Below is an essay written by Henry Johnston on why he became a funeral director. Originally published in "Mortuary Management" in September 2014, this version has been slightly revised for publication here. It is being shared on our website for the month of October in honor of Henry’s great-grandmother as part of our Breast Cancer Awareness initiative at Johnston & Williams.
That’s what I think of most when I remember my first experience viewing a dead body.
Let me set the scene. January 1997, I’m 11 years old, growing up in St. Maries, Idaho, a small logging community in northern Idaho with a population just above 4,000 when you consider the rural areas around it. I was raised in a very traditional family with the usual accoutrements grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins in addition to our own nuclear family unit.
With the exception of my great-grandfather on my dad’s side, this was first death of someone close I’d experienced. As a family, we were also pretty traditional when it came to caring for our dead.
Now it’s important to understand that Grandma Mueller was a very proper lady. She always had her hair done, was very rarely seen without a dress on, though she would wear the occasional slacks and blouse, and there were just some things that weren’t to be spoken of with anyone, including my great-grandfather or her children.
And a lump on the breast was certainly one of those things.
In fact, I don’t think she would ever be caught saying the word “breast” to even her doctor. It just wasn’t proper conversation. In any event, the lump grew and grew and finally turned into something worse. By the time it was discovered and she underwent a double mastectomy, it had metastasized and there was really nothing we could do.
We visited her and great-grandpa every weekend, Saturday afternoons spent in the front room as she sat in her chair, slowly withering away. Parkinson’s eventually took her ability to speak. The cancer continued to eat away at her until she withered away to almost nothing. I watched my great-grandmother slowly disappear in front of my eyes and there wasn’t anything I or anyone else could do about it.
She went on Hospice care about a week before she passed and I remember lying in bed one night as my mom told my dad “They called the funeral home today to let Ron know she’s not doing well.” I had forgotten all about that conversation until I came to work as a funeral director, when I was on the other end of the line of someone making that exact call to me.
I have to tell you, I teared up after that call the exact same way I did lying in my bed that cold January evening the day before my great-grandmother passed away.
The next afternoon I was watching TV in the living room, my mother was working in the kitchen and my dad down at the shop. The phone rang and somehow I knew, instantly, that great-grandma had passed. My mom answered, and in a hushed voice said “Thank you for calling” and came over to me.
She didn’t have to say it. I knew.
I put on my boots, winter coat, hat and gloves and began the slow trek the 200 yards to the shop to get my father.
“Don’t tell him what’s happened. Just tell him I need him to come to the house,” my mother instructed me. But, like me, my dad knew as soon as I came in the door of the shop.
I have a terrible poker face.
The next two days were a blur. We all gathered at great-grandpa’s house and the food began to pour in. The casseroles, rolls and desserts were brought and the bearers had plenty of hugs and kind words and condolences.
But her death hadn’t “clicked” with me yet. That was, until I realized I was sitting in her chair and that she was nowhere to be seen in the house. It hit me like a ton of bricks and I couldn’t contain my tears.
She was gone.
Then I was told that we were going to the funeral home to see her the following day. I’d never seen a dead body before and was terrified of the thought. I didn’t want to go, I was adamant that I wouldn’t go past the back pew.
Dead bodies are, of course, scary to an 11-year old boy.
But I am so thankful my parents took me to the funeral home to say goodbye because it has given me a peace in my heart that I cannot even begin to describe. And it has shaped my outlook on funeral service in a way that carries through in my work every day.
She looked normal. Like she was simply sleeping in her favorite “going to church” dress, a little hanky in her hands and flowers all around her.
She was at peace.
And that’s when I saw the purple lamps. The chapel in which we viewed her had the traditional side torches with an assortment of overhead track lights with various color bulbs.
The purple was reflecting off of the interior of the appropriately chosen Heirloom Pewter casket that she laid in. She was a strongly religious woman and the tasteful open Bible in the headpanel seemed just perfect.
I just couldn’t get over the fact she looked peaceful.
And then I saw something that I had never seen before in my life. My father started to cry. Not heavy tears but enough to require a tissue. As we exited the chapel the funeral director said something to my dad and he seemed to be better by the time we left. I don’t remember what the words were, but I remember thinking “This is the man who took care of my grandma and made her look so good.”
It wasn’t until we got back in the car that it finally hit me like a freight train. I cried like I’ve never cried before. I remember sitting there, my mother holding me and telling me that it would be alright.
And by the day of the funeral it was a little better. I still cried but not nearly as hard as my cousins who were shielded from the viewing. “They don’t need to see that” their folks were overheard saying later. I’ve always wondered how that has impacted them in their life. I’ve never asked, maybe someday they’ll tell me.
But I believed that the experience I had standing in the chapel of Hodge Funeral Home in St. Maries was the best thing that happened to me. I still do. In fact, I shall always be grateful to an undertaker by the name of Ron Hodge who so beautifully and carefully cared for my great-grandmother and gave me the peace I needed.
As I trace my memory banks when people ask me “Why in the world did you become a funeral director?”, I can say with clarity that the reason I decided to enter funeral service as a career can be pinpointed to that cold, snowy January evening as I looked at my great-grandmother in her casket, finally at peace. I was helped in a way that only God and I will ever truly understand. A kind of help that only those who experience exactly what it is a funeral director does will understand.
And it is with that same certainty that I can look a family in the eye and tell them, completely and unequivocally, that if they have any hesitation about viewing their loved one to do it because we’ve given the same care and courtesy to the appearance of their loved one just as Mr. Hodge did to my great grandmother.
Hopefully, they to will be able to find peace, under the tasteful glow of purple lamps.
To send flowers to the family or plant a tree in memory of Nellie Mae (Alderman) Mueller, please visit our floral store.
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