How We View the Undertaker & Why Many Deny the Job

    Funeral directors get a lot of different and often strong reactions when telling people their occupations.  In fact many funeral directors I talked with admitted that they had lied about or avoided the topic of their job at least once.  They are not ashamed of what they do, no, they are actually often quite proud.  However they feel others would likely judge them for doing the work they do.

    This is not an unfounded notion.  For example take a moment to think of 'funeral director' or 'undertaker'.  One will usual conjure an image of a strange guy in a dark suit and oddly wearing a top hat, a person who is odd in nature and a little creepy.  To further this google "undertaker" and you will find, strangely enough, the top images are of a wrestler.  His clothing and appearance is dark, wearing a brimmed black hat and usually shown as dimly lit and with fog.  Search "funeral director" and we find more images of various people in dark suits; many of whom are walking in front of or next to a hearse.  Although many of them are smiling most of them are lacking colour or warmth.  Looking for "embalmer" or "mortician" we get images of people in a mortuary, usually over a steel table, posing with tools or performing a procedure.  All of these images are cold, the tiled walls, the vapid colours and the lack of expression on the persons face.  There is rarely any colour other than hospital green and no smiling in any of these photos.

    It is clear that searching for funeral people or related positions results in almost negative results.  But we might doubt this is representative of the general public.  After all, search for "archaeology" and the top hit is of Indiana Jones swinging his whip.  However I very much doubt this would be the first thought for most people when they think of archaeology.  So it is not much of a leap to assume that the google results for funeral professional images would not be too smilar to what people think of funeral professionals.

    Yet this is not the case, people do think of strange things when thinking of undertakers.  Undertakers have just cause for 'hiding' what they do for a living from others.  A common reaction I and others in the industry have experienced is "I couldn't do that".  This is one of the first things a few have said to me, and something several in the industry said they have heard.  As if the job is for very few and definitely not for them.  In saying this most are referring to what they perceive as a difficult job, both in terms of being dirty and emotional.

    Lets break down this idea of it being a dirty job.  What is strange is that it is usually less dirty a job than what a nurse, doctor or carer would have.  The closest undertakers get to the body is putting the deceased in a bag and then later putting clothes on them.  There is little actual contact with a body, less than for many carers.  Yet it is considered more dirty than other jobs by most people.  But not just dirty, it is also seen as grose and unclean.  A nurse deals with the living, an undertaker deals with the dead and just this fact makes the job more dirty.  I have been questioned about the 'quality' of bodies, how they decompose and how fast they decompose.  A few people have said how the job must be bad at times commenting that bodies decompose fairly fast.  What they do not realise is that the funeral industry is an old and experienced one.  Bodies are preserved in a special fridge.  People have an idea that the job involves dealing with decomposing bodies constantly.  These questions and ideas lead to the notion that the process of touching a body, let alone interacting with 'it' is dirty.  I have also been asked about "the smell of death", which does not exist, the closest thing is the smell of the embalming chemicals.  Their scent would cling to clothing, and some people did comment on the odd smell.  But it is closer to a chemical smell than a 'scent of death'.  The very idea that death can have a smell, and that undertakers would be use or exposed to it is interesting.  Death itself has a presence, which lingers on those who associate themselves with it.  In other words this dirtiness of the body (in this case the smell) clings to those who work with bodies.  It follows them home and stays with them.  Basically to many the act of touching a body is dirty in itself, but also that this dirtiness transfers to those who touch the body.

    The emotional difficulty is also something some raise.  Just recently I had someone say "it must be emotionally hard".  That undertakers have a depressing job in dealing with the depressed living and dealing with the dead.  Many think of a funeral as a sad and fairly depressing affair.  We turn once again to our friend google to look for images of "funeral".  What comes up are pictures, usually void of colour and just black and white of people standing around a coffin in a cemetery.  The people are often crying or looking sadly at the coffin as it is either carried or lowered.  What I found is that many funerals, while sad in a way, are a 'celebration' of the departed.  People did not linger on the negatives of their loss but clung to the positives of their impact on those left behind.  Of the good times they had and the good memories they will keep.  However, to be perfectly honest, most funerals are more an excuse to have lunch while catching up with relative otherwise rarely seen.  I was primarily a 'family car driver', which involved driving around the close family and/or friends of the deceased on the funeral.  These families or friends were rarely depressed or difficult.  Actually most were actually really fun and great people, and we often had a great time together.  So funerals, and those attending, are not really emotionally difficult or draining in most cases.  As for dealing with death and bodies this is not an issue.  Not to sound cold but you will get use to it after a couple of bodies.  Medical professionals who treat and work with patients have more trouble with 'death' or 'bodies than funeral directors.  For example at some nursing homes where the staff focused on or spent a lot of time with patients they were sad to see them die.  These nurses would often be involved in the transfer if they could, wanting to oversee the paperwork and the process.  In doing so they would quietly or silently say their goodbyes to the patient.  However the funeral director did not know the deceased in anyway other than them being deceased.  Thus there is less emotional connection, simply put it is not personal.  Having said that children or babies were different, especially to parents and more so if the deceased reminded them of their own child.  While funerals were rarely a sad event, more often being closer to a family gathering, the children's funerals were different.  They were not 'sad' or 'depressing' but were much more tense.  Everything was more important, everything was more observed and everything had to go perfectly.  Appart from children or infants overall I found being an undertaker was emotionally less difficult than working on a cash register.

    There was once instance that was surprising to me.  I had driven an older man, his wife and their first daughter on a funeral.  The relation they had to the deceased I cannot remember.  Either way the job had gone well and despite the husband and wife's lack of English we had a good time.  We had a good time and everything had gone well.  Then about six weeks later I was sent to an address that appeared familiar. upon arrival I recognised the place.  It turned out that the husband had died and I was now driving his wife and all three daughters.  Overall it was a really enjoyable job, the wife (still lacking English) obviously appreciated me being there again.  We again had a good day, although now it had a slightly sad atmosphere to it.  This was the closest I ever came to an emotional connection.

    So people unreasonably see it as a dirty, emotionally negative job.  But this is not enough for those in the industry to hide their occupation.  The main reason for this is that a few people judge those with the job negatively.  It is rare and I only experienced it once, yet it happens and especially with older or Asian people.  Once they find out that the person is a funeral director they want little to do with that person.  Mainly as they see it as dirty and that not only does this dirtiness follow the undertaker home but it makes the undertaker themselves dirty.  Yes, some believe undertakers to be dirty or contaminated, marked by death and disease.  Look at certain Asian cultures (such as those who are Buddhist, Indian or Chinese) who consider those in the funeral industry to be untouchable and the lowest class possible.  A good example is the movie 'Departures' where a Japanese man discovers his calling in the funeral industry after he is unable to find any other work.  At first he is reluctant and fights the idea of being an undertaker, only doing so as he is desperate for work.  And when his wife finds out she leaves him.  To certain groups being a funeral director is not just dirty but also wrong.

    Many, especially those who are older or Asian, would react badly to the news of one being a funeral director.  Even if they do not react badly, they often react inappropriately or are uneasy with the news.  Thus many undertakes have avoided or actively lied about what they do for a living.  All despite most being proud of what the job and understanding that, while it is not dirty or emotion, that most people will view it this way.


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