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 felt a little queasy and I wondered if this was such a great idea after all. You see, I like to know firsthand what my clients do, and some of my clients happen to be in the funeral industry.
But wait, there’s more to this rationale. I was curious. I was curious to know what kind of person would choose the funeral profession and why. I was curious to know what a typical day would look like at a funeral home, or if there ever was such a thing. 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 itself 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 granted permission to be there. In fact, the owner was so appreciative that he promised to expose me to as much as he could during my day at his funeral home. And that’s also why I didn’t want to get out of the car. I was getting cold feet.
Just then a car pulled into the spot next to me. It was Harold Banes, the operations manager. My first meeting was to be with him.
He pointed toward the front door. “Come on in, Greg,” he said smiling. “We’ve got a full day planned for you.”
I greeted him nervously.
“Hey Harold. I’m looking forward to today,” I mumbled. “But go easy on me. I’m a rookie.”
“This is your first time?” he asked, looking 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.”
He led me through the lobby and down a set of stairs, to what’s called the preparation room: a place 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 took in the details of the room. Along the walls were specially designed shelves reserved for the four bodies that 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 so soon.”
“It is hard to get used to,” he said. “But 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 looking at their best and in a state of peace. If we can do that, we’ve done our job.”
Goosebumps tickled my arms. “Harold, I felt that,” referring to what he just said. “You really are passionate about this.”
“This isn’t just 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 who’s 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, my attention drifted over to the other side of the room where four bodies, covered with sheets from the neck down, lay peacefully. I remember feeling an overwhelming sadness as I tried to imagine their lives. Yet, at the same time, I felt grateful 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 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, and here I thought I had been through the worst…”
Leslie shook her head. “Honey, the day has barely begun.”
“Why the unmarked white van?” I asked as we headed out to Children’s Hospital.
Leslie paused. “It’s unassuming. It doesn’t draw attention to itself, and it makes it easy to slide in and slide out without much fanfare.”
“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 can 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 heaviness came over me, as we pulled into a reserved spot in the back of the hospital.
Leslie put on her game face. “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 with sad expressions on their faces. One had some type of insulated container in her hands and handed it over to me.
My eyes must have 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. I was holding a baby!
As we drove back toward the funeral home, with the container safely secured on my lap, I thought about the parents of this infant, and the devastation they must be feeling. It made me sad on one hand, and honored on the other. I felt honored to be a part of this life-to-death transition for this baby, this person, this soul.
I looked over at Leslie and said, “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 profession that touches everyone. How many people can say that?”
I couldn’t disagree.
She continued: “Whenever I think I have it bad, I think about these families and what they are going through. Things quickly get put back into perspective, if you know what I mean.”
Back at the funeral home, 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.”
“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.
The cold temperature was the first thing I noticed as I entered 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 or not and looked around. My mouth dropped.
“Are you okay?” she asked, looking concerned.
“I’m not sure,” I said, feeling numb.
She nodded to signal that she understood. “This is where we bring the bodies when we first get them. As you can see, they arrive just as they were when they passed.“
“I can see that,” I said, unable to take my eyes off of the middle-aged woman 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 deceased body had been alive within the last 24 hours. Talk about an eerie feeling. I mean, it’s one thing to see a deceased body after it’s been embalmed, cleaned up, and dressed for presentation. But it’s an entirely different thing to see a body still in the throes of death. It was all too real—each body revealing the last few seconds of its life.
Just then another voice startled me from the doorway.
“I’m Jason,” he said. “I was asked to show you the embalming room and the crematory.”
I look at Leslie for some kind of closure from our time together.
She smiled and made the introductions. “Jason meet Greg. Greg meet Jason.”
As Leslie took off, she called 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.
The embalming room looked like a medical laboratory with four tables evenly spread out. Two of the tables were occupied: one held a teenage boy who was killed the night before in a car accident. He was tall and thin and had long, flowing hair; the kind of guy who would stand out in a crowd and probably be very popular with the ladies.
I shook my head. “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 tasks 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 the teenager. “He was the driver, with three friends in one of those old Volkswagens 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 stopped to explain the embalming procedure. “What we are doing right now is filling the arteries, veins, and body cavities with antiseptic and preservatives that will delay the decay process.”
“Got it!” I said, ready to move on.
He laughed. “A little too much information before lunch?”
I smiled. “You really have to have a sense of humor to be in this industry, don’t you?”
“Definitely,” he said, as we walked out of the room. “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 funeral director conferences, we have a great time with our peers. It’s a blast.”
“I know that,” I said. “I’ve been to those conferences. You’re the complete opposite of the stereotype that people have.”
“Yeah, that’s true. What you have to realize is that, in our industry, it’s all about interpersonal skills. We have to be able to connect with families at the most vulnerable time in their lives.” He paused before concluding. “We 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 was no morning cremation scheduled, I was spared the first-hand experience—for which I was grateful. And although lunch didn’t sound all that appealing to me, I definitely needed to take a break. I wanted to see the things I used to take for granted, like the hustle and bustle of normal life. So, I headed out for McDonald’s, which was right across the street.
And then things got even more bizarre. I was seeing dead people. That’s right, dead people. I know; sounds like I’ve lost my mind, right? There I was, standing in line to order my food, surrounded by your typical suburbia crowd. They were all very much alive, but instead of seeing life, I was seeing death.
It was so surreal. Instead of seeing a vibrant, middle-aged woman who was in line in front of me, I saw a pale and lifeless woman, lying in waiting. Instead of seeing a smiling teenage girl with rosy cheeks asking for my order, I saw a colorless corpse.
“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 understanding the reference.
I smiled and dropped the sarcasm. I knew that if I tried to explain, I would only freak her out.
How can they do this, day in and day out? I thought as I sat down with my meal. The emotional numbness I felt earlier in the day had become heavier now, as I studied the people around me with a new intensity. I was noticing what an eye looks like when it blinks, and how people’s lips moved in perfect synchronization with their voices. I saw two guys laughing in line, and how their faces seemed to light up at the exact same moment. Sounds were coming back. Color was returning to people’s faces. A surge of energy shot through me. My heart pounded faster.
That’s it! I thought, as my mind did a complete 180. This experience isn’t about death at all! It’s about life! By experiencing death all morning, I was developing a greater appreciation for life. But wait—not just for life in general—but specifically for how we live our lives. After all, a corpse is a corpse in the funeral home, whether it had been a multimillionaire, a beauty queen, or a homeless person. What distinguishes each body from the other is what they did with their lives.
Though my insight may seem obvious, it came to me with great clarity. Appreciate life was no longer a cliché to me. It really meant something.
Feeling lighter again, I returned to the lobby of the funeral home where I was to meet with Robert, one of the funeral directors. Just then I heard, “Greg, over here.”
Robert waved me over to what looked like a line-up. David, the owner and CEO, stood in front of Robert and two other staff members, and inspected their attire. He straightened one person’s tie and brushed off a piece of lint from the coat of the other.
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.
Robert introduced me to the team and gave a little background on the memorial service we all were about to work. I remember how appreciative I felt 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 toward 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, grateful to have a role. Then I saw two men physically holding up a woman who was crying so hard that she couldn’t stand by herself. It occurred to me that I was too focused on myself. I needed to remember why I was there and whom I was serving.
The chapel quickly filled to capacity, and we closed the doors for the start of the service. I have been to many funerals over the years, but never before had I witnessed so much crying and wailing as I saw in that chapel. This man 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 so emotionally touched by the service, the family and friends, and the great love in the room. I didn’t even know the deceased, but 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 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?”
“The tears are there. Just more on the inside than the outside,” he said.
The hearse was now waiting 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 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?”
I was relieved to see Leslie. She was smiling. “I’ve got your next assignment,” she said. “We’re going out to set up a viewing.” She led me back to the familiar white van.
“Is the body already there?”
“No, he’s in the back of the van.”
“Wait! What? As I reluctantly turned to look. Sure enough, a large wooden container filled the back of the van.
“Yeah, I thought about FedExing him over, but remembered you wanted the full experience.”
“That’s a joke, right?” I asked, while regaining my composure.
She grinned. “The FedEx part was.”
I smiled. “I’m quickly learning how important humor is in your industry, isn’t it?”
“Yep. I love to laugh, and some of the people here are a real hoot.”
“I totally get why that’s important,” I added, before changing the subject. “Tell me about this viewing we are about to set up.”
She glanced to the back of the van, before introducing me to the mystery passenger who was quietly lying in the box. “The gentleman in the back passed away a couple of days ago and we are headed over to a chapel on the west side of town where his viewing will be held later tonight.” She paused for a second and then added, “And I got to work on him.”
“What do you mean, ‘you got to work on him?’”
“I put him in his favorite suit, did his hair 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 up behind a quaint little chapel in Lakewood. 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 felt bad just watching.
Up at the front of the chapel was a pristine, solid oak casket; clearly the Rolls Royce model. It radiated importance!
Like a magician, Leslie lowered the sides of the box and the casket, and slid the body across. It took barely a second.
“Wait, how did you do that?” I asked.
“I can’t tell you,” she teased. “It’s a trade secret.”
Up to this point, I had purposely not looked inside the casket. I wasn’t sure I wanted to see another dead body. And yet, Leslie was so proud of her work. How could I not at least peek?
I took a deep breath, mustered my confidence, and moved in for a look. I saw a sharply dressed elderly man with a smile of contentment on his face.
“How did you do that?” I asked.
“You mean the smile?”
“Yeah, he looks content.”
“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. “It really makes a difference.”
She nodded. “It says a lot about the value of a smile though, doesn’t it?”
Before I could respond, Leslie’s cell phone rang. 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 come back tonight to help oversee the viewing.”
As we drove back to the funeral home, I noticed how exhausted and emotionally drained I felt.
“Do you ever think about getting out?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s crossed my mind before,” she said. “But I’m studying to become a funeral director, and I want to try that out for a while. I think I’d be pretty good with the families.”
I nodded, knowing full well that she’d be great with families. “Thank you for today.”
Leslie blushed. “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 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 toward 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.
He said, “That’s what you did. Tell me what you learned.”
This is why I’ve always appreciated this man. He is all about authentic communication.
I paused to collect my thoughts. “Can I reflect for a couple of days before sharing with you what I learned? I need to process this whole experience before I can sound intelligent.”
He laughed. “Why don’t you do that.”
After thanking David for the opportunity to work at his funeral home, I headed to my car. I wanted something familiar to bring me back to my reality. But before I could pull out, I saw Harold coming out the front door. He smiled and waved as he headed out to his car. It was 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 such life-and-death extremes. It’s 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 each 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 the lifeless bodies of a baby and a teenager, it’s clear that death can happen to any one 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. 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!
-Greg “Geese” Giesen
* This story is from Geese’s new book, It’s All About Me.