Pulling Back the Curtains: The What, How and Why a Funeral Director Does What They Do

By March 31, 2021Article
funeral director

Mortician. Undertaker. Thanatologist.  Embalmer.  Funeral Director.

No matter what they were called in the past or present, you have to admit, it’s quite the unique job.  But have you ever wondered what a Funeral Director actually does? 

For 7 years, I ran my own Celebrant business and partnered with funeral homes all over the Hamilton, Halton and Greater Toronto areas to serve their grieving families.  I met and worked with funeral directors who worked for small, family-owned funeral homes, large corporations and everything in between.

So I thought I had a fairly good idea of the scope that their work entailed.  I even remember saying that if a family wanted to hire me and did NOT work with a funeral home, I should have charged a higher fee.  There was just so much extra work I had to do in the absence of a director.  

However, it’s only since joining the staff here at Cardinal Funeral Homes that I’ve come to more fully understand and appreciate the many hats they wear.  As the Celebrant, I have the responsibility for the ceremony on my plate.  But the Funeral Director has absolutely everything else. 

So WHAT Do They Actually Do?

Here are just a few of the tasks that your Funeral Director performs: 

  • Transfer the deceased from their place of death and bring them into our care at the funeral home
  • Prepare your loved one for viewings and visitation which may include the embalming process, dressing and shrouding
  • 2-3 hour arrangement meeting to discuss your wishes for the funeral, visitation and disposition 
  • Help create a personal and meaningful funeral that reflects your loved one
  • Explain all of the many options for services and merchandise available
  • Coordinate a newspaper or online obituary
  • Liaise with the clergy and/or church
  • Arrange for a celebrant or clergy if you do not have one
  • Coordinate with the cemetery 
  • Coordinate with the crematorium
  • Secure musicians and/or vocalists
  • Coordinate with your favourite charity for memorial contributions
  • Register the death with the province and issue proof of death certificates
  • Organize and print stationery
  • Prepare photo and video tributes
  • Ensure cars, coaches, limos and pallbearers are prepared
  • Pre and post-pandemic, arrange with the catering company and set up for the post-funeral reception

Some of the other “hats” that the funeral directors wear include car washers, parking attendants, hair stylists, cosmeticians, tailors,funeral director chauffeurs, masters of ceremony, DJs, security guards, building maintenance workers, bathroom cleaners, snow shovellers, grief counsellors, referees between estranged relatives and more.

I like the way Alexandra Petri wrote about the role of a Funeral Director in her New York Times article “Someone Has Died. That’s When Their Job Begins”:

“It’s a job built on trust and compassion in moments of immeasurable grief: Can I trust that you will take care of my loved one with dignity and reverence? Can I trust that you will honor the value and spirit my loved one brought to this world? Can I trust that you will help my family celebrate the meaning and love this person brought to our lives and to so many others?

‘I feel really responsible when a family calls me,” Ms. Smith tells me. “I feel like I’m their voice.'”

But WHY Do They Do It?

The next question you might be asking is, “Why?”  Why would anyone choose to join this profession?

Funeral Directors are used to their friends regularly saying, “I couldn’t do what you do”. 

And it’s true.  Their job is not always easy.  On the one hand, they need to find a way to sensitively and compassionately hold space for a family’s extreme grief, sadness, anger and a host of other emotions in the middle of some of the most painful days they will ever go through.  On the other hand, they also need to guide them through making a host of decisions and then carrying them out with an extreme attention to detail and care.

But so many of the directors that I speak with tell me that for them, this isn’t just a job.  It feels more like a calling.  When I ask them “Why?”, a lot of them have a story to tell about a personal experience they went through when their loved one died. 

They tell me how they felt the difference that the kindness of a Director made for their family as that person “held their hand” through the entire process.  Or they found inexplicable comfort in the way that “Dad looked so great when we said our final goodbyes to him”.  So they became curious about the embalming process and then felt compelled to help others in the same way.  

Let’s be honest.  Death and the bereaved are things the majority of people run away from even talking about much less dealing with directly. 

But funeral directors and the many incredible professionals who assist them meet these “untouchable tasks” head on every day.  They show up and do what no one else in society wants to do.  Things like:

  • Prepare your baby so that you can hold her one last time before saying goodbye.  
  • Take great care in setting up the room with all of your personal items exactly as you want them to.
  • Listen as you tell every detail of how your loved one’s death has impacted you and think about you long after their work day is over.
  • They will even be your punching bag when you’ve got nowhere else to put the anger that often pops up in grief.

funeral director

In your grief, you probably won’t even notice the 100+ things they will do that will help carry you through those first initial raw days after your loved one dies.

And Finally, Here is The How…

These “Last Responders” will undertake all of these tasks with the most humble, caring, non-judgmental and servant-hearted attitudes you can imagine.  Day in.  Day out.  (And I haven’t even touched on all of the added challenges that the last 12 months of the pandemic have brought for them.)  Because for them, it’s not just a job – it’s a calling.

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