Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Herald Journal Article

Funeral director job not for everyone

The heart has stopped. Brain waves cease to exist. Death has taken over.
In the most blatant terms, the body will be retrieved from its place of death and, if the family wishes, pumped full of preservatives.
Embalming. The thought makes some queasy, others curious. For most of us, an embalmed state is how our loved ones will last see us.
Undertaker, mortician, funeral director - over the years, those who deal with the dead have been called all three.
Their occupation surrounded in a bit of mystery and on the receiving end of a few jokes.
But there is nothing mysterious about embalming. Of the duties undertaken by the funeral director, embalming is a small part.
Funeral directors are on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Death is not considerate.
"Most of the times when we're called, we initiate a response to the place where the person died," Roger Carlson, funeral director at Winsted Funeral Home, said. "We make contact with the next of kin to determine wishes and discuss final plans."
If requested, the body is embalmed. Embalming is only required if the body will be transported across state lines, transported by an airline, death was due to a communicable disease, or burial will take place more than 72 hours after death.
Carlson said it is difficult to have a visitation without embalming, as the body begins to decompose immediately after death.
Bruce McBride, owner of the Paul-McBride Funeral Home in Lester Prairie, said an average embalming takes two hours.
"(Embalming) is pretty simple," said Carlson. "We use the body's circulatory system," he said.
The primary preservative in embalming fluid is formaldehyde. Because blood gives skin its color and is removed during embalming, the fluid also contains dyes to give a pink color to the skin.
Embalming fluid goes by several brand names, such as Plasdopake used by the Chilson Funeral Home in Winsted.
The first step in embalming is washing the body with a disinfectant soap to prevent the spread of germs.
The clothes worn by the person, needles, and blades used in the embalming, are picked up by a company that specializes in disposing of contaminated material.
The 16-ounce bottle of embalming fluid is placed in a pump and diluted with two gallons of water. Kevin Chilson of Chilson Funeral Home said it takes an average of four gallons of fluid for embalming.
The fluid is injected into an artery, such as the femoral or carotid. It goes into the heart and through the circulatory system, pushing out and replacing the blood, which leaves the body through a vein. McBride uses the jugular vein.
The funeral directors also use various tools to remove blood clots and open veins where the flow of the embalming fluid is being impeded.
Blood and body fluids go into a receptacle, much like a toilet, where it is then flushed into the septic sewer to be treated at the waste water treatment plant. If the person died of a contagious disease, the blood and body fluid is first treated with disinfectant.
Carlson said there has been talk of requiring funeral directors to retain the body fluids and have them picked up by a specialized company. He added body fluids are a small part of what goes into a sewage waste water treatment system.
Chilson said due to privacy laws, if the person died of hepatitis, AIDS, or other contagious disease, the funeral director cannot be told by the health care facility.
Chilson said he has been told such information by the family, which he appreciates.
"To protect ourselves, we've been advised to treat everyone as if they died from a contagious disease," he said.
After embalming, cosmetics are used on the body's face to make it pleasant for the visitation.
If a woman has died, the family is asked to bring in the cosmetics she used. The woman's hair stylist is also asked to do the deceased's hair.
Hard and soft waxes are also used for restoration if there has been trauma to the body.
The length of time after the body is embalmed that decomposition will set in is determined by the thoroughness of the embalming, McBride said. Age, cause of death, weight, and length of time between death and embalming are other factors.
"It's not meant to last for the long term," McBride said.
He added there are different types of embalming. Bodies that have been donated to science use a different type of chemical, as the concern is long-term preservation, not looks.
The tradition of embalming is unique to the United States and Canada, said Chilson. He said in Europe and especially third world countries, embalming is not a common practice.
Embalming began to receive acceptance during the Civil War, Chilson said.
"Many soldiers were buried on the battle field, but many were also sent home," Chilson explained. "The embalmer usually had a medical background and would set up a tent on the edge of the battlefield. The fluid was put in by gravity, much like an IV," he said.
Chilson wasn't positive, but thought the Civil War embalmers probably used a combination of formaldehyde and arsenic. "Arsenic is one of the most powerful preservatives," he said.
Transporting the dead soldiers home was a low priority. "A month would pass (before the body came home) and the local towns people would be amazed they could still have reviewal," Chilson said.
Funeral homes have only recently come into acceptance, primarily during the late 1940s and 1950s. Chilson thought many would remember when the funeral and embalming was done in the home.
In the past, many of the funeral tasks were done by the women of the church. "They would bathe and dress the body," Chilson said.
The family would go to the local man who made furniture and he would make the coffin. Chilson said the term "undertaker" came from, as time progressed, the man who made the coffin would undertake more of the funeral responsibilities.
Embalming was done in the homes until the 1930s.
"The undertaker would bring in his buckets and chemicals and a cooling board," Chilson said. "He would suspend the cooling board between two chairs in the parlor and do the embalming there." The wake and reviewal also took place in the parlor.
A door badge - a large black bow hung on the door - was also a tradition, letting others know there had been a death in that family.
Even though there have been changes over the years, Chilson said funerals are still steeped in tradition. Following a tradition isn't always easy. All three funeral directors agreed this business is not for everyone.
"Emotions run high," McBride said. "You learn to cope."

The Third Story Window (see story below)

Monday, June 23, 2008

The Third Story Window

Our funeral home is a historic home in our small town. The home was built by a very wealthy oilman in 1917. The original structure had three levels with the third level frequently used for ballroom dances and fancy parties held in the 1920's. A tornado damaged the original structure and the home was moved to the current location on our downtown main street. It was purchased for the purpose of a funeral home in the 30's. The funeral home operated on the bottom floor, the family lived on the second floor and the third floor became storage.
In 1977 the funeral home was purchased for the third time. A casket selection room and other offices were put to use on the second floor. The third floor remained storage.
I have always had an eerie fasination with the third floor. The first time I ever opened the creaking door and stepped on the old winding staircase I felt this strange nervous sensation. It is like stepping back into time as you step on the dusty staircase. There is no electricity. The cobwebs and dust wave in the shadows and amongst the boxes, old magazines and furniture you can glimpse the vintage cots that picked up countless bodies over the years. At one time the abandoned floor represented two bedrooms, one bath and a huge ballroom that once overflowed with music, dancing and laughter. The bathroom has original hot and cold knobs for the sink and tiny checked tile that is broken and aged by the years.
In one of the bedrooms there is an old window. The poor thing has not aged well. Chipped paint and rusty hindges hold it in place. She hasn't been opened in years. It has to be lonely... no one around anymore to share the view of the sunshine with.
Every three months or so I wander upstairs to the third floor to look around. Just before I go back downstairs I always go to my window and pay her a visit.
One cold snowy day in December of 2006 I stepped up the dusty stairs and sensed a strange breeze. I could hear the sound of papers swirling around on the floor and I could feel the chill of the December air at my feet. As I followed the sound of the wind it called me into the bedroom with the window.
And there she was, wide open.
There was no explaination for this for if you tried to open it, it would take a crowbar to do it and besides, no one but me went up there every now and then.
It actually scared me and I ran downstairs to show the owner. He went back upstairs with me and we both stood dumbfounded. It took both of us to get it shut and latched.
To this day it remains closed.
(*Tomorrow, I will take and post a picture of the window so you can see her with your own eyes..)

Thursday, June 19, 2008

boo hoo

I don't recall how it came up but on Tuesday my male coworkers and I started talking about crying (since we are surrounded by it all the time). I realized that I couldn't remember the last time I had a good cry. You know, the kind of cry that just pours out from the depth of your soul and you have a hard time stopping once it starts...it feels good every once in a while to act like a big bawl baby.

As funeral directors we are trained to suppress emotions. We cannot be the one who loses it, standing by the casket. Many times as people are passing by the casket crying and I am standing right there but I have trained my mind to wander. I try to think about happy things in my life, my husband, our girls, our trip to Disney World, or anything remotely above all of the grief and despair going on around me. I have almost have this non-crying thing down to a science....sometimes.

I read in one of our trade magazine that alcoholism in the funeral industry is almost an epidemic. Heart attack, stroke and other sudden illnesses are common due to prolonged stress. Some jobs are very physically demanding but in the 8 years I have been directing I realize that it is the emotional exchange and the constant empathy that can literally drain the life of a funeral director. cheers to that irony....

Back to the story I really wanted to tell. While most of the time I work with families when someone has died, I also help families with pre-need arrangements. 90% of the time it is a healthy couple that is planning ahead to spare the kids from having to do it years down the road. We keep it light hearted~most people like to joke and say, "oh honey, just throw me in a ditch somewhere" and we all laugh because we know no one ever does that...wait, except for Lorena Bobbit...okay, bad joke~

So I met with Ruth* Wednesday. 72, dying with cancer, had endured already 8 rounds of radiation therapy already, the sweetest lady anyone could hope to meet. I had helped her last July when her second husband died. She had been one my favorites.
Ruth is the "darlin, baby, sweetie" kind of person, always speaking kindly of others, no matter what her circumstance might be. It pained me to go over to her house and see her without hair and in a wheel chair. I sat next to her and put my hand over hers and said, "thank you for having me over Ruth~how are you feeling today?" Her sense of humor and sweetness came out right away and she answered my question with a smile and "enough about me darlin...how are your girls doing?"
We got reaquainted and she then began to tell me her wishes. For the first time in a long time...my throat started getting that terrible knot in it~you know the knot that feels like a marble stuck in your throat? I wrote down all she was telling me and tried really to hard to find some happy thoughts...it wasn't working. The reality of the honor of being able to talk with this sweet lady about her loves, her dreams, her career, her hobbies, her family and her death, caught up with me.
It was time for our meeting to come to a close. I looked up and took her hand. She said, "I can't thank you enough for helping me today with all of this. Honey, I just know it will be next month."

I couldn't say much of anything. My heart was so sad that this sweet soul's time was up. With tears in my eyes and that damn lump in my throat, I choked, "You're welcome Ruth...goodbye ."

And with that, I walked out to my car and bawled and bawled and bawled...

That night, after I put the girls to bed, I thought to myself, wow... this has been a day.

And I poured myself a glass of red wine.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


My mother has told me all of my life, "Annie, the older you become the faster time goes by" I am understanding the wisdom in those words as I flip the calender pages faster and faster each week. Where do the weeks go? The days of May are already gone....did I make them worthwhile? Did I truly take time to do the things I enjoy or was I too busy trying to plan for the next day....?

Yesterday I was able to catch a sweet glimpse of another perspective on time. A couple (both in their late 80's) came to in to the funeral home to add some more detailed instructions about music and clothing to their files. After I had taken their information and we had vistited a bit I asked, "Well, what do you have planned for the rest of the day, anything fun?"

She giggled like a school girl and said, "It is our anniversary!" I said, "Oh, wonderful!" (and assuming as I sometimes tend to do...I asked) "How many years?" She shot him a flirty glance and said, 18 months....

It was all coming to light "You are newlyweds! Well that is even better!! " I said.

As I was walking them out the door she told me they had been to breakfast, then to an exercise session and they had a special steak dinner planned for that evening. He grinned proudly... I could tell he had planned quite well....

She then said, "We decided when we got married to celebrate each month because at our age we don't know if we have years."

With that lesson learned, I have decided to celebrate the months as well. In this day and age, even if it is a text message sent on every 22nd of the month to my husband just to let him know I love him.

Because at my age, I am not promised years either.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Mommy, why?

The mind of a four year old...it will make you laugh, make you shrug, leave you speechless and make you really creative when it comes to answering the utmost question~why?

I have often hesitated when my four year old asks, mommy...what do you do at work? When she was three I said, "your mommy is a professional hugger...." I was pretty darn proud of myself for coming up with such a sweet explaination until my husband said it kind of sounded like a hooker. Well ... that's just great.

So one of the many conversations have gone like this:

"mommy, why do you go to work?"
I go to work to help people sweetie

"Well, what do you do?"
I help people who have died

"what does died mean?"
Well, it means they leave their bodies and get to heaven

"I want to go to heaven!"
not yet baby, it's not your time

"Mommy, I don't like to take turns!!"

And the latest (and greatest in my opinion....)

Overheard by my daughter's teacher~
"What does your mommy do at her work Emma?"
"She helps people"
"Oh!! She's a SUPERHERO!!?" hahaa