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.