She worked the space of the living room, pretending she was leading a casket out the door. Holding her hands out front of her, she backed up, then turned, backed up again, and then turned once more. She was showing me how at Catholic funerals, the funeral directors lead the casket out the front door of the church but not before they draw the shape of a cross with the casket. I grew up attending mass and Sunday school at the Catholic church, but I didn’t know about this ritual. I was probably too mad about women not being permitted to be priests to ever notice. 

My kid, now a young adult, is training to become a funeral director. After one year in university, she decided that wasn’t path for her. Then one day she mentioned being a funeral director and embalmer. I have to say I never saw this coming. When she was an infant, her father and I filled out her baby book with “wishes” of what we thought she could be when she grew up. I said writer. Her father said professional wrestler in the WWE. I guess funeral director fits somewhere in between those two.  

My mother was a funeral director for 35 years, so my kid got advice from her (this career path clearly skipped a generation). She then applied for a program at NSCC that starts in September. When she got her acceptance letter, I bought her an ice cream cake that said, “Knock ‘em dead” on it. In the meantime, she’s working at a funeral home learning the ropes. 

She doesn’t talk much about her job. She tells me about driving a hearse or a limo. She says she loves her work. But when I watch her walk out the door dressed in a three-piece navy suit, I think how she will help, in her quiet, kind, and patient way, people overwhelmed with grief and navigating the worst days of their lives.  

But her career choice got me thinking about death, too. We’re all going to die. I know I will die one day, but I also can’t imagine not being alive. What will happen? I have no idea.  

Middle age is a funny thing. Just when you think to yourself, “I’ve got this life stuff all figured out,” the loss comes in waves.  

I’ve been to funerals, of course. In the spring of 2006, an uncle died and then my daughter’s father’s best friend died of cancer just 40 days after his diagnosis. A friend of mine died from suicide. I couldn’t bring myself to attend her funeral, but I took my kid, then just a toddler, to the reception afterward. It was an annus horribilis. Death comes in threes, they say.  

But in middle age, there is more death. My father died last year. Musicians whose music you have loved for years die, too. And with every death, you do the math between your age and theirs, asking yourself what you would do with the time you had left.  

The reminders seem to be everywhere. I have Facebook friends who have died since I signed up for the app in 2007. Do I delete them as friends? I don’t know the etiquette. An uncle on there who died several years ago somehow still shares posts. I’m sure it’s his widow who just forgot the password to her own account because I can’t imagine thinking about social media from the great beyond. 

And then there’s a classmate who has stage IV cancer. She shares her adventures in photos; trips to New York and Paris with her kids. Choose joy is her motto and she exudes it in every post. I think about her often and choose joy, too. Write more, go on road trips, tell the stories of strangers, take more horseback riding lessons even if I’m terrible at it. Take pictures of all of it. Choose joy.

We’re all curious about death in our funny ways. I’ve written about death and dying in articles here. About green burials and obituaries and about The When You Die Project, an organization dedicated to answering questions about death and dying. Then there’s Noah Tye, the Halifax musician who hosts concerts at Cruikshank’s Funeral Home. I told my kid about folksinger Terra Spencer who works as a funeral director. I like these lyrics from her song “At Your Service.”

The minister comforted in their loss, then everybody rose for “The Old Rugged Cross.” We carried him down to where the grass was mown, his wife and his son’s names carved in stone. As we covered the grave with a shovel of dirt, I remembered the card with the words, “At your service.”

YouTube video

Back in August 2020, when I interviewed Johanna Lunn, the director, producer, writer, and creator of the When You Die project, she said research found that people who grew up in households where conversations about death weren’t considered taboo were funnier than those people who grew up in households where death wasn’t talked about.

“Humour is really valued in getting through a tough time,” Lunn told me then. “Embracing the conversation around it is one way of lightening up.”

Funeral directors are not folks we deal with every day. They must pay attention to all the details of laying someone to rest without being the centre of attention themselves. They’re like event planners and grief counsellors all in one. They start as strangers yet will always have an important connection to your own life and to a loved one’s death. I know my kid’s colleagues and they are amazing mentors for her.

I don’t talk much about my kid to strangers. But I will tell you she is smart, funny, beautiful, and tells great jokes. She crochets and wants to join a derby team. I tell her she could be on the Halifax team Dead Ringers. She is an only child and I often worry about her having support when I’m no longer here. This is what I think about the most: leaving her behind.  

She already told me she will include a photo of me dressed in my nutcracker onesie shared in a video with other pictures of me. I think she’ll be an excellent funeral director and do the job with empathy and kindness.  

I hope I have many years left and I don’t know what my own funeral will look like. I best get planning! But I feel better that my kid will have colleagues trained in supporting people in their grief will support her through her own grief and help her lead me out the church door a final time, too.  

Suzanne Rent is a writer, editor, and researcher. You can follow her on Twitter @Suzanne_Rent and on Mastodon

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  1. Surrounded by a large, racous and sacrilegious Irish Catholic family……we and our kids all learned to joke about death. The old folks were always waked, sometimes in the home……and I remember once at a wake catching some of the young kids climbing in the coffins in the display room at the funeral home and telling them they’d be the next to need a coffin if they didn’t immediately get out of there. Recently my adult son mentioned that many of his friends had never seen a dead person or attended a funeral. He joked that he’d probably done both at least 20 times by age 5 and I’m sure he’s not wrong. I completely agree that families that face death full on are funnier overall……humour is such a great coping mechanism!

  2. When she was about 95, my Mother said: l just realized that I am not going to live forever and I am not very happy about it!
    My response: You just figured this out?
    She lived to 100.

    1. Ha! I always say I’m middle age as if I’m going to live to be 104. But you never know.

  3. This was very touching, but also helpful, like a bit of a nudge to say it’s okay to talk about death.

  4. This brought back some wonderful memories of my Mom and her very clear instructions about her funeral, cobalt blue urn, obituary, etc. It made it a lot easier for us kids. So get planning Suzanne. I just know your daughter will be a wonderful funeral director.

  5. Thanks to the internet I have been able to watch the service for my brother last year and my sister-in-law 9 days ago. I want my service to start with Louis Armstrong singing ‘What a wonderful world’, followed by a reading from the John Masefield poem Sea Fever – ‘I must down to the sea again,the lonely sea and the sky’ and then Jessye Norman singing any one of the Richard Strauss ‘ Four last songs’.. and other music to fill out an hour.