by McKenna Dunbar '19
Being a mortician’s assistant for the past year and a half and a certified hospice nursing assistant since the beginning of June has changed the way I have lived my life and how I have interacted with those around me. Although I have been able to encounter such eye-opening experiences, dealing frequently with tragedy and death has been quite difficult to deal with, especially since I entered this industry as a sixteen-year-old. Counseling grieving families and helping people make the transition from life to death is my profession, but it is more than that. It is a part of my lifelong love to provide support to people in need, and I am certain that is never going to change. That being said, one question I asked myself while working in the hospice division of Providence Hospital earlier this year caused me to recalibrate my whole relationship with this work. When it comes to being a seventeen-year-old hospice and funeral worker, the thing that I have struggled to grasp with the most is why I do what I do. Up until that point, I had never asked myself why I wanted to go into this field of care specifically, even though there were hundreds of jobs I could have gone into instead. I always wondered if it was logical that anybody should be expected to be questioning of the work that they feel that they were put on this Earth to do? What is it specifically about death that seems to make us anxious and introspective about ourselves and others in a way that other careers do not?
More specifically with the duties of being a mortician’s assistant, my role in the funeral home always varies. Surprisingly, many of the people who come to the funeral home do not die during the winter months, but rather in the summer season, so over summer break, I remain quite busy. A typical day in the summer months would include me coming to work at 7:30 a.m to do some secretarial work such as check emails, scan pictures, write obituaries, and place orders for memorial bulletins and flowers. After an hour or so, I get up from my desk and have my morning coffee while editing death certificates and putting new death calls into our online registry. Following that, I check in with the main mortician and ask if I could be of any assistance. They would usually ask me to check on the deceased to make sure they were in the same state as the previous afternoon. Once I am done in the preparatory room, I go back to the office to finish my secretarial duties. This is around 10 a.m. Because we have such diverse clientele, many times I am on the phone with airlines and embassies to confirm flying a family’s loved one overseas with the proper documentation or to check the country’s legislation concerning embalmed versus natural body shipment. Usually, at this time, death calls start to come in from hospitals, hospices, morgues, or nursing homes. I answer the calls, record the information, and start preparing equipment to pick up the deceased. OSHA, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under the National Funeral Directors Association, has many firm protocols and laws concerning personal safety and hazardous materials that all funeral home workers have to abide by, which includes wearing personal protective equipment at any point you are in contact with the deceased and keeping a strict cleaning regimen of all workplaces in the mortuary. After going to the morgue to pick the deceased up in our informal work hearse, I get back to work, either placing the deceased in the freezer, doing a bereavement counseling session with a client or talking to families in person about planning a funeral. At around 2 p.m. I have a short break where I usually talk to my coworkers about their families over a cup of coffee and some pastries. Right after that, I can be either be found setting up funeral equipment and moving caskets to their proper room assignment for the following day’s service or chatting with a priest concerning the deceased’s life story so they can incorporate that in the funeral service. As 4 p.m. rolls around, I make final preparations with the deceased such as doing makeup, fixing their hair, putting on their clothes, painting their nails, and in some cases, doing partial facial and body reconstructions with the help of my boss.
One of the biggest misconceptions of being an undertaker is that we are morbidly fascinated with death. The reason why many people choose to be morticians or mortician’s assistants is to serve others. Most take great lengths to make families have the best funeral service experience possible. My boss taught me that funeral services are not for the dead, but for the living. Helping them through their journey of grief and providing them with resources is where our value as undertakers lie. I am a firm believer in the importance of the services, especially as a means to honor each life and to ultimately bring the deceased to rest. Even though I have spent my formative years as a young teenager in the death industry, I have seen unspeakable tragedies that even I cannot think about to this day without being emotionally triggered. These tragedies and my involvement in overseeing them have allowed me to be a stronger, more empathetic individual because nothing helps you understand the fleeting beauty of life more than death. The connections, the love, and the memories that we all share as unique human beings are the greatest gifts of life, and death teaches us to grab hold of them because they won’t last forever. While my job as a hospice worker is to help people die with dignity, I have personally learned how to find meaning in the suffering of both my life and have chosen to embrace the unknown and unexpected nature of the world.
Before being involved with the dead and dying, I was scared of living life on my own terms. While I realize that there is no single, correct approach to understanding your own mortality, my experiences of being a caregiver both inside and outside the funeral home now allow me to seize moments as they come and to live a purposeful life.