My friend Andrew was well on his way to becoming a funeral director. While attending general classes at our community college, he worked part time for one of the local funeral homes. His main job entailed janitorial work and preparing the viewing and chapel areas for each visitation. When a funeral was also to take place, he set up chairs and helped arrange the altar area of the main room.
Andrew enjoyed interacting with the funeral home’s clients and got along well with his employer and the rest of the staff. He was promised a position with the funeral home after completion of mortuary science classes. Andrew went on hiatus from his work here in Norfolk, Nebraska and attended school in Kansas City, Missouri. He also decided on an apprenticeship at the Jackson County, Missouri Medical-Examiner’s Office aka the coroner’s office.
Andrew sometimes told me about some of the cases he assisted with. As you can imagine, there are some gruesome scenarios associated with death in a major metropolitan area such as Kansas City. Andrew performed his duties in the coroner’s office for just over a year, then he resigned. He honestly could not envision a career in the funeral industry any longer.
Andrew returned to Nebraska and eventually became employed as a physical therapist at a hospital in Lincoln. He has found his niche by “working with the living”. My friend tells me that he will always have profound respect for funeral directors and their staff members. Andrew says he considered his time in the funeral industry as a sort of spiritual practice. He says he grew by leaps and bounds in Kansas City.
I’ve needed the services of a funeral director three times. They were to help arrange the funerals of my mother, my brother, and then my father. All three of them were with the same funeral home in Wayne, Nebraska. In all three instances, I was pleased with the deep level of empathy and caring of the funeral director and his assistant.
While discussing my father’s arrangements I couldn’t help but notice that the funeral director shares many of the same personality traits that Andrew exhibits. They are both soft-spoken men who wear empathy on their sleeves. They both have a dry sense of humor that they display when appropriate. They both have spent considerable amounts of time working in an atmosphere of death and tragedy.
“Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay, but acknowledging that it is not.”–Sheryl Sandberg
I don’t know the nature of the “coat of armor” that funeral directors must wear. It must be strong enough to enable him or her to withstand daily encounters with death and grief yet pliable enough to allow authentic empathy and patience to shine through.
Funeral directors and their assistants wear several hats. They are expert practitioners of mortuary science, they have a religious orientation to their work, they provide inspirational comfort, and many of them are students of philosophy. They are unsung heroes and heroines that provide a necessary service to humanity.
I can hardly imagine working in a profession that most people would never consider nor be capable of doing. Only certain types of people can walk head-first into the darkness of death and suffering and withstand daily encounters with other people’s suffering and grief. These people do their work with dignified class and finesse. They deserve much more public praise and recognition than they currently do.
The Blue Jay of Happiness ponders wisdom from His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. “It is important not to allow ourselves to be put off by the magnitude of others’ suffering. The misery of millions is not a cause for pity. Rather, it is a cause for compassion.”