Warning: dark humor, death, grief.
You might think that as a funeral director, I would be completely desensitized to grief; however, between my work and my personal experience, truth be told, grief and I are uneasy partners.
This is the business no one wants any part of — second only, maybe, to the IRS. But at some point, you’re going to need me or my competitors. My line of work demands a delicate balance between being business oriented, yet sensitive to my clients’ needs at a time when their lives feel entirely upside down. Consequently, over the years, I have crafted the skills necessary for my living clients to trust that my funeral home is a safe, dignified, respectful space for both themselves and their deceased loved ones.
The interim between learning a close loved one has passed and the funeral is a strange time indeed. It’s a surreal limbo between the everyday world and the business of death. There’s still a certain amount of planning that takes place even if the deceased has prearranged their funeral. The surviving relatives are struggling to process their grief while conducting business and trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy.
For those who are grieving, the world is often viewed through a thin veil of fog, and the weight of the planet seems to become their backpack. The ground on which they walk never feels even. Automatic tasks — like pressing the button for the elevator — now become carefully thought out processes. Their minds don’t just drift; some say it’s more as if their entire head has left their body. However, sometimes there will be a moment of levity, and that moment is so present and so rich that life almost feels normal again, and they wish they could laugh forever.
Witnessing grief in its truest, most raw form on a daily basis, I have learned that it is important to understand that how we mourn is as unique as it is universal, and that however we process it is completely okay.
In that distorted, hazy time where only the absurd makes sense, I’ve had some clients tell me they’re oddly gratefully that I’ve seen it all and that I’m impartial without coming off cold…port in the storm, I guess. But like any client-facing job, just because I’ve seen it all doesn’t mean there aren’t families that stand out. Believe it or not, even a funeral director can have favorite memories of the job.
For privacy purposes, I’ll call them the Smith family. Gramps, the family patriarch, had just passed. His and his wife’s funerals had been pre-planned. The surviving wife, two daughters, and the eldest daughter’s husband, had gathered in my office to discuss the details of the funeral, including the headstones that had been pre-purchased.
I designed my office to look like a living room, complete with a rocking chair and chenille blanket. This family entered it as most clients do - somber, monotone voices, eyes dark and glazed over. When I asked the oldest daughter, whose dark, curly hair was meticulously styled, to describe her father, her face wore that familiar mixture of opposing, emotions… a brightness to her eyes as she recalled her dad’s best traits with an undertone of pain as she was reminded yet again that he was truly gone. Her husband, with his full beard and New York Mets polo shirt, cut in and described Gramps as “fun loving.” The younger daughter, wearing a pair of leopard print leggings that I had JUST ordered from Amazon the day before, spoke of the elaborate Christmas brunch they threw every year. Gramps had always taken it upon himself to run the Omelet Station, except everyone always had to hunt him down to do his job because he was too busy stealing crab legs from the Seven Fish Station. His wife, Grammy, only had the strength right then to say one thing: “We were married 62 years.”
After discussing the actual service, I tapped the next tab on my iPad which contained details about his headstone.
“Now, the stone isn’t going to be ready for several weeks,” I said, my tone of voice purposely soft as an evening breeze. “So if you would like to add anything to it, I’ll make some notes here.”
“What did he originally put on the stone?” Curls asked.
I scrolled down my iPad. “It looks like he wanted his last name, birth year, and whatever the death year would be.”
“It’s common to keep it very simple, initially,” I explained.
“No,” Curls said, “That’s my dad being CHEAP. I’m surprised he even went with a stone and didn’t ask for two sticks taped together.”
“Your dad spent money where it mattered,” Grammy cut in.
“Yes, but never on himself, even when it mattered,” said Curls. She looked back at me. “It matters to us, so can we please use his full name, birth date, and death date?”
“Of course,” I said, quickly adding the notes on the iPad. “We can also add any expression or trait you would like, such as ‘beloved husband, father’-”
“How about, ‘He Was A Helluva Guy?’” Leggings suggested dryly.
“Okay,” I said. “And just to let you know, it will be $25 per letter.”
Leggings eyes grew wide, but she didn’t miss a beat. “Okay then,” she said, “He Was A HE Of A Guy.”
The energy in the office completely changed as everyone, myself included, burst out laughing. I personally laughed harder than I usually allowed myself when clients made jokes. The family I had met with before the Smith’s had lost their family member under more tragic circumstances, and the meeting had been particularly somber. Mastering the art of compartmentalizing each experience is essential to the job, but the heavy energy would often still linger after meetings like that. However, every once in awhile, you’re lucky enough to have a moment like the one with the Smiths.
As I shared the laughter with the family, I allowed myself to bask in the brief moment of normalcy the family was experiencing, probably for the first time in days. Sitting in my calculatedly cozy office, we could have been old friends getting together for the first time in years.
“Ohhh, goodness, that felt good,” The Beard remarked, scratching at his furry chin.
“Well, much as Dad WOULD have approved of either one, especially if he wasn’t paying for it, let’s just keep it at the name and dates,” Curls smiled. “Mom, are you okay with that?”
“Fine by me,” Grammy said, now seeming somewhat more at ease.
With the weight of the circumstance slowly returning, I went over a few more details on the iPad. Curls mused, “HE of a guy…” while Leggings smiled and shrugged matter-of-factly.
“Now,” I began, returning my voice to its delicate, sensitive, professional tone, “I’m going to ask this now only because we are currently on the subject. But let me preface it by saying you do not have to answer. It is completely okay to tell me this is the wrong time to discuss it, but, Grammy, are there any notes I can make now regarding your stone? Would you like anything added in addition to your name and birthdate?”
The room fell silent. Everyone’s heads had floated away again and I felt awful. Right then, I mourned right along with them. I wanted to grab my own throat and say, “You had to remind them that this is just business for you, huh? So we laugh for ten seconds, and you’re comfortable trying to upsell them on the inevitable future? JEEZ, you are such a creep!”
My eyes brimmed with tears watching Grammy’s face twist as she came to grips with her own mortality. Wasn’t it bad enough she was just 3 days removed from losing her husband of 62 years?
Her expression softened as she glanced at the ceiling. Then her gaze fell on mine. “Oh, I don’t know,” she said evenly. “How about ‘Coming Soon’?’”
Nobody took any time to decide whether Grammy was serious or joking. Leggings’ howl of laughter was the first sound that hit my ears. Curls leaned back in the rocking chair, clutching her chest in laughter. The Beard laughed so hard he was wiping tears from his eyes.
After heaving the biggest sigh I ever had in my 10 years of mortuary service, I shut my eyes and allowed my relief to wash over me. When I dared to open my eyes, Grammy was grinning at me. “You know, these subjects are not easy to discuss, even when you do it for a living. But I’m really glad, for your sakes, that you took it in stride.”
Grammy shrugged. “Not like we can really avoid it.”
I nodded sympathetically.
“We’ve been a total mess since Dad passed, believe me,” Curls said. “But we’ll take relief wherever we can find it.”
After all is said and done, isn’t that really all anyone can do?
Since it was Wednesday, on my way home that evening I stopped by my favorite gastro pub, The Shaggy Dog, for a gin and tonic and half price Jamaican jerk wings. I was glad to see Avery behind the bar. She’s one of the few people I’ve ever met who isn’t thoroughly creeped out by my job. Actually, she’s morbidly fascinated by it so she’s always willing to listen if I ever feel the need to vent about a rough day.
“Tanq and tonic, my dear?” she asked as I sat down.
“Please, my dear.”
“Any unexplained scratching or noises in the basement today?” she asked, scooping ice into a bucket glass. She spent a lot of free time binge watching Ghost Adventures.
I shook my head silently, smiling a little. Avery placed a fresh gin and tonic in front of me.
“Avery, can I get my tab?” a deep male voice asked from behind me. I looked behind me and saw Paul, one of The Shaggy Dog’s most faithful happy hour regulars. “Oh, hey, Jackie. Didn’t mean to yell in your ear there.”
“You’re good, Paul. How’ve you been?”
“My wife is coming back from deployment in two weeks so I am WONDERFUL. You won’t see me around much soon.”
“That’s great news! I sure hope she gets home safe and stays here a long while.”
“Me too,” Paul said, “Avery, can I get my bill?”
“No sir,” Avery replied firmly, crossing her arms. “Your money’s no good here tonight. See ya later.”
Paul rolled his eyes. “C’mon, that’s not why -”
“No, I insist. Scram!”
Paul pulled his wallet from his back pocket, fished out a twenty, and slapped it on the bar. “Only because I know better than to argue with you. Take care!” He turned and headed for the door.
“Not taking that either!” she called behind him, laughing.
“What was that all about?” I asked, as Avery swiped the tip and tossed it into her jar.
Avery looked at me and grinned. “My college roommate posted a wish list on Amazon for her classroom. She wants to do a Harry Potter theme for the upcoming school year. Anyway, I told Paul about it, and how I felt bad that last year she had help with maybe 5 items and the rest came out of her pocket. Well, he must really be feeling the love about his wife coming home because that guy asked for a link to the wish list and bought EVERYTHING that was still available!”
“Totally stole my thunder for the wand pencils and Sorting Hat I took care of, but seriously, how amazing is that?” Avery grinned. “So now my best friend is in for a huge surprise. People like that restore my faith in humanity.”
“What a great story,” I said, taking a sip of my drink.
“Right? I get warm fuzzies whenever I think about it. Paul is so awesome.”
“Yeah,” I agreed, “He’s a real HE of a guy.”
I was tempted to fill Avery in on the story, but people were starting to approach the bar. By the time I decided to say, “Never mind,” Avery had moved on to the other customers. Someone ordered an IPA. The pub phone started ringing. A server approached my seat and delivered my chicken wings. Life was happening.
Dedicated with deepest love to the memory of Bob and Marion Kranz