The world was made in balance-light and dark, hot and cold, good and evil-but the ultimate parallel remains as big a mystery as the meaning of life. Just as day fades to night, we are born and die, though Americans in particular have trouble accepting the sudden stop at the end. Sacred texts and cultural traditions provide answers for some, but many others are taught not to talk about death, to turn their heads from sadness and loss rather than embrace and celebrate the transition as an essential part of the process. Last goodbyes should be a time of healing, reflection and joy whether we bury our dead in grand mausoleums or scatter their ashes in high mountain lakes. Everyone dies; the real challenge is to go on living.
When Derek Woodbury gets a page on his beeper, he doesn't have to call his girlfriend or go on rounds at the hospital. He is a mortician's apprentice, and the beep means another person has died. People call at all hours of the day or night in every state of mind, and it is Woodbury's job to secure the bodies of their loved ones and transport them to Aclesa Cremation and Burial, Idaho's first crematory, built in 1956. There are others like him, going about their business knowing that at any moment, they might be called to pick up a body.
When Woodbury arrives, he talks with the family and explains a process that is only beginning. There is paperwork, including a death certificate, that must be filled out by the funeral home, signed by the county coroner and an attending physician and submitted within 72 hours to the Office of Vital Statistics, which records all of the births, deaths, marriages and divorces in the state. Protocol depends on the cause of death, the condition of the body, the wishes of the family and the internal laws of the mortuary, and in the midst of all the red tape, people have to decide between burial and cremation, whether to have a viewing, what color the flowers will be at the reception, whether the tone will be joyful or melancholic and how to cope with the fact that all such finery can do nothing to bring a loved one back.
When the body has been safely transported to the funeral home, a mortician prepares it for cremation, public viewing or burial. Viewings are a key element for a lot of people, as they are the last chance to lay eyes on the physical aspect of the deceased, and they usually involve embalming. This is the practice of emptying the veins and body cavity of all fluids and filling the space with a formaldehyde-based chemical diffused through an incision just below the sternocleidomastoid, a large muscle in the neck aligned with the jugular. In addition to setting the features, the embalming fluid changes the chemical structure of the body's proteins, making once pliable tissue more rigid and temporarily preserved.
"It's like a mini surgery, and as the fluid circulates through the body, the discoloration and texture of the skin even out," Woodbury said. "Embalming also prevents the spread of infectious disease, because once the body's natural immune responses shut down, any bug it has is free to roam."
Woodbury is an aspiring medical student who knew almost nothing about the funeral industry before becoming an apprentice to Dave Dembowski, owner and funeral director of Aclesa. After almost a year of apprenticeship, Woodbury has learned a lot about human nature as it relates to the psychology of letting go.
"Dying is a natural end to all of this, but we have become a death-denying society-we don't understand what it means to die," he said, explaining that a lot of the "extractions" he goes on, demonstrate a cultural aversion to the acknowledgement of death. He doesn't understand why hospitals clear the halls when he comes through with a body, why family members seem afraid to touch or even look upon the faces of those who have just passed. But he enjoys the challenge of sorting out the "ethical, philosophical and scientific questions" that come with the job.
"I'm not there to console them or talk about the person's life-I didn't know that person-but I do the best I can, try to provide a service. There's nothing you can say to fix the situation, but you can make the process as easy and smooth as possible."
Twenty years ago, Jan Solders' best friend committed suicide. Everyone was devastated, but when the family asked that Solders use her skills as an aesthetician to prepare the body for a viewing, she was surprised at her own emotional strength and energy.
"I had been to open-casket ceremonies, but I had never dealt with a body one-on-one. It wasn't strange at all. It was something I could do for her, for the family, for myself ... it brought closure," Solders said. She styled her friend's hair, applied makeup and helped pick out one of her favorite dresses, and when the body was revealed, the family was overjoyed to see a face they recognized.
This experience was enough to motivate Solders to augment her "day job" at the salon with occasional work at local funeral homes. She still enjoys the prospect of bringing people comfort and insists that working with the bodies can be very moving.
"There's nothing disgusting about it. You actually gain a lot more respect and understanding for what they go through between death and burial," she said. "Usually it's just quiet, and you wonder what the person was like. Did they hurt a long time? What kind of life did they have? You look at them and their pictures, and you wonder what the other family members are thinking and feeling."
Solders explained that the hardest part of the job is trying to recreate a person's look, usually without ever having seen them alive. Pictures help, but families often choose portraits from another era with youthful features and hairstyles that cannot be reconstructed. So she does the best she can, hoping that when those left behind come to the casket, they see what they want to see.
In the 1900s, home burials were the norm. In fact, people did not yet have the option of calling the undertaker to "undertake" funeral arrangements. Families often had small cemeteries on their own property and the dead were cared for and interred at home.
The Civil War changed everything. As more and more men were killed far from familiar soil, military doctors began embalming bodies so they could withstand the long journey back. The undertaking business evolved from this practice, and many people found it comforting and convenient to give over the stress of dealing with death.
A century later, death has become almost as big an industry as marriage. Funeral homes offer every service and luxury imaginable, but some people balk at what they consider high costs and cookie-cutter services.
"People are proud. They don't want anyone to think they're cheap or poor, so they end up spending $7,000 just to prove they love someone. Others get mad at the funeral home because it costs that much, but they choose everything. The prices are different for different services, and you don't have to spend the money unless you want to," said Dave Dembowski. He explained that people sometimes feel socially obligated to spend a lot of money on the ceremony, but that there are plenty of reasonable options. He also said that the essence of the funeral has little to do with material things.
"There have been all kinds of studies done about grieving customs in the Hispanic and Black communities," he said. "They usually have a funeral and a viewing and a service at home; they grieve and have dinner together; they laugh and cry. They don't necessarily get over it, but they overcome death so much faster then people who never experience the loss. That has nothing to do with my selling anything-it's a reality."
Dembowski speaks to the fact that some people would rather internalize the pain than face it, especially in the days immediately following a death.
"Babies are taught to say 'bye-bye' when someone leaves. When someone dies, it's kind of the same thing. People show up to a funeral to say goodbye one last time; they need that closure, but from the time we're kids, we're taught not to talk about death," he said. Parents often answer their children's queries about a dead grandparent with, 'he went away,' without ever explaining what "away" means. This is in the same vein as what Dembowski calls "funeral language," euphemisms that make death seem more ethereal. "Expired, passed away, gone to the Lord-we deny the word death," Dembowski said. "We're here to help people get over that, but we want them to do whatever they need to, to feel better. There is no law saying they have to go to a funeral home. All we can do is listen, be fair, be honest. Then we give them a bill and they thank us for it-what could be more rewarding?"
Dave Yraguen shares Dembowski's enthusiasm for funerary work, and he has 20 years and three well-known funeral homes to back it up. He is the owner and director of all three Summers Funeral Homes locations, and he operates under the notion that cost shouldn't matter as long as you're happy and have no regrets. Yraguen addressed the growing concern among consumers that funeral homes are becoming too commercialized and costly by pointing out that any business has to pay the bills.
"We have to keep the doors open, and if we take advantage of people, they don't come back. That keeps us in check," he said, adding that funeral homes are regulated by the government and required to have a la carte price lists and contract protection, both of which protect the consumer. "This is a people business, that's all it is," Yraguen said. "People come in with a problem and we get them through it and back to life as quickly as possible."
This notion of a quick, painless funeral process seems backward to Susan Randall. Nine years ago, she attended the service of a dear friend, and it changed her life.
"Some of Robyn's good women friends went to the viewing at the mortuary and circled around her body and told stories and cried and laughed and commented that it just didn't look like her-except for her hands," Randall said. The intensity of the experience prompted one of the women to write a one-act play involving stealing Robyn's body from the mortuary and burning it in the desert. Randall realizes that some might see this as barbaric, but for her, it seemed a metaphorical balm for a metaphysical wound. "It takes a while for a spirit-a soul-to totally leave the body, but the mortuary picks that body up right away," she said, adding that when she leaves this world, she wants her body to rest for at least three days in order to allow her friends and family ample time to say goodbye and get used to the idea. "When people see clearly that what was in the body is no longer there, the grieving comes easier and the healing comes faster," she said.
Randall began researching at the county level and discovered what she calls "a stronghold on the dying industry." The Idaho Board of Morticians is the main liaison between the public and the legislature regarding funerary policy. Randall and advocacy groups like the Funeral Consumer Alliance of Idaho fear that without a non-mortician voice on the board, the real wishes of the people may not be adequately expressed.
Political issues like this and a real passion for care giving led Randall, a former emergency medical technician and home health care aide, to become a full-time "family directed funeral consultant" last August. She emphasized that this title does not bring with it any of the training required to become a certified mortician or funeral director, and her aim is not to step on the toes of those who have earned this distinction.
"I know I won't put funeral homes out of business, and I don't want to talk anybody into anything. I just want folks to have what they want and be educated about it. [Funeral Homes] do the best they can with the light they have to see by, but people may not know what all of their choices are," she said.
Randall's fledgling business, IdaHome Funerals, LLC, is accordingly less about competition than education, and her goal is to help people understand and deal with death in ways that may not lend themselves to conventional methods. Through diligent research, she has learned enough about Idaho law to begin that mission. According to Title 27 Section 201 of Idaho Statutes, three or more residents may organize a "nonprofit rural cemetery association," giving them the right to bury their own on designated land that complies with the appropriate zoning ordinances. As far as safety issues go, the guidelines are relatively broad. Title 54 Section 1104 gives "any duly authorized representative of any church, fraternal order or other association or organization honoring the dead" the power to direct a funeral service. This does not authorize them to perform the functions of a mortician or funeral director, but it does allow them to transport the body, bathe and dress it, arrange for burial or cremation (with permission from the county coroner) and proceed with the ceremony as they see fit. Ashes or "cremains" can be scattered just about anywhere, and the only caveat regarding burial seems to be that a body must be buried at least 150 feet from a water source with three feet of earth on top. This does not include federal property (like mountaintops within national parks) or public land (like the Rose Garden in Julia Davis Park). There are potential problems involved with burying a body on private property that a family may one day sell, but that is not within the domain of the state.
"I haven't been able to find anything that restricts where you can bury a body or scatter ashes. There may be a provision out there somewhere, but it's not within the rules and regulations for morticians," said Bud Hetrick, deputy bureau chief of the Bureau of Occupational Licensing. His office is responsible for bestowing licenses on qualified morticians, as well as monitoring the guidelines of the industry.
"If my family member dies in the hospital, I can go and get the body, put it in the car and drive off. What I did with it would be pretty much up to me," Hetrick said. "There are laws against desecration, but if you're just trying to take care of someone's remains, there is no law against burying bodies outside of a cemetery."
Given that fact, Randall and her partner, Mary Jane Oresik, are offering families the chance to provide something different for their loved ones and learn to deal with the physical complications and emotional strain that can accompany caring for the dead. According to Dembowski, some of these "complications" include purging, foul odors, pooling of the blood, "skin slip," distention of the veins and other tissues, leaking orifices and even maggots, on occasion, but Randall insists that almost everything can be handled by the family-as long as they're prepared. She and Oresik are available to discuss such pre-planning, as well as what to expect after a person dies, and in the 11 months since their Web site first alerted people to the existence of IdaHome Funerals, they have received one nasty e-mail signed A. Mortician and two cautionary phone calls, purportedly from local morticians.
"Both fellows told me to watch my back, and I realized there are people out there who are going to be looking for anything we do wrong," she said. While acknowledging that this probably represents the extreme end of the spectrum, Randall is prepared to stand up for something she wishes she had known about when she buried her own mother. "I don't want to come across as out there, counter-culture, new-age, hippie, whatever, but I grew up in a time when if you didn't like the social order, you worked for change," she said. "I don't like the social order, so I'm working for change. And I'm not in competition at all. It's a totally different service."
There is no right way to say farewell, no strict system of styles, materials and methods when it comes to giving human bodies back to the earth. Funeral homes like Aclesa and Summers offer the qualities of tradition and experience, and they are there when families have a load they can't bear alone. Funeral consultants like Randall and Oresik make it possible for families to adjust to death on their own schedule and create their own meaningful rituals. Both have their strengths, and both agree that a funeral is a momentous event for the living that ultimately comes down to talking about things that are hard to talk about and letting goodbye be its own beginning.
For more information, visit the following Web sites: www.aclesa.com, www.summersfuneral.com, www.idahomefunerals.com, www.state.id.us/ag or read Caring for the Dead: Your Final Act of Love by Lisa Carlson.