Posted by: Robin | January 7, 2009

Funeral Director’s Daughter

sixfeetunderI am currently watching the TV series Six Feet Under on DVD. It is a deja vu experience in many ways because I am the great-granddaughter, granddaughter, daughter, niece, sister and cousin of funeral directors. I grew up above a funeral home. In many ways my experience growing up has shaped me and my attitudes about life in ways great and small. The creators of the series had me with such details of the smell of flowers and all it conjures. An added resonance in the first couple episodes was dealing with the death of the father, and the strange duality of dealing with the familiar business of death in such a personal way, like living in a double exposure. I’ve done that, too. As I’ve continued to watch the series, it is obviously about lots of other things, too, but it is an episode at the beginning of season three that is particular to the funeral business that is the impetus for this blog. It is the episode that reveals why Freddy Rodriguez’s character Federico Diaz became a funeral director with an expertise in restoration.

I deeply appreciate and thank the creators of the series for recognizing that funeral directors at their best are not just businessmen, morbid but necessary (and who don’t all leech off people at their most vulnerable), but who are part guide, part counselor, part comfort, and in the case of some, are artists. Federico represents the art, and he is passionate about what he does. Finally, after two seasons we learn why. We are given a flashback of when his father died falling off a roof leaving his face bashed in. Young Federico found him and is seared with this horrific image. Nathaniel Fisher, Sr., understands that this nightmare will haunt and traumatize the young man forever, the last memory he has of his dad. The next shot in the unfolding story is of Federico’s face as he is ushered into the room where his father is laid out. We see the heartbreaking wonder and healing miracle on Diaz’s face before we see the father in his casket, his face restored to it’s likeness in life. My father did that, time after time, and it often cost him.

Whether it is a wasting disease or violent death that ruins the body, funeral directors have to deal with death in all its incarnations and some of them break the heart and sicken the soul. Still, first and foremost funerals are for the living, for the grieving who must move on. I grew up taking for granted my father’s talent and ethic that demanded that the dead be restored if possible to the person’s likeness that love needed to remember. My sophomore year in high school I had my first lesson in how rare his skill and commitment was. A friend’s mother had committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning. Being of a different religious tradition, her father chose to go to another funeral home. When I went to the viewing, her mother’s face was swollen, and she looked orange. My dad had had similar funerals. She didn’t have to look like that. I will never forget holding my friend as she sobbed that this horrible likeness would be her last memory of her mother. I was furious at this unnecessary added distress in a terrible tragedy.

Since then, having spent my life working in vocations that are people-oriented, I have been to a lot of funerals, and while never as dramatic, this distress is not uncommon. Increasingly funeral directors are not taught to embalm in mortuary school. They are taught this aspect of their profession by the funeral director they intern with and can only learn the level of skill that person has. For many, even among the kindest and best, embalming is a limited skill for a variety of reasons, let alone cosmetology or restoration. Yet I have always wondered how much unnecessary heartache could be avoided if we chose our funeral directors by their skill rather than that the family has always gone there, or religion, or because they’re a nice person. I’m not sure it is realistic unless we’ve had cause to attend a lot of funerals and pay attention. And yet I wish people understood what they are choosing when they are most unprepared to choose. And I want to pay tribute to those unrecognized funeral directors who from deep compassion and conviction commit to the art and skill required to give the bereaved this last gift of memory, that if done well, will rarely be noticed. And thank you to the creators of Six Feet Under who have paid silent tribute to this art and skill and to the calling of those who walk with us through death. For those like my dad.

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Responses

  1. I loved six feet under, and it did give me a new appreciation for people in mortuary science. Well said! Just tag surfing 🙂

  2. Here Here!

  3. I think maybe I need to watch that series. I can say “Amen” to your observations about what good funeral directors do. It is a ministry of its own when done right, and a real shame when not. By the way… good to see you back and blogging!!


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