Monday, April 23, 2007

Undertakers and Virginia Tech

Words have been failing me since my return from Blacksburg. I have several posts worth of experiences to share with you, but it's all a little too raw to write. However, I did not want to let this day pass without a few words on my friends in the funeral profession.

Those who follow this blog know that I hang out with funeral directors. A lot. We have the obvious connection that ministers and funeral directors share. Then there's my side work of offering classes to funeral directors for their state continuing education requirement. All of that professional time together, I've made some close friends. These friends I call the Undertakers. When my time comes, they're the ones I'll let take me under.

Thomas Lynch writes about the funeral profession most famously in his book The Undertaking. He is a wonderful man and one I admire most in the funeral business because he gets it. He gets the combination of responsibilities of his profession: sacred, medical, psychological, financial, civic... when done right, it's a calling. When I find other funeral directors who really "get" their calling in a Lynch way, I call them Undertakers after his book. I mean it as the highest compliment.

While in Blacksburg, I sought out one of my favorite Undertakers. He's a modest man, so while I effuse about him I'll give him a pseudonym: Allen. Allen and I know each other socially. He lives on the southwest side of the state, so we've never done a service together but we've talked plenty of shop over the years. He is one of the most daring, absurdly funny, ridiculously energetic people I have ever met. While in Blacksburg I arranged to have a beer with him. As I suspected, he had been helping out at a colleague's funeral home.

Most of us don't bother to think about the funeral home side of things after a mass fatality. Lucky for us, funeral homes think about this in depth. Keep in mind that just because our country focused on this tragedy for the better part of a week, death did not take a holiday. Also remember that a college town doesn't require the same number of funeral homes as a retirement community in Florida.

In other words, there was way too much work for just the local guys to handle.

So Allen and others drove in to help. And this is where I won't say much because the kind of help Allen can offer isn't what most people even want to think about right now. But help he did. And I got to see him at the end of a 14 hour day the likes of which few can imagine.

He was in many ways his usual darling self: sweet, thoughtful, funny. He never fails to ask about my family, my work, our mutual friends, even at a time such as this. But I did see something I've never seen. Allen was dog tired. And he was uncharacteristically still.

We only had about an hour together. He had to get up the next morning to do it all over again. But when he stood to leave I gave him what was probably an inappropriately long hug. (Then again, there's no longer such a thing in Blacksburg.) I had no words to tell him how proud I am of who he is. I am so glad he could help in a way that few understand and most overlook. I wanted to thank him, and honor him, and hug the life back into this dear friend who gives so much to others. I wanted to express all of that to him eloquently, but all I had was a hug.

This week Allen and dozens of other funeral professionals are accompanying the family, spouses, friends, and colleagues of the victims at Virginia Tech as they are taken under. Allen is absolutely the person you would want to do this for you or yours. Few know what it takes for really good people to do this very hard work. The selfless acts that help the most are usually the ones that are least visible, never compensated with money, and take them away from their families yet again.

Maybe someday you'll work with a funeral director and you'll be able to tell that they are truly an Undertaker. Thank them. In writing. Buy them a beer. Hug them too long. I've yet to meet an Undertaker who has said, "Rough day at work. Everyone was hugging me."


ms. kitty said...

What a thoughtful and helpful post, AC. Thank you for giving us these insights. I will be mindful of them after reading your words.

Valeree Lynn said...

I think funeral directors (the one's who see it at calling) are such classy and kind people. Thank you so much for taking the time to acknowledge them in all of this.

My husband and I went to a funeral this weekend. We walked by the hearse and my husband commented on how incredibly clean it was. He pointed out how funeral directors have such a hard job: they have to be incredibly detail oriented, kind, and available.