Funeral directors face the sadness of death every time they go to work. Unlike doctors, paramedics, firefighters and police, they know there can be no happy endings where lives are saved and families stay intact.
They take people in the throes of the worst moments of their lives and carefully explain to them how to bury a child, a victim of violence or a tragic accident, or someone who slipped away peacefully after a long and fulfilling life.
Compassion, kindness, and above all, composure are the hallmarks of their trade. CTVNews.ca reached out to three veteran funeral directors to delve into the often-misunderstood profession and see what advice can be gleaned from those who formally facilitate intersections of life and death several times a day.
HOW TO CONSOLE SOMEONE
The act of expressing condolences in a public setting such as a funeral can be unnerving. What do you say? Do you shake their hand or give them a hug? What is the right tone? What if you make them feel worse?
Bruce Humphrey, of the Humphrey Funeral Home in Toronto, has been in the funeral business for more than 50 years. He says that in most cases, people overthink this interaction.
“You don’t have to say anything except ‘sorry.’ Just your presence is the most important thing. That reassures people. You are showing your support just by being there,” he said.
Doing what comes naturally is usually the best course of action. That said, there is at least one well-worn phrase that Humphrey says is best to avoid.
“Never say anything to someone like ‘I know how you are feeling.’ That is terrible. You just don’t know how the person is feeling. My advice is to remember that you never get over a death, but you do get through it,” he said.
It’s also important to remember, he says, that not attending a funeral or visitation is not an excuse for sweeping a death under the rug. Express your support at the nearest opportunity.
“All you have to do is shake their hand, give them a smile, give them a hug, and say you are sorry. It’s so simple,” Humphrey said.
HOW TO KEEP CALM IN A EMOTIONALLY CHARGED SITUATION
People's emotions are naturally turned up to 11 when confronted with death, especially one involving a child or traumatic circumstance. The role of the funeral director is to remain a pillar of stoic stability and compassion. Naturally, they tend to know a bit about how to guide people through difficult times.
Keeping calm in an emotionally charged situation comes down to drawing a line between your emotions and the broader circumstances at hand, according to David Garvie of Ogden Funeral Homes in Scarborough, Ont.
“I am not of any value if I cross over the emotional line where I am involved and not able to focus, provide good information and good advice,” he said.
Keeping that guard up while remaining emotionally available is not something that comes easy. Garvie, who has more than four decades of experience under his belt, recalls one particularly difficult funeral for a mother who was killed by an impaired driver close to Christmas.
“You are walking down the church aisle with Dad and the kids, and you think, ‘I bet you their presents are already wrapped under the tree, and mom is gone. How is this family going to cope with this?’” he said. “You realize that it is very easy to become attached to a family because of what they are going through.”
When emotions run too high in any situation, Humphrey says it’s important to give someone space.
“Come back the next day. Don’t rush right into it.”
HOW TO GIVE UP ON WORK-LIFE BALANCE
The concept of work-life balance isn’t widely recognized among funeral directors. In small and rural communities, many live in residences adjoined to the funeral home and remain on-call virtually around the clock.
Facing hours of death and sadness on a daily basis with a calm professional demeanor is taxing. Close proximity, both physically and more recently, digitally, means directors often have precious little time to leave the rigours of the job behind.
“That is extremely stressful. You have to be dressed. You have to be ready to go in. Waiting around is probably as stressful as going in to see a family. You can’t turn it off. And you do bring it home, probably for the first half-hour after you walk through the door,” said Humphrey. “Everybody deals with it differently. Some people drink, some watch TV, some golf or garden. Everybody needs a stress release.”
Humphrey said he never found a specific relief activity over his many years in the business. But he will stay home for a day or two if he finds he is too run-down.
Working in Canada’s largest city is a huge asset. The sheer number of people means directors can shed the weight of their jobs by disappearing into the crowd. Humphrey said he often hears about the additional community-based pressures that burden his small-town counterparts.
“If you are in a smaller community, you are on 24 hours a day. It doesn’t matter where you walk. You are the undertaker. That’s tough. That’s really tough,” he said.
Small-town directors are the first to cut loose at professional conferences away from prying eyes, according to Humphrey.
For some though, even the comfort of the big city isn’t enough to convince them to drop their guard.
“It takes years to build a good reputation, and you can lose one overnight,” said John Kane of R. S. Kane Funeral Home in Toronto. “Do I have a glass of beer every now and then, yes I do. But if I was to go anywhere at all afterwards, it would be no further than the front door.”
HOW TO LIVE WITH CAREER MISCONCEPTIONS
Investment bankers are heartless capitalists. Computer programmers are bespectacled junk food-eating nerds. Police are gritty macho men trying to live like Hollywood action heroes. Funeral directors are, of course, miserable and obsessed with death.
People are dying, no pun intended, to box people into tidy categories the moment they find out what they do for a living. When they find out their base assumption is off the mark they can’t wait to tell anyone who will listen that their world has been turned upside down.
In the same way builders’ homes are said to be the shabbiest on the block, ever-staunch and proper funeral directors are widely seen to have big personalities and grand senses of humour by anyone who meets them away from work.
Kane says that reputation is a product of people assuming that anyone who wears a dark suit, and spends their days deciding on how best to accommodate dead bodies couldn’t so much as comprehend a knock-knock joke. The reality is, of course, somewhere in the middle.
Typecasting funeral directors as either Lurch from The Addams Family or famed comedian Don Rickles underscores why people should avoid sweeping assumptions based on profession.
“It doesn’t take much (for us) . . . to be different than what people thought,” he said. “People look at us and see Mr. and Ms. Death walking around.”
“When people hear undertakers they say, ‘Oh my God we are going to have to deal with a bunch of undertakers!’ And we are gregarious and fun. People don’t expect that,” said Humphrey. “There are some wild monkeys in our business. Of course there are. There is in every profession.”