Last night, my husband and I watched an episode of Frontline from 2007, The Undertaking. The program was excellent.
The story is told through the eyes of a funeral director whose family has been in the business for three generations. His son was also on the program and in the business. He said he grew up with people saying that his father worked with dead people, but he had always see the exact opposite, his father worked the living.
The remark was striking and after watching the program, I think the son is correct. His father did very little but help the living plan their funerals or bury or cremate their dead. This business is often considered cheesy or full of shysters, but I’m not sure that’s the certainly. Certainly the funeral director in this case, came across as very hard working, respectful of the dead and as caring as a professional could be, when their job is it bury 200 people in their town each year.
The also interviewed a number of family members who had people dying, or people who wanted to make their own arrangements. There was one woman who was diagnosed with lung cancer and checked herself into hospice. It was said she had searched for faith in her life, but never found it. I thought that was a great statement of fact for this woman as an individual. She was asked what she expected when death arrived and she came across as a Gemini archetype. She said she had no idea, as if she thought it would be quite interesting to see her death unfold.
There was also a young couple profiled who had a desperately ill baby, born with a rare genetic condition that would guarantee his life be quite short. The baby was really something, and the mother, one of the most eloquent young women I have seen, anywhere.
The reverence for he dead and dying, shown throughout the piece was deeply moving. I highly recommend, Frontline: The Undertaking I think anyone who sees it will be enriched. We’ve become so jaded about death and dying and the philosophies this program will expose you to are quite healing and empowering.
How do you feel about funerals and what are your perception of the funeral business in general? Where do your feelings and perceptions come from?
I’ve had the chance to know a funeral worker. I think funeral work requires a stout heart and a lot of compassion, especially when dealing with the bereaved who are so overwhelmed with the situation.
I am skeptical of the use of embalming fluid (which is conventionally formaldehyde) in conventional funerals though, from an occupational health and environmental standpoint.
Sometimes, what a religion can recommend can still stand on two feet today (not always, but this is one instance where I think it does). I’ve read that in Islam, shrouds and wooden caskets are used. I like that kind of simplicity.
like anything else, it’s a business, where money is involved. Some are great family owned businesses, others are Wal-marts of the funeral world. I think at this point, there are really only two major companies out there that own quite a lot. my brother was buried by one of them, before we knew what they were like, and they didn’t measure correctly. His coffin got stuck at the burial. it was a nightmare. they lied to us about embalming him and were going to toss his clothes. its also theater and illusion. the measured pace, the slow procession, the hushed tones, the costumes. there are a lot of youtube videos out there describing the process. it’s quite revealing what they do to your body; plugs, eyecaps, superglue, tying off, rubber pants, staple guns, sutures,etc. someone has to deal with the body, but its really an eye opener when you start reading and exploring.
elizabeth, everything you say is true. But business is supported (or not) by the buying public and I would say there is a (great) demand for a Wal*mart option.
I also agree it’s theater, but many people want and need that theater and someone has to create it and provide it.
Anyway, I think this program was extremely well done. It offers a framework around how people might view death (their own and their family members) that is highly respectful. If I had someone dying right now, or if I was dying myself, I would like to see this program.
Also, this family, to be in this for 3 generations, means they must have been in business for since the 1800’s. I dunno. It’s an interesting program, I guess that’s all to say. And definitely on topic for Saturn in Scorpio.
Objectively, I like the ritual of our funerals. I think it is poignant and necessary to view life from that angle. I want to be buried, I don’t want to be cremated. My father is in an air-conditioned mausoleum which I think is hilarious. He wanted expensive real estate even in death.
I had an uncle who was a hermit. He was a bit off – the gossip was that he’d been exposed to too many harsh chemicals during his career as a laborer and serviceman. Anyway at his funeral, there was hardly anyone there. But one man came, apparently a veteran friend of his from the Navy, and he stood by his casket and spoke to him (Donald) loudly, and sang a song. It was beautiful and sincere.
I’ve never had or heard of a bad experience with the funeral business. My classmate’s family were these peple. The dad drove us to the school dance in the funeral home’s limo. Ha!
They show people pushing their loved one’s casket into the crematorium. I could never do that.
When my mother died in 2008, we were put in contact with a local funeral home through the hospital. Even though our family had never used their services before, we went with the recommendation, and I am so glad.
The funeral home had been there forever, but there was a young man running it, stepping up as director and (later that year, became a partner and got his name on the sign) he was amazing.
As the director, he ususally didn’t work with families, but the liason was sick or on vacation that day. Aaron was from a funeral home family too, many generations. He not only helped my family with the first consultation, but was so moved by my family, and our stories of mom, and then the crazy full-house calling hours…
He stayed with my family the whole time, did not hand us off to the other guy when he returned, and even attended the funeral.
He said he’d been doing it all his life (late 20s early 30s) and had never been so moved by a family. He even gave me his email address, if I needed to contact him later. (I did, and wrote him a thank you/followup.)
I have considered this type of work myself, because it IS about the living, and it’s hard work, emotionally and mentally and physically, and not everyone can do it. The people who work in this industry who are good at it are incredibly special people. Just as caring and compassionate as any nurse or social worker or the clergy.
I have very little experience with traditional funerals, because I come from a stoic German family. So far, the elderly who have died in my family have wanted absolutely no fanfare. They wanted to be cremated, no ceremony, no funeral. So, we obeyed their wishes of course.
I’ve been to some funerals for other people, including one for a baby of a close friend who died. I noticed two things about them. First, funerals are for the living, so, except for paying for it in advance, I think the best thing you can do for your loved ones is let them do what they feel would be most healing, in terms of dealing with your death.
Second, it is a lot of work. If I were doing a funeral for someone, while grieving, I would find it completely overwhelming.
I realize there is a dichotomy between those two things. My mother had no burden of planning when her stoic parents died. But she also had no closure ceremony.
My uncle on the other side of the family was a funeral director. He was kind of like a hospital worker, in that he had calm reassurance, but also some boundaries that are necessary when working with the grieving every day.
I think it’s about time for me to set up a savings thing so noone has to pay for my funeral/cremation/whatever. Thanks for the reminder!
I’ve always thought this was the kind of job I could do, standing on the veil and helping people not be afraid. I never followed up though, it seemed like such a huge thing to say about myself and about life.
@Elsa I can’t imagine having to push a loved one into an oven to be cremated. My birth father was cremated, and it was gut-wrenching just to sign the papers agreeing to his wishes. I felt as if I was giving consent to have my father burnt to a crisp (which I was). 🙁 But it was his express wish, so we did it.
They don’t make people do this. They allow it, if the family wants. They also allow you to get out there and help dig the grave. This is important to some people.
That was one of the things I liked about the program. It showed people dealing with death in a variety of ways, which allowed me to consider what I would and wouldn’t want to do, or have done to me.
Probably best if you consider at least some of this in advance…maybe?
My parents didn’t want funerals because they thought it was a waste of $. Neither did my husband’s parents. I like the ritual/closure of it and want one for myself though.
And a wake at a bar afterwards. Jupiter in the 8th I guess or 9th house Pluto or maybe Scorp Neptune…
My best friends was a funeral director/undertaker. Also a generational thing in his family.
He was gifted in this area and innovated. He had a great gift for this work – and this is exactly true: “He said he grew up with people saying that his father worked with dead people, but he had always seen the exact opposite, his father worked for the living.”
I think the funeral industry is very different up here, despite the fact one of the largest companies is actually all over North America. Growing up I knew a woman who worked in the coroner’s office (a childhood friend’s mother).
When we got to our 20s, one of our friends began an apprenticeship to become a director. It’s a 4 year long process in Canada, and you start by transporting bodies from the hospital to the morgue. He’s gay, by the way. I remember talking to the woman and this friend–the woman told us that the funeral industry (here, at least) employs a disproportionate number of gay men.
I have a close friend (also a gay man–Pisces Sun/Capricorn Moon) who operates a crematorium. I’ve learned a lot about it from him. He wears a biohazard suit and there is no way that anyone is allowed in the room with him, let alone help push the box into the retort (the crematory is called a retort). Government health regulations. There are all kinds of things to consider, like types of radiation used on prostate cancer patients breaking down during cremation and being released. Toxicity.
I actually have an interview with his workplace next week. He’s recommended me for the job. We will see. I will go there and see how it makes me feel to even be there.
As for funerals, I’ve been to my share. Neither of my parents want one. Like Jilly, I would be happy with one and a wake at the bar, too.
Saturn in 8th sextile Jupiter.
Noon here and just woke up from a migraine; you guys always have a full-on interesting topic and convo before I even wake up! I’m always a dollar short, hitting a yellow light or just missed a good convo, ugh. *kicks the carpet
Anyway, really interesting post. Felt early on this strange thing, inside, of never really fearing death. Remember being so young thinking “I wonder where people pass on to; it must be another plane of existence!” I mean, a kid thinking this. Must be my Saturn sitting 0″ in Gemini. Thanks for the insight on the show. Will watch.
Oh and that 0″ Saturn in Gemini is in my 8th. I’d probably be the one to sit and play a round of texas ‘holdem while sharing my beloved pinot noir with the Grim Reaper after I transfer out of this plane.
@Jilly, my fam is the same way re: the $$; I respect all different ceremonies, but, except for my very religious grandmom, all of us have said “do the cheapest respectful thing.” I added that they pour wine over my ashes.
Seriously though, it is sad to see loved ones go, but it is a part of life. We must let go.
A very profound video.
I feel people need the ritual of funeral to help them let go, or for that concept of paying respects; seeing someone through the passage of life. I do anyway. Without a funeral the death doesn’t feel real. It’s great to see more options now with funerals and burial. I for one don’t want to waste all that money on a shiny heavy coffin that’s going to take forever to decompose; that feels wrong. Simple is good.
Have a strong pull to these threshold experiences, thought of being a funeral celebrant too for a while, it’s a huge thing to hold for a family. To me, when done well, it gives the living a crucible for their loss for a time. Have seen a coffin go into the furnace and it’s a deeply holy thing to see the flames take it. A very powerful surrender. Actually that experience made cremation seem a much less….dismissive budget option.
I cannot stop thinking of the young couple and their child.
A tour of a crematorium with a funeral director, who is a friend of the family, was most interesting–so respectful and professional those who are in the business to help people. I think I remember in the tour learning the eldest son of a Hindu family is the one to start the cremation.
In small town America, death is more out there because even though residents may not be close to the just deceased they have crossed paths with them or heard of them or are familiar with the family or friends.
I lived in cities for many years and one time when I returned to small town for a visit I was riding with my parents on our way to have dinner. There were cars parked outside the funeral home and they decided who must be ‘laid out’ and decided to stop in and pay their respects. I was thinking food and viewing a dead body before eating was most bizarre to me. It did not phase my parents at all. Completely normal to them.
The parents bodies are both buried in caskets as is traditionally done locally. But more and more people are opting for cremation. It’s really a personal choice. Some don’t make a plan, don’t care, and let the survivors decide.
Death is an uncomfortable topic, but I love Frontline for telling the truth about things. Very Saturn in Scorpio. Thanks for sharing.
I have been to my share of funerals. Five different friends died when I was 19-20 years old. I think the chance to say goodbye was important at the time.
Rode up front in the limo with a funeral director once and she lamented the changing of custom. Used to be when the hearse had its lights on, people understood that meant it was carrying someone; traffic would give way and people would stop, remove their hats, bow their heads, pay respects. Strangers that is. Feels rich to me, a culture where the customs around death are a tangible part of life, whatever those customs are. This stuff is for the living; honours life as precious.
Funeral homes and professionalism varies, so people tend to shop around and get references. Families and companies who have been running a funeral home for a long time are sometimes very respectful and do it well, but there are also some who are too good at their job and press people’s buttons to get them to spend as much as they can when they are at their most vulnerable.
I think it is important to honor the process and do it properly. Burial rules, traditions, and timing according to the chinese is another thing all together though. Very complex and complicated. Often expensive, too.
As with all real estate, plots are expensive, and people prepare and leave out chunks just for this. Some people inherit family plots. Lots of people buy plots very early here for themselves, as couples, or for family just in case, much like buying car parking spaces, apartments, and homes. When there are a lot of people, and everyone honors tradition when it counts, it becomes a huge, lucrative business.
@J, Those gestures of respect you wrote about are fading, and not taught to the younger generation. Attended a funeral in AZ many years ago w/a long ride from church to gravesite, the only strangers I saw acknowledge the procession were the landscapers. They stopped their work, removed their hats and placed them over their heart–very moving.
This is not quite on topic, but I have thought about this before in connection with Fr Gary Thomas — an exorcist who was involved in the family funeral business before he decided to become a priest.
He is the subject of the movie that was released a few years ago called The Rite. Anthony Hopkins played him in the movie.
I have never seen Fr Gary’s chart, but I’ve wondered about it in terms of his comfort with dealing with the dead — and now with his current work of attempting to free souls from the realm of darkness by being willing to dive in and engage with it on the spiritual plane.
He must have a decent amount of Scorpio, I would think — and/or a pronounced 8th house signature. Would love to see his chart…
Frontline has THE best programming about death.
There’s Frontline:Facing Death which is about people with terminal illnesses in ICU and the decision making process behind extending their life or pulling the plug.
And then there is Frontline: The Suicide Tourist which is about an American with ALS going to Switzerland to end his life.
I can’t wait to watch The Undertaking program. I am certain it is very well done.
Burned, those sound like more recent titles. I’ve not seem them but I betcha anything they’re diseased…spun if you know what I mean.
We need help with managing all those feelings that come up around death. Memorials help provide that container. One of the best gifts we can give is to make our wishes about what we’d like for our memorial known to our loved ones. You spare them some of the anguish that comes from guessing. I say this as a chaplain. As officiants we spend a good deal of time with the family, listening to them talk about their loved one, sharing stories and pictures, helping to craft a service that is true to the one who has died. I much prefer that over trying to create a service where I’m given little information. I practice in a tradition that does not have “boilerplate” memorials. Each of us is unique, and so should our memorial.
As for my own memorial and disposition, I’ve switched from wanted to be cremated to a having a natural burial. I’d like to be planted where I help grow a tree. That’s fitting – Pluto square Sun/Mercury; Pluto trine Moon and Jupiter, Moon & Venus in Taurus.
I’ll check out the Frontline episode. Yes – its perfect for Saturn in Scorpio time. Thanks, Elsa.
I am grateful for the smooth and practiced way the funeral services swing into play. Efficiency with a gentle touch in my experience thus far. My family had 2 funerals in three weeks, my mother and brother, too much to think of undertaking ourselves. Everything was done with dignity and consideration;all the right questions asked, every aspect covered and verified, even to accompanying our family in chapel, graveyard and crematorium. While finances were important, they were discussed carefully and without pressure. As my brother had no insurance, we were assisted in recovering costs through death grants and other means. We couldn’t have asked for more care. That there’s a trolley now for coffins meant I and my 3 sisters were able to be bearers for our brother, which moved even the Crematorium staff.
Yes, details of how bodies are treated are not for the faint hearted, but both my mother and brother looked at peace in the funeral home. I felt the sutures at the back of his skull when I ran my fingers over his hair and accepted it, as he’d needed a post mortem – I was grateful for how discretely that incision had been placed. If the facts of death were more integrated into our knowledge they wouldn’t seem ghoulish or grisly.
My only complaint was that the Crematorium production line had us ushered out before we had registered the coffin’s disappearance…but again that’s a reality, that there’s another funeral group waiting.It’s humbling.
Also costs – my sister announced when she died she’d be ‘doing it herself’ because she wouldn’t pay ‘their kind of money’, though how she envisioned that we’ve yet to hear! It can be a kindness to those left to plan what you want, a comfort for them to know it’s what you wanted. Both my mother and brother did that and both services were heart-warming for their courage in that. Eco-burial for me.
In my small town, the funeral director is a very revered gentleman. He is seen very much as a father figure to much of the community as he has held to position for over 30 years. He knows just about all the locals by name is highly involved in the community. When you run into him in town, he asks about your family, etc.
And, when you have to visit “his” place it’s like you are walking into the home of an old friend. Everyone knows he will take excellent care of your loved ones and follow through with everyone’s wishes to the letter.
He definitely works with the living just as much as the dead. I respect him a great deal.
I agree with elizabeth on the one hand. I had a friend who was an embalmer and saw his finished projects, work environment and how that two person business was run. He certainly worked like a dog. I think, knowing him, he like the attention of being in what is considered by some, a” creepy ” business. It was theater to him “all smoke and mirrors ” and he admitted it as well as not seeing the dead as “people ” “and I think that is why I am so good at what I do “. His boss took advantage of his work ethic as it was just two of them. And they sometimes were not paid. They disliked the greed of the McDonald funeral homes in their area.
On the other hand, it is necessary for most humans to need closure and the funeral business provides this. I like the idea of a green burial. I had known an elderly family friend who had a “Tibetan ” preparation. all done with ointments and herbal treatments to his skin. He was laid out in the daughter’s home in one of the bedrooms that was kept very cold. One of the daughters asked if I wanted to see their father, while having been invited to the home memorial for him. I was confused at first and thought she meant pictures. I asked her. She said “no. He’s here. In the bedroom” He was a very old and dear family friend, as si mentioned. So I nodded as she led me to the bedroom. Seeing him in cozy a outfit of colorful shirt, Tibetan vest and wool hat and socks, looking like he was just asleep, was a surreal at first. I sat down and instinctively put my hand over his. It was ice cold. I cried and spoke my tearful goodbyes, while my friend since childhood, put her hand on my shoulder. It was a very beautiful experience and the scent of the herbs and ointments, gave me a sense of wellbeing. We then, later wrote a farewell messageson his card board casket with colorful markers ans some drew beautiful pictures. I left feeling grateful, humbled and at peace. So thankful I could say goodbye “in person “. He was then later cremated.
Sounds like an interesting program! 🙂
I don’t really have an opinion of the funeral business as a whole, though The American Way of Death certainly slanted me towards the “shyster” viewpoint. I don’t think they’re ALL that way, but I would say I have a healthy amount of mistrust about funeral directors.
During my grandfather’s viewing, the family room (with refreshments, etc) was right next to the director’s office with no actual door between them, just a doorway. While I was in there drinking some water, I overheard the funeral director talking to a man about how profitable the death business was and how he’d be smart to get into it blah blah blah. The director’s guest and I could see each other and we shared a look.
He looked contrite; I’m sure I looked pissed!
During a funeral, people.
I’m still upset about that one. *nods*
And this is a well-regarded funeral parlour in the area, but I can flat-smack guarantee that no family of mine will go through them again if I have the choice!
That Frontline is fantastic.
It was a very moving, thought-provoking episode. That “undertaker” (Thomas Lynch) is also a writer and I bought his book of the same name (The Undertaking).
As for funerals, I can appreciate the ritual aspect and having a set of behaviors to go to at a such a time. I was involved with the planning of my father’s funeral and it was absolutely about the living and not the deceased. It was a circus (IMO) and in their grief, people can be taken advantage of. My perceptions and feelings are entirely my own and come from simply going through the experience and deciding what I did and did not like about it.
They sell a cardboard box option for people who want to be cremated (rules depend on the state you’re in) and that’s the one for me. I loved knowing you could be there when it happens and would consider it an honor (in the way that dressing or preparing the body used to be) to do so for any of my loved one’s.
I’ve been going to funerals since I was a young boy. Death began in my life very early. Since my dad is a preacher, he’s very cappily involved in the muslim world. He’s well known in his circle. Being born to this, I always ran across different types of people people who would later turn into family.
First death happened to my mom’s friends ex husband.
My mom’s friend died in her sleep of cancer.
My mom had a very outspoken Virgo woman friend who my dad didn’t like because she challenged him but he respects her for that.
Anyway, she became very close to my family. We all became family and her kids felt more than friends, like siblings from another mother. Her son, T, had a chest problem. He died while in prayer. Beautiful way to go I believe.
The family took it very hard after that, nothing was ever the same. There’s problems are still not resolved and no one is handling it in a direct way even though it was years ago. After T died, her ex husband, their father died.
Well all took those deaths hard.
Then some brothers my father knew died and I went to their funerals.
Then my granny died.
Then my father’s father died, my grandfather died.
Then people I knew at school started dying.
Death has been a major part of my life. Death physically and spiritually to alot of things. I’m no longer really afraid of death because of this.
My granddad died on my 1st birthday.
I only really know my Grandma and she’s a crazy Gemini.
Life is crazy sometimes and death is just a new beginning.