Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Harris: We Put the Fun in Funerals

Emily Harris
We Put The Fun In Funerals: America’s Funeral Directors
If there’s nobody in the hearse, there’s no money in the purse.”1
The funeral industry is considered to be one the most stigmatized industries in the United States due to the morbid nature of the work involved. The funeral industry is comprised of dedicated and hardworking individuals performing the essential service of caring for the dead. Their jobs entail many responsibilities such as performing a public health service of removing, transporting, and embalming bodies to prevent the spread of disease, and acting as counselors for grieving families and friends of the deceased during the planning and directing of memorial and funeral services. Funeral; industry employees are just as valuable, if not moreso, than other members of the U.S. working class for the labor that they perform. Those in the funeral industry commit themselves to working on a twenty-four hour a day three-hundred sixty-five days a year schedule due to the unpredictable nature of their work. While some may believe the funeral industry to be repulsive, my personal experiences of working as a receptionist in a funeral home, have lent a more sympathetic and critical perspective on those who commit themselves to working within this labor sector.

The path to becoming a funeral director is different for every individual. Allison Harris decided she was going to be a funeral director at age eleven as a result of experiencing her father’s funeral. Her father was very sick at the time of his death, but when she and the rest of her family attended his wake and viewed casket, they found their deceased father looking like himself again-alive again, though dead.2 From that day forward Allison decided she was going to become a funeral director to help “put a smile on somebody’s face on one of the worst days of their life.”3 When asked why he entered the funeral business, Robert Mestrandrea, the owner of Majestic Funeral services located in Hollis, New York explained for him it was a natural progression. “I was an altar-boy at my church, was present during funeral masses, later a friend got me a job as a pallbearer at a funeral parlor which ultimately lead me to embalming school,” he said.4 There are many reasons why individuals choose to be a part of this industry. Some choose the profession due to their family business, while others are genuinely interested in the field. Either way, this makes them the same as any other decision-making member of the working class, and when these individuals obtain the education, proper licensing, or certification to practice funeral directing they devote themselves in their work.
The funeral industry is one of the few industries considered to be recession proof. The circle of life consists of birth which it the creation of new life, and death which can be defined as then end of one’s life cycle. While it is something we cannot control or avoid, we need funeral directors to properly care for our deceased. According to the United States Bureau of Labor statistics in May 2011, there were 29,760 individuals employed in the funeral industry.5 On average these individuals work sixty to seventy hours a week. The amounts of funeral directors vary by region. Highly populated areas such as New York City, for example employ more funeral directors than nonmetropolitan areas in states such as Indiana, but no matter how big or small the region, all communities are in need of employees to care for the dead.
Contrary to societal belief the funeral industry is not a male dominated field. In fact, before the creation of funeral homes, women were the primary caregivers of the dead. According to sociology doctoral student Ben Crouch, the 18th century view that Americans held regarding the aftercare of the dead was that “since death was an event that usually took place in the home and was seen as an extension of nursing the sick, social expectations delegated the responsibility of the care of the body to women.”6 Women’s gender roles for women have entailed domestic responsibilities including bearing and raising children, maintaining the home, and caring for the ill family members, and in the 18th century they also held the responsibility of caring for the deceased. Beginning in the 19th century women’s role in the death industry shifted. “It was at this point, when the care of the dead became redefined as a commercial activity, that women’s responsibility diminished. In part as a consequence of the introduction of more technical means of caring for the body (i.e. embalming), an understanding of women’s “ nature” was used by the funeral industry to restrict women from the market care of the dead.”7 Once men realized the profits that could be gained, they decided the funeral industry was no place for a woman therefore characterizing women as delicate, innocent, and pure creatures that had no place of working in such a dirty, physical, and emotional environment.
Today there is an equal, if not greater presence of women in the funeral industry. “Women make up more than half the students at the 54 mortuary colleges nationwide today, compared with 5 percent in 1970, says George Connick, executive director of the American Board of Funeral Service Education”8 Funeral directors must obtain an associate’s degree in mortuary science by an accredited college or university, upon graduation they must fulfill a year residency in a funeral home in order to become eligible to take state licensing exams. According to the bureau of labor statistics the median salary for funeral directors in the U.S. in May of 2010 was $54,330.9 The median salary categorizes a majority of the funeral labor force as members of the middle and working class. These individuals are similar to the average worker, they work hard for an honest day’s pay, “…you really have to love what you do, and I love my job.” 10
One major transformation in the funeral industry was the creation of funeral homes. Prior to the twentieth century preparations of the dead, funeral and memorial services were normally carried out in the residences of the deceased. By the 1920’s establishments identified as funeral homes, funeral parlors, or funeral churches became the primary location for carrying out the responsibilities associated with burial in many larger populated towns and urban areas. The early twentieth century establishment of separate facilities transformed the funeral industry. Before the establishment of funeral homes the funeral directors would prepare the bodies in the homes of the deceased; this included washing, embalming, and dressing the dead in their own homes, or at times in their own bed. This establishment now allowed funeral directors to carry out their jobs in a private space. This change in scenery also reduced the risk of spreading disease and contaminating homes by designating a room in the funeral home to prepare bodies. In 2013 funeral homes are present all throughout the world and have safety and sanitary regulations implemented to ensure the safety of the funeral workers, and those who view the deceased. Funeral directors expose themselves to hazardous chemicals such as formaldehyde and embalming fluid which may cause cancer, kidney, and respiratory problems, along with skin irritations. There are regulations such as proper protective gear to minimize complications from working with such products daily. The modern funeral homes vary in size, but all are required to have a designated room for embalming and preparing bodies, a chapel or parlor to display the casket, with room for loved ones to say their final goodbyes.
The funeral industry touches many more members of the working class than just the immediate employees of the funeral home- a death of a person brings along with it people like police and coroners. The creation of funeral homes produced additional tasks for funeral directors to fulfill in order to maximize the funeral experience. When a person has died authorities such as the police, and coroners, and medical examiners, are contacted to gather information about the deceased. After the police and medical professionals make their assessment, a funeral director is called to transport the remains. Funeral directors are directly responsible for the transportation of the deceased, yet they are not considered emergency medical professionals which restrict them from certain perks in which vehicles such as ambulances hold. In December of 2011 New York experienced a blizzard that covered the state with two to three feet of snow and it took days for the city to be completely plowed. Regardless of the unsafe roads, funeral directors such as Allison Harris and Robert Mestrandrea were out doing their jobs. Ms. Harris recalls working during the storm saying “during the storm, after being called to the residence of a deceased I came to realize the street had not been plowed. Refusal from the city workers to plow the road was realized by the local community which took it upon themselves to help clear a path down the sidewalk. Had it not been for these individuals the removal would have been near impossible. ”11 Its instances like, that pose the question as to why funeral vehicles are not categorized as emergency vehicles. During Hurricane Sandy, the New York area was in the midst of a major gas crisis which led funeral directors to wait on gas lines for hours in order to fuel up. Their lack of emergency status made it very difficult to be available at any given moment.
Funeral Directors differ from many other professions by eliminating sick days, holidays, birthdays, lunch breaks, and in some instances sleep. They are responsible for transferring the deceased, acting as counselors by consoling grief stricken relatives, and provide peace of mind eliminating stress by taking on the responsibility of the service. It takes a devoted individual to work as a funeral director. It is self-less, thank-less yet very rewarding job. Even with the taboo that surrounds their profession the services they provide are essential to the United States labor force. Not only are they the transporters, care givers, and doctors of the deceased, they are also the creators of the last memory you will hold of your loved one.

1 Allison Harris, Interview by Emily Harris, Majestic Funeral Home, April 1, 2013.

2 Ibid. Harris, Allison. 2013.

3 Ibid, Allison Harris, 2013.

4 Robert Mestrandrea, Interview by Emily Harris, Majestic Funeral Services, April 1, 2013.

5 Statistics, Occupational Employment. "Bureau of Labor Statistics : Occupation Employment Statistics." Bureau of Labor Statistics. May 2011. http://www.bls.gov/oes/2011/may/oes394831.htm#(1) (accessed April 3, 2013).

6 Crouch, Ben Michael. "Professionalism in funeral service: A study of work orientations." Unpublished dissertations. Southern Illnois University Department of Sociology , 1971.
Originally found this quote in: Rundblad, Georganne. "Exhuming Women's Premarket Duties in the Care of the Dead." Gender in Society Vol.9 No.2, April 1995: 175.

7 Ibid. Rundblad, Georganne. Page 181.

8 Connors, Lisa Leigh. "The Christian Science Monitor." Suprisingly, women choose funeral studies. March 23, 2004. http://www.csmonitor.com/2004/0323/p14s01-legn.html (accessed April 9, 2013).

9 Statistics, Occupational Employment. "Bureau of Labor Statistics : Occupation Employment Statistics." Bureau of Labor Statistics. May 2011. http://www.bls.gov/oes/2011/may/oes394831.htm#(1) (accessed April 3, 2013).

10 Robert Mestrandrea, Interview by Emily Harris, Majestic Funeral Services, April 1, 2013.

11 Allison Harris, Interview by Emily Harris, Majestic Funeral Home, April 1, 2013.

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