Funeral Quirks

We all have our stereotype expectations of how people in certain vocations should be.  My experience of undertakers from my childhood on up was that they were very prim and proper sad-looking beings, dressed up in penguin attire, with great big black circles around their eyes.  They floated through the funeral home with soundless steps, bringing comfort here and condolences there, always using exactly right, highly dignified phrases. In the small town where I grew up, this is just what the funeral director who lived down the street was like.  So was his son.  They both had the same sad expression, with the same big black circles around their eyes.  They both knew how to float.  One was a carbon copy of the other, except for a slight discrepancy in age.  As I grew older, my stereotype expectation of people in the funeral trade was continually reinforced — until it came time to make arrangements for Dad’s funeral.

Mom decided to use the new-kid-on-the-block funeral home.  (It has been there for a number of years, but not for decades.)  Our funeral director did not have the black circles around his eyes.  (My older daughter speculated that perhaps the peculiar eye-look was intentional, as in makeup, and that this one did not use it.)  He wore a more casual version of the penguin costume.  He did not float; he swaggered.  He reminded me of a cowboy.  I cast a glance at his midsection — nope, no six-shooters.

He told stories.  I love stories!  But it was very odd to be entertained with them by an undertaker.  I heard why we were fortunate to be using his funeral home, rather than the other funeral chain in the area.  You are going to hear it, too:

Shhh.  Don’t tell anyone.  The other funeral home chain in the surrounding area is not owned by the people whose name is on the outside of the building.  The ________ Family in the _________ Family Funeral Home are all dead.  The ________ Family Funeral Home is now owned by the Spabigliani Family in Milwaukee, and they are — shhh! — Mafia.

The funeral home we were using was standing for truth and justice, the free market, and the chance to spit in the eye of the Mafia.  I rather like the idea of spitting in the eye of the Mafia — as long as they don’t spit back!

Mr. Undertaker told us about his own family funeral home.  He is a fourth generation mortician — started hanging around the mortuary when he was twelve, helping with body preps.  I think this is why people in funereal families do not think it is weird to choose the undertaker profession.  They have lived with the whole idea from the time they were toddling, so it is not odd to them.  (It is a good thing, too, because we need them to help us, and we appreciate what they do.)

Dad wanted to be cremated.  The funeral director explained to us why “Pa” would not be cremated in “the garage” on-premises.  He has an arrangement with a crematorium forty miles away BECAUSE when he was a younger man hanging in the bars around town, he ran into a guy who had a side job as a cremator.  The bar guy incinerated bodies in HIS garage.  And he told stories about the bodies in the bar.  Our undertaker did not think that was right.

“I take them to __________ forty miles away, where nobody knows ‘Pa,’ so nobody can talk about him in the local bars.”

My eyes were wide as saucers.  I forced the lids back down over them, and tried to look dignified.  If he wasn’t going to be, somebody had to.  But I felt relief that “Pa” was safe from the barfly crowd.

We heard about the various cremation ideas that other people have come up with.  You are going to hear about them, too.  Some are pathetic and sad, and we won’t go there.  But others ….

This is Wisconsin.  We have lots of lakes and rivers, and lots of beer.  I am not ashamed of the lakes and rivers, but I wish we did not have to deal with the beer.  One family, whose dearly departed enjoyed his free moments fishing and drinking beer at his cottage “up nort’,” decided to send him out in style.  They put his ashes on a rubber raft and floated him out a few yards from shore.  Keeping him company on the raft was a CD player belting out polka tunes.  Half-a-dozen beer bottles were strategically arranged around the rim of the raft.  The raft was attached to the family and friends on shore via a string, which was wrapped around the air valve plug on the raft.  The family and friends enjoyed a funeral dinner of beer and beer-marinated brats.  When they’d had enough and were tired of the polka music, they gave the raft string a yank, and sent dear old dad to the bottom of the lake.  I don’t think they had a church service attached to all this.  Dear old dad probably didn’t ever get to church, because he was too busy enjoying the pleasures of the cottage up nort’ on the weekends.

Mr. Mortician showed us an urn alternative, also for the river and lake lovers.  Beer had nothing to do with this one, but the paper-making industry, which Wisconsin is famous for, did.  The urn alternative was made of thick pressed paper.  There was a bottom section that the ashes rested in, and a lid with a grotesquely ugly floral design painted on top. “You float it on the water, and it lasts just long enough for a quick speech and a short song!”

He told us about the unique urn of one of our prominent business owners: they put him in the first milk bottle that ever came off the line of the family dairy.

I was overwhelmed, and very glad my mother chose a traditional box for Dad’s ashes, rather than a paper float or a milk bottle.  I am conservative by nature, and Appointment #1 was a total information overload.

The next day we had Appointment #2, which continued on in the tradition of Appointment #1.  It started out in a subdued fashion, but then Mom started asking some questions about legal things.  The funeral director was most helpful and knowledgeable, but the questions triggered an unfortunate train of thought in his mind.

“I suppose you read the bad press about me in the papers the last couple of days?”  (This elicited mystified stares from us, concern creeping into my wrinkles, a slight negative shake of the head.)

He went on to tell us about his personal family woes, involving a very close relative who ran off with $$$$$$ from the funeral home because the bank did not check carefully into who could still sign checks on the family business and who could not.  (It was part of an instructional comment  on how to take care of bank business when death or divorce certificates were needed to prove authorization.)  I felt very sorry for our undertaker, but he was messing with my stereotype expectations, and I was having trouble processing.  I mumbled that it must be very hard for him.  I think we had some role reversal going on for a moment or two.  The comforter and the comfortees accidentally got switched.

I breathed a sigh of relief on our way out to the car.  The funeral director came highly recommended by many people.  I’m sure he did exactly whatever funeral directors are supposed to do these days, but, the stereotype expectations!  What about my stereotype expectations?  Maybe if we had gone to the __________ Family Funeral Home, now run by the (shhh!) Mafia family from Milwaukee, I would have gotten my penguin with the big eye circles who could float noiselessly across the carpet.

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Lee Ann –

    I really enjoyed reading your article, your style of humour is right down my alley.
    I did my training with a funeral director who loved to share stories when making arrangments. It was fun at the same time baffling.

    I think there is new wave of funeral directors breaking the old stereotype! I am one of them, check out Site I developed for the new era…. with care


  2. I like a funeral home where you can walk in and talk to the owner, but has up to date. No 70’s carpet, and paneling.


  3. […] Mafia families”– What?  I write one little blog about a quirky funeral director, and they think I’m an expert on the Mafia?  I was just glad said Mafia  didn’t come […]


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