When someone dies, there’s a lot to be done, both logistically and emotionally.
For example, there’s paperwork for the death certificate, coordinating burial or cremation, planning a service, comforting a family and walking them through each step, and more. Most of this stuff is either handled directly or coordinated by funeral directors.
To learn more about what happens to us after we die, BuzzFeed Health reached out to the people who physically and/or logistically handle our bodies. We talked to funeral directors Amy Cunningham of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services in Brooklyn, New York, and Amber Carvaly of Undertaking LA, in Los Angeles, California.
Here’s what they told us:
1. Becoming a funeral director requires education, training, and state certification.
Aspiring funeral directors must complete a funeral service or mortuary science program approved by the American Board of Funeral Service Education and intern with a licensed funeral director for 1-3 years. They also must pass a state licensing exam.
Funeral service students take courses in technical skills (cosmetics and coloring, restorative arts, principles of embalming, and chemistry, pathology, and microbiology for embalmers), funeral service history and psychology, death counseling, business management, and state law and ethical considerations. Funeral directors who also want to embalm must separately get an embalming license.
And if you’re wondering how undertakers and morticians fit into all this, Carvaly explains that “mortician” and “undertaker” are catch-all terms for the person who directs funerals and embalms the bodies. The term “undertaker” is dated and not really used anymore, and while people do refer to themselves as morticians, it’s not considered a formal job title within the profession.
2. No, they don’t all do embalming.
Embalming is the act of replacing bodily fluids to temporarily delay decomposition. Carvaly explains that the embalmer uses the body’s arterial system to pump a formaldehyde solution through the veins and allow it to circulate. As it pumps, blood drains out and is replaced with the solution and then everything is released and drained.
Although many people assume that funeral director is synonymous with embalmer, not every funeral director works directly with people’s bodies. Some funeral directors might be involved with transferring someone’s body after they die and/or washing and preparing it for burial or cremation. But others might have a more administrative role, coordinating the transfer of the body, processing necessary paperwork, and helping families and loved ones plan their next steps.
3. And btw, embalming is about replacing bodily fluids and removing decomposing tissue, not taking out all of your organs.
If you’re picturing someone in scrubs lifting viscera out of a corpse and laying it into a scale, you’re thinking of a pathologist performing an autopsy, not an embalming. That said, embalmers do use the instrument pictured above — a trocar — to “suck the soft internal tissue of the abdomen and heart area,” Cunningham says, in order to clear out decomposing tissue.
4. Being a funeral director can involve a lot of paperwork.
Dying can be a pretty bureaucratic life event. It starts when someone dies and their loved one reaches out to Carvaly’s funeral home. At that point she first must gather a bunch of information that’s needed for the death certificate, as well as details about the deceased’s body, where they are located, and anything else the person who is responsible for the transfer of the body would need to know. She then provides all that info to a driver. Then there’s more work to be done to plan a burial or cremation and help the family navigate that process.
Carvaly says that her job “is about making sure the process goes as easily as possible for the people who are left behind.” And that can mean taking on a lot of administrative work.
“Honestly, the majority is paperwork,” she says. One reason for this is that getting a death certificate completed and filed is a highly bureaucratic process. Basically imagine having to go through an official process with a state office — like getting your driver’s license renewed — all day every day. But because the body cannot be cremated or buried until the death certificate is filed, it’s something Carvaly has to stay on top of constantly for every family she’s working with.
5. You can get mega creative planning a service for yourself or your loved one.
Good old-fashioned burials and cremations are one way to go, but you can also choose to make unconventional arrangements. Cunningham helped two brothers plan a funeral for their mother that was a screening of her favorite movie over pizza and beer.
Some people choose to get together to decorate the cardboard casket their loved one will be cremated in. You can even throw your own “living funeral,” where the person who is expected to die gets to experience their own memorial service. And you can bring the body into your home so that loved ones can hang out together one last time. “I look forward to a time when everybody knows they can do home funerals and family care of the dead, and is considering progressive options,” Cunningham says.
6. There are many more ways than just a traditional funeral or cremation to deal with someone’s actual body.
Here are some other things you can do:
• Home funeral (where your loved one’s body is in your home for final goodbyes — more on that shortly)
• Green burial (burial with no embalming or chemicals of any kind) in a biodegradable casket or shroud
• A living funeral (basically a service that allows someone who is expected to die to attend their own funeral)
• Scattering service for the ashes
• A group activity — like a hike — that the person who died would have loved to do or have their loved ones do
• A destination funeral where a person’s ashes are taken to a sacred or special spot in another country or place
7. You can even keep your loved one’s body in your home for a few days after they die.
There was a time, explains Cunningham, when it was customary to keep the body of a deceased loved one in the home for several days after death. This would allow family and friends to sit with their dead loved one, talk to them, comb their hair, maybe bathe and dress them — basically, to share some time with the person they’ve lost before their burial, cremation, etc. Both Undertaking LA and Fitting Tribute help plan and execute home funerals.
Carvaly explains that you can keep a loved one’s body in your home for a few hours with no extra precautions. If you want to keep someone overnight or for a couple days, you’d get ice and cooling packs and place them on the parts of the body that would radiate the most heat — the head, chest, and lower intestines, says Carvaly. For longer than two days, you’d additionally have to keep the body in a room with air conditioning.
8. There are some people whose job is to do the hair, nails, makeup, and clothes for the deceased.
Restorative art is the practice of recreating a deceased person’s natural form and color. In smaller funeral homes, says Carvaly, the funeral director might prepare the bodies, but in larger homes, there are often people who specialize in it: “At very large homes they have a group of people that are dedicated to just dressing, hair and nails, and [restorative] arts. This can be a job done by anyone who is qualified and it just depends on how the home splits up their labor,” she says.
And by the way, doing makeup on people who have died isn’t the same thing that cosmetologists do, says Carvaly. The people who are tasked with doing restorative arts on bodies are generally just doing foundation and color correction.
9. Even though funeral directors are kind of running the show, caring for the body from death to burial/cremation can be an ensemble number.
Between the funeral home, cemetery, and crematory, several people are involved with caring for your body after you die.
Carvaly explains how it plays out for someone who wants a typical green burial: When she gets a call that someone has died and would like a green burial, she first dispatches a driver to pick up the body and bring it to a crematory facility where the body will be refrigerated. Carvaly arranges for the family to choose a plot at the cemetery (where someone then digs the grave) and processes the necessary paperwork for the death certificate. She washes the body and either shrouds it or orders a natural casket. The crematory caskets the body and a driver meets Carvaly at the burial with the body in their casket or shroud. Carvaly, along with a loved one of the person who’s died, and the grave diggers, lower the body into the grave.
10. Funeral directors don’t necessarily make a ton of money.
In fact, according to the American Board of Funeral Service Education new funeral directors make around as much as first-year teachers in their communities. Their salaries vary (depending on where they’re located, the size of the funeral home, etc.) from about $28,100 and $94,860 per year, and in 2016, the median annual salary was $54,830.
11. Related: They’re not all trying to get you to shell out for an elaborate burial.
A common stereotype of the funeral director, says Cunningham, is that they want to charge you a lot of money or rip you off, or upsell you on a fancy coffin. But that’s not the case, especially with progressive funeral homes that were founded with a mission of serving the needs and desires of those who are dying or have died, and their families. This can mean providing people with inexpensive, no frills services.
For example, Undertaking LA — whose mission is to to empower families “both legally and logistically” to be involved in the care of their loved ones after death — offers an all-inclusive direct cremation that costs $995. This is pretty steep discount. In 2014, the national median cost of a funeral with burial was $7,181.
12. They’re not all into blood and guts. And their interest in death generally isn’t dark and morbid.
If you’re picturing Lurch, or that super strange kid from high school who was a little too into dissecting animals in Bio, you’re probably not picturing a funeral director, says Carvaly. Her classmates in mortuary science school were “incredibly normal” — just everyday folks who could’ve been in school to prepare for any professional degree. “I like Barbie and The Little Mermaid, and my favorite movie is Dumb and Dumber,” Carvaly says.
Cunningham says she’s also not what most people assume funeral directors to be like. She says people think “that we’re goth-y, we enjoy Halloween, like we’re Lurch at the door.”
13. But, yes, OK, they’re interested in death, but not for the reasons you think.
Carvaly says that she and her business partner, Caitlin Doughty, “obsessively think about it and talk about it.” But again, it’s not really death in a creepy, crawly, dark AF way. Their interest is more about trying to change our cultural approach to death and dying. Doughty is the founder of The Order of The Good Death, a group of funeral industry professionals and others who are “exploring ways to prepare a death phobic culture for their inevitable mortality.”
Similarly, Cunningham’s interest in death comes from wanting to help people approach it less as a “medical event,” and more as a communal experience for families, and one with more time for reflection (and perhaps spirituality) than is typically custom for many people in modern American culture.
14. They’re definitely not desensitized to how fucking intense mortality is.
“Death is still scary to me,” says Carvaly. “I don’t want to go anywhere; I’m really devoted to being alive.”
She says that spending so much time around death has encouraged her to make better use of the time she’s alive and to feel better about the life that she’s leading. But feeling better or less anxious about her own death? That’s not really a thing.
Similarly, Cunningham is in thoughtful dialogue with herself and others about the subject of death and dying. As she suggests on her blog, when someone dies, you can actually reflect “upon the fact that death is ‘a labor,’ and that the deceased has successfully gotten to that labor’s other side. Death is not a lost battle.”
15. The job can feel like a calling.
Historically, says Cunningham, directing a funeral home was a role that was passed down through families, maybe for multiple generations. But for someone like Cunningham, who was a journalist for 30 years before she went to mortuary science school, becoming a funeral director feels like something she was called to.
“It started with my father’s death. He was so courageous and so amenable to the concept that death could be an adventure and a mystery that he could manage on his own,” she says. After he died at 94, the funeral home staff cared for him in a way that inspired Cunningham. They “would infuse every action with spirituality,” she said. Cunningham started to think about death in a new way and wanted to help other people do the same.
“As painful as this kind of separation is, how we might plan for death and hope to navigate it with grace and dignity, and a sense that our whole life has come to this moment” is what drives Cunningham’s work.
16. A funeral director’s hours can be bananas.
Depending on the size of the funeral home, number of staff, and how it’s run, funeral directors might be on call, the way a doctor would. “It’s a funny way to live…almost like being pregnant again. You never know what’s going to happen day to day,” says Cunningham.
She might get a call in the middle of the night that someone has died. And since Cunningham plays an active role in the transfer of the body, she’ll immediately get up, cut flowers from her yard to bring to the family, grab her cot cover (a decorative cover for the stretcher), and rush over to where the person has died to meet up with the people who will help her transfer the body. She will arrive and comfort the family and begin the process of moving the body. Cunningham has left parties, dinners, even panels she was speaking on, to rush to the side of someone who’s just died.
(By the way, Cunningham has created a step by step guide for funeral directors who want to make the transferring of the body feel less perfunctory and more transformative for the family. You should really read about that on her blog).
17. And self-care is basically essential in this field.
Between the hours and the proximity not just to death but to people who are experiencing loss, being intentional about taking care of yourself is important. To process and decompress, Cunningham practices meditation, spends time with her dog, writes, and reads poetry.
Carvaly says that coping with other people’s grief is the hardest part of the job. It’s important, she says, for funeral directors to maintain a healthy distance between themselves and the bereaved so that they can provide help without necessarily absorbing grief, which can hinder their ability to do their job. But she says you also don’t want to get so detached that you become desensitized to what your clients are going through. It can be a tricky balance to maintain.
18. More than half of funeral directors in the US are women.
According to the National Funeral Directors Association (NFDA), 60% of mortuary science students are women. This might be explained, says Carvaly, by women increasingly entering the workforce, as well as by the fact being a funeral director is in fact a care profession that requires an interest in doing some amount of nurturing, which makes it the kind of work women are often steered towards.
19. And yes, Six Feet Under is pretty accurate.
Besides those scenes where people are chitchatting over a body as they embalm, which Cunningham says would be considered disrespectful and something you’d learn in funeral service school not to do, Six Feet Under does a pretty decent job of portraying how funeral homes work, she says.