Writing the Dark Chapters (How Being a Funeral Director is Like Writing)

I met Caleb Wilde for the first time at a Starbucks a few weeks ago, where I inadvertently motioned for him to pay the bill for both of us (beware any who would take me to coffee or lunch – this is a recurring theme in my life). He’s a fascinating guy with a job that many people wouldn’t care to have, but, as you’ll see in this post, he carries himself with grace and humility.

I walk into a room at 6 a.m. and all eyes fix on me and my next move.  I am, after all, the odd one out in the room, the one whose face isn’t stained with tears; the one wearing dress clothes, who’s there in body, but whose soul isn’t in the depths.

I’m the colonialist, walking into another culture, ready to impose society’s desire for a clean picture of death.

Those who are sitting around the bed of the deceased aren’t thinking about what you and I are thinking about at 6 in the morning.  They aren’t wondering how they will get their kids dressed in time for school; or how they’re going to pitch their project to coworkers at work.

Everything is on hold.

Time has slowed at a pedestrian pace and they sit in grief … resisting the reality that what was their husband, their wife, their son, daughter, grandfather, friend is no longer present to hug, laugh and live with.

Death creates its own culture … its own world.

A world where time seems to altogether stop, where language is often spoken with less words and more tears, hugs and contemplation, where the regular dress code doesn’t exist and where the norms and mores of society are put on hold.  Here, in this sacred space at 6 a.m. in the morning, God seems nearer; family and friends surround you; you can let your emotional inhibitions go.  This is the world that was never meant to be and yet is everything you wish it could be.  It seems we have to go back through death to get to Eden.

With tie draped down my dress shirt, if I can’t imagine a world unlike mine … if I can’t picture a context outside of me … if I can’t remove myself from the all too obvious facts that it’s 6 a.m., I’m tired, didn’t get my Dunkin Donuts medium coffee with cream and sugar, and that I’ll be even more tired tonight when I’m supposed to go to Chili’s with my wife; if I can’t imagine the family’s story; the story of the deceased and his life and the loss this represents, I can’t be a good funeral director.

Funeral directing is a lot like writing.  It involves alterity, imagination and the ability to make a lot of the detail and little of the obvious.  I write the story as I walk into the sacred space of grief.

I notice the one closest to the decease’s body.  “That’s probably the NOK”, I think to myself.  Granted, the story is easier to imagine if I already know the family, but this morning I don’t.  The closest one to the bed is oft the main character in this play; and I can write a story of comfort, by entering the narrative with a warm hug, maybe even a kiss, a kind smile and eyes that speak of the compassion my heart is feeling; or, I could write a story as a narrator, standing back, observing and not entering.  What does this specific family need?

I wait as the drama unfolds, as my very presence evokes the supporting characters who will inevitably point me to the protagonist.

Asking questions; feeling out the room.  I enter in and I – at this very moment – have the privilege and responsibility of helping to write this chapter.

Now head on over to Caleb’s blog and check out his most-read post of all time, “Why 99.9% of Pastors Agree With Rob Bell.”

17 Replies to “Writing the Dark Chapters (How Being a Funeral Director is Like Writing)”

  1. Thanks for sharing this. I often wondered how funeral director’s are able to separate themselves from the bitter situations they face daily. I like how you ended this with “What does this SPECIFIC family need?” instead of “What does this family need?” It’s never lumped, each family has unique needs to be addressed in their loss.

    1. There are some deaths from which we can distance ourselves; but there’s others that set the whole f.h. staff in a bad mood for the whole week.

  2. Wow, I appreciate this perspective. You know I have a secret desire to be involved in “funeral services”. I’ve always been drawn to that line of work but I never pursued it. Who knows, maybe one day I will. I think it is a special calling and never found it to be “morbid”. Thank you for sharing this glimpse into what goes on in the hearts of those who serve these precious families!

    1. Kimberly … women make the best funeral directors! There’s been a couple studies that show families prefer meeting with women … something like 2 to 1 over men : )

  3. I’m an EMT, and I’ve been in the position many times of waiting for you….when the ‘welfare check’ yields a family’s worst fear, the reason why he wasn’t coming to the phone or why he hasn’t picked up the paper or returned his library books. Everything seems so superfluous all of a sudden; the litter of junkmail on the kitchen table, a breakfast in permanently suspended preparation…the awkward silence that settles on us all, us, because of our impotence in that situation, the family, because they are making room in their arms for the settling weight of This Is Really Happening. Once you become comfortable with a degree of compassion that really has no fixed protocol, it is a sacred space to be in.

  4. This post called up the grace with which the funeral director came when my mom died a few months ago. I owe him (and you) and big thank you.

    Also, Caleb (and Shawn if you’re interested) one of my favorite writers is Thomas Lynch, a funeral director.

    Thanks, gentlemen.

  5. It must be a real struggle to be authentic with each family. So many parts of each story are the same, it would be easy to process the family through because you know what to say/do. Your authenticity is your gift.

  6. I have always thought that being a funeral director would be and amazing and rewarding job. I like how you need to go into their world to know how to serve them best. And I imagine that probably no two families are alike.

  7. Great post and a good thinker. I contemplate death a lot in a healthy, motivating way. I also used to work in a cemetery for 4 years and have been on the business side of the grave a bit. Thanks for writing!

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