Here's What It's Really Like To Work In A Funeral Home
“You look so normal,” Sara says, sitting across from me, her hair in long, blond dreads. She’s the owner of a small funeral home in Venice, California, and she needs a new assistant — her last one quit yesterday because of nightmares. I need a job that pays at least $20 an hour, cash, and that doesn’t make me feel like I’m selling my soul.
“I get that a lot,” I say, because I do. Any mortician that doesn’t look like Jack Black in “Bernie” (no offense, Jack) tends to get a bit of a second take.
Before this, I worked as a freelance funeral arranger at a family mortuary. I got the job off Craigslist. I had no experience whatsoever and my interview went like this:
“Can you sew?”
“Um, a little! My grandma taught me.”
“Cool. So could you like … sew a skull?”
My “I could give it a try” attitude led to a seven-year stint as a funeral arranger until my boss went to prison. The story involved financial abuse and a fight with lawyers that I never fully understood. (I was out of town when it happened.)
Anyway, I would get that a lot. “Wow, you’re so young,” or “But … you’re pretty.” Still, I can’t be too offended. During my years as a funeral arranger, whenever I would leave to travel or take another freelance job, my replacement was always at least two of the following things: 1) unreliable; 2) living in a Jack in the Box parking lot; 3) wanting to get fast cash and then get out.
It’s hard to find someone who is comfortable talking to grieving families and also making small talk as the crematory operator pokes a burning skull.
My ‘I could give it a try’ attitude led to a seven-year stint as a funeral arranger until my boss went to prison.
Most of my duties at my last job involved driving. Our office was in Santa Monica, and our crematory (where the bodies are actually stored and cremated) was in the Valley, so I would do a lot of driving back and forth to pick up ashes, meeting people for witness cremations (where they actually “witness” the body going into the machine), and checking to make sure someone is OK to be viewed without being embalmed. (We did very little embalming. Most people don’t need it.)
I delivered ashes and met with families all over Los Angeles. We did services for everyone from celebrities to the homeless. My favorite part about the job was the spectrum of humanity. I never had the same day twice.
My least favorite part about the job was the stress. (The smell of the coolers at times being a close second). It’s a job where the stakes are high, and the way people grieve can profoundly affect the path their emotional life takes for years.
It’s part of why I never wanted to go full time, and definitely why I sometimes needed a break to work at a bookstore, where my responsibilities — previously along the lines of “Can you find a way to make the baby less cold before the mother holds it one last time?” — were more like “Can you organize these by color?”
It may not be particularly surprising that the job is hard on the psyche, but it can be hard in unexpected ways. I’m very careful driving because if something happens to me, I know exactly where I’ll end up. When I see someone asleep, it’s hard not to imagine them dead.
I empathize, but it’s rare that the grief gets to me. It doesn’t feel right to be traumatized by somebody else’s tragedy.
Still, after my boss went to prison, I felt done with the death industry. I shadowed human rights activists in the Middle East. I went to France for a few months. I went back to the bookstore.
But not every job is flexible. And part of me was drawn to feeling I was doing something that I, specifically, was useful at.
I had gotten Sara the funeral home owner’s card from the crematory machine operator as my previous funeral home was going under.
I told her how, while I wasn’t always inherently passionate about being in the death industry, I did appreciate the fact that I had a skill. I knew the ins and outs, I knew most people who had worked in the crematory, EDRS (the online death registry system), and other funeral homes. I had cultivated an awareness of the value of offering ceremony, genuine connection, and not forcing people into the box (sometimes literally) of the more traditional, corporate burial options.
We aligned. So I was hired.
Working as a funeral arranger for Sara, my job would be nearly identical to what it had been. Delivering ashes, walking clients through paperwork. I’d be the one at the service handing out water bottles, trying to find a book to use for leverage under the projector that won’t offend someone (not the Bible or the Torah).
My second day on the job, I got up at 6:45 a.m. to get to our crematory in the Valley for a morning witness cremation. They’d stand before the cremation oven and push the button to start the process.
Sara took her time making the space with rose petals and blue silk. She’s not afraid of touching the deceased with her hands. Candlelit lanterns lit the floor so we could turn off the harsh fluorescent lights.
The family loved their deceased. This may seem like a given, but it’s not. I once worked a case where I was instructed to make sure not to let the father in the viewing room until I had the cash in hand — if he showed up at all. He did show up, asking, “If I don’t need the full hour, can I just pay you for 10 minutes?”
I prefer tears.
Sara encouraged them to tell stories, which they did, of their spitfire mother growing up on a farm in Kansas, jumping off hay bales. Sara approached the two young boys and asked them if they wanted to touch the body. “Americans in our culture are so afraid of death, it’s unhealthy. It’s not natural that it be that way.”
One of the boys volunteered to push the button to start the machine (it used to be a big red button — now it’s an iPad-like computer contraption on the side of the oven) and we held hands and sang ”You Are My Sunshine.”
I reflect on my own parents’ plans to direct-cremate my grandparents. Direct cremation means no service, no viewing. I’ve said, please, it’s an incredibly different energy when you send them off with just a little ceremony and love. Even if you plan on spreading their ashes in Hawaii — please do some kind of goodbye beforehand if you can. It makes a difference.
Sara said to the family, “It’s nice that you are here. That she doesn’t have to go in alone.”
I delivered some ashes to someone who reminded me of a friend. The way he held the box and asked simply, ‘This is my brother?’ got to me. You never know what will make you need a second to cry in your car.
There are reasons not every person feels called to work in this industry.
The hours are sporadic and long. Sara is on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There’s no one to replace you if you go on vacation. If you miss a call at 3 in the morning, you lose out on a significant source of income. And if you get a reputation from clients or hospices as a place that doesn’t pick up the phone, eventually it stops ringing.
Clients usually expect things to be fast. But about 65,000 people a year die in Los Angeles, and no one likes to hear that cremation will take about a week. (They think that’s slow ― that’s actually fairly standard, bordering on quick.) You have to juggle names, dates, relationships, deadlines, locations and prices. Between services, ship outs (shipping a body on an airplane) and intakes, Sara usually has to be in three places at the same time.
It’s the customer service aspect that’s hardest, and it’s usually the small things that get to me. I delivered some ashes to someone who reminded me of a friend. The way he held the box and asked simply, “This is my brother?” got to me. You never know what will make you need a second to cry in your car.
What makes it worth it is when you’re able to guide people through a meaningful experience. When you hear, “Thank you for your kindness, this would have been a lot harder without you.”
It’s important work. And I can do it without taking it on or having nightmares about the deceased. I am honest, I show up on time, I don’t steal $500 just because it’s lying around. I’m sensitive, I’m proactive, I’m willing to give cutting out pacemakers a go. (Really not that bad; very light incision, pretty much pops out.)
And yet I don’t know if I’ll ever feel the connection to the work that Sara feels. She stands by the bereaved with an arm around them. I stand in the corner, overanalyzing whether to offer Kleenex.
Where are the people who are called to do this? They are so valuable. Would they appear more if the industry were configured differently? If it were easier to have health insurance?
I don’t know. But the bottom line is, spitfire from Kansas, you did not know me. And it feels strange that I got paid $60 to attend your funeral.
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