One of the best parts of being a reporter is meeting people and talking about topics you would likely not encounter, ever, otherwise.
I just had one of those days.
We spoke with a funeral director for a piece that will air in a couple weeks. He watched his first embalming at the age of 7. He feels his job is his calling. He was interesting, insightful, and full of stories about the dead, our rituals for the dead, and Mafia funerals.
Yeah. I learned a lot.
1. Mafia funerals have to be perfect. Not a single flower can be wilted. Top of the line everything, including the best casket money can buy. Which is usually made of bronze or copper, with a full lid. None of that half stuff where only the top part opens. Head to toe must be visible.
2. Low end caskets look like wooden boxes covered in felt carpet.
3. If you are cremated, the law requires you to be put into a container before you go into the fire. Even if it is a $10 rectangular cardboard box.
4. Older people usually opt for burial or entombment, which is being put into a crypt. Younger people are opting for cremation more and more these days, due to "different ideas about what happens after you die."
5. The best advertising in the funeral business is word of mouth. The Vietnamese community particularly will serve as a good referral service because we talk to everyone we know, we talk details, and we talk prices.
6. Funeral directors and people in this business often get a bad rap, particularly because of states where there is little regulation, as seen in this piece by 60 Minutes. But those who do their job well can truly make a huge difference in the lives of the living who want to remember their loved one, celebrate that person, and send them off into the great beyond respectfully.
7. Price gouging is a huge plague of this business. From upselling caskets to tacked on services and miscellaneous costs, grieving families are often exploited when they're most vulnerable.
8. A lot of funeral homes are family businesses. It's definitely something you have to get a feel for and it's a very demanding business if you run it with care and love and a commitment to serve people who are usually devastated and seeing you during the worst time in their lives.
9. Corporations are taking over a lot of family owned mortuaries/funeral homes but keeping the original names to disguise themselves as mom and pop shops.
10. The people who are successful in this industry have a very unusual set of skills and interests. They have to be good at dealing with people. They have to be interested in the macabre. They have to have a good sense of humor and levity to counterbalance the death and sadness that literally surrounds them. They have to understand anatomy but also be good at sales. It is really an odd mix of traits but they are some of the most interesting people I've met.
11. Funeral home staff would make the most interesting dinner guests.
12. "Pre-needs" is a term that refers to pre-planning and pre-paying for your funeral costs. It is also an area where much of the funeral crimes happen because of mismanagent of funds or outright fraud.
13. You can look at death happening in three parts. 1. The physical death. 2. The moment you are officially put in the ground or cremated. 3. The last death: when you are forgotten. That part is the only one your loved ones have power over.
14. Embalming is a crazy process. It involves the freakiest looking tools, including a giant metal forceps pincher thing that "pierces" the major organs like the heart and liver, to release pressure. And bacterial gas buildup is a no no. It can cause nasty infections in the living if it gets in your bloodstream. Walking Dead much?
15. There are several different types of embalming fluid with different densities to be used on different types of bodies. They are quite colorful. And, as you can see, some are specifically dedicated "for difficult cases."
16. Embalming is a total art and if done correctly, can make someone look a lot better dead than they looked when they were dying. It requires make up artistry skills and an eye for detail.
17. There are little mound shaped plastic things that are often placed under the eyelids to keep them from looking collapsed. And wires are used to keep the mouth closed. Rigor mortis likes to keep your mouth open. Not so cute.
18. It seems like a lot of work for a dead body but the whole 'viewing' is very important for some cultures and traditions.
19. I still think I'd like to be cremated. My only request: if I die young, I want the Good Doctor to keep my ashes in an urn in a conspicuous place for a while before scattering them. I'd like to keep an eye on how things are going in my absence.