Fall 2016

The Undertaker’s Daughter

September 27, 2016

I am the daughter of a funeral director and embalmer. I didn’t think there was anything inherently strange about this fact until Jennifer Sailor* stopped being my best friend in 8th grade and told me it was creepy to ride on stretchers in the back of my father’s van. That’s when I realized that perhaps it’s a little strange to have a father in the death industry.

My dad started out part-time at a funeral home when I was maybe 8 or 9, and I would visit with him in the evenings as he tuned into a small desktop TV in an eerily quiet office conveniently located near the visitation rooms and the crematory. In fact, if I wanted a soda, I had to venture near said crematory via the cold garage to get one from the drink machine, it’s bright lights and ghostly hum the only life in that part of the building. My heart would pound in my chest as I waited for the drink to dispense, and then I would run as fast as I could back to the office where it was warm and safe.

I remember when I saw my first decedent. I couldn’t have been much older than 10, if that, and I asked my dad if he would let me see a dead person. Back then, my imagination certainly got the best of me, and I was surprised when the sweet elderly lady in the casket looked like she was just sleeping. I didn’t dare touch her, but I also wasn’t as freaked out as I thought I might be.

It wasn’t long after that when I found myself around decedents on a fairly regular basis. My dad’s part-time job turned into a full-time venture as a removal company (and a successful one at that). For those of you that are unfamiliar with removal companies, they’re the ones that pick up decedents from their homes, hospices, and hospitals and take them to the medical examiner or the funeral home. They’re also the first ones to respond to a death outside of the police and EMS, and they set the tone for the entire funeral experience. Before long, I was riding shotgun with my dad as he transported a passenger on the stretcher in the back. I loved it. “I see you brought your helper today,” the hospital staff would say as I smiled from the front seat while they helped my dad load a decedent into our van.

I wasn’t as much in love with the act of caring for the dead as I was with the fact that I got to spend time with my dad. Some of these trips were hours long, and I was still a child with no comprehension of grief or loss. I was more morbidly curious about what happened to the body after death, although I was still very aware that our passenger was also a person, someone who was loved and cherished. My dad never let me forget that.

By the time I was 13, I was ready to see my first autopsy. I wasn’t sure what I expected exactly, but I don’t think it was a boy my age who had committed suicide with a shotgun. Every moment during that first autopsy was equally fascinating and poignant. I knew there was a heaviness that surrounded this boy, but I was too young to appreciate the gravity of it all. I wondered if his days were like mine, filled with school and hormones and happiness and boredom. What made him so different than me, that he ended up on a cold mortuary table and I watched from the other side?

Growing up, I saw and did things that most others will never see or do in their lifetime. It was an amazing childhood, and it shaped my calling as an adult. There are still people in my life that talk about the day my dad came to pick up their loved one and how he was a comforting presence when everything was falling apart. If you ask my dad, he would probably say he was just doing his job. I believe it’s a calling for him as well.

He went on to get his funeral director and embalmer’s license, and now we talk shop every time we get together. In fact, it usually takes less than 3 minutes for our discussion to turn to funeral directing, which makes holiday dinners interesting. (“What’s your go-to mix for jaundice? Can you pass the potatoes?”) My children are now experiencing the childhood I did, although they are much less hands on. Give them time. My youngest has already said that he may want to be a funeral director when he grows up.

I am proud to be where I am today, a second-generation apprentice funeral director and embalmer, a legacy created for me by my father. He gave me the foundation, and my mother gave me the purpose. Who knows what the future holds? Maybe a fourth-, fifth-, even sixth-generation funeral director? How amazing would that be?

*Of course, this name has been changed. 

Fall 2016

The Calling

September 20, 2016

For the first 36 years of my life, I didn’t know what my purpose was. I’m not talking about being a wife and mom here; I think many of us grow up knowing that we will be partners and parents, but that doesn’t always make it our life’s purpose. I’m talking about the one thing that relentlessly nags at your heart until you muster up the courage to face your fears and do it. It’s the thing that lies inside a burning passion, and you just can’t seem to let it go. Pursuing it is almost a compulsion. Being open to where it takes you makes you a better person.

For 36 years, I thought I would never find my purpose. It was so elusive to me, and I thought that maybe I was just a renaissance soul destined to live my life never settling down on one thing that I love. I had fallen into marketing by accident years before and was quite good at it, but I found myself at my desk every day dreaming of something different. Maybe I was going to be a quilter, or maybe a writer, or maybe a full-time mom, but nothing ever seemed just right. I was never content.

Then my mom died five days before Christmas in 2014, and it turned out to be one of the most defining moments of my life. My marriage, the birth of my children, and the death of my mom: I can count on one hand the events that have changed my life forever.

I talk about her like someone talks about a relationship lost long ago that they still yearn for. At some point, everyone expects you to get over it. Here’s the deal, though: you never get over loss. Never ever. It will stay with you for the rest of your life and when everyone else has forgotten about how you lost a piece of your heart, it will still be as fresh as the day it happened, although somewhat blurred by time. In the loss of my mother, I found my purpose, and I am reminded of her in my work every day.

At the funeral home, I styled my mother’s hair and painted her nails. It was the last act I could do for her, as I felt a great need to care for her upon her passing. What I didn’t expect, however, was the moment where an indisputable idea came to my mind so simply and clearly, like it was there all along just waiting to be discovered: I am meant to be a funeral director. All of my searching for purpose in life came to an end in this moment, with my mother’s freshly manicured hand in mine. It was an epiphany without the fanfare. It was simply so, and that was that.

When I arrived home after the funeral a few days later, I sought out classes online and within a few weeks, I was officially registered for the dual license program at Piedmont Technical College, the only funeral school in SC. The next day, my brother told me that he was thinking about becoming a funeral director. Funny, I said, because I just signed up for classes. He signed up himself a few days later.

For the next year and a half, my life was a whirlwind of full-time school, serving a funeral director and embalmer apprenticeship, and being a wife and mom. It’s not the easy path, but it’s the right one for me. This August, I graduated Magna Cum Laude from the funeral program, missing that elusive 4.0 by just a few tenths of a point. I worked hard because I wanted it so badly. For me, there was no other choice.

Every day, I wake up with gratitude for the gift of my mother and the path that is now in front of me. How lucky am I, to fulfill my purpose every day?