The One-Eyed Undertaker is the nom-de-plume of a friend who works as an undertaker-cum-“catch-all” at his family’s funeral home. It’s a fascinating line of work–certainly one that’s had a lot of interest from the media these days–and it’s even more interesting because he’s a great storyteller. If I didn’t want to be dumped in the Thames when I died, I’d certainly use his services. Here’s an interview we did in 2005.
What’s your full job title? What is your job description?
I don’t really have a title as such. It’s a family funeral home and I’ve recently started the internship process. It’s a year-long training program. I basically work as a “catch-all” at the funeral home and document everything I do and every service I work and turn them into the state Funeral Director and Embalming Board for review. At the end of the year, I’ll take a test to determine whether I learned anything at work. And while it’s unlikely to come up on the test, this morning I learned that compressed air was flammable. Also, if you turn it upside down and shake it and spray it on the back of someone’s earlobe, you better have hidden all the other cans in the building, because revenge can happen at any time. And this, to me is the joy of working in a family business.
Among my duties:
• Chapel rotation (basically, making coffee and tending to the air conditioner when we have a chapel)
• Answering the phones
• Body removal
• Casketing bodies
• Makeup and dressing of the bodies
• Digging/covering the graves
• Cemetery setup
• Driving the hearse and lead car
• Arranging for escorts
• Military honors
• Applying for VA benefits
• Applying for American flags
• Composing and typing obituaries
• Processing insurance claims
• Typing death certificates
• Setup and clean up of funerals
• Processing Social Security forms
I don’t do any embalming, as that requires a separate license, but I have seen most of the process. I have no desire to become an embalmer.
You came to this business through your family, which seems kind of common in the funeral industry. Was it expected of you when you were growing up, and is this what you wanted to do? Did you go to school to study, or did you study something else?
This is the last thing I ever thought I’d be doing. Growing up, I was a tad dainty and squeamish when it came to the funeral practice. We literally lived IN the funeral home and I passed the casket room on the way down to breakfast every morning. I was terrified of ghosts and unexplained noises and whatever lurked in dark shadows.
In the front of our funeral home was an old wheelchair that we would use for when elderly people would come to a service and require it.
My cousins (who also lived in the same funeral home–talk about a family business) told me that the wheelchair was haunted by the tormented soul of a dead priest and that if the chair got you, it would take your body to the fires of hell. Then, they would roll it at you at full speed. This sort of thing made me very jumpy.
The one thing that I was good at was consoling the bereaved. From an early age, I had my father and my uncle’s ability to listen to the grief of the families and comfort them in way that didn’t seem condescending or trite.
When I was in the sixth grade, my best friend’s brother died in a car wreck and I remember talking to her and saying the things I had heard my dad say when he was helping people. Things like, “This is going to hurt for a long time, but you will feel whole again one day.” It was his honesty I remember. I once asked him why he didn’t say things like, “They’re in a better place.” And he told me that if you say that to someone who’s already mad at God, you’re only going to make them angrier.
I was never encouraged to join the funeral business, and when I went to college I studied Journalism and English and Art and Photography. I wanted to be a writer or a professor or a famous movie director. Throughout college, I worked a variety of jobs and when I graduated, I moved to Austin, TX to become a filmmaker. Instead, I got a job working for the University of Texas, where I stayed for several years.
During this time, my brother and my two sisters went to work for the funeral home. I was the only holdout.
I moved back home in 2002 to get married and I got a job working at a hotel. Every now and then, my dad would mention coming to work for him, but I still never saw myself doing that type of work. That’s not to say that I was completely out of it. Occasionally, he’d call me in the middle of the night to go make a residential pickup if my brother wasn’t available or he’d get me to drive the hearse in the procession if we were short on manpower.
When I had my first child last summer, the hotel that I worked for cut back on my staff and I found myself working longer and longer hours. My requests for a raise went unanswered and I grew bitter and angry at where my career was stalled out.
Around the same time, my father was starting to feel the strain of his age and he wasn’t able to work services like he used to. The constantly on-call life was interfering with what should have been his leisure time.
So, he asked me again, at just the right time if I would work for him, and I gave the hotel my notice the next day.
What’s an average business day like?
The first thing I learned here is that no day is like the day before or the day after. Work literally changes moment to moment. We have days where we are constantly on the move, working services back to back. And other days (like today) when it’s really slow and quiet.
Because it’s a family business, though, we set our own hours and we have the flexibility to take time off to, say, take Mama shopping.
At its most basic, though, on a day when we have a service, I get to the funeral home about 8am. I turn on the lights and the music and make a few pots of coffee. I check the body to make sure that it didn’t leak during the night out of its mouth or eyesockets. If the hearse is dusty, I’ll rinse it off and put it into position outside of the chapel, next to the exit.
I greet the family at around 9 am (by this time, one of my other family members has joined me) and lead them into the chapel. If we’re lucky, they’ve brought doughnuts.
An hour before the service, I pin all the pallbearers and give them their instructions. A half-hour before, I meet with the pastor and determine the order of service. Most funerals follow a certain pattern, but of course, anything goes.
A typical service starts with a song, then the reading of the obituary. Sometimes another song comes here. There is a prayer and someone may make a eulogy. Then, the pastor will have another prayer and a sermon. It usually ends with a prayer.
And then the funeral director will make an announcement that we’ll be going in a procession to the graveside, while I close the curtains.
The family and pallbearers are given a final chance to pay their respects and then we close the casket and move outside. The pallbearers place the casket into the hearse and we move in a police-guided procession to the cemetery. The pallbearers move the casket from the hearse to the grave and there are a few more prayers. Finally, the pallbearers place their boutonnières on the top of the casket and the service is completed. The mourners leave and we lower the casket and cover the grave.
If we’re lucky, we finish up around lunchtime. After lunch, I go to the office and do paperwork for the rest of the afternoon.
What’s the hardest part of your job?
Burying older people is easy. They’ve lived a long life, they’ve seen a lot. And, for the most part, it’s not a surprise when they die.
What’s hard is burying the young. As a pastor always reminds me, “The old must, but the young might.” To lose a life of promise is gutwrenching. Children, babies, teenagers, it’s nearly impossible not to get emotionally involved in some way.
And what’s really hardest is not just the tragic, but the ironically tragic: brides dying weeks before their wedding, seniors dying on prom night, children dying on the way home from their birthday party. When you get a call like that, it’s like getting kicked in the stomach. My family assures me that, in time, when we get calls like that, I’ll be able to do as they do and go into “superhero” mode, where you’re completely detached from the emotion of what you’re doing and you just…do…your…job.
I’m not there yet.
Do people often request open caskets against your advice?
For the most part, people respect the judgment of the funeral director in charge. My dad, my uncle, and my brother are amazing artists and they can take someone who’s been mangled almost beyond recognition and make them at least partial viewable to the family. But then there are cases where so much trauma has been sustained that no amount of restorative arts will heal the damage done. In those cases, families are encouraged to seek comfort in photographs and home movies and not to view the final disposition.
And actually, regarding your question, the opposite is true. Many, many times, the family will come in and say, “Mama looked so bad when she died, she wouldn’t want anyone to see her like that.” But after the embalming process is completed, and make up is applied, and the lighting is adjusted, we offer the family a chance to see the body again. And if all you’ve seen of this person recently is a withered body covered in tubes and gauze in a hospital under florescent lights, to see them dressed and at rest is comforting, and we recommend it whenever possible.
Have you ever had a body that moved? (I had a friend in high school who worked for the coroner–he claims a body grabbed him. Not sure I believe it.)
No, but I have a similar story. When I was in high school, I went with my father to make a residential pickup. This guy had been dead for two days on his sofa before anyone had found him. His body was swollen with gases, and when we moved him to place him into his body-bag, he sighed. This long, guttural, groaning sigh. And I lept backwards and knocked over a side table. Creepy stuff. My family still laughs about that.
What’s the difference between regular and mortuary makeup?
Mortuary makeup is very, very waxy. One of the main complaints you hear from people is “They look fake.” Well, that’s because of the makeup. My brother has his own set of Mary Kay that he uses. He finds that it gives a more natural look, and he uses a light hand.
Are you an expert at old lady hairdos?
The joke around our house is that the men can do our wives’ hair and makeup for them, but only if they lie down and close their eyes. I’m not an expert, but I’m getting better. Of course, this being the South, many women have their own hairdressers come in and prepare them before the service. This one hairdresser, let’s call her Truvy, does the hair for almost all the old ladies who die in our small town.
Truvy has her own little kit (in a fishing tacklebox) with all of her own combs, lipsticks and whatnot. She comes in and sits in a chair as she fixes their hair and she talks to them the whole time. Just last week, I heard her telling this one lady who died what everyone was bringing to the potluck dinner after the funeral.
What’s your opinion of anal screws?
Wear a condom.
I asked my brother, and it was more information than I needed. He’s of the opinion that he doesn’t like things shoved up his ass, so he doesn’t do it to other people.
Seriously, he finds that they are rarely necessary, unless the person leaks crap throughout the embalming process. As he adds embalming fluid, pressure builds up inside of the body. As pressure builds up, if there is feces at the gate, it may get shoved out. But there are other ways of relieving the pressure, like inserting a large metal needle into the body and venting the gases that have built up. See, more than we all needed to know.
What are industry conventions/conferences like?
I remember going to funeral director conventions when I was a kid. Going around to all the tables and picking up things like ashtrays that say, “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, Montgomery Family’s a name you can trust.” At night all the funeral directors would get drunk and party and make inappropriate jokes like, “Say what you want about necrophilia, but there’s nothing I like better than relaxing and cracking open a cold one.” It’s the only gathering place where people in the industry can say out loud the things that they whisper about at work. I’m assuming that dentist conventions and doctor conventions are similar.
On the subject of gallows humor, often in our office you’ll hear jokes or asides that would be strictly taboo to anyone who is not deeply enmeshed in the process of dealing with the dead. Humor is a way to relieve the pressure that builds up doing what we do. And death can be really funny sometimes. Like when my dad found a $10 winning lottery ticket in a dead man’s pocket, and we all referred to the body as “Mr. Lucky.”
How about those crazy coffins–the dry erase ones, the ones that look like Dale Earnardt’s car–do you get requests for those?
Not as much as you’d think. Being clever (like the casket that says “Return to Sender”) or poignant (like the ones with the photo of the World Trade Center) doesn’t usually occur to people when they’re trying to make arrangements for a loved one.
And that’s the thing that really amuses me about the funeral business. Ask anyone you know what they want at their funeral and they’ll say, “Oh, I don’t want a fancy casket. Just put me in a wooden box. And I don’t want anyone crying, I want people to celebrate my life, not mourn my death.” I hear that about once a week. And it sounds nice.
But it ignores the most basic fact of your funeral: it’s not for you. For you, the time to care about what’s done with your body is over. You may have wanted balloons instead of flowers and to have “Dust in the Wind” played over and over again. But it’s not your choice. You’re dead. And funerals are for the living. They are a way for people to begin their grieving process. Your opinions (in reality) don’t matter.
You know, for all the talk about wacky funerals, they don’t really happen all that often. Most funerals are cut and dry, without anything memorable and remarkable, except of course, to the family.
But sometimes you hear about exceptions. Recently, I heard about the funeral for a man who drove an ice-cream truck for 45 years. His funeral procession was led by the ice-cream truck, music playing and all. After his graveside service, everyone got a popsicle. Now that’s cool.
All I can recommend is that you put all your wishes in writing and hope your family fulfils them.
“The American Way of Death” is on my Amazon wishlist. I’ll get around to it.
You know what’s really good? Thomas Lynch’s The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade.
I watched the first two seasons of “Six Feet Under” but I got really tired of the dream sequences. I’ll probably watch it all on DVD once they’re all done.
And this may seem hypocritical, but I can’t stand to watch Family Plots. I find most of the things they say and do are disrespectful. And not that we don’t do some of the same things, we just have the decency not to do it on national television. I have NO idea how some of those families can sign off on broadcast permission.
What would you like for your own funeral?
See, you’re going to make me contradict myself. Okay, even though MOST people don’t have wacky funeral services, my plans are a wild series of ever-evolving mockeries that will shake the community to its core. Or at least it will make the “News of the Weird.”
Here are a few of my current plans: all of the music will be played by a middle school marching band, I’ll have a daiquiri machine set up in the lobby, and my pallbearers will all be wearing Hawaiian shirts or top hats. I want my mourners to all say, “What the fuck?”
What do you on your time off?
I make prank calls to the nursing home and I scream obscenities when they answer. You know, when business is slow.
Where did she go?I am lazy. If you're bored, go visit my tumblr, updated daily with other people's witticisms and erudition.
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