If you ever become a funeral worker, you’ll soon realize that it’s unlike any other profession. Naturally, during your time in your position, you’ll be spending a lot of time with the deceased – along with heartbroken families who are likely looking to you for guidance and reassurance. But what exactly does a funeral worker do? And how does their work – which, let’s face it, is not for everyone – actually affect them? Well, some morticians have since opened up about their jobs – and it turns out that they have some shocking secrets to share.
Of course, a funeral worker is likely to have plenty of responsibilities on the job. They may be tasked with collecting the deceased from the scene of their passing, for example. And, understandably, they often prepare a person’s body for their funeral by clothing it in appropriate attire.
Alongside that, funeral workers may be asked to embalm the deceased as well. But when it comes to the actual ceremony, their responsibilities can differ. If a religious figure is heading the funeral, you see, they will usually take a back seat by supervising proceedings. In the cases when this doesn’t happen, though, the workers often pick up the reins.
But while some funeral workers are able to take great satisfaction in what they do, the job can exact a heavy toll on others. And while a few of the people involved in the profession have spoken about their experiences in great detail in recent years, not all of these stories make for comfortable reading. In fact, some tales are particularly harrowing.
Even so, some people feel drawn to becoming funeral workers. And Vicki Fraser is among them, having eyed a career in the business ever since she was 12 years old. That could be because her family have their own funeral-organizing firm: John Fraser & Son.
Located in Scotland, John Fraser & Son was established back in the late 19th century with Fraser’s great-grandfather at the helm. And in the end, the young woman realized her dream of continuing her ancestor’s legacy when she became a funeral director at the family firm in 2003.
Then, in May 2008, Fraser sat down for an interview with U.K. newspaper The Independent. And over the course of the resulting conversation, she shed some light on her role in the funeral industry – including some of the most disturbing aspects of the job.
To begin with, Fraser touched upon her journey to becoming part of John Fraser & Son. “When I finished secondary school, my father was keen that I go to university, so I did a BA in business studies,” she revealed. “After this, I returned to Inverness, and [I] have now been working in the family business for five years.”
Fraser then reflected on her upbringing, admitting that the subject of death would often come up at home. “Because of this, I have never had the same naivety about the concept of dying that many people have,” the funeral worker continued. “Most people don’t think about it until it actually happens.”
As for the role itself, Fraser told the newspaper that it gives her considerable “satisfaction.” The gratitude she receives from bereaved relatives also makes it all worthwhile. But, of course, that’s not to say the job is completely without its challenges.
“Dealing with the funerals of children and sudden deaths such as road accidents and suicides – we all find that particularly hard,” Fraser said. “But it is important to treat every bereaved family as though they are the only bereaved family and to remember that everyone is someone’s loved one. Empathy, dignity and respect really are required at all times.”
Ray Ward may have agreed with Fraser, too, when it comes to the worst parts of being in the profession. You see, during his time at the helm of a funeral business named the Woodland & Wildlife Conservation Company, he has also been through his fair share of tough experiences. And in Ward’s case, one particular incident left him on the verge of stepping away from it all.
“The day I nearly gave up was when I walked out to find a man leaning against his car,” Ward told The Independent. “He had come to arrange a burial for his daughter, who had just been born. But he said, ‘It might have to be a double as my wife is not expected to live.’”
“That was hard,” Ward added. “But I also get calls from people at 3:00 a.m. saying, ‘I just wanted to make sure you would be there if I need you in the morning.’” And he and Fraser certainly aren’t the only funeral workers to have opened up about their lives in the business, either.
In 2017, you see, Lauren LeRoy decided to speak out about her time as a funeral director. Like Fraser, she had joined the industry at a young age, meaning she had planned in excess of 1,000 funerals before she had even turned 27. And when Vice magazine caught up with LeRoy to learn more, she was pretty candid about her unusual choice of career.
What’s more, LeRoy revealed that she shared another similarity with Fraser. “I have known since I was 12 that I wanted to be a funeral director,” the mortician said. “My great-aunt and great-uncle owned their own funeral home, so I would go over there a lot, and there wasn’t anything odd about it, because they lived above. It was a normal thing.”
But LeRoy only decided to go into the funeral business after suffering a couple of heartbreaking losses of her own. Before she reached her teens, her grandfather passed away. Her great-uncle died during this period, too, and this left her resolute that she would follow in his footsteps. But just as Fraser and Ward have done, the undertaker has had to face down a few challenges.
Given how unpredictable the profession can be, for example, LeRoy admitted that her social life was practically non-existent. The funeral director also suggested that her curious choice of career would leave her struggling on the dating scene if she was a singleton. But, thankfully for LeRoy, she wasn’t completely alone at the end of her workday.
“I’ve been with my husband since I was 15,” LeRoy told Vice. “He’s always known what I’ve wanted to do, and he’s so unbelievably supportive it’s not even funny. I don’t have a schedule. Everything that I do is up in the air. I think if I wasn’t with him, dating for me would be extremely difficult.”
“I like being home,” LeRoy continued. “After having a stressful day [at work] or just working for so long, I just want to come home, sit on the couch and relax. I don’t know how I would meet somebody. I wouldn’t have the energy to go out and meet somebody.”
But although the job may take up a large portion of LeRoy’s life, that didn’t seem to bother her too much. After all, there were also positives to be taken from her time in the business. And in the funeral director’s mind, one particular aspect of her work was especially fulfilling.
“I always say I meet the best people. It’s just during one of the most difficult times in their lives,” LeRoy explained. “I get to hear really fantastic stories about how people lived their lives, and I just love people. That’s why I do what I do.”
LeRoy then touched upon the overall perceptions that many still seem to have of funeral workers – particularly when it comes to what undertakers look like. And during her conversation with Vice, it seems that she wanted to bust those myths.
“[Funeral directors are] not scary!” LeRoy said. “I think when people think about funeral directors, they think of the Addams Family. Don’t get me wrong, I wear black every day, but funeral directors aren’t these morbid, death-loving people. I just wish people knew that funeral directors are normal people – just like everybody else.”
Then, in March 2019, yet another funeral worker shared tidbits from life on the job – although the tale he had to tell was very bleak. It all started when a man named Michael Dixon left his house on a morning in the winter of 2016.
Dixon was an employee of Ottawa Mortuary Services in Canada, with one of his responsibilities being to collect the deceased from the locations of their passing. Consequently, he would sometimes have to pick up the bodies of people who’d died in road crashes or who had been the victims of violent crimes.
Speaking to the Canadian publication Maclean’s, Dixon said, “A lot of people in the general public are really surprised at that. They always thought it was the police or the paramedics [who took the bodies away], or that sort of thing. But it’s us.” And in the end, this eventually took its toll.
Tragically, as a result of the effect that Dixon’s work had had on him, he decided that he would take his own life. “I woke up, had breakfast, kissed my wife goodbye, drove my son to school and off I went,” Dixon admitted. “It was there in the parking lot that I realized I needed help.”
Thankfully, Dixon then decided to make a phone call to his physician, who subsequently looked him over. And when the doctor had finished his examination, he informed the funeral worker that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and “severe depression.”
Yet while that news came as something of a relief to Dixon, he still found it difficult to get the assistance he needed at first. “I realized, ‘Oh great, now I can get help,’” the undertaker revealed. “[But] it took me forever to ﬁnd somebody to help me, because I wasn’t a ﬁrst responder.”
Fortunately, Dixon’s search eventually led him to a therapist who tried to address those mental health issues. And following that time in treatment, the funeral worker not only recognized that he’d previously used alcohol to deal with his problems, but he also made a significant decision after finally going back to work.
You see, Dixon no longer wanted to internalize his negative feelings; instead, he made a point of discussing his problems with his colleagues. And, happily, the mortician’s willingness to share seemed to encourage others to voice their own emotions as well.
As a consequence, then, Dixon and his co-workers felt compelled to set up a “peer support group.” But while, at first, the funeral workers tried to find examples of any similar schemes within their job sector, they ultimately realized that nothing like it seemed to have been attempted before.
Dixon suggested that the demographics of the funeral business may have played a large part in this, as men – who often aren’t encouraged to show emotion – make up the majority of workers within the field. It didn’t help, either, that funeral directors are typically expected to be poised and dispassionate on the job.
“Sometimes, for no reason at all, you’ll be in tears over something you hear in a funeral, which is very beautiful and very moving. And you would hide that,” Dixon told Maclean’s. “You would be in a bathroom or in an ofﬁce with the door closed, and you would be bawling your eyes out.”
In more recent times, though, a larger number of women have been welcomed into the sector in Canada. And as a result, Dixon believes that the expectations placed on funeral workers are changing. This in turn has opened the door for his support group.
Funeral workers have specific challenges to face, too. For example, unlike those in other jobs, people dealing with death on a daily basis may struggle to talk about their work to their families. “We don’t want them to live the trauma that we live as well,” Melanie Giroux – one of the peer support group’s co-founders – told Maclean’s. “Because as soon as we start talking about it, they’re receiving all the energy and the messages we’ve already taken in.”
Giroux had also been dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder prior to helping set up the group. She had worked as an embalmer following a period in the beauty industry; following a personal tragedy, though, she found herself approaching her job differently.
Sadly, Giroux’s father took his own life, and yet she decided that she would be the one to take care of her dad’s body following his passing. “If I didn’t do that, I would have felt like I didn’t do enough,” she explained. “It’s made me a little bit more sensitive to different circumstances I never could relate to, because I’d never felt those feelings before.”
“It changes my touch, it changes the way I do things, it changes my tone,” Giroux added. Meanwhile, the support group officially got underway in August 2018. And within just a few months, around 80 people had joined up – suggesting, perhaps, that funeral workers are keen to follow Dixon in revealing just how their job really affects them.
But if you’ve contemplated planning your own funeral, then you may just want to hear about a new innovation that could transform the industry altogether – especially as the world becomes more eco-conscious. And if you plump for this unusual burial method, then you may even have an impact beyond death.
As we navigate through life, we make conscious, informed choices based on our experience and preferences. But how about when we die? While we may suggest how we’d prefer our lives to be celebrated, typically our funeral choices boil down to “burial or cremation?” However, there may be another way. And you could make an altogether different mark on the planet.
Many people are now more conscious of the impact their everyday lives have on the planet. Indeed, rarely a day goes by when we don’t hear the words “climate crisis.” But did you know, our impact on the environment continues after our death? Wouldn’t it make sense, then, to plan for a more eco-friendly funeral?
You see, there’s a consensus among a majority of the scientists who specialize in climate – 97 percent of them, in fact. The agreement is that the global climate crisis is increasingly driven by human activity. The climate crisis is fueled by a rise in the Earth’s temperature. That, in turn, is caused by greenhouse gas emissions.
Now, the U.S. Energy Information Administration has determined that around 75 percent of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions are a result of burning fossil fuels. This can come from the most mundane activities, such as turning on a light, heating or cooling our homes, charging a phone or driving our cars. All of these contribute to our carbon footprint.
There are conscious choices we can make to reduce our carbon footprints. But have you ever thought about the impact a funeral will have on the planet when we’re gone? Well, some innovators have, and, as a result, there’s a new style of burial capsule emerging that’s more eco-friendly.
The history of the funeral dates back hundreds of thousands of years. For example, sites in Europe and the Near East have been uncovered to reveal skeletons bearing distinct layers of pollen. It suggests a deliberate placement of flowers, and, although there is no firm evidence to support it, indicates some form of ceremonial burial.
Funerals vary from one culture to another, with many holding great religious significance. However, throughout history, these burial ceremonies are often typified by five distinct “anchors.” They tend to feature a gathering of people, notable emblems, a ritual gesture, a reflection of the deceased’s culture or heritage, and the passage of the body to another phase.
For instance, Buddhists believe that the deceased moves on to another life. In Hinduism, it’s thought that the body is simply a vessel for the soul, which is reincarnated into another being after its host’s death. There is a similar belief in Sikhism, with the caveat that the next life will reflect a person’s actions in the previous one.
However, funerals in North America traditionally consist of three segments. First there’s a visitation, such as the viewing of the deceased, followed by the funeral ceremony, and finally the burial service. Central to this three-part ritual is the casket. And, although burial receptacles have existed for hundreds of years, it’s only relatively recently that’ve they been widely used.
The word “coffin” is thought to have been first used in 14th century France. Its roots are in “cofin,” meaning sarcophagus or basket. That, in turn, derives from the Latin word “cophinus,” meaning basket or hamper, which is a derivative of the Greek “kophinus,” or a basket. However, the concept only became widespread across the U.S. during the Civil War.
There were, of course, a great many casualties of the Civil War. Estimates suggest anywhere between 620,000 to 750,000 people perished in the conflict. As a result, coffins like the ones we know today started to be mass-produced. You see, they were seen as a safe and secure way to transport the bodies of the soldiers killed in battle.
The word “coffin” is now widely used for any receptacle in which the dead are buried. Indeed, the many casualties of the Civil War triggered the use of old furniture being repurposed into makeshift coffins. However, while the bloody conflict initiated their common use in the U.S., known examples of burial chests date as far back as 5000 B.C.
For instance, archaeological sites in China have unearthed ancient tombs with what appear to be wooden boxes, thought to be used for human burial. And, if coffins were once used to perform a simple function, today they may also be used as an opportunity to celebrate the deceased’s life. In fact, everyday funerals started to become increasingly elaborate as far back as Victorian Britain.
Death was big business in Victorian Britain. Newman Brothers’ Coffin Furniture Factory, first opened its doors in Birmingham, England in 1894. And, although the company ceased trading in 1998, the building now stands as a coffin factory museum in tribute to the family who founded it.
However, the Newman Brothers weren’t actually in the business of manufacturing coffins. Instead, they specialized in making the brass fittings that decorated them. You see, their company actually started off producing general brass fittings. But they seized a money-making opportunity when they noticed the growing market for funerals.
Indeed, the Victorians turned funerals into an event, and would go to great expense to honor their loved ones. Coffins would have ornate embellishments, with the casket swaddled in ostentatious burial shrouds. The British became particularly fond of burial vaults during that era, too, a structure that necessitated some incredibly heavy lifting.
You see, Victorian coffins destined for vaults could be incredibly elaborate. They were often made up of three layers, with one of those made entirely of lead. Then, taking into account it was topped with a breastplate engraved with the deceased’s personal details, it was not unusual for the whole thing to weigh up to around a quarter of a tonne.
Victorian coffins were a reflection of a person’s social status. While the poor had to make do with plain, cheap, unadorned wooden caskets, the more decorative the receptacle indicated that the deceased was wealthier. While our modern take on funerals can be more personalized, so, too, can the caskets.
Indeed, some companies specialize in making coffins of a … rather more personal nature, shall we say. For instance, Britain’s Crazy Coffins are a team of craftsman who, according to their website, “have been hand-producing coffins which no one else has been willing to make.” That includes caskets shaped as guitars, ballet shoes, vehicles and even luggage.
Crazy Coffins, who have been in business for 20 years, also make novelty urns. If the deceased was an avid Trekkie, then a fitting tribute might be to keep their ashes in a replica of the Starship Enterprise. Or maybe the receptacle could resemble a favorite piece of jewelry, as one woman specified, with an urn modeled after her mother’s silver owl pendant.
Indeed, with more than three quarters of people opting for cremation today, urns are simply one further detail to consider. However, the coffin still remains part of the funeral process, with the deceased laid in one for cremation. And there’s another aspect to what happens after we die that is now becoming an important consideration.
Namely, what is the environmental impact on burial versus cremation? Some of our more densely populated areas are fast running out of space for traditional burials. In fact, results of a survey conducted in England in 2013 suggested its cemeteries might fill up at some point in the 2030s. And there are other factors to consider, too.
Consideration is being given to recycling graves. What happens in this instance, is that current occupants are removed while a deeper grave is dug. With the previously deceased then buried further underground, space is freed up for someone else to rest closer to the surface. And there are other different solutions throughout the world.
Germany, for example, reuses grave space every few years. Spain and Greece utilize communal burial grounds after a period of rest in an overground crypt. Israel plans to create multi-level subterranean burial tunnels. However, have you ever considered the impact that burials have on the environment? Even cremation has its own carbon footprint.
Wicker coffins are one option to reduce environmental impact. You see, it’s not just the materials that cause less harm to the planet, but the process of making them, too, is more eco-friendly. And, while it’s also a far cheaper option, the caskets are free of toxins and non-perishable materials.
However, a couple of Italian innovators, Raoul Bretzel and Anna Citelli, might have another answer to the global burial problem. They have designed what they call the “Capsula Mundi” – Latin for “world’s capsule.” It’s an oval shaped container, made of organic material and it can be used to encase ashes as well as bodies.
You see, even after we die, we still continue to leave a carbon footprint. For starters, all the materials typically used to make traditional coffins act as landfill. And that’s not to mention graves that are reinforced with concrete. But there’s an added component to the Capsula Mundi that makes it even kinder to the environment.
The Capsula Mundi works as a replacement to a traditional coffin and, once the shell is buried, it will completely decompose. Not only is its plastic 100 percent biodegradable, but the nutrients it contains will be put to good use – to feed a sapling planted directly above it.
Bretzel and Citelli think that there’s as much consumerism attached to funerals as anything else in life. But they have a vision. It’s their ambition to see cemeteries filled with trees instead of concrete or marble gravestones. They want people to give life back to the earth when they’re gone.
The concept came to Bretzel and Citelli after a design fair in Milan in 2003. They were shocked to see how much waste the exhibition had produced simply from all the furniture it was tossing away. The sight was enough to inspire the designers to be more conscious about the impact we have on the planet.
As Bretzel told CNN in January 2018, “It was a big competition to design new things, but almost nobody cared about future impact or whether anyone would actually use these things. We started thinking about projects that could have an environmental aspect.” And so Bretzel and Citelli decided on a novel approach.
“Death is part of our life,” Bretzel explained. “But at design fairs nobody cares about that because it’s one side of our life that we don’t want to look at. We don’t like to think of death as part of life.” However, the subject didn’t faze the duo, and so they went in search of a solution.
The idea is for bodies to be placed in the capsule in the fetal position. Once buried, the soil’s bacteria will decompose the bio-plastic shell. As the body follows suit, its nutrients will be released directly into the soil. In turn, the earth will become a fertile environment for growing trees.
Bretzel and Citelli see cultivating saplings in this way as old life nurturing a new one. However, one scientist believes that planting more mature trees with the capsule could be even more beneficial to the environment. Jacqueline Aitkenhead-Peterson, who works at Texas A&M University as a professor in soils and crops, shared some thoughts on the design.
As Aitkenhead-Peterson explained, “Because the body will purge within a year in a buried environment, the nutrients are released into the soil quite quickly, so a decently-sized tree planted on top would be key.” Indeed, with the concept yet to become widespread, can scientists predict the effect many decomposing bodies might have on the surrounding area?
Jennifer DeBruyen, a scientist specializing in soil and biosystems at the University of Tennessee, thinks the environment could benefit from these eco burial pods. She said, “The problem with traditional burials is that they’re completely anaerobic. The remains are buried deep and sealed in a coffin. There’s a lot of incomplete degradation.”
However, as DeBruyen explained, “These pods may help maintain some oxygen flow into the system.” Furthermore, the materials the compostable plastic is made from add some much-needed carbon to the soil. You see, when bodies decompose, they produce nitrogen. The extra carbon will restore balance to the process.
According to Kate Kalanick from the Green Burial Council, who certify eco-friendly burial practices in North America, awareness of the sustainability involved in burials is on the rise. “We’ve noticed an uptick in the public interest in green burials in the last 24 months,” she told CNN in 2017. “Although our providers continued to grow steadily, the public has become much more aware and there is a lot more interest in the practice.”
Although the rest of the world might not yet support their method, the Capsula Mundi is completely legal throughout the U.S. And, if people catch on to Bretzel and Citelli’s vision, cemeteries will start to resemble forests. DeBruyen agrees, saying, “I think there’s enough science and agreement that these [options] represent a really viable option for afterlife.”
As the Capsula Mundi website describes, “[The tree will] serve as a memorial for the departed and as a legacy for posterity and the future of our planet. Family and friends will continue to care for the tree as it grows. Cemeteries will acquire a new look and, instead of the cold grey landscape we see today, they will grow into vibrant woodlands.”