Body of Boston Bombing Suspect Finally Buried

The controversy on what to do with the body of Tamerlan Tsarnaev has been going on since May 1 when he was released to a funeral home. Peter Stefan, the owner of the funeral home, has been trying to find a cemetery that would accept to bury Tsarnaev but was consistently turned down. This act, while controversial, has at least served to educated people on the fact that cemeteries are often privately owned and have the right to refuse burial.

As of yesterday evening, a man named Paul Keane had stepped forward and offered the family of Tsarnaev the use of one of his privately-owned plots that would have put this suspected killer right beside his own mother. However, when I tried to follow up with that story this morning, I discovered that his body has been buried in an undisclosed location outside the city of Worcester.

AP story here

This particular bend in the story of Tamerlan Tsarnaev has been interesting. We funeral professionals don’t often have a mainstream story that so directly related to our fields of knowledge and so, as you can imagine, this is being discussed in just about every funeral blog I read.

With the newly disseminated information on privately-owned cemeteries, more people are talking about who has the ‘right’ to be buried and where. Personally, it is my belief that the surviving family has a right to see their loved one, no matter how heinous the acts they’ve committed, to be treated with dignity. We don’t often think about the surviving family when we consider the death of a criminal and we need to start. The person, no matter how atrocious their acts, was still loved by someone. They grew up with a family and friends who will remember them from the good times shared. Every single one of us have committed transgressions in our lives and there will always be at least one person who won’t really be sad to see us go. Granted, most of us don’t murder or torture people, but who are we to tell a family member that they can’t grieve for their loved one?

This all being said, I still understand why no cemetery would be willing to take him. His body being there would have put all other adjoining plots and the cemetery itself at risk for vandalization. The cemetery has a duty to its families to do enough due diligence to keep their graves protected and that would be very difficult with a portion of the population calling for retribution. And imagine grieving your own loved one… who is buried right next to this guy. You’re not going to get much peace of mine when visiting.

This happens more than we consider. Think about the gravesite of Jim Morrison. It and the graves around it are constantly being vandalized by idiot morons who believe their “grief” to be superior than that of those whose graves surround him.

So what are your thoughts? Does everyone deserve dignity in final disposition? Was the cemetery right in refusing to bury him? Was the funeral director right in accepting his body in the first place?

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What to do when someone dies

I’ve realized through being on the other end of the phone a lot, that people seem to kind of bumble their way through the process of making death arrangements. It seems to me that a lot of people don’t really know what they’re doing or what’s happening and instead, they just let themselves be instructed through the process. No one likes to feel helpless or out-of-the-loop of information, especially when it comes to death of a loved one so I’d like to shed some light on the process of making arrangements with a funeral home.

There are two general conditions to consider that have slightly different timelines so we’ll take them separately.
A. The person died in a hospital or at home under the care of hospice.
1. Notify the funeral home.

a. Information to have on hand:

– date of death

– time of death

– date of birth

– social security number

– next of kin’s name and phone number

– whether you’re choosing burial or cremation

Even though you’ve made the call, someone from the hospital/hospice will have to obtain to legal ‘release’ of the body from a doctor before we can pick them up. We’ll wait to hear from a nurse/chaplain/doctor before we do anything so feel free to take your time saying goodbye.

Once notified and when you’re ready, the funeral home will send out a removal team to collect the body and bring it back to our facility.

2. Set a meeting time with the funeral home to fill out paperwork.

This can either be done when they come to pick up the body or by calling them the next day. Just don’t wait too long… we get antsy when we have a body but don’t know what to do with it.

Protip: even if you’re not having any kind of ceremony, you still need to contact the funeral home for “arrangements.” We still need you to come in and fill out paperwork.

b. Info you’ll need:

– decedent’s last address

– city/state of birth

– highest education level

– father and mother’s full names with mother’s maiden name

We use all of the vital statistic information you provide to generate a death certificate. We try to fill out as much of this form as we possibly can.

B. The person died unexpectedly outside of a hospital.

1. Call the police emergency line (911).

If the person dies under these circumstances the coroner will, more than likely, want to do an autopsy to find the cause of death. If they do, the person will be taken to the coroner’s office in the county in which they died. During that time, you should start taking steps to find a funeral home.

2. Notify the funeral home and set up a meeting time.

Some county morgues may require the next of kin to sign a release form before the body can go to the funeral home. If this is the case, you need to set up a meeting with the funeral home as soon as possible. The body will not be picked up or taken care of until you sign that release form.

Keep in mind that the person may be autopsied. If you’re opting for an open-casket visitation (viewing/wake/service, etc.) be aware that some funeral homes may have an extra charge to embalm an autopsied body (it’s a lot of work!).

The steps from here are the same as the prior scenario with the exception of filling out the release form in addition to the rest.

So, granted, this is an extremely over-simplified explanation of the process and there’s roughly one bajillion ways this can go wrong, be delayed, or otherwise be screwed up. But this is just the gist of it. At a later time, I’ll delve further into the process of death certificates and cremation, since those seem to be things I’m asked about a lot.

Hurting hurts

It’s been 3 weeks since my last post! One of the many unique problems with working in a funeral home is that you’ll never be able to predict when you’ll be busy. One day you’re searching for things to clean and the next you’re working a 12 hour day just to try to catch up from the night before when everybody and their sister decided to kick the bucket at once.
Well that’s what happened to me. The past three weeks have been an almost non-stop parade of visitations, funerals, and arrangement meetings. In this post, I’d like to address something that is not necessarily unique to funeral service but can have some pretty serious consequences in our realm: burnout.

Everyone has shitty days at work. It’s not a new revelation. But I never talk about it. If I’ve had a bad day, it’s very rare that anyone will know about it. I don’t like to complain because I feel like I have no right to. When someone snaps at me, I rationalize it. “They’re grieving. I need to be understanding with them right now. I have no right to feel angry with them.
“I’d feel like that, too, if my mom died.
…..if I couldn’t afford a funeral for my dad.
…..if my brother died and no one knew about it until 5 days afterward.
…..if my child died in a car accident and was disfigured to the point of it requiring a closed casket.”
You see what I’m getting at? It’s hard to allow yourself to feel angry with these people. It feels wrong and selfish.
So it doesn’t matter that I spent my entire day cleaning the funeral home and 1 hour after the visitation, it’s trashed. It doesn’t matter that I spent 3 hours combing out someone’s waist-length hair that was turned into a pile of knots after the coroner did a cranial autopsy, and the friends complain about the way it was styled. It doesn’t matter that I’m told to go fuck myself twice in one day over trivial things that I can’t even control. It doesn’t matter that, on a daily basis, I have to do the work of two people because of an apathetic co-worker and hardly get recognized for it. It doesn’t matter that the insults and complaints come a lot easier than the thank yous. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter. I just keep telling myself that, over and over again. Pushing all of my anger, hurt, and sadness into the pit of my stomach hoping it’ll just disappear so I can get on with my day, week, life.. whatever.

Actually, though, it does matter. It matters a lot because it hurts a lot. It hurts a lot that people have literally no idea how much I can care for them. I’ve never admitted this but sometimes, I want to cry at a stranger’s funeral. I want to hug the girl sitting on the stairs, crying her eyes out. I just want to make everything better! It hurts that I can’t!

It’s here that I need to make another confession.
Right now, I’m sitting inside at a coffee shop on a beautiful, sunny Saturday where I’m usually spending this coveted time off with my boyfriend. Today, we decided to spend a few hours apart because he’s still hurt about the fight we had last night in which I blamed him for some silly, trivial things and then stormed out to go take a walk by myself. What was really going on and what I’m too scared to admit is that I’m getting burned right the fuck out with my job and I don’t have an outlet. So it seemed easier, at the time, to subconsciously invent completely unrelated problems and then misdirect my anger at someone who loves me.

Needless to say, that doesn’t work.
And the view from the doghouse is subpar.

The misguided truth is that I feel like being angry at grieving people is like being angry at an animal: you can’t really blame them for what they did because they just don’t know any better. But we’re all doing the same thing, really. We’re all misdirecting our anger at people that don’t deserve it because we can’t actually zero-in on our target. For me, I can’t blow up at the people I’m trying to help. And for them, well.. you can’t tell someone who’s dead that you’re angry with them. Turns out they don’t care.

So here we all are. Stuck in this weird cycle where we treat each other like shit, trying to make ourselves feel better but, really, we just end up feeling worse. Nobody would choose to contribute to this cycle willingly (unless they’re a dick) but we’ve all done it at some point. I wish I could offer more insight to this but I’m just at the beginning myself, which may be why this post sounds kind of meandering. The first step is being cognizant of the problem and unfortunately, sometimes, you just have to fuck up in order to see what’s really happening.
So, even thought it’s later than I’d like, now I know.

And knowing.

Is.

….I’m not even going to finish.

Birthday

Some people think it’s morbid to be reminded of your mortality, especially on your birthday.
That’s stupid.

Somehow (possibly by magic), I’ve staved off the cold, boney hand of Death for 27 years and I’d say I have just enough piss and vinegar in me for at least another 27 more.

Putting Shit into Perspective

Being a mortician entails seeing, smelling, and being asked to do gross things. Even with that being part of the job description… it doesn’t stop cognitive dissonance.

Would you mind cleaning the crusted up blood clots from a complete stranger on the morgue table? “Sure, I’ll get to it after I finish typing this email.”

Would you mind sewing this woman’s mouth shut so the family can view her without being traumatized? “No problem.”

Our embalmer forgot to clean out the drain in the morgue sink again. Could you remove the clot of matted hair and fat that’s clogging it up? “I’ll do it after lunch.”

Do you mind cleaning the toilet at home? “……ew. Ugh. omg. …..ugh.”

The Candid Death

Children have a way of thinking and communicating that is very candid. They don’t think in abstract, poetic concepts that shield them from what’s really happening, but instead are forced to embrace reality for what it is so that they can understand it. If you’ve ever talked with a child, especially under the age of 10, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about!
Kids ask questions because they’re curious and genuinely trying to gain information about a subject – when was the last time you did that as an adult? Sometimes the questions they ask are really hard to answer because they deal with things that are already hard for us, as adults, to talk about even with each other. As we grow up, we learn to adopt a social filter that keeps up from frankly asking questions or stating directly what we mean. And where does this get us, really? Well, so far, it only helps to turn certain subjects into taboo topics of conversation that hardly ever get discussed and thus leads to only more confusion. I think sex and death are the two greatest examples of this in our culture. As much as I would really like to talk about sex because it’s much more fun, I should probably talk about death since this is a blog about death. (Fun Fact: in French, an orgasm is referred to as a “petite mort” or “small death” – coincidence? Not if you’ve had the fortune of experiencing really awesome sex.)

When someone you love dies, how do you process it? Take a second and actually think about the last time you experienced this mental state. How did you feel? What words did you use to describe your feelings? What words did you use to describe the death itself?
Now, there’s no wrong answer to any of this. You felt how you felt, you said what you said and it’s all A-OK. However, my prediction is that most of you, like most other people in a Western culture, used some language and feelings to dull that pain of losing someone. “She passed away.” or “He went home.” sounds a lot better than “She’s dead.” or “He died.” Those words are so final. They really commit us to confronting the painful reality that a person that we so dearly loved is never, ever going to be around us ever again. …and that really sucks. So we say things make ourselves and other feel better.
Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I’m definitely not exempt from this at all. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve used the word “dead” or “died” this week in front of someone who’s just lost a loved one. Instead, I ask things like “What day did she pass?”. So, while I’m up here on my soapbox telling everyone that it’s far better and psychologically healthier to look Death in its beady little eyes, I’m also contributing to this cultural problem of death-denial. Because it’s not my responsibility as a funeral director to tell anyone how to feel about death. My job is to make easier that which is already inherently hard and painful. But you know what? My favourite families to talk with are the people that actually correct me when I use euphemisms. “Well, she didn’t pass but she did die on Wednesday.” I absolutely love it! It lets me know that they’ve already thought about death and that it’s just not so scary anymore. Granted, there’s a very obvious connection between being more okay with death and having watched someone actively die for a long period of time. Sudden deaths are always going to be a harder to accept, no matter how ready you are to confront reality.
So what if we began to think more directly about death before we have to deal with it? I think what would happen is that we would begin to grow into a culture that isn’t so afraid of this big, inevitable sadness. Or at least we would be able to confront it a little better.
So while I can’t necessarily contribute to a more direct feeling about death through my profession (at least, not without permission), I’d like to contribute through my life outside work and through this blog.

Lastly, I’d like to share with you the clip that inspired me to write this post today. It’s a clip from an episode of Sesame Street in which Big Bird deals with the death of a friend. For a little background, the actor that played Mr. Hooper suddenly died from a heart attack. The writers struggled with how to work the reasoning for his absence into the show and finally decided to confront the reality head-on and have the character of Mr. Hooper die as well. Notice while watching that no euphemisms or expressions are used to describe his death. (Also, have tissues handy.)

Sesame Street repeated this theme again a few decades later and still kept the integrity of this lesson, managing even, in my opinion, to really top themselves by interviewing real children who had really lost a parent.

Death is something we all will have to confront. Personally, I think it’s better to see it for what it is instead of trying to hide behind language that makes us feel better. Death is painful. But it isn’t going away, at least not anytime soon (shout-out to the Singularity proponents). Be curious about it. Let yourself feel what you’re feeling, because it’s not wrong. Be like a child and disregard your learned social shame on certain topics. How else are you going to learn about it?

Death on the Radio

Two days ago, my boyfriend and I were driving to Lowe’s with NPR on in the background (what hipsters) when I heard the name “Sarah Sudhoff” come across the radio. She’s a photographer whose seminal pieces thus far are photos of the aftermath left at death scenes. Not really a typical Sunday-afternoon discussion piece for most people, however, I’m really glad to have caught it! She’s, maybe unsurprisingly, one of my favourite photographers.
Her interview ended and another began: William Irvine, a modern stoic, talking about how he purposefully ruminates on the thought of his loved one’s dying in order to get a better sense of joy in his own life.

Think about how most people pursue happiness. They think their happiness lies in the external world, and what is preventing them from being happy is the external world.
The Stoic insight is that, almost regardless of the external world you find yourself in, if you are in the right frame of mind.
Think about somebody you really love, now think for five seconds, what your life would be like if they were gone. Whenever I do that I find it’s an almost instant little rush of joy that – that hasn’t happened.

Turns out the entire program was dedicated to talking about death and mortality! Most people would not be as excited as I am about this but I figure since you’re reading this blog, you’ve got SOME morbid curiosity and I can share this with you.
You can find the entire collection of interviews here: http://ttbook.org/book/minding-mortality
Also, you can view part of Sarah Sudhoff’s collection on her website (probably NSFW): http://www.sarahsudhoff.com/at-the-hour-of-our-death

I might try to explore these interviews in more depth individually in a later post. For now, let me know what you think in the comments!

Mortician’s Apprenticeship: How Do?

It can be said that the funeral business, as a whole, is at least 50 years behind the times at any given point. Probably the last time you heard about a profession that trains its practitioners with a master/apprentice relationship was in history class: Blacksmiths, leathersmiths, any other varient ending in -smith. I believe I heard once that lawyers still practice the master/apprentice model as well.

March 25 is the 6-month mark for my year-long funeral director/embalmer duel license apprenticeship. 

This post is going to be an expansion of the previous sentence to illustrate the process by which someone gets a funeral director and/or embalmers license. As such, it’s going to be kind of dry so I apologize. But! If you’re actually interested in becoming part of the field, this will help point you in the right direction.

 

A lot of people don’t know that you have to be licensed to be a funeral director and/or embalmer. Another thing that a lot of people don’t know is that the funeral business is heavily regulated by seemingly everyone…. except the federal government. The Feds are the only one who don’t want to stick their fingers into the pie of death. (Pie of Death – similar to Poisonous Magic Pie as seen in Venture Brothers s01ep05 “A Poisonous Magic Pie”)

Every state has different laws governing the practice of funeral directing or embalming but there are several national organizations that also govern the ways things are done on the whole. For example, every licensed individual has to have the minimum requirement of an associate’s degree in mortuary science; Ohio and Minnesota are (currently) the only two states that require a bachelor’s. To achieve that degree, you have to go through special schooling at a mortuary science college, pass the national exams, and of course, graduate. As a depressing sidenote, any of this can become easier or harder depending on your connections within the funeral service industry – this has been my experience, anyway. (Without naming names, I watched a member of my class graduate and receive a diploma even after she had failed the national exams. Favouritism exists everywhere, unfortunately.)

 

Okay, so you have your degree but you’re still not licensed. In-between those two actions, you must first complete an apprenticeship. The length of the apprenticeship is determined by what kind of license(s) you’re going to be receiving. Some people only want to be licensed in funeral directing, others only in embalming, some in both. I figure, why not both?

I was extremely fortunate enough to be hired into a funeral home directly out of school and began my apprenticeship shortly thereafter. I should mention, too, that being hired for an apprenticeship is not the same as being hired for a job since there is a known termination date. Funeral homes can choose to re-hire you as part of their staff after you’re licensed but they can also choose to be done with you. In this sense, apprenticeships are kind of nice for both parties because it gives you a trial time with each other to determine if you’re a good fit.

So my apprenticeship is one year long and I have to fill out lots of paperwork detailing particular cases in either funeral directing or embalming. I then mail that paperwork in my state board organization and they review it. Yesterday, I went in for my 6-month interview which consisted of a meeting with a member of the Board as well as a member of the public. They asked me questions about what basically amounts to my daily occurrences to make sure that I’m learning what I need to learn during this year so that I can handle myself once I’m licensed. 

Alright. This post is boring so I’m going to quickly re-cap on the licensing process:

1. Go to mortuary science school.

2. Pass the National Board Exams.

3. Graduate.

4. Acquire an apprenticeship with a funeral home.

5. Turn in your paperwork on time, go through the 6-month interview process, etc.

6. Terminate your apprenticeship after the allot time is up.

7. Take and pass your state board exams.

8. Acquire license.

9. Huzzah! You are not a failure!

 

I’ll field any questions about this topic, it’s just so boring to me that I want to stop writing this post.

Why I’m a Mortician

“Why would someone like you want to do a job like THAT?!”

I hear this a lot. As in, every single time I tell someone what my job is. I’m not exactly sure what makes people ask this with such confused vehemence but my suspicion is that it has something to do with the myriad of mortician stereotypes that exist and the fact that I don’t exactly fit into them.
I’m a 26-year-old woman. Tall and skinny; blonde. My roommate often refers to me as “the world’s happiest mortician” to which I reply with a laugh and a smile.

This is definitely the question I get asked the most so I always have to have a story ready, but the real answer is that it’s kind of a mysterious how this started. I literally have no idea what made me choose this field.

Haha! No, I’m not kidding!

It’s a long story that I’ll try (and fail) to make short:

After high school, I studied at a 4-year university with a concentration in anthropology. For a few years, I felt like I finally found my calling in forensic archaeology but after researching the field, realized that no one is ever going to pay me enough money that I would be able to make a living doing that job.
After exhausting my resources on a study-abroad venture in Scotland, I decided to take a break from school. And by break, I mean the most miserable 1.5 years of my entire life. At any given time, I was working at least 4 part-time jobs (with side-gigs) to pay rent and barely feed myself with whatever was left over. It sucked real bad. I didn’t want to live like that anymore but had no idea what I wanted to do with myself.
Hilariously, I have no idea why I Googled the phrase “mortician cincinnati”. Well, I lived in Cincinnati so that part did make sense, but there was never a time in my life when I thought that I wanted to work in the funeral business. Now, looking back, this does seem like a natural fit into the morbid curiosities I’ve had since I was young: I did always have a fascination with the human body and for a few crazy years in my teens there were some stirrings of going to med school. And I did always have a fascination with death in TV shows, movies, literature, music, etc. But I guess I’d always taken these things independently of each other.
Anyway, my searching led me to discover the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, which is a college dedicated completely to helping one achieve the theoretical knowledge needed to become a licensed mortician in the US.

Well.

Alright then.

The next two years were spent in diligent study at other colleges to acquire the necessary prerequisites to be accepted into the CCMS bachelor program. I had never and still haven’t ever worked so hard to gain something because I’d never wanted anything so bad. When I failed or got stuck, I just remembered my goal and it kept me going. That education and the career paths laid before it seems like the one, shining beacon of hope in a dizzy, confusing existence.
Excuse me for being melodramatic, but all of this is really, truly what I felt at that time. My life was kind of stuck. I didn’t know what to do for so long that when this opportunity came a long and seemed so real, it changed my perception of myself from a being without a definitive meaning to a person with the infinite potential and inner strength to help others through something really tragic. Oh, and also I have a very strong stomach (shout-out to 4chan).

The one thing I can say for sure is that I never really knew what to expect.
Ha!
I kind of bumbled through school semi-blind, trying to figure out what I was doing there. I never really knew why I was there, I just knew it felt right that I was there. (But please, do not try to read some spiritual meaning into all of this because you’ll be at a loss, I promise.) The ‘why’ of my existence as a funeral professional came more as an incidental of working in the field rather than through my schooling.

So, really, when people ask me the burning question, they’re really asking me two things which I will now ask and answer:

1. Why did you decide to become a mortician?
ANSWER: I dunno.

2. Why are you a mortician?
ANSWER: Because I have never felt more daily personal fulfillment in any other thing that I’ve ever done with my life.

So now no one who reads my blog will ever ask me this question again.