I’ve always been a fan of storytelling. Not the fantastical kind of made-up stories, but the real stories that make up our lives.
So today I’m going to tell you my story. It’s my perspective, deeply personal, and hopefully valuable to anyone out there who has experienced the death of someone with whom they feel they had unfinished business.
When Funeral Directors sit down to make arrangements, we often observe families struggle to express just exactly what kind of dysfunction their family is vulnerable to, without giving up too many sordid details.
What these people need to know is that Funeral Directors come from their own crazy families, and we all have skeletons in our closets too – no pun intended.
The reality is that most people who become Directors find their way into the profession because they feel the need to help people. The reason that they feel compelled to help is that often they’ve suffered great pain in their lives too. They’ve loved people who have hurt them, and they like to believe that maybe, just maybe, they can make the loss of a loved one a little bit more bearable.
So what does this have to do with memorialization? It’s a prologue of sorts. I’m going to share with you my story, as raw and as painful as it has been.
Just over a year ago my own mother died. A woman whom I hadn’t seen in over 20 years. We had a terrible relationship, and she was cruel to me. It was so bad that we had been to criminal court because she had charged me with a bogus crime. The charges were thrown out of course, but the pain remained. My own mother had abandoned me.
When I became a mother, the pain of it became more real. The first time I saw my son, naked and crying and so very vulnerable, I knew that I would do everything to protect him. I vowed to keep him away from the substance abuse, mental illness, emotional and physical abuse that I had known as a child. It took me years to realize the misery that my mother must have lived in, feeling trapped in a life where she was abused herself.
My entire career has been dedicated to helping the dying and providing meaningful funeral services to other people. I was raised to visit the graves of the grandparents whom I had grown up across the street from on a regular basis. It was a way of gently saying good-bye while holding true to some of the life lessons they taught me.
Not being able to say good-bye, even to this woman who was no longer a mother, but a pitiful stranger, was one of the most difficult experiences of my life.
This is where the memorialization comes in.
After waiting a year, I was able to go visit her grave and say good-bye. I was able to give rest to a horrible relationship. I was able to feel close to this woman, who was my age when I last saw her, and wish her nothing but peace and compassion. More importantly, I was able to begin the relationship with this ghost-mother again on my own terms.
Because of the heinous things that went on behind closed doors in my family home, I could not have a relationship with my family. But standing at the graveside on a sunny, spring day, I could forgive a woman who just didn’t have the ability to mother me, or even love herself.
Knowing that I can go back there any time I want to visit my mother is very powerful. I haven’t been able to that in over two decades.
Having somewhere to go, whether it’s a grave, a crypt, a niche, or even mountain where someone was scattered can be incredibly healing, especially for those who had difficult (or impossible as in my case) relationships.
When you sit down with a Funeral Director, know that you are not alone when it comes to knowing the pain of difficult relationships and circumstance. Most of us came to this work of service because we know what the pain of loss feels like, and more than anything, we want to help.
Being the object of someone’s misplaced grief and anger really stinks. It’s even worse if you’re that punching bag day after day after day.
Welcome to funeral service.
Every day funeral directors deal with people who are in crisis, often in shock, sleep deprived and balancing way too many things that our society now demands.
We know what it’s like. We have lives too, or at least we try to. But try telling that to an individual who strolls in fifteen minutes after your shift ends and demands to see you, knowing full well they’re two hours late for their appointment, causing you to cancel your own doctor’s appointment for the third time in a row.
We hear insults directed at how much our services cost, why we can’t create a multi-media extravaganza twenty minutes before the first visitation is supposed to start, or why flowers that were delivered half-way through a service didn’t make it to the front of the church.
We help people by doing work that no one else wants to do.
Funeral Director’s pass mother’s their babies and watch them kiss them good-bye. We see husbands and wives who have been with their spouse for their entire lives weep as they bury or cremate or entomb half of their own identity. We hold the hand of children who want to see their father for the last time and are afraid to approach the casket on their own. We tuck ultrasound photos of unborn babies in the hands of fathers who are laid out in their caskets while their pregnant wives are numb with shock.
Not a single funeral director came into the industry without giving the reason, ” I want to help people,” when asked why they wanted to do work that most people shudder at the thought of.
Unless you’re dealing with an independent funeral home owner, we have nothing to do with price setting, policy or legislation. I know this might come as a shock, but just because we wear a tidy looking company issued suit, doesn’t mean we make a whole lot of money.
We do the work we do because we believe in honouring a human life lived. We believe in providing services so that our neighbours and communities can grieve in meaningful ways.
We also live within a culture that no longer values the necessity of slowing down to grieve, or provide support to the grieving. Sadly, we live in a world that turns to “busy-ness”. Busy-ness fuels exhaustion, spiritual atrophy and general dysfunction; addictions, mental health issues, and relationship breakdowns.
“It takes a special kind of person to do what you do.” If every funeral director had a dime for every time they heard those words, we’d all be retired.
I used to pay little attention to this kind of pithy patronizing. But as the years have passed, I realize that it does, indeed take a special kind of person to do what we do.
You see, when I was a kid, the local Funeral Director was someone to be respected. He (yes, it was always a he back then) made everything better and kept everyone calm when tragedy struck.
But that’s changed. As our communities have grown, and our lives have gotten busier, the funeral director isn’t someone you recognize as a citizen in your town. You likely don’t recognize us because we’re either at work, or out and about just like you, caring for our families and trying to make ends meet.
To say that our business is tough, is an understatement. Anything less than perfection is considered failure, and it’s likely that a public stoning would be less painful than the self-reprimanding we give to ourselves.
For most Funeral Director’s, it’s a calling, not just a job. We’ve learned life lessons the hard way; from thinking that we’re superhuman and forgetting that loss also touches our own lives.
Life dishes out some pretty tough lessons. These are a few I’ve learned along the long and winding road of my career as a Funeral Director;
- Even when you feel like you have nothing left to give, live for, or be hopeful of, life goes on, and that means you must too.
- You don’t have time. For the things that you’ve always dreamed of doing, there will always be something practical that gets in the way. Regardless of how silly your dreams sound to anyone else, go for it.
- You can’t go backward. You can’t tell someone how deeply you care for them or love them once they’re gone. You just can’t. Say whatever it is you need to say because it’s better to live with rejection or feeling silly than to never know the answer to, ‘What if…”.
- If you can laugh, you’ve got the world by the tail. If you can laugh at yourself, you will have peace in your heart.
- You don’t have enough time in your life for people who don’t want to be in yours or who routinely make you feel less than. It’s that simple. Healthy relationships are what makes life worth living, starting with a healthy relationship with your own self.
- Everyone dies. No matter what medical marvels may promise, our mortal coils always expire. Treat your loved ones like it’s the last time you will see them every time you say good-bye. Don’t leave without saying, ” I love you”, without a hug, and don’t hold a grudge if you can help it.
- Each human interaction involves a spiritual alchemy where there is energy exchanged and an opportunity to grow. Trust that, and learn from it.
- Every one of us feels joy and sadness. Be kind to one another always.
- Cry when you need to. It’s normal, and it’s a sign from your body and soul that you need some tender loving care.
- Take pleasure in simple things. Don’t clock watch. Just enjoy doing your best in each and every moment.
‘Tis the season to be jolly?
Perhaps, but for many the holiday season can be a tough one. Jolly isn’t really what they’re feeling.
Stress, sadness, despair even. These are some of the feelings that families have expressed to me during our closed-door funeral meetings.
For anyone who has experienced a loss during the Christmas season, quite often, the following years are never quite the same. I know, because I’m one of those people.
For funeral directors, Christmas is usually one of the most stressful times of the year. You see, we have also experienced our own losses, and have the same family and social demands as everyone else.
We also happen to be surrounded by families who need our experience and expertise to guide them through one of the most emotionally stressful times of their life. Not only have they had a loved one die, they are in the acute stages of grief during one of the hap-happiest times of the year.
In the shadow of merry-making, grief feels heavier and almost impossible to recover from. The darkness of despair, loss and lonliness seem amplified against the bright, Christmas lights.
For some reason death rates skyrocket during the month of December. I’ve often thought that it’s a combination of the first real cold-weather snap, and the stress and pressure of the season.
Whatever the reason, this season more than any, can be one of the most difficult for those in the funeral profession.
For anyone out there who is experiencing the loss of a loved one, know that our hearts go out to you. It is our calling to provide you with the professional support that you need during this time.
For funeral directors, please remember that at this time of year, you too need to take some of your own advice to slow down, take time with your family, and remember that you need to rejuvenate your own spirit in order to reignite the spark in someone else.
Wishing you peace this holiday season.
If you work in a funeral home you know that some days, you barely have time to look up, let alone hear any news.
As I drove through the darkened city streets, wondering at the beautiful store-fronts readying for the annual Christmas parade, I was oblivious to the fact that so many lives had been so violently taken in Paris.
For the rest of the world, events like this make people stop in their tracks and realize the great gift of healthy and alive loved ones that they have.
Funeral directors often think of losing their loved ones. When we make arrangements for a child, a young person, someone the age of our children, our siblings or our friends, we are reminded of how fragile life is.
When you see Funeral Directors standing in the lobby, quite often we are reflecting on the events of the past days, weeks and months. Often we think of our own families and friends, and the million what-if’s that play through our heads. Every day we are given the opportunity to be grateful.
Today we pray, meditate, send out our healing thoughts (whatever it is that you do), to the people in France and around the world who were killed, wounded, and are suffering because of the events today.
The words “I love you”, are never over-used in my opinion. You never know when you say it to someone for the last time.
Wishing the world peace.
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That you care enough to show up, says that you are a true friend, and that you wish to pay your respects.
What to Wear
Something your granny would approve of. If a woman’s high heels are such that they make her legs wobble like a new-born calf when she walks, they’re likely not the right attire.
Having said this, if what you’re wearing is tempting you to stay away, don’t. Don’t stay away. Show up, pay your respects, and rest assured that everyone is too busy worrying about how they themselves look, that your outfit will barely be noticed at all.
Clean and covered sums it up nicely.
What to Say
Do not offer any of the following pithy platitudes; They’re in a better place. God only takes the best. At least they’re not suffering.
Do say something meaningful and simple such as; I’m sorry for your loss. My condolences.
Do share stories about the deceased. It helps the healing process for everyone, even yourself.
What to Do
Don’t panic. Death is part of life, something that no one will escape.
Check the website of the funeral home first. This will help to determine directions, visitation, service and reception information. Send flowers or make a donation if you feel compelled. Call the funeral home and staff will answer your questions.
If you belong to a cultural or religious group, you will know the tradition. If not, don’t worry. No one expects you to be anything but yourself. Again, your presence means everything.
This is an invitation by the family for their community of friends, neighbours, extended family and colleagues to come out to offer support. Without a visitation, people often don’t know what to do.
Whether or not you think being there makes a difference, I can tell you from experience that everyone who shows up makes a difference. Grief is a nasty ride, and knowing that people care goes a long way to adjusting to life without a loved one.
Memorial? Mass? Graveside Service? Scattering? Relax…show up and participate in whatever way you feel compelled or able.
Driving in Procession
Often this is a logistics nightmare. Start by backing in to your parking space. This will ensure no one will be slowly backing out and holding up the folks who do not wish to drive in procession, or family members who wish to position their cars behind the funeral coach.
Generally speaking the order of procession is; Funeral Director’s lead car, funeral coach (hearse), limousine (or family cars if they’re driving themselves), followed by everyone else.
Some people have a public committal service, and others wish a private final disposition. All of these details will be available at the funeral home; on the website, memorial cards, etc. Dress for the weather. In other words, during cold winters, bundle up.
This usually happens after all of the visitation and ceremony have been completed. Receptions can be private (family or close friends only), or for anyone who came to the funeral. This is an opportunity to share a meal and visit. Eating together has always been part of human ritual.
Children and Funerals
We often are asked whether people should bring their children. Absolutely. How else will they learn that death is part of life, that people grieve, and that honouring a human life is a sacred part of being human? Think of it as a teaching opportunity; how to interact in more formal social circumstance. Besides that, Funeral Directors appreciate and welcome children whose very presence reminds us all how wonderful and precious life is.
If you are a parent who let’s your children use the coffee lounge as a science lab, and parts of the furniture as weapons, we will escort them to your side and advise you to supervise them. Should this fail, we will tell them zombie stories and give them coffee-spiked cocoa.
We are not therapists, detectives or reporters. We are Funeral Directors and we are here to serve.As such, we ask only the questions necessary to ensure that your loved one and yourself are cared for with the utmost respect.
We ask you questions because we care. We ask you questions because we believe in our heart of hearts that every, single, human being deserves to be cared for with dignity after they have died.
A number of people come in to a funeral home feeling sad, fearful and angry about the death of their loved one. Yes, a few come in relieved; perhaps because pro-longed suffering is over or even because the deceased wasn’t so very nice.
Many people who come in to make arrangements are irritated, tired, and find the arrangement process rather difficult.
It’s not easy, especially for those who have been providing care for days, weeks or months.
When a family calls the funeral home to seek funeral services, there are a number of questions that the Funeral Director asks. We refer to this conversation as a, “First Call”.
I would say that at least 50 percent of the time the person calling gets a little irritated with some of the questions we ask. “We’ll talk about it when we get in there!”, I’ve heard shouted in the background by overwhelmed family members.
But we ask for a reason. We don’t get a kick out of asking you things like telephone numbers, age, whether or not you have pre-arranged funeral plans, or whether you’ve considered what type of service you would like. Especially in the city, knowing where and when you want the service ensures that we get on the phone to the church, temple or hall in time to book your preferred time.
Before you step through the doors, a true professional wants all of the information necessary to begin the very detailed, sometimes complicated, behind-the-scenes-planning that they are being paid for.
A lot of people snicker when we ask about the deceased’s height or weight. There is no snicker however, when Funeral Directors show up at the door and the deceased is over 300 lbs. Everyone wants to treat the deceased with respect and the questions we ask help make that happen.
When we ask questions about relationship to the deceased, we do this because we have a legal obligation to ensure that we are taking direction from the proper legal authority; the executor/executrix.
The practical reality of information gathering is this; The government requires A Statement of Death be registered along with a Medical Certificate of Death in order to be issued a burial permit. Without this permit, we are unable to bury or cremate someone.
Funeral files and records have been used throughout history for genealogical purposes, and health tracking.
We know this is a difficult time for you. Many of us have had to make funeral arrangements for our own loved ones.
When you walk through the doors of the funeral home to make arrangements, accept our offer of refreshment; coffee, tea, water. Exhale, and know that we are here to help, and yes, we will ask you a lot of questions.
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You trust Funeral Directors to guide you through some of the most difficult times of your life.
You trust Funeral Directors to care for your deceased loved one, and that’s a huge honour.
Each day people walk through the doors of the funeral home, cremation center, or visitation center and have no idea what to expect. Not only do most people not know what to expect, they’re also in a state of crisis, shock and even extreme physical fatigue. It’s our job as Funeral Directors to guide you, as vulnerable as you may be, through the ritual of saying good-bye.
Sure, there are funeral service professionals out there who manage to tarnish the entire profession because they’re not nice people. When it comes to people like this, I wish life had a jerk filter. It doesn’t.
The good news is that the vast majority of Funeral Directors and support staff are genuinely caring and well-meaning. They work long hours, 7 days a week, 365 days a year because they are passionate about what they do. This is not a job for them, this is a calling.
I truly believe that Funeral Directors are among very few people have the good fortune of leaving work for the day feeling like they’ve truly made a difference.
Quite often, when a family calls in to inform us of the loss of their loved one, we get a sense of who will be coming in to make the arrangements. More accurately, we get a sense of their state of mind; was this a sudden, unexpected death, was it the death of someone who has been ill a very long time, was it someone young?
We know that you don’t want to come to a funeral home. Ever. Likely, if you had the choice, meeting with a Funeral Director would be at the bottom of your list of things-to-do, but death is a part of life. As such, death happens to be our area of expertise.
“Trust me,” I often want to say to anxious families who have been up all night sitting vigil at the beside. “We’re going to go through everything one step at a time.”
If you are faced with making funeral arrangements for someone whom you can’t imagine living without, remember that we are here to serve.
You can trust us. Not just because we’re good people who truly want to leave work feeling like they genuinely helped, but because we are professionals subject to the legislation of a regulated profession. In Ontario, the Ontario Board of Funeral Services oversees and enforces the legislation that regulates licensed funeral directors.
When you sit down in the arrangement office, exhale, and know that you can trust us; to guide you while you make arrangements for a meaningful ritual to commemorate the life of your loved one. Whether you are religious, or not, traditional or creative, you can ask us any question at all.
Trust me, I’m a Funeral Director.