Only a Mortician Thinks About…

I imagine every career set has little details that only professionals in that field ever really consider. I bet cosmetic surgeons look at everyone and consider how they might “fix” them, or how to replicate them. Stoneworkers and masons look at every stone job they see with a critical eye. Was that job done right? Maybe a certain stone should have gone somewhere else.

I’m still green in the mortuary business. I’ve been at it nearly a year now. But sometimes my own thoughts as a newbie make me laugh, and make me wonder. Well here are some of the lovely little thoughts that go through a funeral director’s mind throughout a given day:

“I wish I was doing that celebrity funeral.” When Nancy Reagan passed recently I was fascinated by her funeral. A friend asked me if I was experienced enough to handle such a big event as that. Honestly I don’t know, but I sure would like to try, or I would have liked to help. Then sometimes I think of other funerals in the past, before I was an FD, and consider what those FD’s did to put them together. Imagine what I would do with a Michael Jackson funeral! I would really like to do Alice Cooper when the time comes. Should Vince ever read this (Alice’s real name) I hope he gives me a preneed, because I’ve been a lifelong fan.

“I wish I was licensed in a different state, to help a special someone.” This one hit me hard with the death of my father. He lived in New York. I am licensed in California. There was nothing I could do to help other than offer to help with the paperwork etc.. When a family member dies I feel helpless, we probably all do. But to have the skill set to assist my mom with dad’s arrangements, and not be able to execute any of them, with the care and perfection that I hope the NY mortuary Wattengel Funeral Home, used… well that’s a whole different level of helplessness.

“That person is going to be hard to handle.”  It’s not a weight thing, though weight plays into it for sure! Some folks are just built differently or have handicaps that make it difficult to provide aftercare. At the Las Vegas airport last year I sat confounded, watching a double amputee male who was quite robust. When the time comes (and it will for all of us) the funeral home he chooses will have some real difficulties picking him up, transporting him, he may even need a custom casket. My mind wanders to questions like “Should our funeral home charge more for truly difficult removals? Would that be ethical? Do they even make caskets that would fit him?” Well, with the caskets anyhow, the answer is yes. Custom caskets are very much available in all sorts of sizes and weights.

“How does she do her makeup/hair like that?”  Care and preparation of a body for a funeral service is one of my favorite parts of my job. It’s hard to describe, but if you’ve ever helped a bride or groom get ready for their big special day, it’s a lot like that. All eyes will be on the person you’re preparing. Everything needs to be just right. This may be how many family members remember your case. It will certainly be how everyone judges your service as a funeral director… Sometimes it’s HARD AS HECK to get a lady’s hair just right.

There are other details too. Some less printable. We think about smells a lot. Pacemakers. Bionic knees and ankles. Organ donation.

But that’s the gist of it.



Cremation vs. Burial… What’s Right For You?

One of the biggest decisions of your final arrangements is the question of cremation vs. burial. It’s an important choice because it affects every aspect of your arrangements. It’s also an entirely personal choice and in California you have the right to make your own arrangements, to be sure they come out exactly as you wish.

Some primary concerns when making the choice of cremation vs. burial are cost, religious rules, and family traditions. I also hear folks discussing environmental concerns.

Lets start with cremations. Cremation costs less than a funeral right now. Prices vary all over the country but I see basic cremations ranging anywhere from $900 to $1,200 in California. I suspect this will change because there is a growing trend towards cremation. According to the Roseville and Granite Bay Press Tribune the cremation rate for the United States is currently 43.5%. It’s been forecasted that the U.S. will reach a 50% cremation rate by 2018. Here in California the cremation rate is all ready at 50%. Forward thinking funeral directors will increase their cremation pricing in the future to compensate for this, to make up for earnings they would have gotten from burials. Prices always seem to increase for everything, that’s as inevitable as death and taxes.

Your religion or spirituality may have enormous impact on your choice to cremate or bury. Some religions simply forbid cremation like Islam, Eastern Orthodox Christianity and certain fundamental Christian groups. The Roman Catholic Church only recently allowed cremations. If you’re very religious chances are you know your religious position on final disposition. If you’re not religious but your family is, you may want to discuss their feelings before starting your pre-need arrangement. But remember, ultimately the decision is yours.

Family traditions have less impact on your choice to cremate or bury than they once did. Years ago families were buried in family plots. Family cemeteries were kept for generations. Our culture doesn’t promote this anymore. (I believe this is because we are more mobile and also because infant mortality is much lower in the U.S. than it was back in those days.) If your family does have a family plot, you should go check that out before making your decision. But really, even if your family maintains it’s own cemetery you could certainly place your inurned remains there.

Most folks have a misunderstanding about cremation and the environment. People don’t realize that the cremation chamber (retort) will have to be kept around 1800 degrees F, for a couple hours using natural gas. Then there is smoke and ash put into the air. Last is the final disposition of the cremated remains which can end up in water sources or the ocean. (It is absolutely illegal to dispose of remains in a stream, lake etc. in California! Don’t do it!)

Finally, cremations are irreversible. Remains are completely destroyed. Should there be a question in the future about your cause of death or a future way to do important DNA research, say to cure disease in your grandchild for example, that your remains would be needed for… oh well. They’re just ashes now.

On now to burials. They can cost a great deal more. I see burials ranging from $2000 to $12,000 online, and that’s before paying cemetery costs to purchase, open and close a grave, or memorial stone purchase and placement. The difference, though, is that with a burial in a cemetery there is a guaranteed location for your remains. Forever. Friends can come reflect and future generations can come visit or do genealogy research. It also means that your remains are not destroyed, should the need for future research arise.

Some folks find peace of mind knowing their exact resting place for eternity, as opposed to being ashes tossed into the wind. Or maintained well for a few years and then who-knows-what could happen to them.

Aside from Hindu funerals, burials are generally accepted by most of the major religions in the States. If your religious, cultural or family traditions require burial it does become a preferable choice.

Environmentally, I don’t believe burials have an entirely negative effect. Decomposition is a natural, necessary process that occurs to all organic matter sooner or later. If you are deeply concerned about environmental issues you should check out green burials, a new idea in California. Green cemeteries accept un-embalmed remains in caskets that are easily reclaimed by the earth.

In the end, the question of burial vs. cremation is one only you can answer for yourself. I hope this post gives readers a starting point for thought or discussion with their families.

Funeral Etiquette: Is it okay to share funeral pictures on Facebook?

This funeral is making waves on social media:

Mom Shares Photo of Her Husband’s Open Casket to Show the Realities of Drug Abuse

Funeral etiquette varies from place to place, from culture to culture, and it even varies within the sects of individual religions. Funeral etiquette can change rapidly too. Just within the last century professional embalming has changed the entire funeral process. In our media focused culture, it isn’t surprising that someone would post funeral pictures on social media. What is shocking about this photo is the smiling faces on herself and the children. That’s what offends people.

According to the article Eva Holland in Ohio says she is trying to make a statement about the realities of drug addiction. She shared a photo of herself and her children beside her husband’s open casket, smiling. Since she posted the pic it has been shared more than 250,000 times as of 9/16/2015. Some viewers have commented that she is brave for posting it. Others are upset at the idea.

I do think this is an awkward memory to make and share, your smiling face at a family member’s casket. It does lead to the idea that you’re happy he’s passed away. I’m sure someone out there is going to make a snarky comment about insurance money. And I’m not entirely sure the grinning faces do anything for her message that addiction leads to tragedy. There’s nothing tragic looking about the pic. They look pretty happy.

While this instance is a little off-putting I don’t think there’s anything wrong with funeral photos on social media. Assuming the pics are tasteful and respectful. But that leads to the question, would you want a picture of your deceased self floating around social media? Personally, if the embalmer did a good job and I look gorgeous, I don’t think I’d mind. But please no smiling.

Why You Should Plan Your Own Funeral

People put off funeral planning. I don’t know why. I suppose it’s because we fear death and we fear the unknown. We are reluctant to face our own mortality. If you ask people about their final wishes, the number one response is an uneasy “I don’t want to think about it.”

But no matter your age or health or financial situation, you should make some plans. None of us are immortal. You will save your family a lot of stress, paperwork and money, during a really difficult time.  Unexpected deaths cause the most upheaval in a family, not just because the family is full of surprised grief and shock, but also because the family must attempt to put together an appropriate funeral. A funeral that would be “how he/she would’ve wanted it”.

I’ve read a lot of other web sites that go on about how difficult funeral planning is. One person compared it to planning a big wedding. Frankly, it’s not that difficult. Sure, you’ll have to make some challenging choices… cremation vs. burial, scattering remains vs. placement, which cemetery, which casket etc. These can all be tough choices. But would you rather lay out your ideas in black and white, or force your family to make these decisions in your stead?

Just choose a funeral establishment you trust. Perhaps it’s a place you’ve been before to attend a service. Check out their licensing before you make an appointment. Here in California the Cemetery and Funeral Bureau offers an online tool to check the license status of Funeral Directors and Funeral Homes.  You can search by business name and individual director name. Make sure their license is clear and their history is free of any criminal charges. Then make an appointment. It’s really that easy. You don’t have to pre-pay or even sign a contract at all. It’s entirely up to you.

And that’s the therapeutic part of funeral planning. It really is ENTIRELY UP TO YOU. Few things in our lives can be so thoroughly controlled. Take joy in the options available, and select the things that represent YOU best. If you go about planning your funeral with the right mindset, you’ll find it to be stress relieving, not stress inducing. Best of all, once it’s done you no longer have that uneasy feeling of “I don’t want to think about it”.

How To Become A California Funeral Director

Have you decided that the death care industry is for you? Congratulations! A career in the mortuary field is fulfilling and can be lucrative. But it’s not for the faint of heart.

Just becoming a licensed mortician/funeral director in California is going to take some serious effort as a student, a minimum $400 – $500 investment, and several months of “hurry up and wait”. Also, you’ll need to have a pretty clean criminal record (no crimes like Fraud, Embezzlement, etc) and 60 credits from an accredited college or university. If you’re genuinely ready to take the plunge… here’s how to do it:

  1. Get your paperwork in order. Here in California you’ll be dealing with the California Funeral Bureau aka CFB at   You need a couple forms from here, the application to take the funeral director exam and the LiveScan application. You can also get yourself a copy of the examination outline (it’s vague but helpful). You should probably start studying now too, I studied HARD for 4+ months and passed the exam first attempt.
  2. Contact your college/university and get your transcripts sent to the CFB. You CANNOT send your own copy, transcripts must go from the institution directly to the CFB.  I imagine every school is different, but it cost me about $15 to get my transcripts sent from UoP.
  3. Get your LiveScan done. You MUST take the CFB LiveScan form with you. Here is a list of California LiveScan locations. It cost me about $80, I had to drive the hour away to the Kern County Sheriff’s office in Bakersfield, CA. You’ll need valid ID. They’ll fingerprint you and start your official FBI background check, and send your CFB form off with your fingerprints. The CFB says it takes anywhere from 1 to 6 months for your FBI check to come back. Mine took about 3 months!
  4. Once your FBI background check comes back clean, send your application to take the exam to the CFB. The exam costs $100. You can also send your licensing fees and license application of $200 to the CFB, or wait until you pass the exam. Obviously you want to send a check or money order, not cash.
  5. Take the exam. You’ll have to go to a testing center managed by PSI, mine required another drive to sunny Bakersfield, CA. The exam is multiple choice, and done on a computer. Pretty straightforward. Each exam is different, and the passing score varies based on the difficulty of the exam. You’ll know within a few minutes of taking the exam if you pass or not. The staff at the exam center will print you a copy of your results.
  6. Send off your licensing fees if you haven’t, and wait for your license to arrive. It takes another month after passing the exam.

When I started the licensing process I really didn’t know the amount of time and cash that would be involved, but I’m thrilled that I did it. There weren’t really any resources to walk me through the process other than the CFB web site. I hope this post helps someone on their way to becoming a licensed California funeral director!


Inspiration & Tone

The inspiration for a funeral business blog came to me about six months ago when I was studying for the California funeral director exam. I was researching cremation technology and stumbled onto some really excellent blogs and articles. I decided a blog would be a super addition to my own professional development in the death care industry. More importantly I hope to address some of the common questions I get as a budding funeral director in Lake Isabella, CA. This way everyone can get answers to questions about the funeral business and funeral situations.

Most folks have some of the same general questions regarding final wishes, whether discussing their own or the final wishes of a loved one. People have questions about costs, payment methods, insurance situations and paperwork to name a few. Others want to know about unique memorial service ideas, and a rare few (myself included) are very interested in the details of  death care. “Like, what exactly is in embalming fluid anyways?” I plan on addressing these sorts of topics and many others with this publication.

I pondered this blog for a long time before launching it. I searched and researched, I read and re-read content of all kinds; especially funeral industry blogs written by other directors (like Confessions of a Funeral Director by Caleb Wilde  and Little Miss Funeral) and other funeral home staff. I’m hoping to address some common issues faced by grieving families and to present some fascinating historical funeral topics. Readers are welcome to leave comments and questions. Due to the nature of my business comments must be respectful towards individuals and towards death itself. Name calling, spamming, disrespect for deceased individuals just won’t be tolerated.

Oh, and one last thing. The nature of this blog is largely entertaining and just a bit educational. You should note that mortuary science is indeed a science, like any other. Over time research changes, technology adapts and scientific information I post today might not be valid in 5 years. The same goes for legal information, like contract law, which is a daily topic in the mortuary field. Laws change all the time. So if you’re using this blog and find a law cited or a study cited, please do your own “due diligence” regarding research. I make no claims that information I publish will be forever “legal” or ” scientifically accurate”, this blog is strictly for entertainment. Did I just sneak a disclaimer in here? Nice!