After 15 years in the funeral business I have learned countless tricks, mentalities, modalities and lessons. It took me almost that long to realize that some of those might be worth un-learning. With dreams in hand, I resigned a secure management position. I walked away from a solid salary and the potential for advancement in a young and aggressively expanding company. Actually, I didn’t walk…I took a train.
It was September 2012 when I left that prominent funeral home and cemetery, a 225 year-old business that is currently owned by a funeral and cemetery corporation. The news came as a shock to the owners and employees. I knew, however, it was something I needed to do for myself in order to continue my personal growth and to become a catalyst for change within the funeral industry.
On the evening of Wednesday, October 17th, I waited for a train at Ernestine & Hazel’s, a dive bar and former brothel located in the South Main Arts District of downtown Memphis, TN. After lugging in three pieces of Filson Luggage and finding a dark corner, I ordered a cocktail and waited eagerly. Smoke billowed from mouths reminiscent of Mississippi River steamboats. The house band pumped out the blues and I caught up with an old friend. Upstairs, “Nate,” who witnessed the march of Martin Luther King Jr. on Memphis, served brown liquor where the lights were dim and the conversation was heavy yet optimistic. Moments passed and after successfully souring my clothing and luggage with the smell of cigarette smoke and catching a slight buzz, I finally heard the whistle sound. I gathered my belongings and hurriedly crossed the street to Memphis Central Station and made my way out into the cold and onto the City of New Orleans bound for Chicago.
I boarded the train and made my way up the narrow winding stairs and into the private cabin I reserved. The space was small yet appropriate. Navy upholstery and carpeting lined the floors, walls and seats. Brushed and polished aluminum and chrome was cool to the touch and bore my reflection. Overhead a frosted light dimly lit the space as we slowly pulled away from familiarity. I really did it – what many people only talk about. I made the leap into the unknown without regard for fear or consequence. Taking the best of my experience and leaving the rest behind, I was officially on a journey.
I planned to head north into Chicago for a weekend visit and to enlist myself in celebrant training and certification. While engrossed in training I learned how to deliver a eulogy and funeral ceremony that focused on the deceased as a person while providing tools for emotional healing for those experiencing the loss. For someone who was college educated with a focus on funeral arts and mortuary science, I was learning things that were totally new and refreshingly different from what I had been taught. Some topics were familiar but mostly cut from new cloth. I was fully intent on creating a bright new way.
After the intensive training and certification, I ventured out into the windy city. I walked through Chicago’s Millennium Park taking photographs of Cloud Gate, also referred to as “The Bean” for its kidney bean shape. It was here that I met Marty, an elderly woman with snow white hair, glasses and a vibrant personality. The Ohio native was visiting with her family and she asked where I was from. Our conversation quickly spread to what I was doing in Chicago and where I was going. I explained to her that I was a funeral director who had recently left my day to day responsibilities and was traveling across the country via train and speaking with as many random people as possible about their views on death and the conventional funeral in America. I told her I wanted to create a better death and dying experience and to create change within the funeral industry. Marty agreed to answer a series of questions I prepared regarding death and funeral customs. She was the first of many I spoke with as I made my trek across the United States. Here are just a few of the questions I posed:
– When you think about death what is the first thing that comes to your mind?
– How often do you think about death? and does it affect your daily life?
– Describe a ceremony you would want to happen when you die?
– Would you choose for yourself a religious funeral ceremony?
– What do you wish to be done with your body after you die?
– What would you change about today’s funeral customs?
– Have you talked to anyone about your death or discussed with anyone your final wishes?
– At the time of your death, if life truly does flash before your eyes in a series of pictures, what 3 images from your past would you want to see?
– If today was to be your last, what message would you want to send to your loved ones and to the world?
There were no right or wrong answers to the questions, however many people would ask, “How was that?” and “Did I do good?” The answers were all correct, the point was the conversation itself. So many people fear speaking about death as if they will usher in the grim reaper himself, or that they will send a message to the universe that they are ready to transition. The entire process was meant to encourage people to have similar conversations with their loved ones and to more fully embrace their lives. I hoped it would help reprogram my own mind conditioning from the years of education and training in the field of the traditional funeral industry. The questions oftentimes led to other discussions and statements.
“All death is here to teach us that we are not going to be here forever and if you are to fulfill the highest expression of yourself as a human being, then every opportunity you have to take a breath is an opportunity in which you should be moving in the direction of fulfilling that highest expression.”
“I would want it to be small, private and green.”
“I am not scared at all about dying but I am scared for the people I will leave behind.”
“I would rather have a ceremony that was more of a celebration than a funeral. Not a party per say but a time of happiness with family and friends – no sadness, ya know?! To hell with all that!”
“If I were to change something about funeral customs I would say to get rid of all the preachers, ya know? When ya go to a funeral and it becomes a sermon and a recruitment process…I don’t like that.”
“I would like to be buried with the seeds of a tree as an expression of rejuvenation for life.”
“Death is a biological event that is going to happen. I would change the aspect of sadness that is exaggerated by the conventional funeral and the formality of the custom.”
“When I think about death I think about freedom and new beginnings.”
“What kind of ceremony would I want to happen? Hmm… I always tease that I would want my ashes like, mixed up into paint and a terribly tacky painting made. There would be a rotation stipulation in my will and my family would have to place me in their homes for, like, a two-year rotation. And I would want a party with this tacky painting and good food…Bonnie Raitt’s “Too Long At The Fair” playing in the background. Everyone would have to play the birthday game where everyone would say something or tell a favorite story about me and my life and how I affected them.”
You might ask how has this experience changed my day to day outlook on life and what can be done better in the funeral industry…
I took a train and left it all behind. I made new friends and my views were changed. I believe the people I met were changed too. Hopefully they have had the opportunity to speak to others and to extend the conversation. I still ask these questions, not only of people I meet, but also of myself. Ask yourself these questions and ask your friends and family too. While on my journey I was greeted by warm and open hearts.
The trip wouldn’t have been the same without the people I met along the way. To Vic, Robert, Judy, Grace, Matt, Marley, Beth, Naomi, Kristan, Paris, Greg, Genevieve, Tia, Thomas, Glennie, Ian, Money and so many more, I couldn’t have done it without you! Life is so much easier with friends and family at your side. One day the time will come when we no longer stand at each other’s sides but in each other’s hearts. A wise person once told me that in death we become closer because we haven’t the body between us.