To serve and care in the funeral business, it’s important to keep your heart at a distance from death.
I started working in the funeral industry about two years ago. I got a basic orientation: kindness, alertness, patience and compassion. We are present, but invisible. We see the grief, but do not experience it. We are the MCs. The traffic controllers. We are the last word.
It was a baptism by fire. My first service assignment was to a couple who had lost their three-year-old to an asthma attack. Open casket. I was tasked with staying by the mother for the duration of the services. She couldn’t stand and had to be assisted from the chapel to the gravesite. And as we lowered her son’s casket into the ground, she did not scream. She did not sob. She just sat there, transfixed. She never once knew I was there. In fact, I don’t think she noticed the rest of the mourners, the more than 200 others, standing with her.
Since that day I have worked well over 150 services. Vigils, funeral masses, memorial services, graveside services and rosaries. Death has brought hundreds of people into my life. Mothers, fathers, sisters, daughters, sons, best friends, curious second cousins twice removed. Their grief propels my action, my loyalties and my service. But in the two years that I’ve served them, I’ve become something else. My movements are calculated, my words are practiced, my smile genuine, but worn. Death is one thing to the people left behind. It is quite another to me. It has become a sort of object, something to put your hands upon and look down the sides. Death is what I was trained for, and what I am committed to. And to remain so I have had to objectify it.
We are a combination of DNA, cells, water and atoms in a blessed mixture that makes us stand upright and breathe and think. We are machines who have mastered feeling, but in the end, we are still machines. I don’t like to say I have become desensitized to death, but if I didn’t, I’d be lying. It isn’t that I don’t want to feel; I just don’t allow it. Whatever part of me that controls what I feel or don’t feel has shut off. A safety mechanism. To protect the core processor, those neurons and the heart.
I have experienced grief at its every level, from its most extreme to its more subdued. I’ve watched fathers close the caskets of their sons, young girls stand on tiptoe to cry into the chests of their dead mothers, teenage boys assume the mantle of familial responsibility as their father is lowered into the earth. And each has stood out to me in some small, familiar way, as if to remind me that despite my machinery, despite the necessity and obligation I have to this defaulted mode, I am one in the same with them. Their grief is still present in me. It finds itself in me in other ways.
I used to worry that being desensitized made me heartless, but it turns out it’s just the opposite. A computer will shut down unnecessary processes or programs automatically to ensure it remains performing at an optimum level. Such is the case with people. My safety response to death allows me to continue serving, smiling, caring in what small way I can. I can’t bring back the dead. I can’t mourn with those mourning. But I can provide some small measure of peace, as small as a rose or a smile or even just silence.
At the end of the day, I clock out, shut off the lights, set the alarm. I take off my coat and throw it in the backseat of my truck. And as I drive home and into those dark nights, I ask myself always if it was enough. And there’s always something there, some voice to say, “Yes, it is enough. It’s always enough.”
- Clare Fitzpatrick '11, MFA '13
Fitzpatrick is an editor for Google Offers, and still works part-time at the funeral home.