And What Does Your Father Do for a Living?

Years ago HBO had a hit series Six Feet Under, which ran for five seasons starting in 2001. The show appealed to my morbid sense of humor, and focused on a family living in a funeral home and running the business. In one of the early episodes the teen age daughter gets in trouble for leaving a foot in the high school locker of someone with whom she was having a beef. The guidance counselor asks if the girl knows how bizarre it is to leave a detached human foot in a locker? The girl responds by asking the guidance counselor if she knows how bizarre it is to grow up in a family where there is a disembodied foot to be had? I thought it an hilarious exchange, perfectly capturing the odd marriage of grief and dark humor that accompanies our rituals of death.

The New York Times has a piece by Paul Moon entitled “Life With Dad, The Funeral Director”, which piqued my interest. My father was a supervisor at Dupont; he went out to work, and we never visited him at the plant. I’m not exactly sure what, in any given moment of his work day, he really did.

Paul Moon knew quite well what his father did, because he watched the preparation and display of dead people and occasionally helped out. I was moved to think that what’s normal for a kid is what you see every day, and when your dad preps dead people, that’s normal.

I’ve long felt that our display of the dead, often evoking a, “Doesn’t he/she look wonderful?” is a bit bizarre. Actually, what the person looks is dead. Years ago I went to a viewing for a teaching colleague who’d died in a rather bizarre way, by breaking her neck on a white water raft that of course continued along to the end of the trip, dead body and all, through the natural force of the raging current. Her husband, who’d been with her in the raft, was standing with me by the casket. He asked if I thought the body “looked like Joan.” I was tempted to ask who he thought the body did look like if not Joan, but refrained.

The Panamanians, of course, have a much more immediate experience of their dead, many of whom die at home and are washed and dressed by family in preparation for burial. Seeing how Gloria’s father suffered from his end stage renal disease — what he had endured clearly etched on his face even in death — I’m not sure seeing such an unvarnished portrait of death is ideal either.

I have written instructions for what I think is practical after my death, which I keep in a big book of all my accounts and important papers. I haven’t really talked with my adult kids about what I’ve written because, after all, it’s hard to do. Paul Moon talks about death in the most matter-of-fact way, and that’s probably what I should do too.

2 thoughts on “And What Does Your Father Do for a Living?

  1. My father was also a funeral director. He was good and kind and gentle with families.

    That being said there were some light hearted moments that came out of that. Most recently, when Ray and I decided to sell our former house the agent came through to give suggestions. His first comment was that the embalming fluid box had to go. It is a nice, solid wooden box that just happens to say embalming fluid on it. I have used it for storage many years. It never dawned on me to think of it as offensive.

    Oh yes, I also used to have ice cube trays that said, ” Break the ice with Wilburt Vaults”.

  2. for Joyce: I think growing up with death as a normal part of life is far healthier than my first experience, the sudden death of my infant sister. My Iowa cousins on the farms saw the birth and death of livestock, and the butchering of animals for food, as a part of everyday life too and were far more at ease with death than I. As you can perhaps tell from the tone of the post, I still struggle to find a way in to normal conversation about death — the humor is more defensive than anything else. By the way, I love your artifacts, like the embalming box!

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