Death of a Funeral Director

Today, I was informed that a previous co-worker had lost his long fight with cancer. Although for years, I knew this moment was inevitable, I could not help but let the tears run down my cheeks. There is something that one would (inappropriately) say is ironic about a funeral director passing way.

Most of us would assume that funeral directors are always ready for the unavoidable, right? Surely, if you face death everyday, you know your time will come. And, to be good at your job, you have to lead by example. For instance, the dentist must have clean teeth, the trainer needs to be in great shape, and the police officer should always be ready for a break-in. If that’s the case, then funeral directors should have filled out their advance directives, written down (and maybe even prepaid for) their final wishes, and most importantly, lived each day to the fullest. If this the case, are funeral directors all ready to die? In my experience, no.

Granted, we funeral directors talk about death a lot. It was quite common to hear the staff comment on a casket, song, or flower arrangement noting whether or not he would want the same at his funeral. Sometimes, you would hear jokes about personal impending death. For example, one of my old co-workers, a young embalmer with a brilliant sense of humor, said that she wanted to get a tattoo right along her carotid artery that said, “Inject Here.”  She explained, “What can I say? If you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself….” Although humor did exist, when push came to shove, ignorance prevailed.

Years ago, after I completed some particularly difficult tasks, my mentor turned to me and said, “Well, now I know who I want to handle my funeral.” Honored, and never failing to take note of people’s wishes, I took out a pen and asked what he wanted. His response was, “Are you kidding me? I’m not gonna die.” When I looked at him quizzically, he added, “I can’t die; I’ve got kids.”For some reason, no matter how many deaths, directors saw, it didn’t shake them. We had one of our dearest co-workers die of lung cancer; following the funeral, directors lit their cigarettes.

This recent death hit me, as I remember all the conversations the late coworker and I shared about travels. He was always asking about my trips and telling me how much he longed to see London and other cities. (He was an incredibly smart and educated man and knew more about all my destinations than I did.) When I would push him to take a vacation he would always smile and say, “maybe when I retire.” This was the man who owned multiple pairs of John Lobb  and Santoni shoes but only occasionally wore these pieces of art. A pen lover, he would sometimes bring in to share with me one of his favorites that he kept locked up at home. I would question why he would only seldomly wear the shoes and use the pens that brought him such pleasure? His response, “I don’t want to wear them out.” That, he didn’t.

This late co-worker responded to nearly every request, saying, “with pleasure.” When I think back on what he taught me, I will remember that sentence and try to bring it to life for him. I will continue to see the world, wear the shoes, and use the pens, knowing that I might not be able to wait for retirement to live. I also, will fill out my advance directive, with pleasure.

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