True Story: I’m A Funeral Director

This is one of many True Story interviews, in which we talk to people who have experienced interesting/amazing/challenging things. This is the story of ‘Margaret’ and her work as a funeral director.

Tell us a bit about yourself!

I’m from Southern California, born and raised. I am 28, and I love to read (mostly urban fantasy these days), play with my dogs, cook, and spend time with my gentleman caller. I’ve had a variety of office jobs in various fields, ranging from real estate to restaurants to adult entertainment to libraries, and my latest job is working as a Funeral Arranger.How did you end up in this field of work? What sort of schooling did you receive?
It was actually a bit of a fluke. I had just gotten out of a job I absolutely hated, and a friend who was working for the company I am now with let me know of an opening they had. I figured, what the hell, and applied, and after some interviews, I was hired. I shadowed a colleague for a few weeks, and had to go through the County’s certification process to file death certificates electronically.

Tell us about an average day at your job.
We mainly handle cremations, as they are very popular in California, though we do see burials occasionally. A typical day at work consists of contacting people who have had loved ones pass away, and counseling them. This generally means going over the personal information of the decedent, and answering any questions the family may have about the process, the length of time it may take, etc.

Then I work with doctor’s offices and hospitals to get causes and signatures for the medical aspect of the Death Certificate. Finally, I deal with the local Health Department to make sure everything is listed correctly and as required by state law. I spend most of my day on the phone, actually. There is a lot of bureaucracy to deal with, and a lot of patience needed some days.

Have you encountered any particularly noteworthy funerals?
I personally haven’t seen any really crazy funerals, though I do get some unusual requests for urns. We have had people bring in home-made urns, Jack Daniels bottles, etc. And transferring into those urns can be quite tricky. Cremains are very powdery, and when you are transferring, you are most likely going to get a little bit of the cremains on you, no matter how careful you are. Let me tell you, it does not come off of clothing easily…

What are your favorite parts of your jobs?
I really feel like I’m helping people. When you’ve lost a loved one, you are already going through hard times, and the death industry can seem really intimidating and confusing. I try to simplify that process for families, and take as much off their plates as possible. I love knowing that I made a hard time slightly easier for someone who is grieving. I’ve even gotten a few hugs!

I also like feeling I’m behind the scenes, making the magic happen. Most people don’t realize what all is involved in my work, and so there is a bit of mystery around what I do. That’s oddly fun.

The biggest challenges?
Working with the various aspects of bureaucracy. It can be frustrating when something hits a snag, but it’s out of my hands. I can try and move things along, but frequently it isn’t anything I have any control over. Doctors’ offices in particular can be trying.

And not a week goes by that someone doesn’t want everything done yesterday. Which is just not possible. Which really disappoints people who have scheduled the memorial services for tomorrow, and we won’t have everything completed for a week. At least.

It can be tricky trying to comfort families without getting wrapped up emotionally. I see upset people all day, and if I allow it to get to me, the job can be a real downer. But when I feel like I’ve helped someone, it’s a great feeling, so it all balances out.

What should people know when they’re planning a funeral?

Talk to your counselor about how long of a process you are facing. Find out what is included in the costs. Ask what the process looks like in your state. Feel free to ask lots of questions, it’s part of our job to answer them for you.

Most importantly, deal with the planning beforehand if at all possible. Talk to a lawyer, and get it all set down. In California, when you make arrangements before you pass away, no one can change those arrangements afterwards. It minimizes disputes, and makes it much easier on your family. You don’t need to pay ahead of time, but really, setting your wishes down clearly is so helpful to families. I cannot emphasize this enough.

How do the people in your life feel about your job?

For the most part, very supportive. I get the occasional “eew, do you touch dead people?” (answer: Yes, but very rarely. They mostly feel cold.) but people are just curious, for the most part. It is a very “behind the scenes” line of work, and most folks have no idea what all goes into my job. I kinda like that sense of mystery. Makes me feel a bit like the Great Oz.

What advice would you give to people interested in going into your field?
You need to be patient and good with people. You are frequently dealing with very upset people, and it can be easy to take on their stress, but that helps no one. I would advise talking to funeral directors in your area, and finding out more about how the industry works in your state. It’s a great job in a lot of ways, but definitely not for everyone.

Thanks so much for sharing, Margaret!  Do you guys have any questions?  Is anybody else interested in working in the funeral industry?

original image (without text on top) by Lindsey Huss, for sale here

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  1. Anna

    I think I became interested in the funeral industry when I realised that most funeral homes around here looked like grocery stores… but for urns. They seemed very cold and uninviting and intimidating, and so the idea of changing that kind of grew on me. Maybe sometime in the future…

    Many thanks to Margaret for giving us an inside look! xx

  2. Helen Le Caplain

    I have nothing but admiration for people who do this – from personal experience I know just how much of a rock funeral directors can be in those couple of weeks after a loved one has passed away.

  3. Jess @ Sparrow + Sea

    You mean it's not like 'Six Feet Under'? Life isn't just like television?!!

    Seriously though, I imagine this would be one of those jobs where you would have a real opportunity to help people, ease their journey during their most difficult, trying times. I have a friend who is an admin nurse in an emergency department, and she says that even though she gives no hands-on care, she sees her job as just easing people through what is most likely the worst day of their lives… There are so many fascinating jobs out there, thanks for sharing!

  4. Ryan

    Thanks Margaret for the wonderful interview.

  5. penn

    How does one find a lawyer to make death arrangements? I'd like to get information down about organ donation (or body donation if I can't be an organ donor). Are there listings for people in the phone book?

  6. Zara @ OnlinePhDUK

    My, what a spooky yet a meaningful job she has. I would agree that mostly other people may not appreciate your efforts to get the things done for them. If only they knew what you’ve been through just to get it done. So Kudos to you Margaret! You’re very hardworking and a passionate kind of person. Kudos to you!

    My Webblog Online PhD UK Programs

  7. Darren B.

    Buy a durable cremation urn if you want keep the part of ashes of a deceased, as it could help to behold the remembrances nearer to heart.


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