Producer’s note: Someone on Quora asked: What’s it like to be a mortician? Here is one of the best answers that’s been pulled from the thread.
I’ve been a mortician for almost 20 years. I love the job, with some obvious caveats, however. Those will be explained in a moment; first, how I got here:
I was working in my field of academia at Cornell University after completing my doctoral studies in linguistics. I was content in my little corner of the world, and loved my position. My goal, however, was tenure. I had a ways to go to get there, but I kept my eyes on the prize. I was working under a research grant, and felt I had the world by the tail; until the grant ran out.
Very quickly, I was unemployed. Linguistics doesn’t have a lot of the “romance” associated with “hard” sciences like engineering or, at least at Cornell, physics and astrophysics. They, consequently, can be very stingy with funds, and when cutbacks come along, we’re some of the first to go. Academia, when you’re a linguistics professional, can seem colder and bleaker than a lot of disciplines.
I interviewed with quite a few schools, but it seemed that my focus was never a good fit with any of the universities and departments with whom I spoke. This went on for three years, at which point I was depleting a lot of savings.
An old friend of mine was working at a local funeral home and said they needed some help with the day-to-day, and asked if I was interested. I had worked at a funeral home when I was a kid, mostly washing the fleet vehicles and general maintenance, so I wasn’t unfamiliar with the gig. Desperate, I eagerly jumped at the chance for employment. I was a “man-friday,” at first, helping with everything I could do ( I’m pretty big, and I’m used to lifting and muscling things), and this came in pretty handy for my buddy, who was stricken with a chronic, bad back. I started doing removals (picking up the deceased) from hospitals to give his poor back a break, and eventually, I was even helping out in the preparation room, always learning and being fascinated as I went.
I learned about embalming, its processes, its history, and its uses. I helped out on funerals, I helped out in the office; needless to say, the funeral home was small enough that I was able to make myself indispensable very quickly, but busy enough to, eventually, find that I had a knack for the work, and, more than that, I enjoyed the work.
My buddy told me I should go to mortuary school, since I seemed to really have flourished in the funeral home, and I “poo-pooed” the idea, at first. I really didn’t want to go back to school, after almost ten years of academic investment in the university system! He kept prodding me and nudging me, all the time, wearing down my resistance. It took two years, but I finally decided to pursue funeral studies at the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science. After completing my studies, I was hired as an intern, a year-long requirement in the state of Pennsylvania. I eventually got my license and started practicing at my buddy’s place.
If you like working with people, if you’re gregarious, and able to deal with others’ grief, then you might consider this line of work. It is a very rewarding experience when you get to help someone transition at, arguably, the, most difficult time in one’s life. The ability for a person to see the deceased, one last time, most of the ravages of disease or trauma removed, can be invaluable for the grief process to move forward.
Now, the downside: the hours suck, there is just no way to dance around this one, simple fact. People die at ALL hours of the day or night, on holidays, on weekends, and funeral homes are 24/7/365. You will be required to be on call, a LOT. You will be required to be available, almost any time, and days off are few and far between. Christmas day may, very often, be a work day, and missing a lot of family time is a given. Strains on relationships are common. Don’t be surprised if you work every, single holiday or weekend in this job; death is unrelenting. Get used to taking two vehicles to any destination you and your significant other may have for the evening on the chance that you’ll be called away, and your partner may not want to “leave the party.”
Expect to miss a LOT of your children’s ball games, recitals, and plays. Depending on just how busy your funeral home may be, you may be there from 7 AM until 10 PM for many days in a row… This is not a career choice for someone who wants a 9-to-5 position.
Prepare to be understaffed, a lot of times, because, for lack of a better phrase, work can pile up… quickly.
Be prepared for some grisly sights; not everyone dies peacefully, in his sleep, at the age of 98. Certainly, you deal, most commonly, with the aged and the infirmed, but you also have to deal with the remains of gruesome accidents, where maimed bodies are entrusted to you with the agreement that you’re going to do your best to make that deceased person view-able for the family. The accident victim may be a 17 year old kid who dies as the result of a drunk driver. Or, you may have the drunk driver on your table; that can be an uncomfortable arrangement conference and funeralization process…and you have to bring to bear the same professionalism with every family, whether this deceased was the person who killed another human being, or not.
And speaking of age, it will test all your powers of self-control and professionalism to deal with the deaths of the very young. Babies, infants, toddlers, children of all ages, you will eventually be faced with a grieving parent or parents who want to have the children prepared so they can say goodbye. There is probably no greater test of one’s mettle than when dealing with the death of a child.
Other deaths will test your constitution, as well; murders, as shocking as they are grim; suicides who have made sure that they make their deaths as dramatic and impactful as possible. All on your embalming table, requiring a steady hand and an empathetic heart to restore them to some semblance of recognizability. This job tests you on many levels. There is, however, no feeling as gratifying as seeing a family cry tears of relief that you were able to make their loved one look like “himself or herself,” again, even if it is, indeed, the last time they will see him or her.
You also must work on autopsied bodies, which can be a particularly challenging (and time-consuming) for the uninitiated. All these challenges, replete with complications of their own, call on your professionalism each and every time you walk into your establishment. There are poisonous chemicals you handle, every day, known carcinogens, foul smelling and irritating to your throat and nasal passages. There are pathologies and communicable diseases that dead bodies bring with them. There are pieces of complicated equipment required to do your job. These are just a few of the things I deal with daily.
Also, you are a constant source of fascination for friends and new acquaintances. Some people can’t believe you actually CHOSE to do this kind of work. You are bombarded with questions, constantly, about what you do, why you do it, and whether you are actually not a creepy, horrible stereotype, you know the one always projected of a somber, zombie-like ghoul, always in a black suit, carrying a measuring tape to gauge your casket size. Many are really shocked if a funeral director can be engaging or funny, in the least.
Which leads me to another aspect of the downside of funeral service: the way people view you. Yes, there are those who may peg you as a ghoul, waiting by the phone to snatch your body when you’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, but, even more frustrating, are the “haters,” those who insist that you prey on the emotions and finances of the bereft and grieving. What can you say? Haters gonna hate, no matter how much you try to convince someone that it’s called funeral “service” for a reason.
So, did I make the right choice? Did moving from academia to a world of embalming fluid, grief, tears and loving tributes fulfill me? Yes. I never regret becoming a mortician. I made peace with linguistics (to a point… I’m still somewhat active, academically), but I have chosen a life of profound impact, where I can make a difference by bringing peace to the living after the tragic loss of a loved one. It’s not an easy life, but like they say, nothing worth-while is easy.