C J Talks About: The Funeral Service Profession-PT. 1

A note from C J : Here are my thoughts about funeral service work. I speak only for myself here.

Sometimes I am asked about ‘what really happens’ behind the scenes in the funeral home, morgue, or crematory. I welcome these questions, because as a funeral professional, part of my work is to inform or educate about various aspects that concern handling and care of the deceased, disclosure of details and terms of funeral price lists and purchase contracts, resources outside of the funeral home that may be helpful for families seeking grief support, etc.

Personally, I felt I was called to this work. Much as a priest or nun is called to their vocation, it is something you know that you are truly gifted at and uniquely talented to help your client families as you offer comfort, empathy, and solace to them in their darkest hours of need. You cannot pretend to have the ability, you MUST have it.

When I was entrusted with the care and preparation of a deceased person, in my mind and in my heart, I treated that person as if he or she were MY own dear family member. How would I want John Doe to handle my dad? With reverence, decency, and dignity, AT ALL TIMES.

When I would get a person on the table, about whom I only had an embalming order and a name, with no details or foreknowledge of the person’s life or sometimes what caused their death, I could only wonder about what kind of person they were in life. I carefully bathed them, embalmed them, dressed them, with an eye to every detail, doing the very best work I knew how to do. I painstakingly spent countless hours of my OWN time to ensure they were appropriately cosmetized, and that means restoring facial trauma, using techniques and methods of plastic surgery and restoration art I was taught in mortuary science college and in my apprenticeship.

I actually got a written reprimand for working on my own time while I was employed in a large corporate-owned establishment. I didn’t care about getting paid, for me it wasn’t about a paycheck.  I was working for Mr. Jones’ family (the deceased) NOT ‘such and such mortuary’. When the big corporates started to buy up all the small independently or  family-owned funeral homes across the globe, they began to attempt a ‘standard procedure’ or “McDonaldization” of them…I protested loudly because THIS work is NOT one in which you can mold all things into a category, treat all people the same, do all work to satisfaction without going into overtime. THIS WAS DEATH!!  Death is a deeply personal, highly complex experience. This isn’t the Cadillac dealership, where there is a shop rate for repairs. Every deceased body had its own unique needs, and some bodies needed extraordinary effort and time if they were going to be viewed. If they weren’t willing to pay me for it, so what? I WAS THE SPECIALIST into whose hands the talent lie, the one doing this delicate and extremely important work to enable that last chance to see their loved one. Let me do my work! I habitually spent hours beyond my usual workday and some of my days off. Many hours. This got me into trouble more than once. It was worth it, trouble or not. Considering the price of compounding the tragic grief of a family doing a half-assed job, no way was I going to let them down. 

In reality, the manager at that time was trying to put me out the door. He was all business, 9-5, no ifs, ands, or buts. He was a lousy embalmer, too lazy to give much of a shit when it came to adhering to any of the prevailing embalming rules of safety or in practicing accepted methods or techniques. He had no talent in that department, I felt. So my dedication pissed him off. It showed him up and he disliked me intensely for that. It wasn’t right. But he was a much more qualified manager. One that could punish someone like me and turn me into the corporate poster child for breaking rules.  I was the “No-No Girl.” I often wondered if he was ever appropriate to be in the profession. 


© C.S. Thompson, 2013.

6 Responses to “C J Talks About: The Funeral Service Profession-PT. 1”

  1. Oh, CJ, I can’t wait to read the rest. I hope he gets his comeuppanse, but knowing how life sometimes is, he probably won’t. Can’t wait to find out.
    I hope there are lots more like you in the business.


  2. This is comforting and extremely emotive, but also leaves me with a shadow of doubt. I recognise you can only speak from your own experience. If only all mortuary professionals were like you. I just hope my husband was accorded the dignity of the oath and the love and care you express here. He looked OK when I saw him in the funeral home (Jesus, what a fucked up statement that is) but it tears me up not knowing what happened to him in between.

    I am aware that you have another section of this to follow, but can I probe further – what exactly is the embalming process? The funeral director told me that my husband would have a ‘hygienic cleanse’ and I honestly had no idea what this was until I googled it months later. I genuinely thought it meant they were going to wipe him down with anti-bac and a sponge! It disturbed me when I read about the process, and I kind of wish I hadn’t put him through it.
    Thank you for your insight and wisdom.


    • Everyone reserves that little shadow of a doubt about how their loved one felt as they drew their last breath, how their body was handled, what the process of embalming/cremation/final preparation entails….AND, because we are a little curious, but a bit edgy, too we allow this shadow of a doubt to remain shrouded in mystery.
      Part of our professional duty to care for the living calls for us to be open, honest, and informative; if something is left in darkness, it cannot be understood or perceived until light is shone upon it.
      I am very open to explaining how it works, dispelling concerns, defining unfamiliar terms and translating the jargon. I totally plan to encourage this throughout my blogging posts. Look for it in next post….


  3. CJ, I read this ‘knowing’ you are so much like myself… no matter what I always want to do something right… and walk away knowing I did good… and more. Even though no one else might not see it… I will know it in my heart.

    CJ, I’m honored to be friends with you; I think you are a very special person, and where you are in life… being there ‘just before’ someone is ‘tucked into bed for their final sleep’… you make sure everything is alright. Love, Gloria


    • Thank you so much Gloria…I no longer work in that profession, sadly. It broke my heart to have to leave it when I hurt my back. But I feel like I can stay connected, in a way, by making friends here, and helping people with questions or some of their personal struggles with grief, death, and related things they ask about.I still see that my work and my experiential wisdom are able to enlighten others, gently.


    • Gloria – what a lovely thought – someone like CJ being there ‘just before’ the ‘final sleep’. It is so important for a devastated relative (in my case, wife) to be able to think that their loved one was loved and cared for in death. X


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