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Death and I are Work Friends
We don't, like, hang out.
With five generations of funeral service lineage and nearly 20 years logged professionally, people tend to assume that I’m comfortable with Death in most, if not all, circumstances, and in a lot of situations, I’m sure I do better than most. At age 22 when I started, the idea of working so closely with something many people actively avoid was definitely odd, but after only a little while, the apprehensiveness began to disappear. We actually developed a pretty good working relationship, Death and I. I’d talk about it with my family and friends in my leisure time to the extent that now my kids are more at-ease with it than most adults. Sometimes it starts to feel like Death is more a friend than a work acquaintance, almost like a part of the family.
My wife has noted the relationship from the beginning. For most of our marriage, any time we’ve attended a visitation or funeral or memorial service, she’s stepped behind me. “You go first. You know what to do,” she’ll whisper.
The problem is, I don’t. Interacting with Death on the job is one thing, but on the outside it’s a different ballgame altogether—one I’m not very good at playing. Talking, sitting, standing, walking all become a struggle. Nerves and adrenaline and doubt take over and bring with them chaos. Nothing is natural. Nothing. You’d honestly never know that Death and I have worked side-by-side since 2004.
Sometimes I start to believe a more social meet-up won’t be so bad. I’m always wrong.
A couple of weeks ago at a memorial service, Death reminded me why we don’t hang out. The service was for a high school basketball teammate (well, he was older and played varsity, and I was JV, but I say it still counts) and brother of a good friend who was killed tragically at work—something I’d like to write more about, but I’m just not there yet.
If you’d like to read what I would say but better than I could say it, my mother wrote about him for our funeral home blog. It’s wonderful.
Obviously, Death would be there, but it would be fine, right?
Knowing that the church would be packed by service time, I arrived almost an hour early. There were already people going inside, but not in the droves that would come later which meant there were plenty of seats to choose from. I could sit anywhere. I had my pick.
The funeral director in charge was someone I’ve worked with in the past, so we talked for a moment standing in the back by the memory table containing photos and bourbon and marshmallows, none of which were for consumption.
“Did you know this guy?”
“Yeah. He’s from my hometown. We played ball together, and his little sister was one of my best friends in school.”
“Oh yeah, that makes sense. Well, I’m sorry.”
Then he got back to work, and I entered the nave as a member of the public.
With 40 minutes until service time, the crowd was still fairly small, but there was already a weird mix: people from my hometown, people I’d met since moving to Memphis, and people from my hometown who’d also moved to Memphis. Do you know what that means? No clear direction on where to sit—segments of people from different points in my life with not a lot of overlap. Also, seating is not a thing I often worry about at memorial services. My place is usually predetermined.
As people trickled in, I stood behind the crowd of sitters with my hands behind my back, looking like a funeral director, while determining my destination. To the left near the front were my high school basketball coaches and some former players I knew with exactly one empty seat next to them. On the same side in the middle was my first college roommate, a guy I’ve known for 38 of my 41 years, and his family with seats available. Three rows from the back was a friend of mine from high school and his wife who’ve lived in Memphis since graduating college, and you guessed it, seats. Then on the very back row was one of my wife’s high school dance coaches who I also served with on the Arts Commission during my civically-active days in my hometown. There were available seats near her too.
I didn’t take any of them, just stood there focusing on the crowd for no reason in particular.
10:00 came and went. Then 10:10 and 10:15. The service was set to start at 10:30, and the room was filling up quickly when something occurred to me: I wouldn’t be sitting down, not because I couldn’t but because I wouldn’t.
The funeral director in charge walked by, and I stopped him to ask a question based on my new-found clarity.
“Do you care if I stand back here with you guys, even if there’s room out there [motioning toward the crowd]? I won’t get in the way or try to work or anything.”
“Yeah, that’s fine. I get it. I’m like you. I know what to do back here. I don’t know what to do out there.”
By 10:30, it was standing-room only, so I found myself with 40 to 50 close strangers in the back. To them, it looked like I arrived too late to find a seat just like they did, but the reality is, I didn’t want to sit in the mass of people, the ones who were there to celebrate the wonderful life of a wonderful person, the mourners. Wearing my suit and standing in the vestibule and picking things up that people knocked over, I didn’t have to be a mourner.
Following the service, I waited around—now free to have real-life conversations. There was the Arts Commission lady who perked up and listened proudly as I updated her on my wife’s own dance coaching accomplishments. There was my roommate who was just as upset as I was at the priest for mentioning in his homily that they (he and the family) had discussed handing out bourbon shots to the guests but decided against it. “I didn’t even know that was on the table. Now I feel like he took something away from me,” he joked, and I agreed. We would have happily ingested a memorial shot (or two) of bourbon. There was the basketball bunch with their solemn nods and greetings. We all talked for a bit, and they left.
Then a small group began to form down front where some members of the family had come back out to visit. Making my way down, I spoke briefly to the ones I could reach and made my way out the side door to the parking lot.
Once in the car, a question popped into my mind. Why did I talk so much more after the service than before? I saw a lot of the same people both times, and people were having conversations right up to 10:30. What changed?
The answer is nothing. Nothing changed. It happened the way it always does when I attend a funeral or memorial, but in those situations, I’m on the job. See, in working a service of that type, I am pleasant and personable and sociable beforehand, but I’m also focused on the service itself: making certain everything and everyone are in place and ready to start, that all parties involved know what they’re supposed to do and when, and that the attendees are seated (or at least in place) as close to service time as possible. After the service, those concerns are gone which means I’m free to console, comfort, and converse.
Essentially, I had attended the memorial service just like I would work a memorial service, with a funeral-director forcefield protecting me from discomfort and awkwardness by keeping my relationship with Death as professional as possible—because even after a couple of decades, I’m still not sure what to do when I run into Death outside of work.