It’s just past two in the morning, and someone has died.
My phone chimes and instructions from my dispatcher appear on the screen: a name, an address and a quick description of the situation I’m about to walk into, but I never really know what’s waiting for me until I arrive. I drag myself out of bed. Normally I’d dress in a pristine black suit, but I put on a crisp set of scrubs instead because of the pandemic. Then it’s off to the scene with my work partner.
I work across Alberta and Saskatchewan for a transfer company, a crucial part of the funeral and death-care industry. It’s my job to physically retrieve decedents (people who have died) and bring them to a destination, like a medical examiner or a funeral home. It doesn’t matter if someone died peacefully at home or they stumbled off a cliff — my role is to be available every day of the year, at all hours, with the proper equipment and expertise ready to go.
While the structure of each job is largely the same, it’s the details that make each one memorable. Sometimes, we care for a decedent still warm in their bed, with 30 of their family members huddled closely, watching us work. Sometimes it’s about delicately maneuvering a decedent that’s been trapped inside a crushed vehicle, or searching a room for as much brain matter as we can gather into a bag.
A colleague once had to retrieve a decedent precariously positioned just two wrong steps from a five-story drop. I’ve checked pockets and have found used, sharp needles without caps. We’ve all come into contact with prions, like flesh-eating disease, and 2020 introduced the new threat of COVID-19.
And that’s far from the end of it.
“It’s not only our job to be an emotional anchor, but to walk them through the process.”
It’s a job that requires just as much mental stamina as it does physical. Death-care workers face a high rate of burnout, called compassion fatigue, due to the long hours and grief we carry. Like other emergency responders who encounter difficult or violent situations regularly, we internalize a lot more pain than we might admit. So when I made death-care my long-term career, I knew to seek out a therapist and put more intention into hobbies, like caring for plants.
By 2015, in the U.S. alone, over 65 per cent of applicants into mortuary school were women, but leadership roles are still predominantly held by men. Many women or non-binary professionals I have spoken to have had to carve out their own communities of support together, because this dynamic can still lead to inadequate empathy in the workplace, and even unequal compensation, a discrepancy I’ve experienced in the past.
Death-care workers’ families are impacted by the unpredictable nature of the business, which is particularly stressful on working moms. On Christmas Day, my boss Sheri’s children had to wait until she returned from a dispatch before they could open gifts. While it’s never easy for kids wondering where Mom’s driving off to in the middle of the night, they do take away some positive lessons. Sheri and I both see how our children adapt and understand — they tell their friends that we are helping another family when we can’t make it to every game, dinner or school event. They know that we have a responsibility to take care of those who need it most, and being in funeral service is entirely about exactly that: service.
Sometimes, death falls on our own doorstep. My own stepdaughter died by suicide two years ago, and having colleagues who understood my grief is probably the only thing that got me through it. I know she was lovingly cared by the people who transferred, casketed and carried her to her final disposition. Because I remember the families I care for, I know that she will be remembered, too.
I believe there is comfort in knowledge. My partner and I are the first people families see when a loss has occurred, and we set the tone for how the rest of their journey saying good-bye will go. It’s not only our job to be an emotional anchor, but to walk them through the process (how we’ll use equipment, where their loved one is being taken, who they need to call next).
This is even more necessary today — the global pandemic has turned everything on its head. People are losing loved ones at a rapid rate, and death has positioned itself at the forefront of our fears and anxieties. Those who are dying from the virus are doing so alone; funerals are limited and gatherings almost non-existent. Death is becoming a foreign, looming figure that disconnects us from our families and friends, when one of the good things about it is its ability to bring us together again.
You may be surprised to read that, but I’ve seen so many beautiful connections arise from death, like my own uncle’s funeral bringing me together with family I hadn’t seen in nearly 15 years. Before the pandemic, these moments looked like hugging grieving families, or inviting 40 family members to say good-bye to a loved one when it’s time, or seeing people dance and laugh together to their mom’s favourite band, who had graciously played live at her service for free.
Once, I did a transfer for a family whose loss closely mirrored my own loss of my stepdaughter the year before. We found ourselves in a tight embrace, all of us crying together. Connecting with people who understood the complexity of losing a stepchild felt healing in a way I never thought possible.
Being able to care for your family has changed me as a person. I have laughed and cried with you in your home, and listened to stories from all walks of life. A colleague loves to play a decedent’s favourite music on the drive to the funeral home. Sheri once re-homed a cat at the request of a surviving family member. Death-care workers find ways to honour your family and give them our love and care, however small it may seem. Service manifests in ways that surprise even us, and we embrace it.
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