ICFM Magazine, December 2005
Growing up in the business provides legions of second-, third- and nth-generation funeral directors and cemeterians with childhood anecdotes to tell that aren't exactly run of the mill.
It also provides important lessons about work and life.
Have you ever been on a date and been asked, "So, how was work today?" Most people have, and normally it's not a big deal. But what about when your answer is something along the lines of, "Well, the fire department showed up because they thought the crematory smoke was a house fire. We were already stressed out because someone forgot to order the vault for a service, plus my finger got smashed under a casket while we were making an entombment in the mausoleum. So, do you like French onion soup?"
If my date laughed, I'd know there was some potential for a relationship. If she looked at me like I had three heads, or if she got up to go to the bathroom and never came back, I'd understand.
Growing up in my household meant that many things that were routine for me were, at best, strange to others. But that's something I learned to accept and even came to appreciate as I grew older. After all, my experiences helped to shape who I am today.
A family tradition
Our family's involvement in cemetery work goes back six generations. My ancestors have managed various cemeteries in Ohio and Indiana since the mid-1800s. My father, Gene Buckingham, retired in October from a 42-year career in the cemetery business, the past 22 spent as executive director of Woodland Cemetery and Arboretum in Dayton, Ohio.
I'd always protested any predictions that I would continue the death care tradition. Yet here I am, working for Batesville Casket Co., and I couldn't be more content, working in the field that served as the backdrop for my youth, and the one I know best. This is a time-honored profession, full of good people and great experiences, which for me go back to my very earliest days.
Anyone who runs a cemetery or funeral home knows that work often follows you home, and sometimes even is home. My first two homes were in cemeteries.
I learned to ride a bike among gravestones a century old. My favorite preschool activity was riding in the dump truck doing section clean-up, or sitting in the backhoe to dig a grave. Well, OK, I had a little help working the levers. I remember watching the guys load the retorts in the crematory and waiting for the grounds crew to get the mowers out of the buildings each morning.
Not the typical childhood, but I wouldn't change a thing.
I began working at Woodland at the age of 14, and subsequently had the opportunity to work in every capacity within the organization, including administrative, sales and marketing, public relations, accounting and grounds operations. I'll admit there were days when I would rather have been doing anything else, but no matter what the task, I realized it was part of serving a higher purpose.
My dad always said the most rewarding aspect of this business is helping people make it through a difficult time, and I know no one who was better at it than he was.
I guess when your life's work is dedicated to being compassionate and accommodating, it becomes second nature. It takes not only dedication but also strong character to do the job and do it well, and I was fortunate to have such an excellent example to follow.
There is much to be said for someone who goes to work every day, selling something that no one wants to buy to those who are shocked, sad and angry that a loved one has been taken away.
I suppose it's that view of what we do that leads many people to believe our work must be sad and depressing. But in actuality, working at woodland was anything but.
After working 14-hour days every day for a month to get ready for Memorial Day, Dad always hosted a party for the staff.
It was a blast.
We worked until lunchtime, then set up a tent, enjoyed catered food and competed in a horseshoe tournament. It was a way to let the staff know he appreciated all their hard work and dedication in getting the grounds ready for the cemetery's most important weekend of the year.
Fun and an education
It was a lot of fun working out on the grounds with the other guys. I got a broader education through talking to them than I would have received otherwise, plus I learned the true meaning and value of a good work ethic, something Dad took very seriously.
I guess most people would consider string-trimming 100,000 monuments and markers, mowing 200 acres, cleaning seven miles of roadways, selling memorials and calming upset families a nightmare. But for me, it was an opportunity to learn the ins and outs of a special line of work.
My friends were always amused to listen to our family talk about our day, especially around the dinner table. We had our share of characters on the crew, and we always had plenty of funny stories about who did this or who said that.
One night, we saw on the news a story about a man who had been killed during a fall while working on power lines. He had lived close by, and I said, "Oh, I heard about that. I wonder what happened to that guy?"
I didn't know the funeral home had delivered his body to our crematory the day before, and that we were returning the cremated remains that night. My brother did, and he answered my question. "He's right over there on the counter," followed almost immediately by, "Aren't we weird?"
But when you become accustomed to something, it doesn't seem weird at all. I, for one, felt more proud than weird. Certainly I'm proud of what my father accomplished during his tenure at Woodland, including the magnificent restoration of the Wright brothers' gravesite and the memorial service that followed; the burial and memorial dedication of Erma Bombeck; and the expansion, renovation and modernization of one of America's oldest and most beautiful cemeteries into the historical and horticultural treasure it is today.
My father achieved great things, and I'm proud to follow in his footsteps and contribute in any way I can to the profession that has taught me to appreciate today, remember yesterday, live for tomorrow and preplan my funeral.
I would take a moment to congratulate my father on his retirement, but he's planning to do cemetery and landscape consulting part-time, so he's not really retired.
And though things are different in our family now, some things never change. We still talk business. We still point out granite types and memorial designs to each other. We still pass cemeteries and comment on their maintenance and what we would've done differently.
And yes, we're still weird. At least some of my dates seem to think so.