Once upon a time, a young woman walked into a funeral home in Queens, New York. She needed an after-school job to earn some money, while she worked her way … Continue reading A Dying Business
Two summers ago, my cousin Elizabeth died. Her death was sudden and occurred less than two weeks after the death of her mother. But unlike her mother, who had a … Continue reading 12+ Things You Should Know About Planning a Memorial Service
Last night, I attended a most unique event at Green-Wood Cemetery with my friend & fellow funeral director, Doris Amen. It was a two mile stroll through the grounds, after … Continue reading Moonrise at Green-Wood Cemetery
As the winter of 2020 turned to spring, the death toll from Covid-19 seemed insurmountable. For funeral directors, it was the darkest and most challenging time we’ve ever faced. In … Continue reading Post Pandemic Funeral Service – Can We Find Some Normalcy?
In July’s issue, American Funeral Director pays tribute to COVID-19 heroes.When I was asked to contribute, I thought of the countless funeral directors who fit that description (and how it … Continue reading Unsung Heroes
“What’s it like to work as a funeral director?” This is a question I’ve been asked time and again. My response: It’s not easy, given the complex emotions involved. It takes enormous commitment and dedication, along with a compassionate nature and respect for tradition and ceremony.
Funeral directors deal with issues of mortality – our own as well as those of our clients – on a daily basis. We work long and erratic hours, and we are never truly ‘off.’ In fact, I sleep with my cell phone by my bed in case someone needs me in the middle of the night.
The ever-present sense of urgency is a reality of the job. One must be able to adapt to sudden changes because death is unpredictable.
Myths and Realities
Some people think that funeral service is a 24/7 goth fest. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, we interact more with the living than with the dead. People who have just lost a loved one need to talk, and we often serve as counselors and confidants.
It’s true that our work can be very physical and sometimes exhausting. Funeral directors remove bodies from their place of death, embalm them, apply cosmetics and then dress the remains. In some cases, we may do reconstructive work as well.
We also arrange the funeral details, supervise the visitation and direct the funeral service. To comply with city, state and federal regulations, we have to deal with a seemingly never-ending mountain of paperwork.
While our work has many demands, the pay, contrary to public perception, is not commensurate with what we do. And not surprisingly, my work wardrobe is primarily black.
The Career Found Me
Death is perhaps one of life’s only certainties, and the mere mention of it often evokes a mix of curiosity and discomfort. It did for me.
Having been orphaned at birth, I often thought about death. But I relegated those thoughts to the back of my mind as I aspired to a career in journalism until an after-school job in a funeral home changed my career path. I began to see funeral service as a viable career option.
Mortuary school followed on the heels of college, as I put my plan of becoming a writer on hold. Many of my classmates were children of funeral directors, less common these days because large corporations have absorbed many of the once family-owned funeral homes.
Getting the Job
After completing mortuary school, I set out to find an apprenticeship, a requirement for licensure. This was not an easy feat in the late 1970s, especially for a woman. To the public, it may appear that jobs are easy to come by, but they are not.
After much pavement pounding, I was hired by a busy family-owned firm in Queens, New York. Immediately, I was thrust into an intense work environment, with my days being spent driving around New York City in the service vehicle, making removals.
I spent many hours in the preparation room embalming body after body, learning the craft. I quickly understood that the emotional quotient of the work could overwhelm and turned to writing as a catharsis.
The result: a published memoir called Grave Undertakings. My experiences as a funeral director became a source of inspiration for my writing. Soon, I was able to meld the two careers.
I have worked as a funeral director for more than 35 years, prepared thousands of remains, and conducted countless services. As I’ve grown older and lost friends, family and colleagues, I’ve understood more acutely what my client families go through.
The most difficult thing for me as a funeral director is looking into the faces of those who have lost a loved one and knowing that it is not in my power to do what they want most: bring them back.
Still, I strive to ease the transition between life and death by providing a service that, in the words of funeral director/author Thomas Lynch, “… gets the dead where they need to go and the living where they need to be.” The funeral, as I see it, serves as a metaphorical bridge from this life to the next.
This article originally appeared on https://sixtyandme.com/what-its-like-to-work-as-a-funeral-director/
This recent piece on Ranker, titled “The Morbid Truth About Working as a Mortician” was called to my attention. Apart from the redundant terms funeral director/mortician (an antiquated term, as well), the author is on the mark in titling item #1 It’s Hard to Break Into the Death Industry. A couple of my colleagues came up with a list of the closed funeral home sin the NYC/LI area, and there were many. I feel for the young people who spend a considerable sum of money to attend mortuary school, only to learn that jobs are few and far between.
The media is full of hype these days about the changing face of funeral service. While articles about green burials, home funerals or no funerals at all, proliferate, this is not the reality. Funerals matter and this book makes that case. A “must read” for anyone interested in a career as a funeral director. The author cites John F. Kennedy’s funeral, which –for those who remember or have seen the footage–spoke volumes about the need for ceremony. An article about this book appears in the March issue of American Funeral Director. Here’s a link to Amazon.
The March issue of American Funeral Director contains my long and eagerly-awaited profile of Charles S. Salomon. He is a most interesting person whose career as a funeral director has been one that most people only dream about. In his 50 years as a funeral director, he’s handled the funerals of many prominent New Yorkers including Leonard Bernstein, Senators Frank Lautenberg and Jacob Javits, Marvin Hamlisch, Lee Strasberg, Jerry Ohrbach, Sol Hurok, General David Sarnoff, William Paley, restaurateur Peter Kriendler, the owner of Manhattan’s ’21’ and Edward I. Koch (my favorite funeral ever). Yet, what impressed me most was his humility and deep commitment to funeral service. He is the sort of director from which we all can learn and aspire to be like
I took tour guide extraordinaire Marge Raymond’s trolley tour at Green-Wood Cemetery today. After the tour, Ruth Edebohls, another of Green-Wood’s tour guides, joined us, and we went exploring. … Continue reading My Cemetery Travels