The biggest reservation/complaint people have about women working in the funeral industry is that they can’t lift. For those who don’t know me, I am a competitive bodybuilder and despite being a 5-foot-tall female, I have no problem with the heavy lifting requirements of this job. I consider it a part of my job to stay in good physical condition, just as it is my responsibility to stay on top of new embalming techniques and state mortuary law. I know not everyone works out like I do, or would want to, but I believe there should be some unofficial minimum lifting standards that all mortuary employees need to meet.
Regardless of height, weight, age, or gender, one should be able to complete the following tasks without assistance:
1. Carry a body weighing around 100 lbs without the use of straps or mechanical lifts (think from a table into a casket using only your arms)
2. Remove a body weighing up to 200 lbs from an institutional setting
3. Remove a body weighing up to 100 lbs from a home setting
4. Load the cot with the body (up to 200 lbs) into the removal van, and take the cot out of the van and place the body on a shelf in the cooler or onto a prep table, with the use of draw sheets or straps if needed
5. Dress a body
6. Complete an entire preparation procedure, to include lifting and manipulating all limbs and rolling the body
7. Lift a body from a table (up to 100 lbs) with one hand behind the neck, in order to facilitate cleaning or dressing
8. Remove plastic sheets or bodybags from any size body
One should also be able to do the following tasks with some assistance from a co-worker:
1. Remove an obese person (around 300 lbs) from any setting
2. Dress an obese person
3. Place an average (200 lbs) to obese person into a casket
4. Load a casketed body into the hearse
5. Carry an average-sized body in a casket for a short distance (such as the hearse to the grave if you do not have pallbearers or other helpers)
6. Pick up a body that you have dropped onto the floor (it happens to all of us) using a cot
And yes, women need to be able to do these tasks in dresses, nylons and high heels. Nothing’s wrong with changing into sneakers in the prep room, but if the public can see you, you need to look professional.
I have worked with people (AKA women) who are so weak they cannot do things like hold up a person’s leg; dress a tiny old lady; lift up the foot end of a casket or cot; or push a casket into the hearse. I’ve rolled a body towards me in order to help dress him, asked my co-worker to roll him her way…and only the shoulder will come off the table. I’ve worked with women who are incapable of unwrapping the plastic sheeting from a body on a prep table. Women who can’t carry a case of embalming fluid (around 24 lbs). Did these women not realize that mortuary work would mean moving some really big people?
I’m not saying that everyone has to be able to go into a home and remove a 300-lb person from a bathtub like it was nothing. But you should be able to move the small-to-normal size people with no trouble. If you’re not strong enough, and this is what you want to do, consider it part of your job to become stronger. Practice benching a 20-lb bar if that’s hard for you. Get to where you can do one pushup.
You need to be dependable, so that if you are the only one available to work, you can go out on a call without someone asking around if there will be staff around to help. Accept help if it is offered; when a man says to me, “Here, let me help you with that” or “Want me to take the heavy end?” I always accept that help. I figure it saves my back just a little bit more. But it’s part of my job to remain in the kind of condition that would allow me to work just as effectively if that help were not present.
Again, one need not be athletic or even in shape to work in a funeral home. I have worked with many overweight men and women who are very strong and capable people. But no matter your size, strength is a must in this business, and will save your back years down the line.
If you are out of shape, hire a trainer to teach you some basic strength-building exercises and do these on your own until you are stronger. A good exercise to master is the deadlift (no pun intended) because if you drop a body onto the floor and that body happens to be wearing clothes, you can lift that body by bending your knees, gripping the clothing and flexing your butt. Another good exercise: the overhead press. Start with a 20-lb bar and gradually increase the weight. This is a good exercise for when your cooler is full and you need to stack bodies on the top shelf.
Strong legs are essential to take the stress off your back. For strong legs, you can squat, or if you prefer, you can do a lot of uphill walking or biking.
Get some 20-lb dumbbells to keep at home and practice carrying them from room to room. This will make you strong enough to carry a case of embalming fluid.
You can develop an immensely stronger and healthier body in as little as 30 minutes a day. That’s the length of one TV show, so don’t say you just can’t find the time. It’s part of your job. For those who do not want to look like bodybuilders…you won’t. That kind of look takes years of hard training and the right kind of genetics. You won’t bulk up just from partaking in a strengthening routine that will help you in your job.
Remember that people die in strange places. You may need to pick up a body from a bathtub, toilet, truck bed or recliner. There may not be someone to help you. You may find yourself at a graveside with no pallbearers.
Either you can get and stay strong now, or become one of those funeral directors who, once he hits 50, can’t pick up a body without taking the next day off because he threw his back out, I am not a personal trainer by trade because I have zero patience for people who are not motivated enough on their own, but I will gladly help anyone in the funeral profession who needs just a bit of help performing the functions of his job.