What Do You DoI'm a fourth-generation funeral director
A funeral director tells us about growing up in a funeral home, postmortem cosmetics, and "wowing" families at funerals, as part of Hopes&Fears' anonymous interview series.
I’m a fourth generation funeral director. In total, we have 17 funeral homes — my dad and three of his cousins are the four owners, and they each operate a separate division. So although we’re one company, we operate day-to-day as four separate little companies. I work with my father, my brother, my cousin, and four other funeral directors, and together the eight of us run four funeral homes.
So it's been in my family for a while...in fact, my family lived in a funeral home until I was twelve. A lot of people ask, “Were you scared?” And well, I was so little. I was a baby, I didn’t know any different. I just thought everyone lived in a funeral home.
I have a brother who’s two years younger than me. When he was little, he would run around the funeral home, and run up to dad and ask “Daddy! Who got died?”
And then Dad would lift him up, let him look down in the casket and say “That’s who got died, son,” and my brother would say “Okay!” and Dad would set him down, and he would take off again, running. So, I think we didn’t know that it was strange to be around people who were deceased until we went to school and people told us it should be weird. I know in elementary school, I had a couple of friends who wouldn’t come to sleepovers at a funeral home. One friend had her grandpa’s service here– I didn’t understand back then, but now I get it– I wouldn’t want to come back either, because it would bring up bad memories.
People get freaked out by the idea of taking care of the dead as a living, but I just think people really don’t know any better. The job’s more about the people who are still alive– really, most of my time is spent fielding phone calls and meeting with people, making videos, and printing paper goods...talking to newspapers and arranging military honors, all that kind of stuff. The actual preparation of the body is really only about 30% of the day.
Because the work comes in at all times, there really is no end of the day. Last year, we did 499 funerals– so breaking that down, it’s obviously more than one person a day, but some weeks we’re beyond busy and other weeks we’re slow (and start looking for something to clean or organize). Our funeral home is on a rotation, so we take shifts every other night to be on call after 5 o’clock. So if someone should pass away, my on-call partner or I will be the ones to respond.
The best days are the ones where you’re up all night because someone (or several someones) passed away. Death is anything but convenient and those are the days no one envies our job. We call them “removals.” If it’s at a home, we go together to make sure there are two people there since we’re walking into an unknown situation. If it’s in a facility, like a hospital, where there are nurses or other people around to help, we can just send one person. So 3 AM, we get the phone call, we throw on a suit, we run into the office, we grab the cot, and we go to wherever the person passed away.
Every funeral home is different, but we do a rotation to make sure that we don’t get every single Christmas on, or every single Thanksgiving. You can’t have both, and you can’t choose which one. It’s just luck of the draw. And then you get every other weekend off.
So it’s a lot of work, and I think that’s why a lot of people get burnt out early in a funeral directing career. But it’s all about serving the people and being there because, gosh, if my mom passed away I would want someone to come right then because it’d mean the world to me.
I have a brother who’s two years younger than me. When he was little, he would run around the funeral home, and run up to dad and ask “Daddy! Who got died?”
Most families, I’d say, still want to see their loved ones before they’re buried or cremated. For them, we do the process called ‘embalming,’ which is basically a process of flushing the blood out of the body and replacing it with a fluid comprised mostly of water and preservative solutions. Even if it’s in the middle of the night, we do it right then because the sooner you get started on that process, the better your results are gonna be. We use the existing circulatory system to introduce the preservatives, so the longer somebody sits there, the more their body is going to naturally break down, and those circulatory systems will get disrupted on their own.
There’s no way to get 100% of the blood out, but removing most of it slows down the decomposition process. As you can imagine, when we die, the blood settles to the lowest point; so the cool thing is that you know whether the embalming process is working or not because you can see the effects outside the body. There are a couple of signs, like distention– when you can see physically the little bump where the vein or artery lies under the skin and is no longer laying flat (check out the inside of your own wrists for an example). And then just the coloring; once you get the circulatory system moving again, you can see the pinkness of the dyes coming back into their cheeks or maybe even their fingernails.
There’s a lot of chemistry involved…we usually use about 3 gallons of fluid for each person. Many times, we use a product known as ‘tissue-fill’– if someone lost a terrible amount of weight, we can fill them up a little bit so they look a little more like they do in their pictures, so their family and friends recognize them from before the illness. For that, we fill a syringe with the tissue-fill and apply it under the skin in the necessary areas. We can also– the fancy term is ‘restrict the drainage’– if you restrict drainage, you’re stopping the fluids, including some of the blood, from escaping. So that will kind of fill in the areas that are otherwise lacking in fluids all over the body. Or if someone’s put on a lot of weight, then we use a solution that is designed to draw out water from the body. You’ll see this very often with people who’ve been on an IV drip– a lot of that water might be retained, so they kind of swell up. Or maybe someone’s jaundiced, we have special fluids that will help us get rid of that yellow tone.
It’s a very interesting science-slash-art because, while there’s still science involved, you want them looking good. So that’s sort of an artsy-type skill, to know when to stop orhow to use the right formulas to make them look more lifelike.
e make sure everybody’s eyes and mouth are closed. With some people it’s very easy to do that, and sometimes it takes a little work to get them that way. But that’s standard for everybody.
Typically, the people who pass away are elderly or sickly. And so there’s not really reconstruction to do, but every once in awhile you get some sort of accident.
At the beginning of every episode of Six Feet Under, it shows horrendous accidents. Something really, really like traumatic– you don’t come across those in real life nearly as often as you do on television. But it happens occasionally– in mortuary school, for instance, they brought in a man who had lost his nose from cancer. They wanted it reconstructed, so we got a bunch of pictures of his face from before, and the girl who did the best one eventually got to reconstruct it right on his face. It looked pretty good, according to his wife.
We use wax for those kinds of procedures...you first carve the general shape out of hard modelling wax and then layer it with a softer wax on top which you can use to get the little details and make it look a little more like skin. In mortuary school, they just sent us all to the craft store and we bought clay tools to figure out how to work with it.
So, there are still extreme cases, but they’re very rare.
Most embalmers like a little bit of a smile. Not grinning– you don’t want your grandma cheesin’ in the casket. But just a little bit of a smile, a pleasant look. We do that during the embalming process before their tissues firm up from the preservatives– we tug up gently on the corners of the mouth. You can also pull away at the corners of the eyes to get rid of some of those wrinkly crows feet. Everybody remembers people who have passed away as a little bit smoother, more polished and better-looking than they actually were in life. We remember the faces, not the wrinkles.
As for the cosmetics, people tend to let us use our discretion, unless mom wore a specific shade of lipstick, or something like that. And men get makeup too (sorry, guys), but only to make them look more lifelike– most people would never know it’s there. Usually we don’t need too much, just enough to cover up any little spots or blemishes, or maybe just to add some extra little color. We start by wiping a thin layer of a completely liquid rosy tint over the exposed skin. It adds that glow back. And then we can go from there with the foundation. We use a formula made for cool skin. It’s not the kind girls use at home, which is liquid– that would make a mess and go places we wouldn’t want it to go. We want control, and we want it to stay put. So it’s more of a waxy, thicker consistency.
And then we do our own hairdressing unless given different instructions from the family, and we base their style on a picture. Or we can call in a beautician. If they had a specific somebody who always did their hair (and that stylist is comfortable coming into the funeral home) we get the best results. They can even do all-over hair color if their client had missed a hair appointment and needs a touch up.
The first time my brother ever embalmed somebody it was my Mamaw, actually, my dad’s mother. She was not a funeral director, but her husband was, so she worked and lived in the funeral home for many years, arranging flowers and cleaning and all that kind of stuff. That was a very interesting experience. It was emotional, sure.
I think a lot of funeral directors and embalmers really want to embalm their loved ones, their mother, their father...it’s like the last thing they can do for them. And if someone else were to try and they mess it up– it’s like, well, if you wreck my car, then I’m gonna be really upset, but if I wreck my car, then there’s no one to blame but myself.
But yeah, it was personal. It was kind of cathartic, to realize, ‘oh, she really is gone.’ Most families have that moment at the calling hours, or at the funeral service. But we had it together in the middle of the night, in the embalming room. And you know, I don’t think I would have changed it.
I remember the first funeral that I went to...I was five or six, and I realized it was different because I was dressed up, and we were allowed to be in the funeral home side of the building during the calling hours (it was in the identical twin building to the one we lived in, and each building had an apartment side and a funeral home side). It was my great uncle’s funeral, and I saw how it made everybody in my family so sad. That was when I finally understood what it was that my dad did, and what death was, and how it affected people. I finally understood, This is why my friends think it’s weird that I live in a funeral home.
Most embalmers like
a little bit of a smile. Not grinning– you don’t want your grandma cheesin’ in the casket. But just a little bit of a smile, a pleasant look.
I saw how much my dad was able to help people, and that’s what really influenced me to come into the family business. I’ve always wanted to be just like my dad, so, that was a big part of it.
I don’t remember a time when I sat down and specifically worried about death. Santa Claus terrified me as a kid. When we went to Disney World, Captain Hook was terrifying. Death– I think I just saw it from a religious perspective. I was raised in a Christian family, and my parents taught from a young age that that body is not the person– they’re not here, they’re okay, and they’re in heaven. The death part wasn’t the scary part to me because I’d seen dead people, I knew they didn’t do anything scary, they just laid there. That’s not that scary.
I still wouldn’t say I’m scared to die. I think most people are more of scared of how they’re going to die than the actual state of being dead. I don’t think as a kid it was something that my parents felt the need to explain to me because they figured I’d just learn everything about death from being around it.
I think one of the most satisfying moments is when the obituary I wrote is read aloud during the funeral service. Or when the family thanks me days later for the obituary because, even if people can’t come to the service, they will have read that and felt connected to their friend one last time. It’s one of the few things that differentiates a good funeral director from an outstanding one. Our team tries to make them very personal. Unfortunately newspapers charge for obituaries now, and I know that in some markets it’s very, very expensive, so they’re often abbreviated. Around here it’s relatively inexpensive, so we’re able to add a lot more detail, thought, and fun memories.
I also like wowing the families– blowing up pictures of their loved ones and not telling them about it, and then putting them all around the room for the funeral. And I know some people have hung those the portrait panels up on their walls at home and kept them for years afterward.
Just the little things. Sometimes people will say, “Man, I wish I had printed out that picture and put it in a frame,” and then you go do it right then for them. You think of the stuff that people don’t think about, like “Oh, he loved candy bars”– well, let’s have a bowl of candy bars sitting here. Or, “She always burned candles,” so let’s burn a candle, a single candle next to her urn during calling hours. We had a family friend whose son passed away, and my dad surprised him with a keychain of his son’s thumbprint. I know he still carries that around today. I’ve probably forgotten a lot of the stuff I’ve done that meant a lot to somebody else, and it only took a little extra bit of my own time.
You can lean on my shoulder, but we’re not going to cry together. We’re gonna get through this. We’re gonna do this.
If you pick up on the right details, the family will appreciate it so much, and you get that feeling that no one could have made something better for them. It’s usually on a day when we’re crazy busy, and you get a thank you note in the mail, and it just says: “Thank you so much for everything. You made that stressful week so much smoother.” And then you just feel like, okay, even on the days when I’m running around like crazy, and there’s calling hours going on, and this phone’s ringing off the hook– I need to be the person to lead each of my client families through a week that’s even more stressful for them.
I’ll never forget that my dad said years ago: “They’ve got their friends there, to bring them food or to help them. They have their family there to cry with them. They’ve got their pastor there to help make it sound eloquent and to present the funeral. But the funeral director is there to grab the person’s hand, and say: Okay, let’s go, I’m going to show you how to do this. You can lean on my shoulder, but we’re not going to cry together, we’re gonna get through this. We’re gonna do this." For that week, the only important people were my family, my close friends, and this funeral director that I met the day that person died, who I wouldn’t have otherwise known, but they helped me.
We like to say “we don’t want any surprises”, but really, anything can happen. Four weeks ago, I fell into a grave. It was very icy, and the service at the gravesite had ended. Normally there are two-by-four boards surrounding the open grave, and then the casket’s sitting on top but on solid ground, so it’s usually safe, and I know where to step for solid footing. But it wasn’t set up correctly, and I took a step and I fell right down through the green astroturf carpet, in front of everybody, in the middle of the burial. The casket was above me, still perched up on the ground. As soon as that happened I was internally screaming, I am literally standing at the bottom of grave. I’m actually 6 feet under right now! followed by audibly saying, “Oh my gosh, I’m so embarrassed.” But the family was very understanding. Thankfully the pastor grabbed one arm, and one of the family members grabbed another arm and pulled me straight up to safety.
I got the wind knocked out of me, but it didn’t stop me from trying to direct my staff, so I yelled to our hearse and limousine drivers: “Jerry! Ray! Go pull the roses off the casket spray and give them to Mr. So-and-so!” In hindsight it is funny, in the moment it was very upsetting.
So it’s one of those professions where truly anything can happen, and you just have to keep going on, not freak out and start screaming like a crazy person. Because everyone is out of their element at a funeral and they’re all looking to you to get things back on track. As soon as I told my Papaw, also a funeral director, he said “Ohh, that happened to my brother Dan in the seventies.”
So I guess every funeral director collects these once-in-a-lifetime type stories. Next time you meet a funeral director don’t ask them about the “grossest thing they’ve ever seen” and definitely don’t say “I bet people are dying to see you!” Strike up a normal conversation and invite him or her to hangout some time– the interesting and exciting stories will trickle out eventually. Just don’t be surprised if halfway through the evening their phone beeps and they have to go on a removal.
I don’t remember
a time when I sat down and specifically worried about death. Santa Claus terrified me as a kid... Death — I think I just saw it from
a religious perspective.