A year in….

Greetings Islanders!  A thousand pardons for the past 6 months of silence.  Work and school have dominated my time, and I just haven’t had the gumption to put my thoughts to words.  Not that topics haven’t come up.  There’s the silliness of the election (which I’ll keep to myself lest I piss off everyone).  There’s the tragic string of celebrity deaths culminating in the shocking loss of Prince.  Sadly I’m still a bit too shellshocked to write coherently about that loss.  And then there’s me.  Big changes over the last year, so I figured I’d talk about that.

For those who aren’t aware, April 30, 2015 marked the end of a 20 year career in the fascinating world of building materials sales.  I got into the business on a lark, and ended up working in every facet of it: management, purchasing, sales, A/P, etc.  I was there before, during, and after the boom and the crash.  I learned everything I could about the business and got to be very, very good at it.  I did pretty well for myself too.  That said, I spent most of the last 10 years hating what I did.

Yup, I hated it.  I hated that I was making money contributing to the overbuilding of the DC Metro area.  I hated that I was profiting by adding to the congestion of the area.  I hated that I helped people rip down perfectly good starter homes to build obscene McMansions.  And the ecological angle bothered me as well.  Logging is actually a surprisingly Green industry (trees are an infinitely renewable resource and it’s genuinely amazing how responsible the industry is as a whole), but when you’re razing trees to build a subdivision…..Well, I’ve got issues with that.

So I never really knew what I wanted to be when I grew up, but I knew I wasn’t happy where I was.  Fate stepped in and introduced me to a guy who ran his family’s funeral home.  A few conversations later I found myself fascinated with the idea of being a funeral director.  Inertia being inertia, I didn’t do anything about it until my father’s death.  My manager at the time felt that our quarterly inventory was more important than my father’s entrance to hospice care, and I was unable to see my father before his death.  Seeing how little the company I’d worked for for 16 years cared about me, I started getting everything together to make the jump to a new career.

And away I went.  At 46 years old I made a career change, and at 47 I started school again.  It’s been…….Interesting.  One of the assignments I had to do was to interview a funeral director.  It was a useful and interesting exercise, and in thinking about writing this post, I figured that my answers to the same questions might be interesting.  So, without any prior preparation, I plan on spending this rainy afternoon interviewing myself.

 

Why or how did the person you are interviewing decide to work in or around the death care industry?

Well, as I mentioned above, I hated what I did, I was pissed off with my company, and I wanted out.  Death care wasn’t really on my radar, but as I looked into it and researched what was involved, I became fascinated with it.  Though I went through a Goth stage, I’ve never had a death fixation.  I don’t have my walls painted black, nor are there skulls on display on my mantle.

There is a striking similarity to what I did before though.  Though it’s not exactly sales, there’s a relationship-building process involved.  More than that though, there’s the prospect of helping people through an incredibly difficult time.  I saw this when I dealt with my father’s death, and that aspect appealed to me quite a bit.  Though there was some sense of fulfillment in my old job, at the end of the day I really didn’t do much of any importance to anyone.  As tacky as it may sound, what I do now makes a difference.  That means something to me.

Do we need funeral directors or funeral service professionals in this country? Why or why not?

Heh…..Life has a way of throwing you a curve every now and then, and this is one of them.  I would have enthusiastically answered “yes” to this for the first month or so after I started.  My answer now is a resounding “no”.  There’s certainly a place for funeral directors, and there’s no question that they can provide a valuable service to people who wish to use them, but there’s no need for them.

Over the course of the past century or so, we’ve separated ourselves from death.  Used to be that families and friends would care for the dead, and viewings were done in the person’s home.  Now death is denied, fought against, and hidden from polite society.  It’s to the point that it’s treated as something awful.  When we pick a body up from a hospital or nursing home, we remove the body through the back door…..The same door the trash is taken through.  We park next to the dumpsters and the biohazard containers.  We move quickly so that no one can see that someone died.  These facilities are so concerned with hiding the reality of death that they don’t give the deceased the dignity of leaving the building the way they came in – through the front door.  And the nurses and orderlies suss everyone back to their rooms when it’s time to take the deceased from their rooms.

Everyone dies, and everyone does everything they can to avoid seeing death.

Something like two thirds of our healthcare dollars are spent on end-of-life treatment.  We spend a fortune on anti-aging potions and devices.  We do everything we can to stave off the inevitable.  And I think that’s silly.  And I think that this industry has created some of those sentiments.  It certainly reinforces them.  I believe that we as a society need to take more responsibility for death.  We need to be more intimate with it, and the experience needs to be brought back home.  It’s not something to be hidden.  I think that there’s a place for funeral homes and directors, but I also think that if mom dies at home you should be able to lay her out in the living room, have people over to say their goodbyes, then wrap her in a sheet and bury her in the backyard.

You shouldn’t need to pay someone to take care of a dead relative; you should have the option to do so if you wish.

What is the perceptions of your interviewee regarding the most rewarding aspects of being connected to the funeral service profession or death care industry? Explain.

There’s a lot to this.  I never thought I’d have the enthusiasm for the clinical side of the business that I seem to have.  Who knew that I have the stomach to be around dead bodies, be they intact, battered, broken, or full-on autopsied?  It’s incredibly fulfilling to take the body of someone who died badly, and through a mixture of science and art have a body that not only looks presentable for viewing, but looks so good that the family says so.

But even more rewarding (on a selfish level) is the exposure I’ve had to the various different cultures and religions, and their death customs and rituals.  Whether it’s the Muslims bathing their dead, the Buddhists chanting, or the Hindus placing food in the casket, I’ve discovered a wide array of beliefs and practices.  Which ironically has shattered any faith I had.  I came into the business a reasonably good Catholic.  A year later and I find myself aligning more closely to the Buddhists…..But even that’s more from a worldview point rather than a spiritual one.  I find myself planted pretty firmly in agnosticism, and I’m good with that.

Ask your interviewee what he/she perceives as one of the biggest problems/challenges/issues in funeral service today.

Again, it’s funny as I thought one thing a year ago, and something completely different now.  The business is tradition-based, and as such is very conservative and resistant to change.  And that’s a problem because the world keeps moving and advancing.  We’re on the cusp of an enormous die-off as the Boomer generation ages.  The numbers say that ten thousand people are retiring every day, and it’s a matter of time until they start dying in those numbers.  We’re not prepared for that.  Not the business, and not society as a whole.  We don’t have the infrastructure to deal with it.

I was introduced to the death positive movement shortly after I started work.  The gateway was Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, a book by a woman named Caitlin Doughty, and then through her website, The Order of the Good Death.  I had no idea such things were….things.  I spent the majority of last summer voraciously devouring everything I could find on all things death positive.  And then I discovered the whole Green Burial movement.

And that’s when I had one of those rare moments of absolute clarity.  The prospect of spending my final 20 years of work in a funeral home here suddenly became obsolete.  I want to facilitate home burials, I want to do green services, and I want to spread the word about death positivity.  I didn’t coin the term, “death hippie”, but I like it.

And of course, the industry is fighting those things tooth and nail.  In a world where “Green” has become a marketing bonanza, our industry stubbornly refuses to embrace it.  The annual tally of buried materials in U.S. cemeteries is more than 30 million board-feet of hardwood and 90,000 tons of steel in coffins, 17,000 tons of steel and copper in vaults, 1.6 million tons of reinforced concrete in vaults, and millions of gallons of formaldehyde-laden embalming fluid.  That’s freaking amazing.  Yet the industry doesn’t want to change.  Hell, they’re still bitter that more and more people are choosing cremation over conventional burial.

The change is coming, and I want to be in on it.  It’s going to end up being an adapt-or-die scenario for the industry, and I want to be one of the catalysts for the adaptation.

Whatever your interviewee feels regarding value in funeral service, how does he/she think a funeral director can add value today to the funeralization process? Be specific.

I think the big thing, both now and in the coming years, is going to be personalization.  There’s a cookie-cutter mentality now that’s completely outdated.  The rest of the world is moving towards mass-customization, and death care needs to do the same.  In a year of doing and observing services, I’m struck with how much they’re all exactly the same.  Now that’s fine for some people.  There’s comfort (for some) in the ritualization of the Catholic service.  But not everyone wants that, and we need to recognize that and be willing to improvise with families.

 

Wow, I went on longer than I’d thought.

So yeah, I’m pretty pleased with my decision.  And it seems to be sitting well with me.  I’m happier with work than I’ve been in years.  I’m doing better in school than I’d ever imagined I could do.  I was a horrible student when I was an undergrad (I’d love to blame it on the ’80s, but that’s nothing more than an excuse – I was too busy partying and chasing women to study) and I’ve spent the last 26 years thinking I was stupid because of my awful grades.  The straight-As I’ve gotten since have reminded me that I have a decent head on my shoulders.

But I’m stunned at something else too.  I’ve lost 25 pounds over the course of the year.  I’m in much better physical shape.  I’m taking much better care of myself.  And I’m more open to things than I’ve been since…..Well, since forever.

It’s been an interesting year, and I’m looking forward to more.

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