There once was a funeral home.

I like to listen to my dad’s stories. He’s travelled and held interesting jobs in exotic locations. Then he met my mother and settled as a social studies teacher in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia, working that job until retirement at sixty-three.

He trained as a teacher before he left New Zealand as a young man seeking adventure, and added a few other lines to his resume over the years. Printer. Sailor. Builder.


I really hate the prairie dog stories.

The great thing about doing stuff is that you end up with anecdotes.

It occurred to me recently that I have anecdotes. Granted, many of them centre around injury and trauma, but I’ve also been places and done things. I regularly come to an unfortunate end, but tragedy plus time makes for funny.

I’ve more work stories than my dad. That’s because I’ve had more jobs. I changed work regularly, back when doing that outside of the home and for other people was something I could manage. Three years per job was about my limit. After three years, two things would happen. One, I’d have learned everything and gotten bored. Two, the way I pathologize my job would reach its limit, and some kind of collapse would occur. [i]

I’m fairly incapable of moderation when it comes to working. Work was simply an extension of my eating disorder. It was a way to prove I was perfect and therefore okay. And if I wasn’t perfect, if I wasn’t the best ever, then I was failing. Which means that I put my all into my job, to my regret. That level of intensity is unsustainable, especially when one doesn’t have boundaries.

It also doesn’t do much for personal relationships.

Of course, you can call me after hours. Sure, I’ll come in on the weekend. No, you don’t have to pay me for it, I get it. Of course, I can do that. I’d be happy to add that to my workload.

Before the inevitable breakdown happens, I get less fun to work with. I’m spiralling up, and I become rigid and intense as I start burning out. I get angry at the job that didn’t fix me and the people who can’t see that I’m broken.

Worst pattern ever. [ii]

I didn’t know the job was at a funeral home when I went to the interview. I’d been working as a paralegal in family law for about three years. But in addition to the de rigeur burnout, I was tired of the nastiness that is family law much of the time. I was tired of dealing with people behaving badly.  

The advertisement I’d responded to was vague – run an office, do some PR work and a bit of accounting, and some stuff for the government (you become a provincial Registrar to sign death certificates – it feels odd knowing that my signature is out there in the thousands, certificate-affixed). Nothing I hadn’t done before, and it was only a twenty-minute drive from home, a big improvement over the previous hour-and-a-half. [iii]

The sign on the building read “X Funeral Service and Crematorium.”  The interviewing manager told me they’d stopped putting it in the ad because people didn’t apply.

I wasn’t worried about the nuts and bolts of the job – if anything, I was overqualified – but learning about an on-site morgue and crematorium rattled my continental calm for a moment. [iv]

I never did learn to like staying alone there after dark.

I did worry about how I’d be with the dead and the families of the recently dead. I didn’t have much experience in that regard – we have a small family – and I can also come across as withdrawn. But, as is mostly the case, the ability to listen and hold space serves you well.

Plus, I wasn’t in the role of selling things. I was able to be present without that pressure pushing at me.

You say “dead” a lot in the funeral industry. You say “dead” to the families of the deceased. Dead. Death. Died. The language is softer in obituaries and cards (something else I was responsible for), but the funeral directors were quite clear about the importance of blunt and honest language when speaking with impacted families. It’s important that people recognize the reality of their situation.

It’s a good idea to speak truth to reality. If you don’t, denial can creep in.

I learned a lot about how different cultures approach death and dying. The variations that exist between people and among cultures seem infinite.

I’m a fan of the quick turnaround, the “get it done in three days” cultures and religions.

Christian is probably my least favourite. It can be a big and dragged-out affair. They also spend the most.

I learned about how people die, and what different kinds of death look like in the aftermath. I’ve seen people who died in their sleep, who were trapped in house fires, and who drowned. I’ve been witness to people who lost their fight against cancer and to those who died at home of old age, content and surrounded by love.

As time passed, I expanded my role. I need to be vital. I perfect the role as written and then branch out. I met more with families. I helped more with the dead, helping to move them and get them ready for viewings and services. I researched green burials and prepared a report for the local association and a package for our funeral home to show people.

I redid chunks of the building’s storage spaces. I do like to organize.

I also started to get hostile towards the owner with his bullying ways and abusive manners.

Too many business owners think they own employees rather than it being a mutual relationship. I also don’t deal with unethical behaviour well.

I never got used to the complete lack of presence in the body of what was once a person.

Dead is nothing like sleeping. With sleep, there’s tension in the frame. There’s an awareness that there’s something alive and generating energy in the space. We’re aware of the micromovements and we attend to them on an unconscious level. Dead confuses us because there’s nothing to notice on a subconscious level and that interferes with the habits of a lifetime.

When I’m with the dead, I feel nothing but empty space. I remember the first time I helped with a body. We were moving an elderly gentleman into his casket post-embalming. I was lifting his feet, someone else the head and shoulders. And I remember thinking of him, “a little help?” Our experience is mostly with the living. When we encounter someone sleeping or unconscious, their bodies still help. Death isn’t that. I recognized the oddity of the thought as I had it, but the emptiness in the suit confused and disturbed me. [v]

I remain impressed by the funeral directors who move through challenging situations with such compassion, expertise, and grace.

I learned that death doesn’t always draw people closer, and pettiness is the order of the day for far too many people. People fight about a lot of things when someone dies, especially money.

We’re an ugly species much of the time.

I learned that you need to talk about death. My culture is Christian and European though I’m currently a practicing-neither. But those are both people who don’t talk about much in the way of important stuff.

Death, the run-up to it and what comes after are necessary topics of conversation. It’s also not once-and-done, which sucks.

Talk about what you want to happen when you die. Talk about what you want in the case of severe injury or incapacitation. Write it out. Don’t assume. I’ve been witness to a lot of arguments that stem from conflicts about these things.

I’ve been witness to arguments about flowers. If flowers and playlists lead to family warfare, what do you think disagreements between burial and cremation do?

We need to talk about Bruno. It’s not rude, and it’s not impolite. Death is part of life. [vi]

I’d like to have my ashes buried in a tree. Or perhaps put in some fireworks. Maybe a tattoo. I’m not worrying much about the leftovers. I did lay out my wishes so my family doesn’t have to make decisions during a tough time. My parents have gone one step further, organizing and paying for their cremation plan.

They’d initially said no to any kind of memorial, but I’ve talked them around to being okay with it if we put up a bench. Which was just being polite since once they’re dead, they’ll have very little say.

Planning in advance can be a kindness.

Thinking is hard when there’s grief.

[i] Yes, I know that sounds arrogant. It is. It’s also true.

[ii] Probably not the worst, but definitely crappy.

[iii] I’ve worked for both the federal and provincial governments before. As a border customs official, as a census cleanup worker, and for the tax department.

[iv] Humble-brag and also true. I never figured out how to apply for things I was qualified for.

[v] Don’t get embalmed, especially if you’re going for cremation. It’s a wasted expense. Also, in most places, it’s fine to die at home. They discourage it for bureaucratic reasons.

[vi] I bring up that song a lot.

21 thoughts on “There once was a funeral home.

  1. Michelle, this is such a fantastic post. I appreciate you writing this. Death is not discussed nearly enough. Definitely sharing this with others.

    I could so easily relate to the paragraph where you discussed your inevitable leaving of job after job because the jobs didn’t fix you. It felt like you were writing about my life. I’m so happy I came across your blog. ❤️

    Liked by 2 people

  2. You and I have way too much in common. I tend to remain in positions for long periods of time, but I am definitely a workaholic and always aim to be the best. Every single job I’ve held, I’ve branched out from. This is the first job I’ve burned out in. There have been jobs that were bad fits though—those are different. And, of course, I work in support roles in the legal field.

    Your frankness always surprises (and impresses) me. I appreciate you sharing lessons learned, both good and bad. I figured you’d worked in an administrative capacity at the funeral home, but I was surprised at how you “branched out” there—it’s not what I’d have expected.

    My daughter is a vitality companion, which is kind of a life/death coach/therapist. I worked in elder law for decades. We tend to talk about death in our family a lot, but know that’s uncommon. I agree that it ought to be discussed a whole lot more.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It’s quite amazing at time. We all have a doppelgänger, or so they say.
      That workaholic tendency always ends badly. It makes me sad it took me so long to learn it.
      The recovery ❤️‍🩹 is a long road too, so gentle steps. In cool shoes.
      Thank you. I’m try to be forthright.
      I had thought for a while about being a death doula, which is helping a person and their family prepare for death.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. It was mostly time and money. My son was in his early double-digits and I didn’t think it was necessarily the right time to increase financial stress. Plus, there were semi-local courses, but he’d have been alone more than I’d liked. It remains in the back of my head as possible future plans. The back of my head is unaware we’re in our fifities 😉

          Liked by 1 person

  3. These are some deep reflections.
    The things we dont talk about tend to get a life of their own. Death is such a subject… Its one of life’s most inevitable destinations and yet, we walk around egg shells about it.

    Couldnt help feel like the parlor kinda ambushed applicants into applying but then yeah I suppose it was the only way to get people to apply.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Wow Michelle you brought up some interesting points I had never thought about. For me my focus is getting my soul right, I have given no thought about what happens to my body after I’m dead or as you say, the “emptiness” sets in.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. I think 2-3 years in the same position is the limit for me, too. Like you, I often learn everything by then and just get bored doing the same mundane tasks. Thankfully, in my current job, I keep getting new tasks that I need to figure out on the fly.

    It’s plenty of time for others to figure you out (at least the basics) and for you to figure out them. This is becoming an issue. Slowly but surely (hopefully I’ll be able to switch before it gets too bad). What that means is that, since I am given tasks no one else knows how to do, I look around, press others that should know, etc. People don’t like that. They don’t like having to expand. Having to do extra. They are comfortable in their boxes and they feel like I’m trying to evict them when I open it up. So, around 2-3 year in, they know that if I’m on a mission, I don’t stop and I know that they are not as capable as some people seem to think. And it creates issues.

    Quite an interesting post. I imagine you get numb (at least a little) in such a job, but it’s still quite admirable to be in such a business.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Im glad to find someone in the same position, but sorry it means we share some struggles.

      I also find it surprising how so many people are content to just do as is. Of course, we all think everyone is just like us 😉
      I don’t know if numb is the right word. Perhaps less intimidated by death because so much of the practical has lost its misery. The pain of the living, however, is always hard.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Wow, you are so well-cultured! I’m learning a lot from you every time I read your blogs! You’re right about us being an ugly species much of the time. I’m petty and bitter half the time and I hate it about myself, even though I know some things are more important in the grand scheme of things.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Love this one. I agree. We need to talk about such things. I’ve learned getting older helps. I also have learned there is so much I don’t care about. One is I don’t care what happens to my body when I die as long as it is not expensive. Cremation is fine, but so is doing absolutely nothing to it and letting it decompose and be dinner for animals (not legal, but oh well!)

    I was in a discussion about travel insurance in a Facebook group recently and talked about repatriation of remains. I said I’d rather my family just pay to take care of them there. Why fly a dead body, or even my ashes, home? I know such things are important to some, but not to me.

    I love that many young people are changing jobs often as you did. It’s not a bad thing to do. You’re right – more stories! I regret I didn’t move around more. You learn something from every job. Some are negative things, but they all cam lead to wisdom.


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