I’m Terrified Of Death

graveyard(H/T)

I paid my first visit to a morgue this past weekend.

Maybe I should back up and explain.

This past weekend I drove down to Pennsylvania Dutch country for the funeral of someone I’ve never met.

Yeah, I should probably back up a little more.

So, this semester at school I’m taking a class called Writing About Religion. It’s taught by New York Times religion columnist Mark Oppenheimer (seriously, how cool is that?) and our big assignment is to write a profile on a religious figure. I chose to do something a little different. Instead of profiling a preacher or a rabbi or an imam, I decided to profile a funeral director.

You may know him. His name is Caleb Wilde and he’s the genius behind the amazing blog Confessions of a Funeral Director.

In order to write Caleb’s story I not only needed to interview Caleb, I also needed to follow him around on the job and see what life as a funeral director is really like. So, I packed my bags and headed down to Amish country where Caleb lives. Just to be clear, Caleb isn’t Amish. He lives and works near Lancaster, PA because that’s where his family has been running a funeral home for, get this, 6 generations.

Well, in my machismo I thought I could handle following around a funeral director for a day, pay a visit to the morgue, and stop by the crematorium, no problem. I’m a big boy, I thought. I can handle being around death.

Yeah, was I wrong.

As it turns out, I’m terrified of death.

The funeral I attended (to see Caleb in action, so to speak) didn’t actually bother me. In fact, listening to the family celebrate the life of their dearly departed actually made for an oddly pleasant experience.

Afterwards, Caleb took me through the casket room, showing me the various options for burial. While certainly not the most upbeat showroom I’ve ever visited, it was the sticker shock that I found more depressing than the empty caskets. And I don’t mean that Caleb and his family were price gouging. In fact, they do quite the opposite. I just had no idea how incredibly expensive a funeral can be. And the thought of having to shell out thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars right after a loved one has died on something that, let’s be honest, it’s just going to rot in the ground is just awful. Particularly if you find yourself in the position that so many other families find themselves in and you just don’t have the money. Talk about a heartbreaking double punch to the gut.

Well, my punch to the gut came next.

Caleb opened a non-descript door at the side of the casket room and I turned to follow him in.

But I wasn’t ready for what I was about to see.

I mean I thought I was and I had a pretty good idea of where that door led, but one glance and I knew I was in way over my head.

We were in the morgue.

And there there two bodies laying out on two different tables.

One covered completely in a red bag which we were going to be taking over to the crematorium.

The other covered in a blue sheet that only extended up to the shoulders, exposing the face. It was the body of an elderly woman and I couldn’t look away.

She looked like she was just sleeping, like she would open her eyes at any moment and sit up. But I knew she wouldn’t and I think it was that realization that made that moment all the more jarring

It’s a lot easier to look past death when it’s nice and neat and lying all dressed up in a casket, but when a body is lying on a cold metal table in a morgue with nothing but a thin sheet to cover it you’re forced to literally come face to face with the stark reality of death. You’re forced to accept the finality of death and the fragility of life.

It’s an image I still can’t get out of my mind.

The entire day was like that. It was an incredibly visceral experience on every level.

From the morgue we loaded the body in the red bag into the funeral home’s van and made the 45 minute drive to the crematorium. I’m gonna be honest. We talked a lot, but I have no idea what we talked about on the drive over. When there’s a dead body laying 2 feet behind you and you don’t normally drive around town with dead bodies in the backseat it is, to say the least, a bit distracting….and a lot unnerving.

Things didn’t get anymore comfortable for me at the crematorium.

The crematorium is tucked away down a country side road in a nondescript building behind another long building where they make the vaults your casket will go into when you’re buried.

Oh, and all those concrete vaults are set out row after row next to each other, adjacent to the crematorium as if to make sure you don’t forget where you are.

The only thing that gives away what’s inside the nondescript little building tucked away down that country road are the waves of heat emanating from the chimney on the roof.

I can still see them disappearing into the Pennsylvania sky.

Caleb backed the van up to the crematorium and I watched as he and Brooks, the guy who ran the crematorium, unloaded the body and moved it from the gurney we brought it over on and into the cardboard box that would carry the body into the flames.

For as long as I live I’ll never forget the thud of the lifeless body as they laid it in a cardboard box in preparation for cremation.

There something so final and gut wrenching and lifeless about it.

While they worked Caleb and Brooks talked business. Then Brooks talked about his upcoming vacation to Panama. And all the while country music was blaring on the radio as if it was just another day on the job.

For them it was.

They were used to death.

I wasn’t.

At all.

So I cowered by the doorway watching, too afraid to step inside.

Then Caleb turned to Brooks and said “Hey, do you mind showing Zack the furnace?”

I’ll be honest. I’m still not sure how I found the courage to step inside. OK, it wasn’t courage that motivated me so much as the embarrassment of trying to explain to my professor why I didn’t go in and see one of the most critical parts of a story about death and dying.

So I stepped inside.

Just like sight of the dead elderly woman and the sound of the body landing with a thud in the cardboard box, I will never forget the heat of the furnace when Brooks opened the door to the room where the cremations actually took place.

It hit you in the face and lingered as an ever present reminder that one day those same flames might consume your body too.

Again, I lingered near the door too unsettled to take more than a couple of steps into the room.

Brooks told me how the furnace worked and showed me the buckets of metallic medical devices that aren’t consumed by the flames, but all I could think about while he was talking was the heat.

To my great relief we left soon after.

I was rattled.

A lot.

Like for the rest of the day and into the night rattled.

I lost my appetite. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t want to be alone.

Sure, I had thought about death before and pontificated on its theological meaning. And I have, unfortunately, had several friends and family members die. But I’ve never really come face to face with cold, harsh reality of death before. Not like that.

And I would wager you haven’t either.

As a society we’ve outsourced death. We’ve pushed it out of our sight and into the hands of professionals who behind closed doors beautify death for funerals so we can keep living in our delusion of immortality and never really, I mean really really come to grips with the fact that life is fragile and fleeting and when we’re gone there’s no coming back.

I don’t say that to be depressing. I say it because while I think our fear of death itself is healthy, our fear of being around death is not.

Death isn’t pleasant.

But that’s kind of the point.

The unpleasantness that it brings unsettles our lives, forcing us to reexamine everything – the decisions we make, where we spend our time, who we spend our time with, what is really of value.

But as unpleasant and painful as is it, death has a strange way of transforming us into better people because it doesn’t just remind us of the fragility of life, it inspires us to live our lives more fully, to take advantage of every moment we have because before we know it we’ll be the ones laying on table in the morgue.

Now, I’m not saying everyone needs to follow a funeral director around for a day in order to appreciate the reality of death, but it’s not that bad of an idea either.

If nothing else I can promise you this.

It’s an experience you will never ever forget.

 

Grace and Peace,

Zack Hunt

 

  • CalebWilde

    You left out the part about how ridicoulously good looking I am in a suit.

    • ZackHunt

      That’s coming the part 2 which will just be a photo montage of pictures I secretly took of you while you weren’t looking.

  • http://www.inamirrordimly.com/ Ed_Cyzewski

    Brilliant Zack. This really hits hard at what we fear as a society.

  • Chris Hyde

    I work in the funeral industry as well and even though I have become accustomed to being around death all of the time, it still haunts me from time to time. How can it not? Though I will be a pastor again sometime in the future, I don’t think I’ll ever be the same since working in the funeral industry. Thank you for sharing how much this impacted you. It reminds me of how I felt two years ago when I started in this industry.

  • Roo Ciambriello

    “As a society, we’ve outsourced death.” This post is on point, Zack. Really good.

    • ZackHunt

      Thanks. :)

  • Terry W.

    This is a great article Zack…if I can say something like this is great. I remember being a young pastor in Iowa and one of my best friends was a funeral director and he gave me the same kind of tour. It changed my life and my ministry forever. I appreciate the way you painted such a clear picture of what goes on. Thanks also to Caleb (and a shout out to his site) for the ministry he has to families who are going through such difficult situations.

  • michaboyett

    My ever-wise and deep husband has encouraged me to meditate daily on the possibility of losing him or our kids, in order to remind myself to live more fully and gratefully with them every day. I’m not capable of that kind of meditation at this point, though, even though he prays about it daily. One of my other favorite men, St. Benedict, encouraged his monks to, “keep the reality of death always before your eyes.” Good words I think. Thanks for this post, buddy.

  • Mark

    Ever since I went through the funeral traditions after my mom passed away in Japan, I’ve thought about how differently cultures approach death. After the memorial service relatives and close friends go to a crematorium where we pay our last respects then watch as the casket and body are placed into the furnace. Then we go to a waiting room. Once the body is consumed and cooled, we are called back down to the crematorium where the eldest son (which happened to be me), picks up (with chopsticks) one of the remaining bone fragments and deposits it into the urn. The rest of the family and guests follow, and then all remaining ashes and fragments are placed into the urn. The urn, carried by the eldest son, leads the procession out of the crematorium into waiting cars. At the reception dinner the urn is placed in a place of honor. Afterwards I the urn rests in the home (it was in the same room as I used for sleeping – if you want to talk about a bit creepy…) for several days until it is time to place it in the cemetery.

    I’ve been to a number of American funerals and even with the graveside service, the family is not usually present to witness the final burial. I wonder if this modern Western detachment from death is a good thing. Even modern Asian cultures seem to be much closer to death. When I had to pick up my mother’s bone, there was a sense of finality and closure. I wonder if sanitizing death delays or even prevents a necessary sense of closure.

    • Karen

      Thanks, Mark. That is much closer to historic traditional Christian practice as well in terms of staying close and being involved in the whole process, as a way of honoring a loved one by honoring their remains. I would say our American detachment is not a spiritually healthy practice.

  • walt

    I work as funeral director, and part of our clientele is from the local Caribbean community. Another part is the Christian Assyrian diaspora here in Canada. Both have a tradition of being present when the deceased is lowered, and then each mourner takes a turn, at least symbolically, helping fill the grave. The grave is stripped of the decorative fakey lawn green, and you’re instead confronted with the hole and the raw, bleak earth as each person steps forward and takes their turn.

    It strikes me a far more honest and healthy approach than the usual North American custom.

  • pastordt

    Magnificently told, Zack. Thank you. You’ve hit on a huge problem for most of us, I think. I have learned to be with dead bodies, even bodies of people I love. And I’ve discovered that I actually need that time, right after death comes, to say the right kind of good-bye. And I’ve picked out caskets. And my daughter, bless her heart, has stood at a crematorium while her husband was burned up. Then we all distributed his ashes together at the place where he asked us to do it. So yes, I’ve been there. But I’ve not been to a morgue, nor do I think I ever will be. And I’ve come to know, as a pastor and as a person, that most people are in so much terrified denial about it that it never gets processed well at all. Thanks for doing this piece, for being so honest, for asking us to think about hard, hard things.

  • Karen

    For a perspective about how death was handled among Christians historically and why (as well as practical advice and help to get back to those practices in our culture), this is a good resource:

    http://www.achristianending.com/

  • Diane Umile

    I agree that our society has sanitized itself from illness, death, and burial or cremation. This brought back memories for me of my first really close encounter with death, as I watched my brother pass over, and we all sprinkled his ashes by hand over his land. If anyone is interested, I wrote a blog post about this: http://innervoiceblog.blogspot.com/2012_10_01_archive.html
    Peace.

  • Meredith Gould

    Me? Love it. Love being with terminally ill people, love being with them as and after they die. Love being with families as they work through the bereavement process. I view death as one of the most sacred aspects of life. No joke, my next book is going to be about this.

    By the time I figured out I should work in the funeral industry to help funeral homes become more holistic in their services, I was too old for yet more school. Alas.