The Funeral Diaries, Part 3
We buried my grandmother on Tuesday morning, right before the weather turned cold again. There was another ceremony with the same rev, and it left me feeling as empty as the first one. There was, however, no pimp suit at the cemetary.
Mom cried, and I spent my time avoiding relatives. This time my dodges were aimed at The Girls, a pair of kindhearted but genuinely creepy sisters from my dad's side of the family. And I'm not proud to say this, but I essentially threw my sister into their field of vision while I beat my own hasty retreat to hide behind the nearest tree.
After the burial, I struck up a conversation with the funeral director, bugging him with questions about the business. Now this might have been the most insensitive thing I did on the entire trip--and that includes playing my sister's Nintendo DS in the ICU waiting room--but really. It's a fascinating subject and you almost never hear about it.
We'd taken a limousine that the funeral home provided to the cemetary, so on the way back I got into the passenger seat to continue the conversation. The funeral director, Barry, was surprisingly funny and downright charming, and I got the feeling that it was a relief for him to not have to keep up his facade of professional sympathy.
He was also incredibly informative. I didn't even know that you had to have a specialized degree to work in a funeral home. I just assumed it was a job you sort of fell into, but it actually requires three and a half years of study with courses like "Social Aspects of Death and Dying," "Cremation Fundamentals," "Death in Literature," and my personal favorite, "Gross Anatomy for the Embalmer."
When I asked Barry how he got into the business, he told me that he'd been raised on a farm and when he was a kid, his dad wanted him to get some extra work. The funeral home was tearing down an old building, and he helped with dumping the rubble. That led to a summer job mowing the lawn, and eventually to an apprenticeship, a degree in Mortuary Science, and a thirty-year career in the death industry with a side-job telling elementary school students about Egyptian mummification techniques.
Apprenticeship, Barry told me, is the part of the job that makes most people give up, although I imagine once you've made up your mind to spend the rest of your career surrounded by corpses, there's not a lot that's going to dissuede you. Being the apprentice in the funeral industry is just like being an apprentice in any other business, but the grunt work you have to do is, I imagine, far more disgusting.
For instance: Barry mentioned that in his talks to fifth-graders, one of the first questions he ever got was from a little girl wondering what they do with amputated limbs. He chuckled about the question, but I'd never even thought about it before.
"So what DO they do with them?"
"Well, these days, if it's like a patient at a hospital with, say, diabetes, and they need to amputate, they'll just incinerate the limb at the hospital. But before, and sometimes today, they'll just hold onto it and the apprentice will have to go get it and bring it back to the funeral home for storage."
"Wow. I just got this weird mental image of a drawer full of severed legs."
"You're not too far off."
Next: Hidden Treasure