Job Of The Day: The Person at the Funeral Home Who Does It All

Embalmer/funeral director/people-soother.

Photo: Lynn Friedman/Flickr

After reading Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets In Your Eyes a few years ago, I briefly conivinced myself that if my current career path did not work out, working in a crematory and following the same path she did to mortician would be feasible.

I will never be a mortician, just like I will never be a scientist or someone who is good at math professionally. Everything I know about the industry of death I learned from repeat viewings of My Girl, Doughty’s book, Fun Home and whatever I can observe from the funeral home that occupies the first floor of my apartment building. That is to say, I know very little. This interview with a funeral director and embalmer is much more enlightening.

The Funeral Director Who Just Wants to Give Families Some Peace

Pay attention to the little details that people don’t pay attention to and it’s going to make the person look really good. So many times, people put too much glue when closing the eyes. You use a little glue, it’s called Aron Alpha, that closes them to where if somebody tries to open them, they wouldn’t open and freak everybody out. It’s also to stop any sort of leakage. Because they can purge out of the mouth or the nose or the eyes. It ruins clothes, it ruins the whole experience of seeing somebody.

The mouth is really number one in making it look natural. There was an embalmer who’d put a little smile on their face and people loved it. They would go, “It looks like she’s smiling!” It truly did. They’re not grinning or anything grotesque.

The last funeral I attended was my grandmother’s, when I was fifteen. I don’t remember much about it except that I wouldn’t get too close to the casket and I screamed not out of fear, but shock, really, when I did get close and saw that her hair was white instead of the auburn shade she used to dye it. I remember telling my father that someone should’ve taken care of that.

What’s nice about this is that it dispels the myth that I previously held: that those who work in funeral homes and deal with the emotional trauma of death every single day for their jobs are immune to that trauma when it affects them.

I used to think that this job would prepare me for death. Then one of my aunts died. I didn’t know her all that well. They had a service up in Michigan. I was so struck by my family up there. My mom and dad and little brothers, they were crying. As soon as my brother turned around and he’s got cry-face on, I just started blubbering. It was uncontrollable. And I realize this has not prepared me for anything. I was thinking it’s going to prepare me for dealing with death, and I think it’s made it worse.

I notice I’m very careful about crossing the street. I’m very careful about driving a car. I notice the stupid ways people die. I notice it with people I work with too. They’re very careful. You’re always thinking every phone call could be something bad happening. It’s not really a way to live a life.

My favorite part is definitely bringing somebody in and having them see the work that you did that you were like 100 percent involved in and having them say, “Can I hug you?” And then just gushing, “Thank you, thank you so much. She looks so beautiful.” That’s honestly the reason you stay. That raw human vulnerability. Sometimes they ask if they can hug you. Sometimes they don’t and they just grab you and you can feel them shaking. They’re so happy that she looks normal.

It’s nice to know that there are nice people at the other end of this thing, buffering the anxiety and doing what they can to make a hard experience a little easier.

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