'I'm 28 and I work in the funeral industry. Here's what I want you to know.'
When people ask me - a 28-year-old female - what I do for work, and I tell them I’m in the funeral industry, I get one of two responses.
An awkward shuffle followed by a quick change of subject, or a sympathetic nod, and sentiments of how hard it must be to be surrounded by so much sadness.
Very occasionally, I will get a varied third response of excitement followed by requests of gory stories (I can’t – confidentiality, sorry). But what these enquirers fail to consider is how funerals are as much a positive reminder of life as they are about death and dying.
When everyday you hear a diverse range of life stories and thought-provoking poems, and see numerous heartbreaking photo-montages, it’s impossible NOT to be inspired to make the most of each and every day. There are, of course, days where I have to hold back tears. But to be honest, I think I cried more working in retail... albeit for very different reasons.
The truth about funerals is as much as they are about celebrating and mourning the life of a person, they’re an excellent reminder to the living to think about their own life.
Every day, I’m prompted to consider, “Is this how I’d want to be remembered?” or “Would this make a mention in my eulogy?... Would I even want it in there?”.
(Sometimes even, “Hm. That would be a great exit song.”)
That may sound grim, but I assure you, there’s no better deterrent to the addictive and everlasting phone-scroll than an intrusive thought about... the dash.
The Dash is a poem by Linda Ellis, and in it, she refers to the line on a tomb stone between a date of birth, and a date of death. She so poignantly points out that line, that little dash between dates in fact represents an entire life lived.
I challenge you to read it, and although it’s about death, I can assure it’s not sadness you’ll feel after you're finished reading it.
It seems so deeply ingrained in Western culture that death and dying is “yucky” or something that we don’t want or need to be reminded of. But almost the only certain thing in life is death. And yet, we don’t treat funerals as the same rite of passage as we do graduations, or birthdays.
I know that not all funerals get to celebrate a long and accomplished, happy life. Some are for people whose “dash” was much too short. Some don’t even have stories to be told, only a few photos of bumps and baby showers. And I won’t pretend those days are inspiring. Losing a loved one can be unbearable, whether there was so much life still to be lived, or they’ve been around forever and you can’t imagine life without them. But other cultures are much more comfortable in lifting that lid (figuratively, but also literally) and embracing what this ceremony is for – acknowledging and reflecting on death, and the life that preceded.
If instead of treating funerals as a hardship and woeful necessity of disposal, we instead embraced them as part of the unique human experience, would they feel less... horrible?
There’s another common sentiment in funerals – that grief and love are opposite sides of the same coin. You cannot grieve what you didn’t love, and so just as death follows life, grief follows where love has been. And while the grief is harrowing, I don’t think many people would give up the experience of love even if it meant a life without grief.
A person’s life is worth more to us than a life lesson; but that doesn’t mean the last gift they leave us can’t be a lesson in life.
And the best gift that the dead have taught me is that those little things that might have bugged me about my family before (like my dog’s constant licking, or my partner interrupting my podcast for the third time) don’t bother me anymore because I’m so aware that in a decade, or a year, or a day, that could be the exact thing I’m telling people that I miss the most. I see those things for what they are; little gestures of love, not at all a daily interruption.
So, yes, I admit my job might make for terrible pillow talk, and I get it – I can’t regale hilarious work-related stories over dinner and a glass of bubbles. But I truly believe that my work has had a hugely positive effect on my outlook on life and how I approach each and every day. Being surrounded by the dead in their final chapter is an honour, not a hardship.
If I can give you one lasting message from this, let it be to every so often stop, embrace the discomfort, and ask yourself, “Am I happy with how my eulogy is turning out?”