funeral homes

The Funeral Director Who Just Wants to Give Families Some Peace

Photo: Katarzyna Bialasiewicz/Getty Images

Sarah Bick, 32
Funeral director and embalmer
Orlando, FL

My job is a little bit different than everybody else at the funeral home. I’m the one doing everything. We have people up front, we have people in the back, but then I can fill in in any position. It’s like, Take your embalming gown off and put your suit coat on and come up here and help with the service. Okay, no problem.

“Funeral director” means that you have to meet with families. You have to take care of picking up the person that passed away. You have to figure out what kind of services they want. The embalmer is a whole other thing. If you think about, like, a restaurant, you’ve got the front of the house, you’ve got the back of the house, which is the embalming, the cremation, anything to do with the bodies.

Our funeral home is locally owned and operated, so the two owners are in there all the time. If I’ve been on call, meaning I have the phones with me at night, I come in already knowing sort of how the day’s going to go. I get my paperwork in order. Get all my calls in order. After that, I go to the back and I check the log-in book.

To throw another wrinkle into this, we have another location. It doesn’t have a prep facility. All the bodies are brought to our place and only transported there for service or viewing. But I don’t have their phones at night so I don’t know what calls they’re getting. So I look at all the new calls, new bodies, figure out, okay, what’s this?

After that I look at crematory paperwork. What cremations do I have lined up? Do I have any that I can do? If that’s ready, I need to go make sure that the machine is turned on.

If there’s going to be a service or a viewing that day, we turn on all the lights, turn on the air-conditioning, turn on the music, turn on the coffee. If there’s a body set out, I have to make sure he looks good, he didn’t dehydrate. I have to make sure the makeup is perfect. Make sure everything is looking great, flowers are being delivered.

On top of that, whatever happens, we’re answering the phones all day, of people asking for prices, asking, We could just come in and look? “Well, we have a service going on right now.” Well, can I make an appointment? And you have your walk-in families. A death has occurred, they drive from the hospital to the funeral home and walk in the door, expecting to be met with somebody.

It’s more stressful than people would think. Definitely more stressful than I thought it was going to be, but I’m at a place that’s independently owned and we’re doing a lot of calls. And we live in Orlando, for crying out loud. This is not a tiny town.

I never knew anybody in this business. You would see it on TV and commercials and movies and you’re always wondering what is it. I was more attracted by the dead bodies. I want to see what nobody sees. It’s one of those things that’s shrouded in secrecy.

I started at a big, corporately owned funeral home when I was 19. They have every job compartmentalized. I started doing livery service staff, where you greet people that are coming in for a service. I didn’t see behind the scenes for a whole year. Then I transitioned into the removal part. Somebody dies either at a hospital or a nursing home or at home, and the funeral home is called to go and pick them up. They have ten-plus locations, so there’s a lot of bodies coming in.

The first day, I was in awe. Wow, this room’s full of caskets, I can’t believe this. I remember getting in my car to leave and looking at the people in the car next to me and seeing them chewing gum and playing with their radio, and they have no idea the crazy, weird stuff I just saw.

The job can either suck you in and you love it or you come in and you’re gone the next day. We definitely try to weed people out. The last one we had, she went to funeral school, she did everything right, she worked for, man, like three months. She was doing good, and one stressful, busy weekend, she just flat-out walked out.

Here in Florida, the medical examiner picks up anybody that is traumatic death. Car accident, homicide, stuff like that. I’m used to picking up somebody that’s in a bed, passed away, surrounded by their loved ones. Some places use a hearse, but a hearse is meant for a casket. It’s not really meant for a stretcher. We have a van with some stretchers and gloves and everything you would need for a crazy removal.

When you’re picking bodies up, it’s different every time. Some people are real normal. And some people are crying and begging you not to take them. I step back and I let them have it out. Most of the time people understand. It’s always somber, it’s never happy.

There was one time where it was in the middle of the night and we transferred the woman onto the stretcher and the son’s like, “Hey wait! Hold on. Hold on.” And he comes back with a fifth of whiskey. And they did a shot right over the mom’s body. It’s like, Hey, that’s what they’re going to do. No problem.

The difference between the first funeral home I worked at and this one is we do everything ourselves. I’m the one to sit with the family, I’m also the one to go get the body, I’m the one to embalm the body or I’m the one to cremate the body.

I’ve found that families really like having me come out to their house, talk to them, just for a few minutes. I go, “I’m Sarah, you’ll probably see me tomorrow.” Then the next day, they see me and I know the guy’s name already. They would never get that at another funeral home.

Man, the way I take care of these bodies. My boss comes in all the time and looks and nitpicks and nitpicks but man, it’s perfect because he’s making them look perfect. And that’s going to make it perfect for me.

If somebody’s in a hospital for a long time, it’s a negative. Being pumped full of fluids and IVs, that affects the body chemically. Their faces will swell. A perfect person is somebody that dies naturally, there’s no chemicals in their body already. Even somebody in an accident, I can try to fix that, and people understand that. They hear accident and they go “Oo, no, no, no, no, no. No viewing.” And I go, “Well, let me see her, and I can tell if somebody is a viewing or no viewing.

Pay attention to the little details that people don’t pay attention to and it’s going to make the person look really good. So many times, people put too much glue when closing the eyes. You use a little glue, it’s called Aron Alpha, that closes them to where if somebody tries to open them, they wouldn’t open and freak everybody out. It’s also to stop any sort of leakage. Because they can purge out of the mouth or the nose or the eyes. It ruins clothes, it ruins the whole experience of seeing somebody.

The mouth is really number one in making it look natural. There was an embalmer who’d put a little smile on their face and people loved it. They would go, “It looks like she’s smiling!” It truly did. They’re not grinning or anything grotesque.

There’s been so many weird things at funerals. People dancing and weird songs played and videos that are kind of weird being shown to a big audience. Like wedding-night videos that you don’t know where it’s going. Stuff that has me, as the one who’s MC-ing the videos and music, going, Oh, this is awkward.

When they play Radiohead’s “Creep” really loud in the funeral home and he’s screaming the F-word, it’s like, Are they going to think that I wanted this song played? You got like 100 people in there and nobody knows that the family’s the one telling me what to do. The wife was insistent. No, it has to be the non-radio one. It has to be the one with the F-word in it. Okay, here you go.

Some songs get played more than anything. There’s that Mercy Me song, “I Can Only Imagine.” I can sing that song like the back of my hand. We have a Spanish one that’s always played “Yo te Extrañaré,” by Tercer Cielo. Whitney Houston, “I Will Always Love You.”

Recently we had done this service and the gentleman had a Bible with him. We were going to do the cremation the next day and I called his wife to say, “Hey, do you want this Bible back? Are we supposed to cremate it with him?” And she goes, “Let me call you right back.”

About four hours later, I was on my way to my parents’ house. She called me and she was just unhinged. She was telling me that she was not given the guestbook. Where did the guestbook go? I had met her at the service. She was very nice, very sweet, heartbroken. It was like the coin had flipped and now she was totally crazy and screaming at me, “Fuck you, you fucked up.”

I’m thinking, I just met you yesterday. Your husband looked perfect. You said he looked great. I don’t understand where this is coming from. It was just this barrage of insults. At one point, you put the phone away and you’re like, Okay, they’re not taking this well. She hung up on me. I got to my parents’ house and I just sobbed for a few minutes in my car.

I used to think that this job would prepare me for death. Then one of my aunts died. I didn’t know her all that well. They had a service up in Michigan. I was so struck by my family up there. My mom and dad and little brothers, they were crying. As soon as my brother turned around and he’s got cry-face on, I just started blubbering. It was uncontrollable. And I realize this has not prepared me for anything. I was thinking it’s going to prepare me for dealing with death, and I think it’s made it worse.

I notice I’m very careful about crossing the street. I’m very careful about driving a car. I notice the stupid ways people die. I notice it with people I work with too. They’re very careful. You’re always thinking every phone call could be something bad happening. It’s not really a way to live a life.

I’ve been thinking that maybe I’d like to talk to a therapist or something.

I don’t want to be a funeral person for the rest of my life. I feel like I’ve seen what I can see. I’ve had enough experiences.

I have friends that work at the medical examiners’ office, which is still sort of the funeral job. My friend Jeff works at the radio station. I try to ask him what can I do to be a producer. I’d like to be a server at a restaurant. I’ve got the people skills. But it probably wouldn’t give me as much money as I get now.

I’m paid hourly. I work 50+ hours a week. I work overtime all the time. That’s where I make my money. It’s more than my parents make together, and there’s something about that that makes me go, Let me hold on to this while I have it.

My favorite part is definitely bringing somebody in and having them see the work that you did that you were like 100 percent involved in and having them say, “Can I hug you?” And then just gushing, “Thank you, thank you so much. She looks so beautiful.” That’s honestly the reason you stay. That raw human vulnerability. Sometimes they ask if they can hug you. Sometimes they don’t and they just grab you and you can feel them shaking. They’re so happy that she looks normal.

You don’t get that all the time but when you do it’s so satisfying. That’s your coffee to keep you going for the next two weeks. Give me another one of these and I’ll be all right. I’m fulfilling my purpose as a human. I’m not just working at a doughnut place. I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing and that feels good.

The Funeral Director Who Wants to Give Families Some Peace