we walked through the back entrance, across two corridors, and down a set of stairs; clearly she had been here before. Waiting for us, as we walked down into the next room, were a couple of nurses in matching blue uniforms with sad expressions on their faces. One had some type of insulated container in her hands and handed it over to me.
My eye doubled in size as I looked over at Leslie for rescue.
She nodded for me to take the container.
I took it and held it tight, like I wanted to protect it...like I was holding a baby!
As we drove back towards the funeral home, with the container safely secured and sitting comfortably on my lap, my thoughts kept drifting to the parents of this infant and the devastation they must be feeling right now. It made me sad on one hand and honored on the other hand—honored to be a part of this life-to-death transition for this baby…this person…this soul.
I looked over at Leslie, “I’m beginning to see why this is no ordinary job; why it takes a special person to do this kind of work.”
She smiled. “It’s why I do it.”
“Say more about that?” I asked.
“I feel like I’m doing something that matters. Everybody will experience the loss of a loved-one at some point in his or her life, right?”
“Think about it,” she said. “I’m in a professions that touches everyone. How many people can say that?”
“Not many,” I retorted, as we exited the highway and turned towards the funeral home.
“Whenever I think I have it bad,” she continued, “I just have to think about some of these families and what they are going through. Things quickly get put back into perspective, if you know what I mean.”
Moments later we pulled into an area behind the main building that I hadn’t seen before.
“What now?” I asked.
“We are going to put the baby’s remains into the cooler for now.”
“Wait, the cooler? Is it what I think it is?” I said.
She nodded. “Brace yourself.” And just to make sure I knew she was serious, she added, “This might be hard to see,” as she pushed opened the heavy door.
Part III: “That could have been my child!”
It’s not much different from your dentist saying to you, “This is going to sting a little,” as he pushes the needle into your gums. All you can do is grip the chair a little harder and brace yourself for the inevitable…Ouch!!!
The drop in temperature was the first thing I noticed as I slowly walked into the cooler. Leslie was a few steps ahead of me and placed the container with the deceased baby on a nearby table. I stopped near the door, not knowing if I was supposed to follow before looking around the cooler. My mouth dropped.
“Are you okay?” she asked, looking concerned.
“I’m not sure,” I said, feeling numb for about the third time that day.
She nodded to signal she understood. “This is where we bring the bodies when we first get them. As you can see, they’ve arrived just the way they were when they passed on.“
“I can see that,” I said, unable to take my eyes off of the middle-aged women with a brightly colored dress lying closest to us. “How did she die?”
Leslie shared what she knew about the woman and a few of the others in the room.
I felt so sad as I looked around, knowing full well that each body represented a person who was alive within the last 24-hours. Talk about an eerie feeling. Its one thing to see a deceased body after it’s been embalmed, cleaned up, and dressed for presentation; but an entirely different thing to see a deceased body still in the throes of death. It was all too real—each body revealing the last few seconds of their life just before they died.
Seconds later another voice shot out from the doorway, causing me to jump about six feet in the air.
“There you are,” said Jason, looking right at me. He had walked in while we were talking. “I was asked to show you the embalming room and the crematory. I’m Jason.”
I look over at Leslie as if I needed some kind of closure from our time together.
She smiled and walked me over to meet Jason. “Jason meet Greg…Greg meet Jason.” And then she asked, “So has this been an eye-opener?”
“To say the least,” I replied, and shook hands with Jason.
As Leslie walked out she shouted back, “I’ll catch you later this afternoon. You and I will be setting up a viewing in Lakewood. See you then.”
I glanced over at Jason, “A viewing?”
He nodded. “But that’s later. Right now we’re headed for the embalming room and the crematory. After that you are on your own for lunch and I believe…” as he paused to look at a schedule in his hand, “you’ll be working a memorial ceremony after lunch. How does that sound?”
“Sure thing,” I said, trying to appear upbeat while still feeling numb.
Once inside the funeral home we headed back downstairs and passed through the preparation room (where my day started out) to the embalming room. The room itself looked like a medical laboratory with four tables evenly spread out. Two of the tables were occupied, one with a teenage boy who was killed the night before in a car accident. He was tall, thin, and had long flowing hair. The kind of guy who would stand out in a crowd and probably very popular with the ladies.
I shook my head in disappointment. “It’s a shame.”
Jason agreed. “I have a son his age. Probably knows him in fact.”
“Do you ever get used to this?” I asked.
“Yes and no. I get used to the work…the task at hand. For me it’s like a craft. But the stories are always different, and some touch me on a very deep level. Take this guy for example,” as he pointed to teenager. “He was the driver with three friends in one of those old Volkswagen cars going down I-25 when an out of control car coming from the other direction smashed into them. It wasn’t even his fault and now he’s gone and his buddies are in critical condition in the hospital.” He shook his head. “That could have been my son.”
“I can’t even imagine,” I said.
Jason quickly shifted the conversation to explain what happens in the embalming procedure. “What we are doing right now,” as he pointed to the teenager, “is filling the arteries, veins, and body cavities with antiseptic and preservatives to essentially delay the decaying process.”
“Got it!” I said, ready to move on.
He laughed. “A little too much before lunch?” he joked.
I smiled. “You really have to have a sense of humor to be in this industry, don’t you?”
“Definitely,” he said. “Imagine how difficult it would be if you didn’t. People work hard and play hard in this industry. You have to be able to balance out the extremes. When we go to industry conferences, we always have a great time with our peers. It’s a blast.”
“I know that,” I said. “I’ve seen you guys. It’s the complete opposite of the stereotype that people have.”
“Yeah, that’s true. What you have to realize is that it’s all about interpersonal skills in our industry…the ability to connect with families at their most vulnerable time in their life.” He paused before concluding, “Unlike the stereotype, we do have a wide range of emotions and we have to let those out too, just like everybody else.”
The crematory was our last stop before walking outside. Since there wasn’t any morning cremation scheduled, I was spared the first-hand experience of this procedure, and grateful for it. Although lunch didn’t sound all that great to me, I definitely needed to take a break and experience the hustle and bustle of normal life. I headed out for McDonald’s!
And then the oddest thing happened to me…
Part IV: I See Dead People
I was seeing dead people. That’s right, dead people. I know; sounds like I’ve lost my mind, right? Here I was, standing in line at McDonald’s (the only restaurant in walking distance), surrounded by your typical McDonald’s suburbia crowd…all very much alive, I might add…and instead of seeing life I was seeing death.
It was the oddest thing. Instead of seeing a vibrant, middle-aged woman who was in line in front of me…I was seeing a pale and lifeless woman, lying in waiting. Instead of seeing the smiling teenage girl with rosy cheeks asking for my order…I was seeing a flush and colorless corpse, clearly having passed way before her time.
“Can I have your order?”
“What?” I said, trying to get the disturbing images out of my mind. “Do you have anything that’s alive?”
“Excuse me?” she said, not sure what boat I had just gotten off of.
I smiled and dropped the sarcasm knowing full well that trying to explain myself at this point would only freak her out.
How can they do this, day-in and day-out? I thought to myself as I sat down to eat my cheeseburger and small fries. The emotional numbness from earlier had become heavier now as I glanced around the restaurant at all the people. I must have looked like a mad scientist as I became more and more interested in watching the patrons as if they were all participating in some kind of controlled experiment.
What was so interesting, you ask?
I was seeing things that I’ve never really noticed before…like what an eye looks like when it blinks. I was noticing how people’s lips moved in perfect synchronization with their voices. I was noticing two guys laughing in line and how their faces seemed to light up at the exact same moment. Sounds were starting to come back…color was returning to the people’s faces. All of a sudden I got a surge of energy. My heart started pounding faster.
That’s it! I thought, as my mind did a complete 360. This experience isn’t about death at all. It’s about life. Can you see it? By experiencing death all morning, I was developing a greater appreciation for life. But wait…not just life…but how we live our lives. After all, a corpse is a corpse in the funeral home…regardless whether one was a multimillionaire, a beauty queen, or a homeless person. The playing field becomes amazingly even once we are wheeled into the preparation room. We really do all look alike. But what’s not alike is what we do with our lives while we are living.
Chills rode up and down my spine as I headed back to the funeral home. Granted the insight I just shared seems rather obvious, but it came to me with a much greater force that engulfed my whole being! Appreciate life was no long a cliché to me; it really meant something.
With a bounce in my step, I walked into the lobby of the funeral home looking for Robert, one of the funeral directors who I was assigned to next. Just then I heard, “Greg, over here.”
Robert, who I had met before, was waiving me over to what looked like a line-up. David, the owner and CEO, was standing in front of Robert and two other gentlemen inspecting their attire. You see, David is all about excellence and has been that way as long as I’ve known him. Every one of his employees is friendly, helpful, attentive, and always dressed immaculately.
As we grouped up, Robert took over and introduced me to the team and gave a little background on the memorial service we all were about to work together. I remember how honored I felt at that moment to be considered a member of this team…even if just for the duration of the service.
“What would you like me to do?” I asked, as we all headed towards the chapel on the west side of the building.
Robert handed me a stack of pamphlets for the service. “Why don’t you start by handing these out to all the guests at the front entrance.”
I nodded, feeling the adrenaline in my body. It was like I was about to deliver a speech and was all pumped up…that is…until I saw two men having to physically support a woman who was crying so hard that she couldn’t stand up by herself, just outside the front entrance.
A reality check crashed down on me faster than a tornado ripping through Iowa. For a brief moment there I was focused on myself…and lost touch with why I was there and whom I was serving.
As the chapel quickly filled to capacity, we were asked to close the doors for the start of the service. I must tell you, I have been to many funerals over the years, but never before had I witnesses so much crying and wailing amongst a crowd as there was in that chapel. Whoever this man was that had passed, I thought, he sure had touched a lot of people on a very deep level.
The service was well orchestrated by Robert. That I expected. But what I didn’t expect was to be emotionally touched by the service itself, the family and friends, and the great love in the room for this incredible man that had passed. I had so many tears flowing during the eulogies that I had to look away from the people in order to maintain my professionalism.
By the end of the service I had felt like I had lost someone near and dear to me. “Robert,” I said, “is this normal?” referring to my bloodshot eyes from crying.
He smiled and put his arm around my shoulder. “Geese, you’re just being human!”
“But how do you do it?” I asked.
“Sometimes the tears flow inside instead of outside,” he said. “That’s the only difference.”
The hearse was now waiting out by the front entrance. “Can I watch?”
Robert nodded. “Of course.”
Seeing my teammates load the casket into the hearse was bittersweet for me. The last time I had seen this was when my father’s body was being loaded into probably the same vehicle, given that my family also used this funeral home. It was the last time I saw my dad and that grief reemerged, as if I was reliving that moment again.
“Can I steal you?”
Startled, I looked around, only to see the smiling face of Leslie. “I’ve got your next assignment,” she said.
Her humor was a welcome relief. “So what’s next?” I replied, trying to shift moods.
“We are going out to set up a viewing,” as she led me back to the familiar white van.
“Is the body already at the funeral home?” I asked, hoping for a temporary break from the heaviness.
“No, he’s in the back of the van.”
“Of course he is,” I replied, reminding myself that I asked for the whole experience.
Part V: The Finale
As we climbed into the van, I was very aware that we were no longer alone. An immediate sadness came over me as I glanced at the large container behind me. “So tell me about this viewing we are about to set up.”
She glanced to the back of the van. “The Gentleman in the back passed away a couple of days ago and we are headed over to a chapel on the east side of town where his viewing will be held later tonight.” She paused for a second and then added with a sense of pride, “And I got to work on him.”
“What do you mean, ‘you got to work on him?’”
“I put him in his favorite suite, did his hair up all nice, and touched up his face with a little makeup.”
“How did you know what to do?” I asked.
“The family gave me a recent photo to go by. It can be challenging when it’s an older photo.”
“That’s a lot of pressure to try to recreate the essence of a person, isn’t it?”
She blushed. “It’s what I do.”
Moments later we pulled into the backside of a quaint little chapel in North Denver. Leslie jumped out and opened a side door of the building before popping open the back doors of the van.
“What can I do?” I asked.
“Nothing right now,” she replied as she opened up a portable gurney and slid the large box effortlessly on top of it.
I knew from a liability perspective that I wasn’t supposed to help out with any moving or lifting, but I still felt bad just watching.
Leslie noticed my concern. “Greg, don’t worry. I won’t be doing any lifting either.”
Up at the front of the chapel was a very pristine, solid oak casket. Granted I am not up on my caskets but this was clearly the Rolls Royce of caskets. It radiated importance!
Leslie, like a magician, simultaneously opened the top end of the box and the bottom end of the casket and, with some quick slight-of-hand, managed to slide the body effortlessly from one to the other in a blink of a second.
“Wait, how did you do that?” I asked, in a state of shock.
“I can’t tell you,” she teased, “it’s a trade secret.”
I shook my head in amazement as Leslie began rearranging the area around the casket for the viewing.
“I noticed you guys use a lot of humor on the job. Is that a survival tool in this industry?” I asked.
“More than you’ll ever know,” she replied. “You have to have a warped senses of humor to balance out the intensity of this job.”
“I can only imagine,” I said, still hesitant to look inside the casket; just wasn’t sure if I was up to seeing another dead body. But then again, Leslie was so proud of her work. I took a deep breath, mustered my confidence and move in for a look. To my relief I saw a sharply dressed elderly man, peacefully lying there with a smile of contentment on his face. Did I mention that he literally had a smile on his face!
“How did you do that?” I asked.
“You mean the smile?”
“Yeah, he looks so content and happy.”
“Isn’t that how you’d want to see all your loved-ones look at the end of their life?” she asked.
“Yes, of course,” I said. “I’ve never noticed the smile before but it really makes a difference.” And then I added, “And I changed my mind. Don’t tell me how you did it. I’d rather not know.”
She chuckled. “It says a lot about the value of a smile though, doesn’t it?”
Before I could respond, Leslie’s cell began ringing. The moment she answered I could tell that it was David, the CEO/owner. Seconds later she hung up and said, “We need to get you back. David wants to meet with you before he leaves for a meeting.”
“Are we done here?” I asked.
“For now. Jason will be coming back tonight to help coordinate the viewing.”
Moments later we were driving back to the funeral home in our empty white van, and I noticed how exhausted I felt, not to mention emotionally drained.
“Do you ever think about getting out?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s crossed my mind before,” she said regrettably. “But I’m studying to become a funeral director and want to try that out for a few years. I think I’d be pretty good helping families.”
I nodded, knowing full well that she’d be great with families. “Thank you for today.”
Leslie blushed again. “I hope it was worth it.”
“I am so glad I did this. I had no idea what happens behind the scenes at a funeral home. It was eye-opening.”
“In a good way I hope,” she added.
“Definitely. But it was also a very sobering experience. To be working with life and death in the same moment is not for the lighthearted. You guys are amazing.”
It was late in the afternoon when we pulled into the funeral home parking lot. I gave Leslie a thank you hug and headed towards the lobby where David was waiting.
“Tell me about your day?” he asked, as we headed back to his office.
I walked him through my day’s itinerary.
“That’s what you did. I want to know what you learned.”
This is why I’ve always appreciated this man. He is all about authentic communication.
I paused to collect my thoughts. “You know what David?”
“Can I reflect for a couple of days on this and then share with you what I learned? I need to process this whole experience before I can sound halfway intelligent.”
He laughed. “Why don’t you do that.”
After thanking David for the opportunity to work a day at his funeral home, I bolted for my car. I was in need of something familiar to help bring me back to reality…or at least my reality. But before I could pull out, I saw the front door of the funeral home open and out comes Harold, smiling and waving at me as he headed out to his car. The same friendly greeting I got from him eight hours earlier.
Now there’s someone who really loves his work! I mused as I pulled away.
What I learned from My Day at the Funeral Home
- People are uncomfortable talking about death and dying. Ironically, it is the one thing we all have in common and the one thing we will all have to face. It seems to me we should be talking about it more.
- All of the people I had the honor of meeting at the funeral home expressed a higher calling as the reason for choosing this line of work. Being of service to others in a time of need is their passion and purpose. How many professions can you say that about?
- There’s customer service and then there’s customer service in the funeral industry. Good is not acceptable when great is the expectation.
- You really need a sense of humor to be working with life and death extremes. Its no wonder people are so funny in this profession.
- Seeing the bodies on the shelves in the preparation room revealed how similar we are all to each other at birth and at death. What’s not similar is how we each live our lives.
- By focusing on the needs of the family at hand, funeral home employees are able to stay fully present with their clients, even during the most difficult of difficult times. Try teaching that in a classroom.
- It is reassuring to see the high level of respect and dignity that’s demonstrated for every body that is placed in the hands of a funeral home.
- Death is really about the celebration of life.
- We really need to live each day as if it is our last. After seeing a baby and a teenager’s lifeless body, death can happen to anyone of us with a snap of a finger. There are no guarantees.
- Losing a loved-one is a memory that will last a lifetime; so too is the experience around their death. Funeral homes play a big part in these lifelong experiences.
- A smile can go a long way.
- There’s a lot of pride within this industry, even with the smallest of things like a shiny casket, a straightened out tie, well-manicured grounds, or even the smell of potpourri in the CEO’s office. The little things become the big things in an industry where everything matters.
- People in the funeral industry deserve a big hug. Talk about unsung heroes! I’m grateful to be affiliated with them!
Finally, thank you David (John Horan) for the experience of a lifetime. And thank you for taking such great care of my dad.
Greg Giesen is the Manager of People Development at the University of Denver and brings over 25-years of experience in leadership development, management coaching, conflict mediation, team building, and keynote speaking. He’s also the author the award-winning novel, Mondays At 3: A Story for Managers Learning to Lead. Contact Greg at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 303-871-3307.