Tuesday Talks with Amanda Meath – The Funeral Industry and our Disconnection from Death.
I would like to welcome Amanda Meath today on Tuesday Talks.
Amanda has one husband of 17 years and three children; dog (Snoops) died a few months ago and yes we had a funeral.
I have just completed a Certificate IV at the Gordon to become a celebrant and Amanda was one of the course instructors. Let me just say that Amanda did an outstanding job.
Amanda has spent over twenty years working within the funeral industry in a variety of roles, including arranging/ conducting, embalming and Celebrancy.
Amanda is so passionate about funeral work that she passed that passion on to me. Believe me, I never thought I would be excited about funerals which just shows what an incredible legacy Amanda offers in this area. However I do share Amanda’s concern about our disconnection from death which is why I have asked her so join us today.
Lisa: Amanda what makes a 17 year old girl want to become a funeral director? All I could think of at that age was boys and surfing.
Amanda: It wasn’t my first thought, I wanted to be a Forensic Pathologist (mid 80s, think Quincy M.D.) At the suggestion of my English teacher I did some work experience with a local funeral home and realised that there was so much more to this than just dead bodies! I grew up with a strong sense of social/community responsibility, and this was exactly what I knew I should do.
Lisa: Can you help us understand this career?
Is a funeral director and an embalmer the same thing?
Is it common in the funeral industry to get training in restorative arts which is: restoring, bone structure, facial muscles, wax treatments, eye and mouth modelling, the use of cosmetics , etc?
What part do you find the most rewarding?
Amanda: Terminology can vary from company to company but in general terms A Funeral Director will arrange and conduct a funeral, this entails: meeting with the family, determining the type of services they want (no two are the same), arranging all the details. Far too many for me to list here. Then ensuring the smooth running of the service. This may sound straight forward but it takes a very knowledgeable, organisised and competent person with clear communication skills, who is also compassionate, patient and understanding.
An Embalmer has the qualifications to embalm a body. This is a Diploma of Mortuary Science. Not everybody is embalmed and not every funeral home has a qualified embalmer on staff. Embalming is an arterial injection process that will preserve and sanitise a body. Each person is washed and dressed before they are placed in their coffin, their hair is done, men may be shaved, their eyes and mouths are closed.
In smaller organizations it is not uncommon for staff members to operate in every area of the business.
When I was younger the part I found the most rewarding was simply ensuring everything went well because at the time I saw this as a good result for the families. As I have moved forward in my thinking I believe that educating people about the process of grief is so much more important. The way in which our Western culture deals with death – our own and that of others. We are outsourcing our loss. We need to be a part of the process, not just a spectator. If we can change the fear of death, and encourage conversation then we as a society will be better prepared for it when it comes.
Lisa: Some people are shocked at the work that goes into preparing a body for burial, I know our class was. Some people are confused as to why you would go to all the trouble of preparing the body of a homeless person or perhaps someone who will not be viewed before the burial.
I know you feel passionately about the sanctity of death. Could you share your views about this?
We all deserve dignity even in death.
I always treated every person in my mortuary as if their family were standing beside me. People feel disconnected from their loved ones physical form after death. If we could be more involved in this process we may reach a place of acceptance sooner and also start to chip away at our own fear of death.
Lisa: I remember you saying in class that the whole arrangements of funerals happened too quickly. Why is this?
How long can a family wait before needing to do a burial?
Amanda: As long as is needed. There in no right or wrong, it needs to be an individual approach. There are many cultures that have a short period of time between death and burial. However these tend to have a hands-on approach. Jews sit Shiva for the deceased (seven days of mourning) and Muslims wash and prepare for burial the bodies (women for women, men for men) of their loved ones. Western society has a tendency to stop for a few days or so, acknowledge the death and then try to go ‘back to normal’. I think that if we are unable to be hands-on with funerals for our loved ones, then maybe a longer period between the death and the funeral may allow us time to process the reality and make better choices based on clear thinking rather than rushed `what-do-I-do-now?’ thinking.
Lisa: Personally I think that our society is very dislocated from death. In your opinion, what ways could we improve our views and the facilitation of death?
Amanda: Our society is terrified of death.
We work tirelessly to keep it at bay, we teach our children to fear it, because we fail to teach them about it. So when it comes we are shocked and unprepared to accept the loss.
A culture that is in denial will always struggle with acceptance.
Death is certain.
Understanding death does not mean that you miss someone less, or don’t feel the same grief as others, but it may allow you to learn to live without the person in your day-to-day life, with more acceptance.
Being afraid of death is a barrier to achieving a good death, says Caitlyn Doughty in her book “Smoke gets in your eyes”.
In it she advocates for being more involved in the funeral process, demystifying it. This is confronting for a lot of people as they just want it all to happen and go away. However it is this “head in the sand” approach that has enabled the funeral industry to choose the options available to us for funerals, rather than us doing this one last thing for our loved one as we used to.
Lisa: Some people may find this topic very morbid and yet not one of us will escape death. . Some people can’t even say the word ‘died’ or ‘dead’. We hear words like “she passed”, or “he went to be with the Lord” or “she’s gone”. Even our language is weird.
Do we need to learn a language for death?
Amanda: This is a very hard thing to change because people are very comfortable with the language that they use, and see no need to change. Any change needs to come early in life to have an understanding, to have respect and compassion but to embrace the reality.
Lisa: Finally, what are some practical steps that can assist people to prepare for death?
- Pre-arrange your funeral. This can be done with or without a funeral director.
- Be very clear and detailed about what you want.
- Not just the ceremony but the type of coffin, type of committal (whether you are going to be cremated, buried or other).
- Talk with your family about your decisions. Be aware that some of this may change over time so review it every 10 years or so.
Amanda thank you for encouraging us to think about death in a more practical and natural way its been such a pleasure to have you on Sunday Everyday.
Thanks to Amanda I am a funeral celebrant so should you need help or assistance in this way please contact me.
***Finally Amanda, do you have any books, resources that you could recommend people read?
Smoke gets in your eyes – by Caitlyn Doughty. It is American and we do things quite differently here in Australia, but an interesting story about a young women’s journey from apprentice cremator operator to education advocate for healthier attitudes to death and dying.
Should you wish to order this book just click on the image and it will take you to Amazon.
A young mortician goes behind the scenes, unafraid of the gruesome (and fascinating) details of her curious profession.
Most people want to avoid thinking about death, but Caitlin Doughty―a twenty-something with a degree in medieval history and a flair for the macabre―took a job at a crematory, turning morbid curiosity into her life’s work. Thrown into a profession of gallows humor and vivid characters (both living and very dead), Caitlin learned to navigate the secretive culture of those who care for the deceased.