Or, in my case, from the removal/place of death to the grave.

This is how I prefer to take care of my families. Rather than having someone to get the body, someone to meet with the family, someone to greet and seat them (before pitching pre-paid funeral plans), someone to embalm the body, someone to do dressing and makeup, someone to fill out the death certificate and secure permits, someone to work at the service, someone to answer the phone after hours and someone to drive to the graveside, I like to be the one who does all these things. I like being a familiar face, a professional who is there to guide them every step of the way. If they have a question after hours, I prefer them to call me on my cell rather than call my answering service and have to explain everything to them (they are not funeral directors).

I prefer to pick up the body so I can see the body before I talk with the family. Too many times I’ve been surprised when I was only the funeral director and not the after-hours removal staff. If the family requests a viewing the following day and burial the day after that, and you schedule it when you haven’t seen the body, what are you going to do if the body is mutilated, decomposing or otherwise in bad shape – things you would have known from the start if you weren’t too important to take calls at night?

Or what if the case has a full beard, and you don’t know what the family wants done, because you are just the embalmer, and the director who met with the family didn’t think to ask? You might not have the family’s phone number. You might not even have the director’s phone number, if you work in one of those very high volume embalming centers that serve 20+ funeral homes and always have four bodies being prepped at once. So then you have to search for the funeral director, who might be one who doesn’t answer his phone after hours. Then you have to guess. (Note: shaving a person’s face after they have been embalmed usually results in what we call “rat bites” – a very deep, pitted kind of razor burn that is bright orange and looks like a rat has actually been chewing on the face. We must be aware of the family’s facial hair preferences before we start.)

Some very good funeral directors simply are not good embalmers or do not want to be embalmers, but these individuals usually understand that communication with the embalmer is paramount. They will tell me what to do with the beard, as well as pass along any special instructions from the family regarding religious items. Some bodies arrive with jewelry which must never be removed, even if blood gets on it. Some arrive with small tape players playing chants and prayers which must stay running and next to the body at all times. It’s my responsibility, if I have not met with the family, to be aware of their exact preferences before I start.

I think the worst thing a funeral director can do, aside from grossly illegal and fraudulent actions, is not show up at the funeral service.

Many funeral homes have a rotating schedule of on-call directors, so the director who arranges your service is often not the one who actually shows up to assist at the funeral. Obviously, funeral directors need time off too, even in a profession that does not wait for us. If I meet with someone and then they want their service on one of my days off, first I will try to trade schedules with someone. If that is not possible, I invite the director on call for that day to meet with the family so they know whom to expect at the service.

Most licensed funeral directors do not work visitations/wakes, since they can last several hours or all night, and there is literally nothing for the director to do besides show people to the bathroom and take out the trash when the visitation is over. If you’re making $25+ per hour, management is not going to have you work visitations when there are interns who make $10 an hour and who can use the time to catch up on homework or studying for the boards. However, the licensed director can still show up at the very beginning of the visitation to greet the family; show them how to open and close the casket; and introduce them to the intern who will be there until it’s over. They know the intern will help make the coffee and change the paper towels, and that they can call me if anything funeral-related needs to be done.

But there are funeral directors who routinely skip their own services, without informing the family. They send an intern to do a director’s job, which is illegal in some situations. Or they just deliver the casket early and leave.

The director’s presence at the service not only helps everything run more smoothly, but is also hugely comforting to the family, especially if they don’t know very many people and aren’t expecting a large turnout. Not to mention, what if the casket won’t open? What if people keep patting and holding the hands of the deceased and then can’t get them to rest folded on his stomach again? What if the flower shop just dumps all the flowers at the back entrance and no one knows they’re there, because only a funeral director would think to check there? Think of the worst funeral mishaps that have actually occurred – wrong body, wrong casket, wrong grave, wrong clothes, wrong music…it happens. (Hopefully not all at one service…) Now, what would that family do if there were no funeral director there? If I order the wrong casket, and I show up at the service, there may be time to quickly locate the correct casket. But the family does not know this. It wouldn’t occur to them to just drive to the funeral home a few blocks away and see if they will help us out of our own embarrassing situation. They don’t have every local casket distributor in their phones. They don’t know where our garage full of spare caskets is. They also don’t know how to raise and lower a casketed body, or what sort of positioning blocks to place under the body to give it a more natural and comfortable-looking supine pose. It can actually take over an hour to put a body in a casket. Those not in the business don’t know we try out several different angles of the head and shoulders, and often remove a great deal of the casket’s and pillow’s internal padding. (Later, that padding is used to stuff empty skull cavities after autopsy…not a thing goes to waste!)

If you are a funeral director who doesn’t want to attend any funerals, maybe you should have chosen dentistry.

Most funerals are boring, especially now that I serve families who all tend to want the same kind of service. There is no variation. I roll the casket down the aisle at the right moment and I wait for the priest to cue me to take it away, then I load it into the hearse. The remaining two hours, I’m just sitting there. It’s boring. Sometimes I actually miss the services I’ve done where fights happen and the police are called, or where there are undercover cops in attendance because of who the deceased was.

But, my presence also serves as marketing. If people want business cards, they’re going to ask the funeral director, so I need to be there. It would look extremely tacky to drop off the casket and a stack of business cards.

So just go to the damn service! It’s only the reason for your entire career!