little miss funeral

an average girl working at your not so average job

A little bit of my mother’s story & a very difficult day.

My mother had a baby that died.

She gave birth to her the day before her own birthday, but for whatever reason, the baby didn’t make it. It was her first child, a little girl.

She told me about it when I was younger and I used to delight in the fact that I had an older sister in Heaven. It was something that I couldn’t comprehend and it’s a loss that I pray I never understand. The baby was buried on top of my mother’s grandparents. Her casket made by an uncle. My father carried her on his lap as the car drove to the cemetery for the burial.

My sister is someone who I don’t think of very often, I’m sad to say. It’s hard to remember someone you’ve never met. Instead, I get little bits and pieces of her from the memories my mother chooses to share with me. And although she’s never said it, I’m positive it’s a loss she still feels very deeply to this day.

Today I had to take the hand print of a little baby who had died in his mother’s womb. This little boy, who was only a few weeks along, and yet I was able to count each and every finger on his little hand. I was able to look upon his little button nose and view his little eyelids gentle closed as if he were merely sleeping.

Today I witnessed death in a way that I wish no one ever has to experience.

And today, I remembered my older sister for the first time in a long time.

I feel such sadness in my heart as I type these words. Sadness for the parents who just a few days ago had so much hope for the future. Sadness for myself, for having to deal with death in instances like this. And sadness for the simple reason that I do not understand why things like this happen.

Not everything in life makes sense.

Some things just suck.

For Eddie.

I was in the back room of the funeral home on the ground crying when Keith came in.

He stood there looking at me for a moment before asking me what had happened. But I know that he knew. Just how I somehow knew from the message that was left for me.

“Hi Lauren, it’s Steve, hey can you give me a call when you get this message?”

Steve is Eddie’s son. We had been talking on the regular for a while ever since Eddie’s wife had died in April. Calling to touch base to make sure we informed one another about how Ed was doing with her death. Everyone was concerned with how he was coping, and from our phone calls we both knew that he was having an extremely difficult time.

Ed had gone into the hospital two days before this message was left for me. I had spoken with him on the phone the same day and he just sounded off. He was depressed. He wasn’t taking care of himself. And now he needed help. The day after he went into the hospital I was stuck at the funeral home, but Keith had gone to visit him. So when he got there, Keith was able to Facetime with me so I could speak with Eddie. He looked tired, but his mind was totally with it. I told him that I was going to visit him after I met with a family the next day, and he told me he loved me when we said goodbye.

And then I got the voicemail. And I called Steve back. And somehow, I knew what had happened. And I knew that I wouldn’t be visiting Eddie at the hospital that day.

Eddie had died.

My Eddie was gone.

I still can’t wrap my head around it. As a funeral director, I obviously know that no one lives forever. But when it came to Eddie, I kind of always thought he would. And the way that he passed was so fast. Two days in the hospital. The doctors said that he was dehydrated. We knew he was depressed. But I believe that he died because he missed his wife too much. No matter how much his family needed him; no matter how much I needed him, nothing could fill the void that she left when she died. I can understand that. But I’m still angry.

The hardest thing about Eddie’s passing has been that I have no way to describe his death.

Co-workers, although we were, just sounds so cold. Technically, we weren’t related. But this man, this grumpy, protective, kind-hearted, big-bull of a man, was so much to me.

I loved Eddie in a way so unique that I can’t even find the ways to describe it. Throughout his funeral, Ed’s son and daughter-in-law described me as a second grandchild. And I’m very thankful for that, because it makes me feel as if he’s described myself to them in that way. My aunt has been telling people that I’ve lost my buddy. And lost is exactly what I am.

I went with Keith to the hospital to pick Eddie up. We went down to the morgue and I stood there. Keith pulled away the sheet and I asked him how he looked.

“Like Eddie”, he replied, but I didn’t look at him.

I called Keith on the phone later that day to see how the embalming went.

“How is his makeup?” I asked, “How does he look?”

“He looks like Eddie.”

I wasn’t there when they got him ready. I wanted to see him as I always had. Dressed in his suit, ready to work. But when I arrived at the funeral home early the day of the visitation, I couldn’t bring myself to enter the room. I didn’t want it to be real.

But it was real. And there was nothing I could do to change the fact that Eddie had died. So I walked in and saw him lying in his casket. And the thing is, he looked just like Eddie. There he was. I took out my makeup kit and did some little touch ups on him. I combed his hair back. I held his hand. And I cried.

Walking into Church with his casket, I cried.

Taking his body to the crematory, I cried.

It’s funny, how even after the funeral, when everything is complete, you still cry.

Closing the lid of the casket doesn’t stop your grief.

But we all did what we thought was best. Even after all the time he spent working for a funeral home, even after losing his wife, eight months – to the date – he still never set up any sort of prearrangements for himself. But Eddie had a good funeral.

Eddie has affected my life in more ways than he could have ever known. I am a better person for having had the chance to know him. And the pain that I feel from his death is testament to him. For if he wasn’t such an amazing man, my heart wouldn’t hurt so much in his absence.

In the days since his death I’ve cried and been angry and been at peace knowing that he is now with his wife. Grief is a cycle that doesn’t make any sense.

In the days to come, I’m going to continue to be angry, and to cry, and to be at peace. And every day his passing gets to be a little more familiar. One day, I’ll be able to laugh much more than I cry. I’ll be able to share all sorts of stories about Eddie and laugh and smile all the while doing so. Life has to go on. Nothing stops the sun from rising. My life is different now. The funeral home is extremely different now, but we need to keep moving forward.

And in my heart, when I tell him I miss him and love him, if I really listen close, I can almost hear his gruff voice reply, “I know sweetheart, I love you too.”

The funeral that is happening right now.

I’m sitting in the lounge of the funeral home, my back against the wall as I listen in on a memorial service which is currently in progress.

 

It is difficult for me to pick up on every word being said, but I hear some voices breaking into sobs and at other times laughter erupting.

 

This person, who has brought so many people together, reminds me once again why funerals are important. People are gathered together to mourn the fact that someone they love is gone. But throughout their sorrow they are also laughing about the good times that they shared. Remembering the little moments that made monumental memories.

 

These people, who may have nothing in common besides for the fact that the deceased made an impact on their lives, are all gathered to support one another during a very difficult time. They are here, right now, to show support for the family and to remind us all of the most important thing in life.

Love.

The time I was yelled at on the phone.

A few weeks back a funeral associate of mine was talking to a gentleman at a visitation about prearrangements. I was not available at the time to sit down and speak with him, so  he was given a GPL and a promise that I would call and answer any questions he had in detail the next day.

So I called him. Except, he didn’t answer the phone. His wife did.

A lot of times, when I call people about prearrangements, I don’t like to initially say where I’m calling from. I’ve been in situations where family members ask me not to disclose that I’m from a funeral home, for one reason or another. Even though I was not told to withhold that information here, when this woman answered the phone instead of identifying myself right away, I just asked if the gentleman was home.

That’s when the woman identified herself as the wife and asked who was calling.

“My name is Lauren and I’m calling from the funeral ho-” was about as much as I was able to get off my lips before the wife let out a huge sigh and exclaimed, “Give me a break!”

She then proceeded to yell at me over the phone, about how her and her husband have no time to talk about preplanning because they’re so busy and how she repeatedly told her husband not to talk to a funeral director and how dare I call their home phone number.

I couldn’t even muster one word in to assure her that it was alright and they didn’t have to meet with me before I heard a ‘click’ and the line go dead.

The point that I’m trying to make with this story isn’t about proper phone etiquette, but instead that the only reason I called in the first place is because someone had questions.

I won’t tell people I’m a funeral director when I’m not working unless someone asks. One reason I don’t go around sharing my choice of careers is because when one says that they work in the death care industry people always have questions. Which is great; I honestly love talking about death. But sometimes I need a break. Sometimes, I just want to enjoy a moment for what it is rather than spend that time talking about work.

Therefore, I want to also say that I don’t spend my spare time calling people asking them if they have plans for their corpse once they die. If you ask me your options, I will have a conversation, but I won’t bring up the subject on my own.

I do not know the circumstances behind the reasons why the wife treated me as she did. Maybe something had just happened before she picked up the phone that put her in a bad mood. Maybe a family member was sick and she couldn’t face talking with a funeral director at that exact moment. But it’s not my job to force people to confront their mortality.

I cannot make everyone comfortable with the inevitable. I do not try to force my own beliefs on others when it comes to how they care for their dead. The only thing that I ever hope for, is that people at least have a conversation with those they love.

I am a resource. It is my job to serve those who seek my help, but not to force myself on those when my knowledge is not welcomed. I wish that I could have explained myself and apologized to the wife before she hung up the telephone. But, just maybe, our brief encounter allowed for her and her husband to have a more meaningful conversation on their own time.

All I do are funerals.

Today I updated my resume for the first time in three years. I didn’t do it for any reason other than it had been a while and an old boss once told me that it’s important to have a good resume. It kind of made me laugh, because I listed every single title that I ever had at the last funeral home I worked at.

February 2011 – June 2011: Funeral Assistant

June 2011 – June 2012: Resident Funeral Director

June 2012 – Present: Licensed Funeral Director

I mean, I was very excited every time my title changed, because it meant that I was that much close to my goal, to be fully licensed in New York State. Well, after combining some dates and rearranging things here and there, I now have it! A very pretty and up to date resume that proves to the entire world that I can only do one thing; bury people.

It’s a joke that I took to Twitter, because I believe that I’m sometimes witty and want to share my humor with the internet. I got a few ‘likes’ and retweets, but I got one response that said funeral directors have many high level skills that are valuable to those they serve. And that made me feel really good, because sometimes in the middle of burying and cremating dead bodies, I forget about all the things that I do for others and the things that I’m really good at.

I’m really good at calming people down during an arrangement conference.

I’m really good at doing makeup on the deceased for visitations.

I’m good at organizing a life event in a very short time frame.

I’m good at talking in front of a large crowd and speaking loudly and clearly.

I’m really good at listening. I listen to people’s wishes when it comes to their funerals. I listen to the widow as she tells stories of her husband who just died. I listen to body language and words that sound like one thing, but really mean something completely different.

I’m really good at being honest and upfront with people, because over all else, I treat the families that I have the honor of serving with the respect and dignity that I would want for my own family.

So yeah, when looking at my resume it may seem like I’m only qualified to bury people, but if the pages could talk, I’m sure they’d offer a different side to my story. Hopefully a side that shows that I was able to be a light in someones life when all they had was darkness. Because ‘funeral director’ or ‘mortician’ means so much more than “a person whose business is preparing dead bodies for burial or cremation and making arrangements for funerals”. It means being available 24/7. Going above and beyond what families expect to make a difficult time as easy as possible. It means working long hours and sometimes, for not the best pay. It means sacrificing time with my family for yours. It means being a makeup artist, car washer, public speaker, janitor, party planner, graphic designer and so so much more. It means doing the best I can every single day, so one day when I die, I can stand in the Grace of God and tell Him that I did the best that I could.

I’m really doing the best I can.

Looking for my forever plot.

When I die I want to be buried.

I don’t expect anyone to visit my grave. I don’t want my family and friends to feel obligated to come to any cemetery or to plant my favorite flowers (sunflowers) in my memory. I want to be buried because I feel like it’s the right decision for me. To be laid to rest in the earth, maybe under a tree or near some water. But I don’t have all of the details ironed out yet.

I play this game with my husband, sometimes. When passing by a cemetery, I’ll ask him if he’d like to be buried there. He never gives me a straight answer. Honestly, I’m not even sure if he’d want to be buried or cremated. He’ll normally just slide in a sarcastic comment about how he’s not done living yet. Well, neither am I, but I’d like to be prepared.

This weekend we were driving to his cousin’s wedding when we passed by a particularly small but charming cemetery that I’d describe as, well, in the middle of nowhere. Don’t get me wrong, there were plenty of cornfields all around, but it was located on a road that didn’t house much else. I asked him what he thought about this particular resting place when he once again sidetracked my question. He did, however, reply with, “Well, you know we’re not really going to be there!”

“I know”, I barked back at him, “but this is our final resting place for our mortal bodies!”

He looked at me in a way that only he can, being married to a funeral director after all, hearing the odd remarks that escape from my mouth day after day. And then, we both started to laugh. “You know, when you put it that way” he said, “it makes me think about it a little differently.”

Isn’t that my job, though? To try to make people see things a little differently? I’ve learned that in life, there is not always a right way to do things. Goodness, this even holds true when we talk about death. But by sharing our own stories and listening to others and their experiences, we learn new things. And when we learn, we grow. Changing and growing are some of the most beautiful parts of our lives.

Scary, also, yes; but really beautiful.

Five years ago I could have never imagined the woman I would be today. I know that the same will be true for the next five, ten and twenty years. But that uncertainty makes my life so much fun! Where I am is not where I will always be.

Unless we’re talking about my mortal body buried in a grave in some cemetery. (So yeah, Josiah, we’ve still got some decisions to make.) But until then, I’ll keep playing my little cemetery game, until hopefully, I find a place that I wouldn’t mind decomposing in. It’s a decision that has proven to be much more difficult for me than I would think, but we’ll get there. I’m not in any sort of hurry.

The best Chinese you’ve ever had.

Yesterday, a family run Chinese restaurant, located right over the border in Fort Erie closed it’s doors after serving their community for over 40 years. Living right outside of Buffalo, NY, my family has the very unique circumstances of being able to take a fifteen minute car ride right into Canada any time we wish. We’ve been eating at this particular place for years.

Eddie, who ran the business with his wife passed away unexpectedly last month. The decision to close to restaurant came afterwards from his family. I heard about the closing a few weeks ago from my brother who saw an article in the paper. I was in disbelief, how could a place that I’ve gone to my entire life close? I mean, my grandparents and great aunts and uncles had gone to eat there! It just didn’t seem real.

There was so much about this place that my family loved. First of all, the location was beautiful, right on the Niagara River overlooking Buffalo’s skyline. Secondly – can we just take a minute to talk about their egg rolls? I mean, my brother and I would fight over the leftovers. The only food that would be just as good reheated as it was when it was served hot and fresh in front of you. But honestly, I think the best thing about the place was Eddie and his family who ran it.

We were always greeted by our favorite waiter, Steve, who was Eddie’s son. Always a smile on his face, Steve remembered orders and names like he saw you every single day. That personalization and warm touch made the meal even more enjoyable. I loved his witty banter and jokes.

As my family left the restaurant for what would be our last meal there the other day, Steve shook my father’s hand and gave me a hug. He told my parents how great it was to have been able to watch my brother and I grow over the years.

Driving home in the car, I told my husband how upset I was. Before we found out that the restaurant was closing, it had been a few years since I’d eaten there. I told him that I felt like I took the place for granted, since it had always been in my life I just figured that it would always be there.

I’m still learning lessons, guys.

Nothing in this life is promised to us. Whether it’s a small family run restaurant or the company of a loved one, life can change in a moment. I wish that I had eaten there a little bit more the past two years. I wish I’d been able to see Eddie one last time before he passed. Although we never really spoke, he always made sure that I left with a chocolate bar. Such a little gesture that made this little girl so happy. I tried to make myself some promises on the ride back to Buffalo. To appreciate what I have in the moment. To do little things to make someone’s day a little brighter. And to tell people that I’m happy they’re in my life. I’m thankful for all of the meals that I was able to share with my family there over the years and the joy that came because of it.

Beautiful really was the perfect word.

On being a ‘selfish’ Mrs.

Yesterday was my two year wedding anniversary. The cotton anniversary. And work has been so busy that I was not able to buy my husband a gift. I gave him a card that I picked out weeks ago as I was strolling through the grocery store, but by the time I thought of a “cotton” gift that he would actually like I’d run out of time.

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My husband, obviously, is extremely prepared. And extremely thoughtful. I didn’t cry when I walked into our bathroom to get ready in the morning and saw this…

Time. I either have all of it or none of it.

I made a remark about how I needed more time when my father-in-law, who works at the funeral home, commented that we all have the same amount of hours in a day. But why do my hours seem to always fly by?

Yesterday was another long day. I feel like I’ve had nothing but long days as far back as I can remember, although honestly, it’s probably just been a busy week or two. My husband had off of work to celebrate our anniversary, but our plans were scrambled since I had an early morning funeral. We spent time together in the afternoon until I got a death call and had to excuse myself again for a few hours. I ended up leaving work a little after five thirty in the afternoon, when I said enough was enough, things can wait until tomorrow. But I felt bad.

You see, last night our funeral home also had calling hours for a family that I had gotten close with over the past few days. I wanted to be able to be there with them, to close the casket since the next morning we would all be meeting directly at the cemetery.

But it was my two year wedding anniversary. So I was selfish and put myself first.

And it was more than okay for me to do that.

Every day I make sacrifices for my own family so I can serve someone else’s. And, truly, I love my job. But I will not wake up one day, only to look back on my life with regret for not spending the time I could with my loved ones.

We all have the same hours in a day, but those days are not promised to us.

Happy anniversary to my B. Thank you for sacrificing so much of your life so I can work in this field. You are honestly my best friend and love. And I promise you, that cotton wedding gift is coming.

My thoughts after a particular arrangement conference.

Today was a busy day. We had three death calls and I was the funeral director who met with every family. Now to my bigger firms, three calls may not seem like a lot, but for a smaller family run funeral home, well, let’s just say I was constantly on the go during this twelve-hour day.

All of these deaths were unexpected. Two were in their fifties. One was just doing some physical rehab. All families were devastated. These circumstances obviously made for *really fun* arrangement conferences. (Sarcasm, guys, sarcasm..)

Anyways, during one of these conferences,  a daughter of the deceased casually commented on how she was “so happy” that she was donating her body to science so her kids didn’t have to go through “all of this”.

I commented on how great it was that she was donating her body to science, since the act does benefit others, but quietly wondered to myself what she really meant.

You see, during arrangement conferences, I often cannot say exactly what I’m thinking. Because it’s not about me. It’s about the honoring the dead and working with their loved ones. But now, I do want to comment on that little remark. Because even though donating your body to science is a great thing, it does not save “anybody” from going through “anything.”

If you choose to not have a viewing, your family will grieve.

If you choose to have a full funeral service, your family will grieve.

If you choose to have a green burial, a direct cremation, or a celebration of life, your family will grieve.

You cannot save your family from the heartache that death brings.

You can, however, make it harder for your family, by not talking about your wishes.

You can make it harder for your family by not having a will.

Prepare for the day when your heart stops beating. Love your family with everything you have. And don’t you dare believe for one second, that when the day comes, that they will not mourn. Having a funeral is not a chore. Having a funeral is an opportunity to say good-bye. To acknowledge that a person mattered and made a difference in our lives. Regardless of how you personally choose to honor that person, that funeral is a sign of respect.

For my allies.

I think that one of the hardest aspects of being a funeral director is working with people who don’t care as much as you do.

Whether it be a direct contact, like a coworker, or higher up management, when you’re not on the same page, things get difficult. You get discouraged. You feel as if you’re not making a difference, and when you feel defeated, you are defeated. I’ve personally worked with people (who in my opinion) have cared a little too much and people who I feel don’t care enough. It’s a struggle.

I know I’ve said this before, but as a funeral director, you depend on a lot of people in order to do your job. Clergy. Local newspapers. Cemeteries. The list goes on and on. But your biggest help comes from the people who you work with day in and day out. The people we often treat not as we should because we take them for granted.

I try my best to let my guys at the funeral home know how much I appreciate them, because they do more for me than they know. I have a few who are just as passionate about funeral services as I am. It’s amazing. We bounce ideas off of each other and really come up with awesome ways to better serve families. It’s refreshing and it’s something that I personally need. I need people to challenge me. I need people to care just as much as I do. I need people in my life who want to help families. It’s how we make a difference in our community!

So once again, to all my guys, THANK YOU.

I don’t say it enough. We’re a team. Together, we can really make a difference.

You guys make me a better funeral director.