Give ‘Em the Ol’ Razzle Dazzle

Funeral directors are an odd bunch. We all operate differently. Every funeral firm, corporate or family-owned, has their own style and operating procedure. Every manager/owner/boss has their own ideas about how funerals should go and what role the funeral director plays on the day of the service. There are countless roles to play and jobs to do.* (ALL bosses will tell you that there is only one way, THEIR way.) I enjoy watching other funeral directors operate on the day of the service and see how they run things. When I started in this industry, I was told by an elder in the community that “if you see the funeral director at a service then they’re doing it wrong” – implying that we should stick to the background and not be seen or heard. But some of us are a little showy and like the razzle-dazzle of it all, while some hide in the shadows.

For me, I like a little of both but prefer to be behind the scenes like a master puppeteer pulling the strings from off stage. I personally feel that if I did my job right, all the actors and scripts are ready and set in place and I just have to make sure all the parts fall into place on time and in order. I don’t want my families to have to do anything on the day of the service but show up and cope with their own feelings and grief. Depending on the service and the traditional/non-traditional aspect, depending on the family dynamic/character, depending on the officiant/celebrant, will depend on my level of involvement on the day of the service. For a typical service held in our funeral home chapel, my mentor likes the standard opening greeting at the microphone, asking everyone to turn off their cellphones, maybe bit of instruction for the casket bearers, or an invitation to the reception after the service has completed. There is also the typical speech at the end to let everyone know the service has completed. PRO TIP: If you do not specifically tell people that the service is over they will literally just sit there and stare at you with this look of “oh god, what is going to happen next, nothing’s happening!” We’re done sir, nothing is happening next, go home.

I’ve had colleagues who absolutely stress out about this short little ditty and plan how they’re going to say this opening and closing to the letter, I’ve also had colleagues who turn these little speech opportunities into a sermon and become center stage. Like I said, we all operate differently. And most of us are odd.

What has your experience been with funeral directors on the day of the service? Were they distracting? Were they non-existent? Did they say something embarrassing/uncomfortable/odd? Did they somehow have the perfect words for just the right moment? Or did they give you the ‘ol razzle-dazzle and you were, in fact, razzled and dazzled?

*Each state has different licensing requirements and differentiate between the jobs; using titles like funeral director, embalmer, funeral arranger, mortician, and probably more. On the day of the service, most funeral homes utilize other staff to help and assist, we call them ambassadors, some call them funeral assistants. In my state we have funeral directors and morticians, the difference being that morticians also embalm but funeral directors do not. (Or as the more macabre like to put it they “push the fluid.”) It is more common in my state for most morticians and funeral directors to just use the term funeral director as an all encompassing term… I suppose it sounds more gentle?

This is my reality.

Read the article, watch the video, this is my funeral home, this is my reality every day. (I pre-apologize for my sailor mouth.)

In a normal September I’d be helping roughly 40-50 families. On this, the 30th of the month I left work at 8pm and ended with over 80. Not to mention our own staff are taking a hit and myself, my boss, and our apprentice are working ourselves to the bone. Today, just TODAY, I added five new cases to my personal workload. (Not all Covid mind you because shockingly people are still dying of regular ol’ natural causes and they deserve my attention too.) however… this doesn’t factor in those I’ve taken on yesterday, earlier this week, and beyond. It sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not, I love my job beyond measure. I’m just pissed.

Let me explain what is different now vs the surge before. Politics. Plain and simple. Our political figures are up for re-election and they are pussy-footing around making any kind of hard line in the sand. Before, we had restrictions on gatherings. Now, we have none. Families are assuming that since there are no restrictions on gatherings that it is safe to hold services and be around each other. There is a false sense of security and it is literally killing families. Stop. Read that again. It. Is. Killing. FAMILIES. I’ve stopped counting how many members of the same family I’ve served. I’ve stopped counting how many double funerals (for spouses, for parent and child) I’ve held. They joke, “Heather, it was nice to meet you but I don’t want to see you again.”… and then we’re making arrangements again two weeks later. People gather at the funeral and do what grieving people do. They hug, they offer support, they pull their masks down to be heard. Look, they aren’t solely to blame. No one told them it was serious again. No one who has the power has used it. What was the point of having staged re-openings if we were going to reasses and realize we needed to take steps back.

My heart is breaking for the families I serve who are experiencing, not only loss, but so many secondary traumas their heads are spinning. Thousands in funeral costs unexpected. And often times multiple funeral costs. Or NOT having a funeral to save money which can be even more detrimental to one’s ability to process and grief and heal. Honoring a life doesn’t have to cost money. But people don’t know how without tradition and ritual and guidance. And directly after an unexpected death occurs is a super sh*tty time to learn. We are talking about decades of secondary trauma that who knows how it’ll rear it’s ugly head in their lives. I don’t get commission if someone spends a lot on a service. Hell, I get paid less than a school teacher. It serves no one if a family holds a service that they can’t pay for, both they and I are actually worse off for it. My job, or at least how I choose to see it, is to guide families from a state of shock, through the journey of grief, to mourning in a safe and healthy way. That’s 100% my goal as a funeral director.

But this isn’t politics, as our county coroner stated on CNN “this isn’t republican vs democrat, this is life vs death” and I, like her, just want to keep my community alive. I want to give them a chance to mourn and grieve losses that aren’t premature. So what if someone had pre-exisisting conditions, that’s a freakin’ life! That’s somebody’s person! Are we that calloused to be okay with a death because someone happened to have had a health issue or two? We all have health issues. And not all the deaths I’ve seen have had pre-existing conditions. I wish I could describe the people who have passed through my prep room doors but won’t because these are people’s parents, siblings, and yes babies.

I go to work and when I leave it is like going into a weird twilight zone. No one is wearing masks. People are going on vacation for f*cks sake. People are living like they have superpowers. Look, this virus doesn’t give a crap. It can infect a whole family and only take out one and the others only experience mild or no symptoms at all. I’m absolutely gobstopped how many people are willing to take that chance. Do you know how absolutely devastating it is to be the family member who gave your loved one Covid and they died? I can tell you. I sit with them every day.

So if I can impart anything. Please wear a mask, get the shot. Man up, woman up, human up. Show you’re a human to other humans. And please, please, please… stop gathering in large numbers. We aren’t there yet. I love you (I DO!) but I don’t want to meet you, I literally don’t have time to.

The cat’s out of the … refrigerated semi?

I have spent the past couple of months going back and forth on how to write about this. I come up with great points and posts to write but then I have no time to write it. Every moment I’m not working I’m trying my best to take care of my body and mind so that I can wake up the next morning and be a human to other humans who are grieving. This new surge in deaths is by far worse than the first wave. On many levels and for many reason (most of them political, which is so whack). I’ll keep this post short because it seems that I can’t NOT address the gigantic elephant in the refrigerated semi at in front of my funeral home. The local and national news have made it evident that this is something that needs to be address. So rest assured, I’ll get my head in the blogging game and put words to paper for you all soon.

Just know that in the meantime, we are all tired, we are all mentally, emotionally, physically exhausted and frustrated but still putting in our all to give every deceased in our care the best possible respect and care that every human deserves. It is ever present in our mind that each and every person in our coolers are someone’s person and for that reason they will be treated as if they are our own person too.

But the bodies keep piling up (not literally, they each get their own space), and they just keep coming. We are down employees and we are running from case to case like roadrunners escaping the coyotes except we’re out of tricks.

So keep an eye out for updates, I promise they’re coming.

Mask it up or casket up people, we’re all not getting out of this alive.


How to Human

Being human with another human isn’t rocket science. But when they’re hurting sometimes it feels like it. Megan Devine gives us some very practical ways to human.

Update: We have ears… (so does Google)

I received both of these cards yesterday from the angry woman in the last post. Not only that, her daughter (whom I’ve never met and doesn’t live here) thought to write me a card too! Y’all, I don’t think you realize how much these little things mean to us funeral directors. These little morsels of kindness keep our inner lights turned on. They are something that on the bad days, when nothing seems to go right and no one seems to be happy, when you’re wondering why the heck you’re even still standing… its these cards stuck to our desk wall that remind us why we do what we do.

“Dear Heather, It was such a pleasure and a relief to meet you here in my home this afternoon. I appreciate you bringing the cremains to me and for getting the tribute page looking so great! Leave it to a woman to get the job done, and with style and compassion. Sincerely yours,…”

“Dear Heather, I’m writing to thank you for stepping in to help my mom,…, with the outstanding tasks related to my Dad’s passing. Mom was becoming more and more anxious about the things that were unresolved. Your kindness and compassion helped relieve those burdens. I’m grateful for the lovely tribute page that you created for my Dad. Thanks so much,…”

Now if you really want to thank your funeral director in a way that gets upper management attention, give them a Google Review! Our bosses don’t use cards as a measure of employee success (unfortunately, because these are gold to me)… they use Google Reviews. So if you have ever had a good funeral director, or know of a funeral director who you think needs a good shout out, maybe they’re doing something amazing in their community, maybe they’ve touched your heart in some way, or you went to a service where nothing went wrong…

Ear? Anybody got an ear?!

I got a call near the end of my day today.
Me: “Well it is really hot today and I’d hate for you to have to drive all the way here, can I drive your husband’s urn directly to your house when I get off work?”
Angry 83 Year Old Lady: “It’s not hot, I’m hot, because I’m so angry!”

Let me back up, this is Monday. Mondays at our funeral home are usually busy as f*ck. With a capital period. We’re trying to track down and schedule all the calls that came in over the weekend. We’re fielding calls from our families from the previous weeks. We’re scurrying to make final arrangements for the services we have planned for the week and beyond. I had a service today and tomorrow which I’m not prepared for. And then probably every other call in between all those calls is a family asking where their death certificates are. I know Janet, we ALL need our death certificates RIGHT NOW. If I was a magician I’d gladly suffer the paper cuts to pull them out of my ass but I’m not, so stop calling.

Sorry, I digress… I got a call. This woman was pisssssssed. Did the amount of S’s I used get my point across that she was angry? The receptionist who transferred the call to me said, “She requested that she speak to anyone who is NOT *my coworker* because she’s mad at him.” Adorable. So of course they hand her to me.

Her husband had been cremated and my coworker didn’t do a gatdaumn thing and was avoiding her calls (according to her, which is very obviously not true because my coworker is amazing at his job). But I didn’t tell her that. Now here’s the thing, we all get these calls. These type of calls aren’t special to the funeral industry, people get angry and laser point that anger at the nearest target and all we can do is hope we aren’t the prey. But there is something I’ve learned very early on dealing with grieving people who’s grief has taken the form of anger. They aren’t really truly mad about the thing they think they’re mad about. They aren’t even mad AT YOU. They’re just MAD and they don’t know what to DO with it. There is a reason there is the trope about yelling at customer service people on the phone. They are strangers. Letting your rage fall upon someone you will never know or see again is safe. You aren’t destroying any of your own personal relationships. You aren’t hurting anyone. You can hang up and breath and tell yourself that you are mighty and you roared and go about your day. Now with grieving people, this happens quite often. Grief is a powerful animal and it seeps out through our subconscious. Sometimes it seeps out in ways that look like anger and rage. Does it suck to get yelled at? Of course. Do I have to bite back some of my best witty comebacks? Yup.

That’s the thing. It isn’t about me. It isn’t about my coworker. It isn’t about the death certificates. It isn’t about anything. This person is hurting and grieving and has never had to deal with anything close to these emotions and their brain is freaking the f*ck out. It is in fight or flight mode.

So I listened. I heard her rant and rave about being ignored and my coworker not calling her (he documented the date/time of each phone call attempt) or telling her where the death certificates were (they weren’t here yet), why the urn wasn’t ready to be picked up (he had left several messages that were documented), and why in the hell wasn’t the obituary and photo up on the tribute site (this one is totally valid, between teaching a new assistant and having a temp receptionist this ball got dropped). I sympathized. I acknowledged her anger. I did not agree with anything she said because she was wrong, but I didn’t have to. I diverted the conversation to what a hard time she was going through. In psychological first aid this is the “protecting your survivor” part. We are protecting them from themselves. We are slowing the rage by diverting the strength of it.

What I learned is that she is now living alone after taking care of her husband who had Alzheimer’s dementia for the past eight years. She no longer has the role of wife and caregiver and that is terrifying. They had been married for 62 years, he was her whole life. She has three grown children who all live far away. She didn’t have a service or a viewing because she didn’t want anyone to have to travel. To put the cream on top, she had to put her dog down right before her husband died. Ultimately… she sits at home all day waiting for the phone to ring. She is freakin’ lonely!

I got off work a little late and then headed to her house, the opposite direction of my own home and right smack dab in rush hour traffic. I get to her house and she walks out before I’m even up the driveway. This woman is beaming! She says, “Heather Welborn? Welborn like a well born child but with one L?” Ha! This is how I say it when people ask how to spell my name. This woman’s memory is top notch at 83. I say, that’s me, as I’m carrying her husband’s urn up to the house. She lets me in and the flood gates opened. She ranted and raved some more, but then she started talking about her children, then some rich niece’s wedding happening in Arizona that she’s definitely NOT going to, then a very detailed description of the plots that she has and her very specific plans that she wants done with the urn, how the cemetery got everything screwed up so that’s why she’s bringing him home, then a very long story about an animal rescue place in Utah and stories about various animals that had been rescued from there, and then hey can you look at the tribute site and answer some questions, I need help loading this photo, and then these, and can you type this up, and now let me tell you about the drama happening between this pianist and clergy member with the assisted living facility, oh girl!

I was there more than an hour. Or more specifically, my EAR was there more than an hour. I’m not even sure my mouth had to play a role in that visit. I actually felt bad leaving her. But I did. And she walked me to the door and down the driveway and waved to me until I was down the street.

Moral of the story: Check on your elderly people… they need more ears.

Bigger, Faster, Higher, Oh My!

Celestis Memorial Spaceflights

I feel like I’d be remiss in my duties to not go one step further than the last post… DEEP SPACE! For those of you who really want to get grandpa as far away from you as possible, Celestis Memorial Spaceflights makes it possible to shoot your loved one into deep space to never been seen or heard from again.

But wait! There’s more! Options…

Earth Rise Service (starting at $2,495)
They send your cremated remains (or your “DNA” – *winky face*) into Earth’s atmosphere until it hits zero g’s and then let it all come crashing to Earth however it wants (actually I don’t know but they didn’t explain this part).

Earth Orbit Service (starting at $4,995)
They shoot your cremated remains (or your “DNA” – *I’m pretty sure this means spit*) into Earth’s orbit and allow it to stay until it naturally comes back to rain down on the plebeians below, or as the company puts it “harmlessly vaporizing like a shooting star”… mmmhmmm yup got it.

Luna Service (starting at $12,500)
They shoot your cremated remains (or your “DNA” – *I mean, they could be talking about blood, sure*) to the moon in an actual flying spacecraft and drop you off on the surface of the Moon and leave you there like that one time I left my purse in the movie theater and it was never seen or heard from again.

Voyager Service (starting at $12,500)
They shoot your cremated remains (or your “DNA” – *They’re definitely not talking about that other onica-May ewinksy-Lay type of DNA right, oh please tell me they’re not talking about that, and don’t tell me you didn’t think it too Becky*) into deep space on an actual flying spacecraft to endlessly, timelessly drift away into the cold dark stillness of the unknown.

Among the many amazing facts about this service is that it is so far superior to being environmentally friendly, it touts itself as being “Environmentally Benign.” That’s either really snobbish or incredibly clever wordplay, either way, I dig it.

To the moon Alice

Well… not quite the moon, but she’s going to be pretty far up there anyway.

For the small price of $7,500, $8,500 or $12,500 you too can have your loved one sent up in the the farthest reaches of Earth’s atmosphere and then scattered like rain on the little peasants below. Mesoloft has made it possible to one-up your neighbor and give everyone you loved (and hated) a taste of your bits and pieces whether they want it or not. Visit the website for more politically correct descriptions of the event.

Cremated Remains… Ashes… People Dust…

The terminology for a cremated person can vary in our industry. You’ll notice that I tend to say “cremated remains” instead of “ashes” or *shudder* “cremains.” That last one just creeps me out, no one should ever say cremains. It sounds like the laziest form of tongue gymnastics.

Most people who are not in deathcare tend to use “ashes” because they don’t know anything else. That’s totally okay, we don’t know what we don’t know. My opinion, and this is just my personal opinion if you ask 50 FDs this same question they’ll respond 50 different ways, is that the only time it is okay to say “ashes” with a family is if they continually use it. If you’re meeting with a family and they use the term “ashes” then you use “cremated remains” once, but if they continually use “ashes” after they’ve heard you referring to them differently then just use their terminology. This is like that person who is constantly pointing out people’s spelling errors, we get it, you know words. It is important that we meet families where they are and are able to use common language. When we can do that, we can establish trust and meaning behind our actions.

Cremains: *gross* I’m not sure of anyone in my industry that uses “cremains” when they’re being serious. Maybe this is an older generation thing. It seems to be a term that popped up in the Baby Boomer / Jessica Mitford / “Let’s-All-Direct-Cremate” time period. I, myself, and most FDs I know will use “cremated remains” because that is what they are. They aren’t “ashes” because that is what you get out of a fireplace.

Unless you spilled grandma’s urn in the fireplace and you’re trying to get them out of the fireplace… then they may be ashes… and I’m sorry.

New look, who dis?

Picture 1: Oh someone thinks they’re a comedian huh?! Nice try fellas, I love the look! 😍 (*secretly planning the debut of her new look*)

Picture 2: The foretold debut of my new work look. 💃🏼

I rock!

Celebrating doing a kicks job on a funeral service may seem weird to some because someone died and it’s sad. But to me I’m celebrating that I helped family through a really tough time and I made a difference in someone’s life. I rock!

The SoylentGrief Monster

Grief is a monster. I think about grief a lot with my job. I worry that I’m not helping my families grieve, that I’m not providing the right space for them, that I’m not giving them all the tools to work with, that I’m not doing enough. Mainly that I’m not doing enough. This leads me to thinking about my own grief, which in turn leads me to thinking about the time I mailed three huge cases (a hundred bottles) of Soylent to my funeral home.

Let me take a step back and explain a few things…

We have SHOCK (this is when the event is currently occurring, when we’re in the midst of “the shit”).
We have TRAUMA (this can be a physiological and psychological response and can occur throughout, we can have reoccurring traumas and added secondary traumas, etc.).
We have GRIEF (this is a very broad term that encompasses all mental and physical anguish over a loss).
We have MOURNING (this is the outward expression of grief).

(Think of it like a big circle called Grief. You have Shock and Trauma floating around inside. Sometimes there may be multiple Traumas bumping into everything in there. Then think of Mourning as the exit sign. It isn’t the door to say that you’re done grieving, it is just showing you the way to the next step.)

As a Funeral Director it is my job to take someone (or many someones) who have just experienced a loss and walk them through the trauma, into the grief, and then into the mourning phase (the funeral). Pre-pandemic I could have told you that I felt that I was pretty darn good at this. But post-pandemic… it’s hard to say. Sometimes, lately, I really feel at a loss.

We regularly hold grief support meetings at our funeral home and it has been a huge success in the past. It has created lasting friendships, saved more than a few from taking their own life, and in a few instances it has created “more than friendships.” We haven’t been able to hold these support groups for the past year. This year, I had the honor of taking over the esteemed Bob Ross’s legacy and continuing the grief support groups. I had already been researching and studying grief and its many forms for years, but I wasn’t prepared for what I was in for. At the first meeting, Bob gives the history, introduces me and Kristin (the licensed grief counselor) and we dive in. After the break Kristin and Bob pull me aside and say, “Heather, we really think you should tell your story and share with the group.” Now all of the people who came to this group happen to be families that I’ve served in the past year. I am their Funeral Director. Telling them my personal story of grief felt very personal. But I did. I talked about losing four family members in three months. I talked about losing my childhood best friend when I was young, Abby. And then I talked about losing my best friend Tina, the most devastating of all. This is where Soylent comes in and this is the story I told.

Tina St. Claire (whew! that’s hard to write) or TFail as she was often known in our circles, was diagnosed at age 31 with a very large glioblastoma (a gigantic tumor) in her brain on Christmas Eve of 2015. She died three months later on March 9th of 2016. It was absolutely life-shattering for me.

A couple days after Tina died I was on Facebook and I got a notification that Tina St. Claire had “liked” this product called Soylent. About this time we had discovered that she had “go bags” in her closet for all kinds of scenarios. In hindsight this makes sense, she was very big into conspiracy theories. She had a bag for a zombie apocalypse, she had one for earthquakes, and on and on. She was well prepared. So when I got this notification that she would like this new drink called Soylent my first response was, “Well no she doesn’t, she’s dead. Fuck you Facebook.” But then I clicked on the link and yes, oh yes, she would have definitely liked Soylent. Soylent is NOT Soylent Green, however the name is not lost on the creators. The creators of this drink researched the basic needs of the human body down to essential minerals and nutrients and created a substance that one could technically survive off of solely without the need for food. Absolutely brilliant, right up Tina’s lane. So what does one do who is grieving but doesn’t have time to grieve because she’s working 24/7 and helping others grieve and also really good at compartmentalizing her emotions (*psst, I’m talking about me*). 

I did it. I started the 30-day Soylent Challenge. I thought, I’m going to go 30 days and only drink Soylent and this will somehow be a bond between me and Tina and this is how I am going to honor her… I had three huge cases with the word “SOYLENT” written and nothing else delivered to my funeral home. In hindsight this wasn’t the best idea and led to more than a few questions by families and my boss. 

I made it about 17 days. After 17 days I was like, what am I doing? This is ridiculous. But I also had some kind of clarity to make the realization that this was grief. This was me grieving. This is what grief LOOKS LIKE on me. Weird right?

Remember when I said that grief is a monster? Yeah? Well, monsters come in all shapes and sizes. I feel that as someone who has the honor of helping people wrestle this monster it is important to know the monster personally. My grief monster looks like going on weird crazy diets that subconsciously allow me to feel like I’m in control of something (my body) because nothing else is controllable and I was spinning. Your grief monster might look like something different.

You may not have a SoylentGrief Monster, but I bet you know what I’m talking about. Think about it, sometimes it may be something that we think is completely unrelated to the person or the death or anything. 

What does your Grief Monster look like?