What It’s Really Like to Be a Funeral Director

In our 9-5 series, we ask interesting women with interesting jobs what a day in their work lives entails. This week, funeral director Ria Carter gives us a glimpse into her gig

Funeral Director

Funeral director Ria Carter

Age: 25

Education: Bachelor of science in neuroscience, college diploma in funeral services education

Length of time at current gig: Four months; recently wrapped up a year-long internship.

How many bodies would you say you have embalmed so far? More than 150.

Why did you choose this line of work? I like listening to people, counseling them and helping them in their vulnerable states of grief. I’ve also been fascinated with mortality for a really long time. I was scared of death, and I thought if I could work with it, then maybe I could have a healthier acceptance of it (and it’s totally worked—I’m so OK with it now). Death is a natural, normal part of life, and yet people don’t talk about it. It’s very taboo, and that doesn’t make any sense to me. I’d like to normalize the conversation and make it acceptable for people to talk about without being judged.

What does a typical day look like for you? I’ll come in and see if any paperwork needs to be done for funerals that are in the process of being put together. I’ll call clergy to see if they are available for a service, I’ll call a coroner to get them to sign a cremation application, I’ll call hospitals to see if bodies have been released. If there’s someone to embalm, I might do the transfer from a hospital, nursing home or house. Then I’ll bring the body to the funeral home and I’ll prepare them, casket them.

What was it like the first time you embalmed someone? It was weird. I remember touching their hands and being a little freaked out because they were cold. I didn’t expect them to be cold, but of course that makes sense. But I was also surprised by how fast I was desensitized to the whole process. It got normal very quickly—even by the time I was finished that first embalming. I was like, This person is dead, and I can handle that. On to the next one.

What’s it actually like to work with a dead body? It depends on the state that they died in. Some of the bodies are pretty gross. They can be smelly. If the person died in a humid environment, then decomposition may have accelerated. The skin might be falling off and it’ll be squishy and black. Not fun.

Do you think about the person the body used to be while embalming? When I first started, I thought about it a lot. And I still think it’s relatively healthy and the right thing to do. But I also have to create a boundary in order to be efficient and professional. I can’t bring my work home with me. It’s important to draw that line.

What about when the body is a child or baby? I’ve done that, and it’s tough. I haven’t gotten used to that yet and I’m lucky I haven’t had to do it many times.

What’s it like dealing with grieving people all day long? Isn’t it exhausting? It’s actually really gratifying because people are so thankful that you’re there for them. When people are grieving, they don’t want to have to think organizing all the details. The fact that I can be there to help them out with logistics and administrative stuff—they’re so grateful for that.

Has anything really surprised you about this job? There’s a lot of official documentation, dealing with the government, red tape. I didn’t think the administrative side would be such a significant part of the job, but it is.

Is there sexism in your industry? Not really. It isn’t male-dominated anymore. My college class was 85 percent female.

Let’s talk about funeral directors in pop culture. Were you a fan of Shawntel Newton, the funeral director on The Bachelor? How about the show Six Feet Under? I didn’t know there was a funeral director on The Bachelor! I wonder what she was like. I love Six Feet Under. I’ve seen the series twice through now. It’s a fantastic show. They included all sorts of little details about the industry that only insiders would know—although one time they did have a stretcher backwards.

If someone wanted to do your job, what qualities would they need? You have to be compassionate. You have to be patient, because grieving people don’t think logically: their emotions are all over the place, they may change their minds, and they may get angry at you for no rational reason. You have to be very detail-oriented, because we’re basically event planners. You also have to have an artistic side. Once you learn the technical skills you need to embalm, you can use your creativity to see what you can do. I’ve used materials that you would not expect to help with the preparation and the set up of the body in the casket—like Styrofoam and newspaper to make a suit fit better on the body.

What’s the mood in the room when you are preparing a body? Is it very serious and sombre? If it’s a child or a baby, then yes, absolutely. But generally, no. We’re making jokes, we have the radio on and we’re just chatting. It’s really almost like working in an office—except we’re embalming.

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