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Mortuary Confidential : Undertakers Spill the Dirt
When the casket reached the front of the sanctuary, there was a loud cracking sound as the bottom fell out. And with a thump, down came Father Iggy.
From shoot-outs at funerals to dead men screaming and runaway corpses, undertakers have plenty of unusual stories to tell--and a special way of telling them.
In this macabre and moving compilation, funeral directors across the country share their most embarrassing, jaw-dropping, irreverent, and deeply poignant stories about life at death's door. Discover what scares them and what moves them to tears. Learn about rookie mistakes and why death sometimes calls for duct tape.
Enjoy tales of the dearly departed spending eternity naked from the waist down and getting bottled and corked--in a wine bottle. And then meet their families--the weepers, the punchers, the stolidly dignified, and the ones who deliver their dead mother in a pickup truck.
If there's one thing undertakers know, it's that death drives people crazy. These are the best "bodies of work" from America's darkest profession.
"Sick, funny, and brilliant! I love this book." --Jonathan Maberry, multiple Bram Stoker Award-winning author of They Bite! and Rot & Ruin
"As unpredictable and lively as a bunch of drunks at a New Orleans funeral." --Joe R. Lansdale
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April 27, 2010
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Excerpt from Mortuary Confidential by Todd Harra
Introduction by Todd Harra
My great-great-great-grandfather was a cabinetmaker, known as a tradesman undertaker, in rural Delaware. His son, my great-greatgrandfather, was an undertaker, and my uncle is one, too. So I guess you could say that undertaking is our family business. It's not uncommon to find that at many funeral homes across the United States, generations of stewards have cared for the dead. Unlike me, however, with my lineage in the business, my co-author, Ken, chose to make it his career.
Ken became interested in funeral directing after his father committed suicide when he was a young boy. While working through his grief, Ken decided to dedicate his life to serving others who are going through their own time of loss. Ken has been in the business a lot longer than I have, well over twenty years, while I have been in it about five. Ken has lived his whole life on the sun-drenched California coast, while I have lived in the east. Our differing ages and geographic locations lead to slightly differing outlooks on the profession and will, we hope, give you a well-rounded look at the industry as a whole.
First, to answer a question I've often been asked, and I'm sure you're wondering, let's nail down the terms undertaker, funeral director, and mortician. The definition for mortician is somewhat ambiguous but connotes someone who works at a mortuary, in both the business and scientific aspects. If you actually break the word down the exact definition would be: a person who has skill or art with the dead. The words funeral director and undertaker are interchangeable, and I'll use them as such throughout the book. Funeral director is the modern, P.C. description of the job title, while undertaker is an old vestige of a term dating back to the colonial period. Either name you use, an undertaker or funeral director is a professional, licensed by the state he practices in to conduct funerals and manage all the details that accompany a death.
So what does an undertaker do?
To put it simply: we care for the dead. To some it might seem an extraordinary profession, macabre even, but one measure of a society is in how it honors its dead. Obviously, the dead don't care-- they're dead after all, right?--so the question remains, why should we? The answer is that we, as a society, must uphold a basic principle of humanity, the sanctity of life, through reverence for the dead. As undertakers we're charged with seeing to it that each person who comes through our door is treated with respect and given a dignified funeral. It's a task that has been honed through thousands of years of history.
The profession of undertaking and embalming is as ancient as the pyramids of Egypt. And we, the keepers of the dead, have been regarded through history by some as honorable, and others as a necessary evil. We have a heavy burden to carry sometimes, but the burden is made worthwhile when the bereaved members of a family are able to bury a loved one properly and move on with their lives.
I participate in a program sponsored by a local university. Called "What's My Line?" the program gets professionals into elementary schools to give kids a look at various careers. Basically, it's "twenty questions;" the kids ask me yes-or-no questions and then try to guess what I do. Only one class has ever guessed correctly. I guess I shouldn't be shocked. A funeral director is a "hidden" professional, only consulted when there is a need. Death isn't convenient in our culture. In fact, it represents a failure to our scientific/medical oriented society. No wonder kids don't want to be funeral directors when they grow up; they don't even know the profession exists. Sure, undertakers sponsor little league teams, advertise in the local paper, and may support a local channel, but that's typical of the press we get--"purchased" press.
When we do get national press, it always seems to be negative. America is a death-denying, death-defying culture, and the media reflects that. The TV channels and newspapers will run the sensational stories of the one-percentile of bad apples, the shysters. Proper funerals don't make headlines. But it doesn't have to be that way.
When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the nation came together and mourned. Everyone remembers that iconic picture of John Kennedy, Jr. saluting his father's passing caisson. That image is the epitome of what a funeral is supposed to accomplish: help people to face a death, acknowledge a life well lived, and express their grief in a public forum. A nation healed together during that funeral of one of America's great leaders.
Our goal in writing this book was to give the readers a look into our world, from our perspective, not the salacious media's. TV shows like Family Plots and Six Feet Under did a lot for the profession by spinning it in a positive way, and we want to bring you more of that type of spin. But instead of from Hollywood, this time it's from the front lines.
Starting with eighty half-baked musings, we distilled them into fifty readable stories that run the gamut of subjects within the profession. To protect the privacy of the contributors, we changed most of the names (except Ken's and mine) and adjusted the settings. In stories that might have contained potentially confidential material, details were altered but the point the contributor was trying to make was retained. Without capitalizing on anyone's loss, we've sought to take a look at the lifestyle of an undertaker, learn a little about the job, and examine some of the thoughts of funeral directors.
The stories range from humorous to poignant. Now, you may ask, "How can any aspect of that job be humorous?" Read on, and find out. It's not all doom and gloom, and I think you'll enjoy the ride, even though it may be a somewhat darker ride than you're used to. We're going to take you on a step-by-step journey, from "bedside to graveside." There is a lot of mystery and myth surrounding our profession. But a lot of life lessons can be learned from death, as you'll find in the ensuing pages.
We hope these stories will debunk some myths, answer some questions, and give you a glimpse into our daily lives. While no means all-inclusive, or applicable to the entire profession, we think these anecdotes are an interesting, informative cross-section of the job.
First Calls and Removals
When a death happens, the family contacts the neighborhood funeral home. This initial report of the death is known in the profession as the "first call." Soon after it, the remains of the dearly departed are removed from the place of death and brought back to the mortuary for preparation. Unfortunately, the dead have no sense of time; they pass from this life to eternity at all hours of the day and night. And we, the undertakers, are often summoned out of deep sleep, away from the dinner table, and out of the shower, sometimes in bitterly cold weather, to perform the removal. When we start in this business, we generally exchange an apprenticeship for being on call for the firm. Consequently, the apprentice is usually the one to take the first call and make the removal. The apprentice can sometimes have a difficult job. Depending on the company, the hours can be long and relentless. But as in every other business, you have to start at the bottom. Typically, as you'll see illustrated in several stories throughout the book, apprentices are given an apartment in the funeral home while they serve their tenure.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, most removals were made from the home. Some of the old-timers I work with can remember some of the old-timers they worked with who would embalm people right in their beds (by a method called gravity injection) and then make the funeral arrangements at the kitchen table with the family, usually with a bottle of spirits in the middle of the table. This was back when people were laid out in the parlors of their homes on cooling boards, and the wakes would be big social events. An old family friend, who isn't an undertaker, likes to tell me about helping one of the local morticians in the '40s, doing removals using wicker baskets instead of the stretchers we now use. Interestingly enough, that is rumored to be where the term "basket case" comes from. Things have changed since then. Bodies are prepared at the funeral home, and most wakes are held at the funeral home or church.
As America shifted from a predominately rural, agrarian society to an urban, industrial/technology-based nation, the sick and dying were shifted from the home to institutional care. Nowadays, most removals are made from hospitals and nursing facilities. Thanks to the emergence of the hospice program, there seems to be a rising number of home deaths. People can once again die at home, in their bed, surrounded by loved ones.
The stories in this section include house calls as well as removals from hospitals/nursing facilities--both of which, as you'll see, can present some ...interesting challenges