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A Grave Undertaking

Memphis funeral professionals speak out about what they do -- and why they do it.

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The embalming room at Mid-South Mortuary & Removal Service on Summer Avenue looks more like a hospital operating room than a place where the dead are preserved. Two tables covered with starched green cloth are positioned in front of a large sink. Shelves holding numerous bottles of colored liquid hang on one wall. Various pointy tools are laid in place on a cart. Everything looks sanitized and ready to go, as if just waiting for a life to save. But for these people, it's already too late.

David Keller, Mid-South Mortuary's president, says he spends night after night in this room, preparing the dead for burial. He's gone as long as three days with no sleep.

"After three days without sleep, you might get a residence call and you have to walk into that home looking as fresh as the morning sun," says Keller, who serves as the only full-time embalmer on his staff. "You have to look like there isn't a thing that could knock you off-kilter, because that family expects you to be the Rock of Gibraltar."

David Keller is the president and the embalmer for Mid-South Mortuary.

Keller has a part-time embalmer to help out when he leaves town, but he says those times are rare. His firm specializes in removal and preservation of the deceased for shipment to local and national funeral homes or scientific research centers. He doesn't host funerals, although he is a licensed funeral director and has operated funeral homes in the past.

When he speaks of the funeral industry, there's a certain passion in the 32-year-old Keller's voice. He says he's doing what he's dreamed of since youth -- helping people through their most trying times.

To most people, working with dead bodies and grieving families might not sound like an appealing career choice. But to many of the thousands employed in the funeral industry, it's a calling. Funeral professionals fulfill a necessary duty -- disposing of human remains -- but they also spend much time with the living, counseling them through some of the toughest moments of their lives. Several Memphis funeral directors, crematory directors, and embalmers recently told the Flyer what it's like to lead a life where death and grief are all in a day's work.

The Calling

"You can be at a party and when people ask what you do and you say, 'I'm president of Memphis Funeral Home,' they'll look at you funny. If you say, 'I'm a funeral director,' they'll jump back even further," says E.C. Daves, president of Memphis Funeral Home, the city's largest funeral corporation. "We've had to live with that because people don't like dealing with death. But the truth of the matter is, when a family comes in with a death, they don't look at us that way."

Death is not pretty. And the idea of looking at a dead body for any length of time gives many people the willies. People who work in the funeral industry have often been stigmatized as morbid individuals -- the type of people who may have spent their youth dressing in goth garb and hanging out in cemeteries.

But many in the funeral industry view their career choice as a kind of ministry. And although some had dreams of working in the industry since childhood, it wasn't the dead that attracted them but the living.

"Religious people would almost say this is a calling," says Paul McCarver, who's in charge of managing the cemeteries and crematories at Memphis Funeral Home. "This type of work really fills a void in your life. If I wasn't doing this and was working for, say, General Motors, I'd probably still volunteer to do this because it's so fulfilling. That might sound corny, that desire to help people in need, but that's my life and I'm not apologizing for it."

For some, like Warren Canale of Canale Funeral Directors, growing up around the business helped influence his decision. His firm, which he says is the oldest funeral home in the city, is the only white, family-run funeral home left in Memphis. (Funeral homes still distinguish between white and black firms because of the differences in burial customs.) Canale, who is the fourth generation of his family in the firm, says after he spent a summer home from school working in the funeral home, he decided to forego the legal profession and carry on the family business.

For others, a future in the funeral industry was never a consideration but rather something they fell into -- and fell in love with. Dee Ambrose, a senior funeral director at Memorial Park Funeral Home, began working there as a receptionist at a time when she was "in dire need of a part-time job." But as she began talking with the families that came in in tears, she felt compelled to become more involved. That desire led her to pursue an apprenticeship, and she was eventually licensed as a funeral director.

"I enjoy meeting with families and knowing that, in some little way, I've helped them through a tough time," says Ambrose. "It can be tragic and heartbreaking, and believe you me, I'm sure there's been several of us who have come back after the graveside service and bawled our eyes out. It just takes a special person to want to do something like this."

According to Ambrose, after a funeral service not only do you have the satisfaction of knowing you've helped someone through the grieving process, you're left with a sense of attachment to the family. And in some cases, you even build a friendship.

She tells of a funeral service she once directed for an elderly man after his wife died. After the service, he began bringing her fresh tomatoes from his garden nearly every day. He passed on about three years later, and his daughter called Memorial Park requesting that Ambrose direct his funeral.

"It's a wonderful feeling when someone says, 'You may not remember me, but I'd like you to do my dad's service.' You build a certain trust with them and that stays with them," she says.

Death Every Day of the Week

Keller uses this classic-style hearse for residence calls.

Keller is often required to go on residence calls. Although his company only sends one staffer to remove the deceased from hospitals and nursing homes, two people are generally sent on house calls. He recounts an example where he was called to remove the matriarch of a large family.

He got to the home around 3 a.m., about an hour after the call was received. The deceased woman was in her bed. Pictures of her with her grandkids covered the walls. The family members were in tears, but Keller had a job to do. He and his helper gently picked up the lifeless woman and placed her on a cot. He laid a rose on her bed. Overwhelmed by the grief in the room, he tried to fight back tears as they lifted the cot and carried it to the hearse parked in the driveway.

And this is an everyday thing for him.

So how do they do it? Dealing with death on a daily basis, even when it's the death of a complete stranger, can be trying on one's emotions. Several funeral directors say that they still haven't gotten used to it. However, there are a few things that help them get by.

Some choose to cry ... a lot. Not in front of families because, as funeral directors, they're expected to provide the strength to help them make it through their trying situation. But once the funeral is over and they're behind closed doors, they let the tears fall.

"We prepare ourselves to be strong and to be the leader, but it's good to know that if you need to go to the back room and let it all out, you can," says Ambrose. "We definitely don't have steel cages around us. We all have feelings."

McCarver, who's been in the business for over 40 years, says he cries all the time, and the older he gets, the more emotional he feels. It's a matter of knowing when to leave the sadness at the funeral parlor door.

Another way some fight depression -- one that's often used in movies and sitcoms focusing on the funeral business -- is laughter. Although it might seem immature or crude, humor is actually a coping mechanism in such situations, according to an essay by Allen Klein entitled "Humor & Death: You've Got to Be Kidding."

"This is definitely hard work, and sometimes if you're a humorous person, you'll make a joke," says Keller. "Sometimes you have to make light of it. It's not because you don't respect the life lived or the family. It's just that if you don't turn it into humor, it's going to turn into tears. I think humor is paramount to this profession."

Some people in the business aren't comfortable using humor as a coping mechanism. McCarver and Daves at Memphis Funeral Home say that some past employees fancied themselves as jokesters, and they were promptly let go.

"Some people may have to inject humor to get through this on a day-to-day basis, but I find very little place for humor," says McCarver. "If we're serving a family that's lost triplets, there's no humor in that. I'm not looking for a jokester. I'm looking for someone who has a sincerity that you couldn't imagine."

But whether they choose tears or laughter to help overcome anguish, directors agreed that their hearts don't harden. When faced with the death of a loved one, they say they mourn just like everyone else.

"I recently went to a funeral service for a young fireman who was a friend of my daughter's," says Ambrose. "We were in line for the visitation, and the closer we got to the casket, I started tearing up. My daughter looked at me and said, 'Why are you crying when you do this every day?' I looked at her and said, 'The day I cannot cry is the day I need to get out of the business.'"

The Back Room

E. C. Daves, president
of Memphis Funeral
Home

When a body comes to a funeral home, the general procedure goes like this: Tag the body and register it in a log book. Remove any jewelry to return to the family. Clean the body and embalm it. Dress it in clothing provided by the family and apply makeup. This process may take place over a couple of days. Much work goes on behind-the-scenes to get bodies prepared for public viewing, and according to Keller, it's not always pretty.

"When you come back to the embalming room, you have to do unspeakable things to a human being," he says. "But it's necessary for us to do those things for the benefit of public health. About 200 to 300 people are going to be viewing that person after, say, a lingering illness. We've got to protect them from that."

Keller says he tries to embalm every body within 24 hours, although they can be safely stored in a cooler if necessary. His most gruesome subjects are tissue donors, because in order for the hospital to remove the tissue, they must "filet the skin and take out the bones." However, Keller says, no matter how bad the body may look when it comes in, he has the skills to make it look suitable for the family's needs.

Using wax, plaster of Paris, cotton, suture, and various other tools, Keller says he can usually reconstruct up to two-thirds of a person's facial features. Sometimes, families or funeral homes provide him with a picture of the subject, but when they don't, he says he straightens out features by using physical landmarks or bilateral symmetry.

Wax is commonly used to fill in missing facial features, but Keller points out that no matter how hard an embalmer tries, it's impossible to make the wax completely resemble skin because of the lack of pores.

At Memorial Park, Ambrose doesn't work on cosmetics, but she says she always checks the body to ensure that the makeup matches the family's requests.

"Some ladies may use a red lipstick and they've put on a mauve. That's something we'd be sure and change," she says. "If the deceased is female, when I talk with the family, I'll always ask if she used eyebrow pencil, mascara, and eyeshadow. We don't want to put on a really bright rouge if she never wore it."

Even in the case of a closed-casket funeral, Ambrose says makeup is applied so long as the family approves. That's a way of assuring that the deceased is buried in a dignified manner. And in some cases, she says, once the family sees how well the cosmetics team has done, they may switch the funeral from closed-casket to open.

The Simple Way

At Tennessee Cremations Incorporated, owner John Brassfield doesn't have to worry about counseling families or embalming bodies. His job is to simply load bodies into a machine called a retort, push a button, and about three and a half hours later, rake out what's left -- ashes and maybe a hip joint or two.

Cremation, once considered taboo in many religions, is gaining widespread acceptance in the U.S., especially in the West. In 2000, cremation accounted for 26 percent of the final dispositions in the country, according to the National Funeral Director's Association (NFDA).

But things aren't moving along so fast in Tennessee. The NFDA's statistics show Tennessee as having the second-lowest cremation rate in the country. Alabama ranks last. Out of 56,277 deaths in Tennessee in 2002, only 2,953 resulted in cremations. Daves, who also provides for cremations at Memphis Funeral Home, says those low numbers are a result of the traditional beliefs associated with the Bible Belt.

"People in this part of the world are just more traditional and church-oriented," he says. "What generates large cremation numbers are families that are disconnected from everything. Why would you have a funeral when nobody is going to show up?"

Canale, whose funeral home also supports the locally based American Cremation Society, says, like it or not, the numbers are on the rise and will someday be the only option when land reserved for burials fills up.

"As generations change, you'll see changes in everything. [Cremation] offers a more financially affordable way to handle a death," says Canale. "Of course, there are people who could afford to buy the whole funeral home who choose to do it because they like the simplicity of the cremation rite."

Most funeral homes charge in the range of $1,500 for direct cremation, which means there's no funeral or visitation. Brassfield says he charges $800. Since the average funeral costs from $5,000-$10,000, cremation is a common choice of indigent families. According to Brassfield, direct cremation can also ease the grieving process.

"Cremation is much easier on the family," says Brassfield. "They just sign a form and do the death certificate and then they're gone. They don't have to go pick out a suit or dress for their loved one. They don't have to go to the funeral home that night and see them lying in a casket."

Of course, there are families who want a funeral service but would rather spread their loved one's ashes than place them in the ground. Most funeral homes now offer a package which includes a visitation service with a ceremony, but instead of placing the body in the ground, it's cremated later.

The funeral industry, once dominated by "mom and pop" firms, is changing. Large funeral corporations are taking over more and more of the business. In Memphis, corporation-owned funeral businesses are actually in the majority. And the profession is attracting more women these days. According to the NFDA, nearly half of mortuary graduates in the U.S. are female.

Whether comforting the bereaved or raking cremains into a box, it takes a special person to become involved in the funeral industry. As the cliche goes, it's a tough job but somebody's got to do it. Fortunately for all of us, there are people with the compassion and strong stomach to carry it out.

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