How a Day at the Funeral Home Changed My Life Forever, Part IV: “I see dead people.”
I was seeing dead people. That’s right, dead people. I know; sounds like I’ve lost my mind, right? Here I was, standing in line at McDonald’s (and no, I don’t normally eat at this establishment), surrounded by your typical McDonald’s suburbia crowd…all very much alive, I might add…and instead of seeing life I was seeing death.
It was the oddest thing. Instead of seeing a vibrant, middle-aged woman who was in line in front of me…I was seeing a pale and lifeless woman, lying in waiting. Instead of seeing the smiling teenage girl with rosy cheeks asking for my order…I was seeing a flush and colorless corpse, clearly having died way before her time.
“Can I have your order?”
“What?” I said, trying to get the disturbing images out of my mind. “Do you have anything that’s alive?”
“Excuse me?” she said, not sure what boat I had just gotten off of.
I smiled and dropped the sarcasm, knowing full well that trying to explain myself at this point would only freak her out.
How can they do this, day-in and day-out? I thought to myself as I sat down to eat my cheeseburger and small fries. The emotional numbness from earlier had become heavier now as I glanced around the restaurant at all the people. I must have looked like a mad scientist as I became more and more interested in watching the patrons as if they were all participating in some kind of controlled experiment.
What was so interesting, you ask?
I was seeing things that I’ve never really noticed before…like what an eye looks like when it blinks. I was noticing how people’s lips moved in perfect synchronization with their voices. I was noticing two guys laughing in line and how their faces seemed to light up at the exact same moment. Sounds were starting to come back…color was returning to the people’s faces. All of a sudden I got a surge of energy. My heart started pounding faster.
That’s it! I thought, as my mind did a complete 360. This experience isn’t about death at all. It’s about life. Can you see it? By experiencing death all morning, I was developing a greater appreciation for life. But wait…not just life…but how we live our lives. After all, a corpse is a corpse in the funeral home…regardless whether one was a multimillionaire, a beauty queen, or a homeless person. The playing field becomes amazingly even once we are wheeled into the preparation room. We really do all look alike. But what’s not alike is what we do with our lives while we are living.
Chills rode up and down my spine as I headed back to the funeral home. Granted the insight I just shared seems rather obvious, but it came to me with a much greater force that engulfed my whole being! Appreciate life was no long a cliché to me; it really meant something.
With a bounce in my step, I walked into the lobby of the funeral home looking for Robert, one of the funeral directors who I was assigned to next. Just then I heard, “Greg, over here.”
Robert, who I had met before, was waiving me over to what looked like was a line-up. David, the owner and CEO, was standing in front of Robert and two other gentlemen inspecting their attire…straightening out one tie on one while brushing off a piece of lint on the coat of the other.
David is all about excellence and has been that way as long as I’ve known him. Every one of his employees is friendly, helpful, attentive, and always dressed immaculately.
As we grouped up, Robert took over and introduced me to the team and gave a little background on the memorial service we all were about to work together. I remember how honored I felt at that moment to be considered a member of this team…even if just for the duration of the service.
“What would you like me to do?” I asked, as we all headed towards the chapel on the west side of the building.
Robert handed me a stack of pamphlets for the service. “Why don’t you start by handing these out to all the guests at the front entrance.”
I nodded, feeling the adrenalin in my body. It was like I was about to deliver a speech and was all pumped up…that is…until I saw two men having to physically support a woman who was crying so hard that she couldn’t stand up by herself, just outside the front entrance.
A reality check crashed down on me faster than a tornado ripping through Iowa. For a brief moment there I was focused on myself…and lost touch with why I was there and whom I was serving.
As the chapel quickly filled to capacity, we were asked to close the doors for the start of the service. I must tell you, I have been to many funerals over the years, but never before had I witnesses so much crying and wailing amongst a crowd as there was in that chapel. Whoever this man was that had passed, I thought, he sure had touched a lot of people on a very deep level.
The service was well orchestrated by Robert. That I expected. But what I didn’t expect was to be emotionally touched by the service itself, the family and friends, and the great love in the room for this incredible man. I had so many tears flowing during the eulogies that I had to look away from the people in order to maintain my professionalism.
By the end of the service I had felt like I had lost someone near and dear to me. “Robert,” I said, “is this normal?” referring to my bloodshot eyes from crying.
He smiled and put his arm around my shoulder. “Geese, you’re just being human!”
“But how do you do it?”
“Does it matter if the tears are flowing inside or outside?” he whispered.
The hearse was now waiting out by the front entrance. “Can I watch?”
Robert nodded. “Of course.”
Seeing my teammates load the casket into the hearse was bittersweet for me. The last time I had seen this was when my father’s body was being loaded into probably the same vehicle, given that my family also used this funeral home. It was the last time I saw my dad and that grief reemerged, as if I was reliving that moment again.
“Can I steal you?”
Startled, I looked around, only to see the smiling face of Leslie. “I’ve got your next assignment,” she said.
Her humor was a welcome relief. “So what’s next?” I replied.
“We are going out to set up a viewing,” as she led me back to the familiar white van.
“Is the body already there?”
“No, he’s in the back of the van.”
“Wait! What did you say?”
Stay tuned for Part V…