How a Day at the Funeral Home Changed My Life Forever, Part V: The Finale
“Did you just say the body is in the van?”
“Yeah, I thought about FedExing him over but remembered you wanted the full experience.”
“That’s a joke, right?” I asked naively.
She grinned. “The Fed Ex part was.”
I smiled. “Humor is pretty important in your industry, isn’t it?”
“Yep. When you deal with one extreme of life all day, it’s critical to have access to the other extreme for balance. I love to laugh and some of the people here are a real hoot.”
“I can see why that’s important,” I added before changing the subject. “So tell me about this viewing we are about to set up.”
She glanced to the back of the van like she was about to introduce me to the mystery passenger who was quietly lying in the box. “The Gentleman in the back passed away a couple of days ago and we are headed over to a chapel on the east side of town where his viewing will be held later tonight.” She paused for a second and then added with a sense of pride, “And I got to work on him.”
“What do you mean, ‘you got to work on him?’”
“I put him in his favorite suite, did his hair all nice, and touched up his face with a little makeup.”
“How did you know what to do?” I asked.
“The family gave me a recent photo to go by. It can be challenging when it’s an older photo.”
“That’s a lot of pressure to try to recreate the essence of a person, isn’t it?”
She blushed. “It’s what I do.”
Moments later we pulled into the backside of a quaint little chapel in North Denver. Leslie jumped out and opened a side door of the building before popping open the back doors of the van.
“What can I do?” I asked.
“Nothing right now,” she replied as she opened up a portable gurney and slid the large box effortlessly on top of it.
I knew from a liability perspective that I wasn’t supposed to help out with any moving or lifting, but I still felt bad just watching.
Leslie noticed my concern. “Greg, don’t worry. I won’t be doing any lifting either.”
Up at the front of the chapel was a very pristine, solid oak casket. Granted I am not up on my caskets but this was clearly the Rolls Royce of caskets. It radiated importance!
Leslie, like a magician, opened one end of the box and casket and, with some quick slight-of-hand, managed to slide the body effortlessly from one to the other in a blink of a second.
“Wait, how did you do that?” I asked, in a state of shock.
“I can’t tell you,” she teased, “it’s a trade secret.”
I shook my head in amazement as Leslie began rearranging the area around the casket for the viewing.
Up to this point I had purposely not looked inside the casket—not sure if I was up to seeing another dead body. And yet, Leslie was so proud of her work. How could I not at least peek inside? I took a deep breath, mustered my confidence and move in for a look. To my relief I saw a sharply dressed elderly man, peacefully lying there with a smile of contentment on his face. Did I mention that he literally had a smile on his face!
“How did you do that?” I asked.
“You mean the smile?”
“Yeah, he looks so content and happy.”
“Isn’t that how you’d want to see all your loved-ones look at the end of their life?” she asked.
“Yes, of course,” I said. “I’ve never noticed that before but it really makes a difference.” And then I added, “And I changed my mind. Don’t tell me how you did it. I’d rather not know.”
She chuckled. “It says a lot about the value of a smile though, doesn’t it?”
Before I could respond, Leslie’s cell began ringing. She picked up and I could tell that it was David, the CEO/owner. Seconds later she hung up and said, “We need to get you back. David wants to meet with you before he leaves for a meeting.”
“Are we done here?” I asked.
“For now. Jason will be coming back tonight to help facilitate the viewing.”
As we began driving back to the funeral home in our empty white van, I noticed how exhausted I felt, not to mention emotionally drained.
“Do you ever think about getting out?” I asked.
“Yeah, it’s crossed my mind before,” she said regrettably. “But I’m studying to become a funeral director and want to try that out for a few years. I think I’d be pretty good with the families.”
I nodded, knowing full well that she’d be great with families. “Thank you for today.”
Leslie blushed again. “I hope it was worth it.”
“I am so glad I did this. I had no idea what happens behind the scenes at a funeral home. It was eye-opening.”
“In a good way I hope,” she added.
“Definitely. But it was also a very sobering experience. To be working with life and death in the same moment is not for the lighthearted. You guys are amazing.”
It was late in the afternoon when we pulled into the funeral home parking lot. I gave Leslie a thank you hug and headed towards the lobby where David was waiting.
“Tell me about your day?” he asked, as we headed back to his office.
I walked him through my day’s itinerary.
“That’s what you did. I want to know what you learned.”
This is why I’ve always appreciated this man. He is all about authentic communication.
I paused to collect my thoughts. “You know what David?”
“Can I reflect for a couple of days on this and then share with you what I learned? I need to process this whole experience before I can sound halfway intelligent.”
He laughed. “Why don’t you do that.”
After thanking David for the opportunity to work a day at his funeral home, I bolted for my car. I was in need of something familiar to help bring me back to reality…or at least my reality. But before I could pull out, I saw the front door of the funeral home open and out comes Harold, smiling and waving at me as he headed out to his car. The same friendly greeting I got from him 8 hours earlier.
Now there’s someone who really loves his work! I mused as I pulled away.
What I learned from My Day at the Funeral Home:
- People are uncomfortable talking about death and dying. Ironically, it is the one thing we all have in common and the one thing we will all have to face. It seems to me we should be talking about it more.
- All of the people I had the honor of meeting at the funeral home expressed a higher calling as the reason for choosing this line of work. Being of service to others in a time of need is their passion and purpose. How many professions can you say that about?
- There’s customer service and then there’s customer service in the funeral industry. Good is not acceptable when great is the expectation.
- You really need a sense of humor to be working with such life and death extremes. Its no wonder people are so funny in this profession.
- Seeing the bodies on the shelves in the preparation room revealed how similar we are all to each other at birth and at death. What’s not similar is how we each live our lives.
- By focusing on the needs of the family at hand, funeral home employees are able to stay fully present with their clients, even during the most difficult of difficult times. Try teaching that in a classroom.
- It is reassuring to see the high level of respect and dignity that’s demonstrated for every body that is placed in the hands of a funeral home.
- Death is really about the celebration of life.
- We really need to live each day as if it is our last. After seeing a baby and a teenager’s lifeless body, death can happen to anyone of us with a snap of a finger. There are no guarantees.
- Losing a loved-one is a memory that will last a lifetime; so too is the experience around their death. Funeral homes play a big part in these lifelong experiences.
- A smile can go a long way.
- There’s a lot of pride within this industry, even with the smallest of things like a shinny casket, a straightened out tie, well-manicured grounds, or even the smell of potpourri in the CEO’s office. The little things become the big things in an industry where everything matters.
- People in the funeral industry deserve a big hug. Talk about unsung heroes! I’m grateful to be affiliated with them!
Finally, thank you David (John Horan) for the experience of a lifetime. And thank you for taking such great care of my dad.