I said to the undertaker
Undertaker please drive slow
For this lady you are carrying
Lord I hate to see her go
Will the circle be unbroken
Bye and bye Lord, bye and bye
There’s a better home awaiting
In the sky Lord, in the sky.
– Johnny Cash “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”
Perhaps the most asked question I hear that does not pertain to the actual conducting or arranging of funeral services is this one: “What made you ever want to become an undertaker?” This question, while being the most personal I typically get, is also the one that can be the hardest to explain as well.
In a world of non-personal internet shopping, infomercials, perpetual sales and numerous “consultants” and “specialists”, death is still personal. It is still sacred. And instead of people just caring about what I know, they also want to know why I even care in the first place.
Johnny Cash’s lyrics show us that even in death, it is personal. Have you ever heard a “gem” of a statement, something that stood out from the day to day chatter so commonly heard and then forgotten shortly after? I did once when a good friend of mine once told me simply and prophetically that our job as funeral service professionals is to get the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be.
With that said, let me get one thing straight right from the start. Wanting to be an undertaker is not something we as children normally express a desire to be. Firetrucks, police cars, ambulances and airplanes all lead us to wanting to be firemen, police officers, doctors and pilots.
Hearses lack a bit in that category. When little Johnny or Susie steps up and announces their career choice in the first grade, “embalmer” tends to be the last thing they say. For me, I married into a funeral home family right after high school. Like most of my class in college, you were either an “FDK” (funeral director’s kid) or you personally knew one.
With eyes full of hope and energy, I and 74 other students began our journey in Mortuary College. Our experience with loss also started that first day when we were told that two thirds of us would not graduate. Amazingly, that proclamation also turned out to be true when I graduated Salutatorian of the Class of 1997 with 23 total graduates.
The profession goes by many names. Whether you want to be an undertaker, mortician or funeral director, there is a very rewarding career awaiting that begins with hard work, college courses, apprenticeship, and earning your stripes.
Funeral service is steeped in personal service, attention to detail and around the clock availability. If you stop a minute to consider it, you realize you will deal with people at a very difficult time, put together a once in a lifetime event with no “do overs”, and you will be called at any hour of the day or night at a time when voicemail or phone trees are not an option.
After the formalities, you will know enough to pass state board exams only to realize that the true education is about to begin – on the job training. What they didn’t tell me about in school was the depth of the grief of a parent who lost a child, the challenge of a 3 AM call in the middle of winter when the only other cars on the road are snowplows, the acknowledgement of your own mortality when you care for someone your own age, and the pain you feel when you are not only the funeral director but also a neighbor and friend.
You will come to realize that through all this, no amount of money will keep you dedicated to your job and no amount of material goods will feed your spirit. At this point, many will leave funeral service.
More importantly, what happens to those who stay in funeral service is a personal change. We begin to look at those elements of our profession that provide us the rewards we need to continue. We begin to realize that it is not a job, it is a ministry. It is not a career, it is a lifestyle. It is not a destination, it is a journey. It is not about death, tears, and grief. (Spoiler alert) It is about life, laughter, and love, which explains the title of my column.
So the next time you begin to wonder about joining me as a funeral director or you put aside caring about what I know to focus on knowing just why I care, I trust this begins the wonderful conversation you and I are about to embark on.
Simply stated, it is a privilege, an honor, and a sacred trust I hold in personally serving all who call upon me. For me, the “why” I am in it is very simply, “you”.
Until next week, remember that one day your life will flash before your eyes… Make it a movie worth watching and remember to take time to live, laugh and love!