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From Issue #54 October 23, 2014

New Life in a Dying Profession

Young morticians bring humor, grief, and humanity to death.

By Kristen Bahler Twitter icon 

Confessions of a Funeral Director’s Caleb Wilde

Lauren LeRoy remembers her first embalming.

Technically, it was her third embalming, but the first two were shared experiences — one with a mentor and another with a group of college students — so she doesn’t really count those. The third time LeRoy ushered a body into the afterlife, she was all by herself.

“It was an old man in his 90s who passed away at a nursing home,” she says. “He had a Spanish name, a very memorable name that I kind of laughed about because I knew I would never forget it. I remember feeling so proud and honored to be able to work on him. And to be able to give him back to his family one last time.”

LeRoy, dainty and genteel, is a 24-year-old funeral director. She’s “not Gomez Addams,” she tells me in a phone interview from her Buffalo, New York, home — an admission solidified by her selfie-immortalized wardrobe and tendency to pad conversations with “ya know.”

She works with her aunt and cousin in one of the most stigmatized fields of all time, and in another departure from stereotype, she blogs about it. In April 2013, in “Little Miss Funeral,” she wrote:

Something kind of funny happened the other day.

I was working calling hours and had just finished talking to the gentleman who was ‘in charge’ of the funeral arrangements for the deceased. As I turned to walk away a family member (or friend, I really don’t know) came up to him and asked him who I was. His reply, “Oh, I think she’s the secretary or something.”

I’m used to it. I’m used to the weird stares that I get as I shake a hand and say, “Hi, I’m Lauren, the funeral director.” I mean, yes, I am a girl. Yes, I am young. But I mean guys, is it really that odd?

Don’t answer that.

Day job notwithstanding, LeRoy’s life is in line with your average twenty-something: documented online and lampooned through social media. And her blog is a curious intersection of an ancient occupation and a modern obsession.

She’s not the only mortician with an audience. Caitlin Doughty, a Los Angeles-based funeral director whose book on the death industry, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, hit shelves earlier this month, runs Ask a Mortician, a hugely popular YouTube series. Heather Ratcliffe and Megan Rosenbloom, both Californians, blog at Mortuary Report and Death Salon, respectively. There’s The Funeral Commander, Your Funeral Guy, Notes From a Funeral Director, Funeral Stories, Fun in Funeral, The Inspired Funeral, Life with a Funeral Director, and Funeral One; Mortician Life, Marvin the Mortician, Mommy Mortician, The Only Mortician, and Mortician’s Journey; Coffin Talk, Pushin’ Up Daisies, and A Grave Interest. There’s more; you get the picture.

The content varies, but the authors have a common goal: to destigmatize death and dying and to give an insider’s look at a rarely exhumed industry.

Lift the veil to another world

Perhaps the best-read of all the death blogs is Confessions of a Funeral Director. Helmed by Caleb Wilde, a 32-year-old Pennsylvanian, Confessions draws about 80,000 visitors every month and currently has more than 60,000 Facebook fans and 18,000 Twitter followers. Last November, NBC News dubbed Wilde the “Undertaker of the Overshare Generation,” and in January, TIME called Confessions a “Blog You Totally Must Read.” A sixth-generation funeral director — “I’m kind of a thoroughbred. When I was a baby, the mobile that hung over my crib was hearses,” he deadpans — Wilde hopes to lift the “veil of secrecy” that shrouds the funeral industry.

“We’ve professionalized dying,” Wilde says. “By creating an industry and having that industry licensed, we’ve taken all the connection that people have with this earth and given it to funeral directors.”

It’s well-trodden territory. Back in 1963, the English journalist Jessica Mitford penned The American Way of Death, a scathing tell-all about the inner workings of the industry that still haunts the profession. By convincing families to embalm their loved ones (which isn’t required) and to buy expensive funeral and mortuary items, Mitford wrote, morticians “perpetrate a huge, macabre, and expensive practical joke on the American public.” She wasn’t the first to cast a negative light on the industry: historians trace stigma surrounding death care back to ancient civilizations in Egypt, Japan, and India, but Mitford’s characterization had a remarkable impact.

Today, the funeral industry is booming. The National Funeral Directors Association predicts the industry will net a record $16.4 billion in 2014, though its reputation has never really recovered. In a 2013 Gallup poll, only 35 percent of Americans surveyed rated funeral directors as having “high” ethical standards; lower than the ratings they gave police officers, judges, and accountants (journalists, it’s worth noting, clocked in at 19 percent). By acquainting readers with both death and the professionals who have made death their livelihood, Wilde aims to change that perception.

“Mitford kind of set the stage for the overall assumption that every funeral director is looking to exploit people in their most trying times,” he says. “Unfortunately, there are some unethical funeral directors that take advantage of grieving people — people that can’t even think straight. But there are also some incredibly compassionate and charitable people in the funeral industry, people that are interested in serving, and not taking advantage.”

For Wilde, who worked trekking medical supplies into indigenous villages in Madagascar before joining the family business (“I guess the way a funeral director’s kid rebels is to take something that is dying and throw life into it”), Confessions is an extension of the grief therapy he provides, in person, every day. It’s not always a somber affair; often, Wilde uses the space for humor. In a recent Facebook status update, he joked, “There’s a number of bad things in life, having an itch on your nose when you’re embalming is certainly one of them.” In another, he spurred conversation about the unknown: “Without death, would religion even exist?” It’s a peculiar way of breaking the fourth wall, but type “funeral director” into Twitter and you’ll find plenty of others.

Heather Ratcliffe

The life of the dead

With platinum hair, heavy-lidded eyes, and soaring cheekbones that, taken together, make her a dead ringer for Debbie Harry, Heather Ratcliffe of Mortuary Report is a comedian in 140 characters (“Sometimes I think of really good tweets but my hands are covered in bloody gloves #funeraldirectorproblems”) and a poet in the long form.

Powered by Tumblr and fueled by a fresh divorce, she fills the space with the benign, diary-by-proxy content that clogs the rest of the internet. But coming from Ratcliffe, it’s different. In one post, she describes the process of “restoring” a gunshot victim, chronicling everything from the music she played in the embalming room (Justin Timberlake on the first day, Philip Glass on the last) to what the dead person wore in his casket (a brand new suit with the tags still on, a tie looped into a Windsor knot). In another, she tackles the emotionally onerous responsibility of embalming an infant, and an image she never seems to shake:

Miguel. Miguel Antonio Ramirez. He comes home with me and the image of his body seems seared onto my eyelids. I see him, feel his cool skin and the heft of his body as I dressed him. He shows up in phrases in my brain…And then Miguel is gone, gently herded back into the compartment from where he never should have escaped, penned in by penning my way through the experience.

In many ways, Ratcliffe tells me, Mortuary Report is a journal that prevents her from becoming hollowed and bitter. Sure, her candor makes some people uncomfortable, mainly “old school” funeral directors that maintain a strict “code of silence,” but she’s quick to brush it off. Those morticians are the same ones Jessica Mitford warned of in 1963, Ratcliffe says, and the last thing she wants is to conform to their industry standards.

“It sounds so crass, but for some funeral directors, the bodies become almost like furniture — like tables they move around all day,” she says. “I try really, really hard to treat the bodies of the people like they’re people. I talk to them, ask what kind of music they want to listen to, I call them by their name. I don’t want them to lose their personhood. Just because the personality is gone doesn’t mean the shell deserves any less respect.”

Lauren LeRoy

A companion on the journey out

There’s another perk to writing publicly about the intricacies of a funeral job, according to the young professionals I spoke with. Each post connects them to a growing network of millennial morticians, and helps normalize the strange, oftentimes harrowing life lessons the industry forces upon its representatives.

In an August 2012 post, Lauren LeRoy (Little Miss Funeral) tackled this very subject:

My daily life isn’t like everyone else’s. In fact, it’s extremely different. But fellow funeral directors, they get it. We’re all sort of part of a club. I can make a horrid joke like giving someone their ‘fifteen minutes of flame’ and they would laugh. They understand that they need to laugh, and they need to have a sense of humor dealing with the dead. And that’s awesome.

It’s a far cry from the industry depicted in Mitford’s 1963 exposé. In the final pages of The American Way of Death, she writes: “Whether the narrow passageway to the unknown, which everybody must cross, will continue to be as cluttered and expensive to traverse as it is today, depends in the last analysis entirely on those travelers who have not yet reached it.”

If Little Miss Funeral and her allies are a snapshot of the modern funeral industry, we travelers needn’t worry.

Photos courtesy of the subjects. Photo of Lauren LeRoy by Josiah LeRoy.

Kristen Bahler is a Brooklyn-based journalist caught in a constant state of wanderlust. Her work has appeared in Bitch magazine, the Financial Times, Vice, and more.

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