Time, Time, Time

I can’t believe it’s been six months since I decided to stop and enjoy the view.  While I have indeed been doing just that, I’ve also come to a realization – the cost of passage on the mortuary road is just too dear for me at the moment.  You see, I can’t become a licensed funeral director unless and until I have completed a one year internship under a licensed funeral director.  I’m not going to lie, I like my current paycheck too much to take that leap of faith right now.  Word on the street is that interns are paid about $15 an hour and I’m not ready go back to those wages; not when I have a good job that allows me time to feed my soul in other ways.  Living with a chronic illness like Type 1 Diabetes also pushes me toward a more conservative mindset when it comes to my livelihood.

So I believe 2014 will be about focusing on soul food in forms other than funeral service education.  When I first started writing music almost eight years ago, it came directly from my contemplation of spirit, love and loss.  Eventually I gravitated toward musical messages more easily shared in the venues to which I have the most immediate access, namely theater cabarets.  Now, as I put aside the funeral studies (at least temporarily), it’s time to allow the spiritual music to flow once again.  I trust that it’s there inside me, patiently waiting for me to listen.

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Enjoying the View

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There I was, cruising down the Mortuary Road, thinking I had things all figured out.  It’s about trust, I told myself.  You don’t have to know where you’re heading, just trust that you’re on the right road.  That trust saw me enrolling in Intro to Human Biology a year ago.  It carried me through Intro to Chemistry the next quarter and I really got the trust ball rolling when I started taking Funeral Service Education classes winter quarter 2012.  Reading and discussing the history of funerals was feeding my soul.  Learning more about the details of helping families plan funerals felt like I was really getting to the heart of this funeral director thing and trust came easily.  I can’t begin to express how incredible it was to actually plan and hold a mock funeral.  I felt like I was exactly where I should be, doing exactly what I should be doing.

But even with all that trust, I kept reminding everyone who asked me how school was going that I’d given myself permission to revisit my decision every quarter and that I did, in fact, revisit it almost every few weeks.  So it wasn’t a complete surprise to me when I had a little self check-in and found the trust well was running dry.  I suppose I should mention this coincided with the taking of my first baby steps on the part of the journey that least interests me – embalming.  I’ve been telling myself for a year that I really needed to take the embalming classes because only through actually learning the process could I decide if my perceived distaste for the entire idea of preservation of the dead was something I could and should move beyond.  I have discovered my trust cannot get me through this – at least not right now.

The embalming classes I was to take over the summer involved in-class work, as well as online discussion.  The first questions we were to discuss online related to why we embalm.  Without getting into any of the details, I will share that what I found most troubling was the propagandizing the question seemed to engender.  Many students (i.e., everyone except me) seemed to easily adopt the attitude that embalming is necessary to allow people to grieve in the manner that the funeral profession has concluded is best for them.  I’m not sure I can accept that notion.  I do agree that viewing the body can help those close to the deceased accept the death as a reality and move forward in the grieving process.  However, I’m not sure I agree that embalming is necessary for that to occur.  In short, there is a lot for me to explore regarding this issue and I have to admit I just wasn’t ready to do that during the short summer Seattle offers us.

So, I’ve pulled into a rest area for a bit and I’m enjoying the view, as well as the 80 degree weather.  This is by no means the end of my journey on the Mortuary Road, nor is it necessarily even a detour.  It’s simply a respite, allowing me to breathe and replenish the well.

Buried Alive or Buried Without Truly Having Lived?

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When the discussion turns toward the history of death care in America, it’s not uncommon for someone to mention the fact that people in earlier centuries often feared being buried alive. The efforts to avoid such torture are fairly well documented. An interesting article on some of the various premature burial prevention inventions can be found here:

http://www.obit-mag.com/articles/escape-coffins-the-fear-of-being-buried-alive

It’s not my intention today to retread this ground. Rather, I’ve been pondering a modern day corollary to the “buried alive” phobia. Given the state of medical knowledge in the 19th century, it’s not surprising that a person might fear he would be mistaken for dead when, in fact, his body had not yet given up the ghost. While medical advancements may have alleviated these fears, I think many of us now suffer from a similar, albeit more symbolic, phobia – the fear of being buried before having truly lived. Or to put it another way, dying with our potential intact. At least this is a personal concern for me.

In my twenties, I would often say I was going through a premature mid-life crisis. Ah, the naivety of youth. I had no idea what was truly awaiting me a couple decades down the road. The mid-life crisis is born from the realization that one has reached a point in life where it is likely more days lie behind than ahead. At 25, it was easy for me to imagine working as a lawyer for a few years until finding the perfect non-law career in which I would happily toil for 30 or 40 years before retiring. I had all the time in the world. Well, “a few years” has turned into 23 and I’m only marginally closer to finding that “perfect non-law career.”

In the decades between law school graduation and today, I have had a few false starts – adventures for which I seemed perfectly suited, but for which I ultimately lacked the necessary follow-through. As each hopeful future withered into an “at least I [sort of] tried” past, I would be aware that my potential was still with me – fully intact. Is this how it will always be? How do we know if we have lived up to our potential? I’m tempted to say my true potential is in being a life-long learner, always committed to engaging in the search, but I know that’s not true. In my heart, I know the true barometer of my potential is the degree to which I feel I’m holding myself back due to the fear of failure or perhaps the fear of success. The 25-year-old me would have said she was willing to put everything on the line in order to fully live her life. There were even times when she tried that, but fear always got the best of her. I’d like to say I’m ready to commit right now to refusing to let fear rule the day, but I’ve gotten to know myself a little better. I know this isn’t about all or nothing. It’s about deciding, as each challenge arises, whether I will live in fear or whether I will make a different choice. Perhaps, if I’m able to do that, when my final day comes I will go into that good night secure in the knowledge that my potential will not be accompanying me.

SIDE NOTE: The picture is of the Angel of Grief, designed by William Wetmore Story for his wife’s grave. I thought it was beautiful and couldn’t resist including it when I learned Mr. Story abandoned his career in the law to become a sculptor. More here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Wetmore_Story

Contemplating the Tombstone

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Old cemeteries filled with upright headstones have always called to me and I don’t think I’m unique in this regard.  However, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone say they love the football field effect of a cemetery filled with flat grave markers.  Apparently, it was Dr. Hubert Eaton who pioneered the move away from the traditional headstone.  It was always my understanding that the move was made in an effort to make cemetery maintenance easier.  In the battle of weed-whacking around hundreds of individual markers versus trimming the entire cemetery from the comfort of a riding mower, comfort wins every time.  However, I recently learned that, once again, the best of intentions were derailed through misunderstanding.

Dr. Eaton was not on a quest for a space that could be maintained with ease.  Rather, he had a vision to make cemeteries something more than what they had traditionally been.  Dr. Eaton’s claim to fame is Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California – the final resting place for many stars of the silver screen.  Although the cemetery includes sections with traditional, upright headstones, the majority of grave markers are flat bronze plates.  Of this choice, John F. Llewellyn states in A Cemetery Should Be Forever:

Eaton had some radical thoughts.  He envisioned a park-like appearance of sweeping vistas dotted with trees, flowers and landscaping.  Although many have focused on what Eaton described as the physical characteristics of a memorial-part, the important part of Eaton’s vision was the philosophy of a memorial-park.

Eaton outlined his vision in a 1936 speech to the American Cemetery Owners Association which was titled “Who Wants to be Forgotten?”  The central thought was spiritual rather than physical.  Eaton believed that cemeteries should be inspirational and play an important role in the active day-to-day life of their communities.  . . .

Other cemetery owners readily embraced Dr. Eaton’s idea of flat grave markers, focusing primarily on the ease of maintenance issue, while completely ignoring what actually drove Dr. Eaton’s choice.  It seems to me Dr. Eaton had a vision of a memorial park that fully encompassed the deceased as a continuing, vital part of the lives of those who visited the space.  Whereas an upright headstone draws attention to each individual grave, an open space with flat markers can create a sense of community, bringing everyone together.  Unfortunately, I don’t think this vision has remotely been embraced, perhaps due to the fact that people generally don’t feel comfortable walking on graves and very few, if any, cemeteries have created walking paths that make the space feel unified in any manner. 

I’m not sure I’m completely sold on Dr. Eaton’s idea, but it will definitely give me something to think about the next time I stroll through a cemetery, preferably the one in Belize shown in the picture above.

Save Some Time to Dream

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In our Funeral Directing course, we’re currently learning some of the true nuts and bolts of the death business.  A current assignment involves preparing examples of the price lists the Federal Trade Commission requires all funeral providers to provide to consumers.  It’s a very interesting exercise and I feel it sparking the entrepreneurial spirit lurking in the dark recesses of my being.  Lately, I’ve caught myself fantasizing about what it would be like to run the “Stanton Funeral Home.”  These fantasies are rooted in some very real world memories.

When I was about eight years old, my mom opened her own business.  Along with their husbands, my dad’s two sisters each owned a clothing store.  I don’t know all the details of how my parents’ decision to open a business came about, but it ultimately seemed a logical choice for my mom to open a women’s clothing store since she could learn the biz from my dad’s family, even if it was a long distance education.  I think my mom really loved those years she was the boss.  She went on regular buying trips, made most of the decisions about how “the store,” as we always called it, would be run and for a time, she worked six days a week.  She eventually made Friday her day off, which meant cleaning day at home, but that’s another story involving less idyllic memories, so let’s return to the store.  On most weekdays, after my dad finished his work day, he’d walk across the parking lot from his office to the store and “do the books.”  I didn’t know what that meant at the time, other than the fact that it involved my dad sitting at a desk in the back office going through piles of paperwork, an activity he also engaged in for at least part of most Saturdays.  My sisters and I also spent many of our free hours at the store, helping out in various ways.  My favorite task was being sent to the Ben Franklin store to get a bag of movie popcorn to bring back so everyone could nibble on it in the back room.

These are the memories that spring to mind when I think about what it would be like to open the Stanton Funeral Home.  Nothing very specific as far as actually running the place, but more a feeling of togetherness and creating something meaningful with people I love.  I suppose if I had been privy to all the challenges I’m sure my parents faced in the actual running of the store, my fertile entrepreneurial imagination might run fallow.  But my sisters and I were lucky in that our parent never really let us see the worry.  We grew up secure in the knowledge that we would have food on the table, a roof over our heads, an education in our future, and plenty of space for dreaming.  I’m still lucky enough to have all those things, including a dream that involves preparing a casket price list.

1, 2, 3….Lift

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Meet Mr. Multi-Level One Man Cot, the guest of honor in class today.  We learned all about this very useful tool and got some hands-on experience.  Most important lesson — the right tool makes things easier, but heavy lifting is still heavy lifting. And pleast note the “One Man” descriptor refers to the fact that one living person can use it. As a general matter, there is usually only one deceased person per cot regardless of how many living people it takes to use it.

The Great Pretender

One of my courses this term is Funeral Directing and we’ve been informed it will involve “a lot of role playing.” Historically, I’ve not been a fan of role play outside of the theater or film context. I mean, I love doing the acting thing, but I don’t like pretending to be the thing I’m training to actually be. Nonetheless, I am determined to set aside those past feelings and approach the prospect of “Let’s Pretend” with an open heart and mind. I’ll report back on whether they stay that way.

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