The Barking Funeral Director

Todd Van Beck's picture

Throughout my career one of the main aspects of funeral service that attracted me was the innate gentleness that is at the core of this great profession.  Funeral service has a gentleness that is an essential part of what makes funeral service what it is.

Certainly I have encountered rough and tumble funeral directors who on the surface have a bark and a scowl, but in most every case in the end these “grumpy” funeral directors have a true heart of gold, and as the ancient saying goes, “the bark is much worse than the bite.”

I worked for a few of these “grumpy” “crabby” old undertakers, and at the time they scared the devil out of me, but over the years I grew to understand that surface appearances are usually not a good assessment of what is in another human being’s character and soul.

It has struck me as both interesting and sad that today the vision of people being gentle and kind, or understanding and generous in business, or in the process of struggling through life’s vicissitudes and ambitions, is seen as weakness, or folly, or old-fashioned, and there are quite a few naysayers in the world who laugh at such concepts and attempt to behave as another “Donald Trump” on their own reality TV program.

I like the gentle, generous, giving side of life.  That is why I always admired funeral directors, and no matter what the naysayers say – and they have their story to tell to be sure – I have just always liked funeral service.  To be sure those critical naysayers are out there and in today’s climate of tearing people down instead of building people up, the naysayers do have an audience. So be it. It is presently the way of the world it appears, but it probably won’t always be the way of the world - at least I hope not.

Here is what I am talking about.  Years ago, as I recently mentioned in another post, when I worked in Wyoming my boss was the county coroner.  My boss was a good man, but he was touchy most times, and his wife could whip him up into a literal lather of frenzy when she took a liking to.  The coroner’s position was for my boss literally protected territory, and when the coroner’s election would eventually come around both sides would hunker down and form their battalions and the declaration of coroner’s war would ensue.  However to his credit, I guess, my boss had held onto the coroner’s position for years.

On a regular day my boss would snap at me about something; I was always screwing something up.  It really didn’t matter what it was, he would just snap.  If his wife was within hearing distance she always had something to add to fuel the fire under my ***, and her comments would set him off once again, and Todd being the easiest target would get shot at once again, and many times my boss and his wife took deadly aim.  Eventually I was shot at and hit so many times that I started taking comfort in the thought of St. Sebastian who said, wisely, “when you are shot with seventeen arrows, the eighteenth one does not hurt much.”  That was basically my relationship with my boss and his wife – daily archery practice. They had the bow and arrows and possessed dead-eye aim, and I was the target.

I concluded that my boss was just a finicky, prickly, moody human being and I did not like him.  Until we received a coroner’s call one afternoon.  Then everything changed.  The other point I need to make is that I was 22 years old when this happened, and while I am sure that everybody else in the world was mature and insightful and judicious and wise at 22 – but Todd was NOT!

It was summer in Cheyenne, and really Cheyenne and the whole area of Southwestern Wyoming is beautiful. I believe Wyoming has to have the bluest skies I have ever seen in my life, and the sky just goes on and on, neverending beauty.

It was a beautiful summer day.  School was out and kids were playing outside everywhere.

There was an area in Cheyenne south of the downtown that was in truth, at this time anyway, a pretty rough area.  It was deprived both socially and economically, and it was also violent.  Most calls we received in this unfortunate section of town usually were of a highly complicated nature.  Any call of course has this potential, but sadly the areas affected by poverty and urban plight got more than their share of sadness and grief – it seems it is the way of the world.

Mid afternoon the sheriff called and asked that we respond to a back lot in this particular area of the city.  The sheriff also requested two or three vehicles because five people had been discovered dead.

Not much more information was forthcoming, or if it was my boss did not tell anybody else about it.  Off we went, and in short order we arrived at the scene.

The vacant lot was more like a dump ground.  Junk was everywhere.  The lot was a distance off the beaten track and it was evident that many people just decided to secretly dump their used anything in this area.  You name the piece of junk and it was probably somewhere in this vacant lot.

I was clueless as to what had happened, but I found out quickly.  The Sheriff was at the bottom of a small hill and was standing in the middle of a bunch or abandoned refrigerators and he was waving at us.

My boss told the rest of us to stay with the vehicles and he proceeded down the hill.  I could not exactly see what was going on, but when my boss returned he was crying.  I had never seen him cry.  He had made me cry often enough, but as far as the “rock” (that was our nickname for him) crying, well I was stunned.  I just looked at him and he composed himself enough to tell us to get the cots out and follow him down the small hill.

As we walked down the small hill this one particular refrigerator had its back side to us, and the sheriff was standing in front and the look on his face was one of despair and hopelessness.  The county sheriff was a real tough fellow, but today he looked as if somebody had just shot his favorite dog.

As I walked around to the front of the refrigerator I looked inside and just froze. I had never, nor have I since (this was 1974) ever seen anything like what I witnessed at that moment.

Huddled inside the refrigerator were five, yes folks, five small children.  The sheriff concluded that the five little ones were goofing and playing around and decided it would be fun to hide inside the refrigerator and they all stuffed themselves in the appliance and somehow, someway the door shut, and shut tight – shut permanently.

This refrigerator and many of the others in that vacant lot were made before magnetic door seals, and when the steel door lock bolted shut in these particular models there was no way to open the door from the inside.  Also, not one of these refrigerators which had been dumped and abandoned had had its front door removed for simple safety purposes.  The owners of the refrigerators just dumped the appliances, left the doors on and took off thinking nothing catastrophic would happen, but catastrophe is the word to describe what did end up happening.

Interestingly, another group of schoolchildren who were roaming around this dumping grounds were the ones who opened the shut refrigerator just by pure chance and discovered the gruesome and pathetic sight.

By this time the local media was on the scene, and that evening the deaths of these five children were the major story for all the new broadcasts – the story even made the television reports out of Denve, 100 miles away.  The community was stunned, and in short order politicians swept in and actually did some good, for in the next legislative session a state law was passed making it a punishable crime to abandon a refrigerator with the front door still attached.

We were asked to bury three of the five children, and my opinion of my boss changed almost overnight.

I observed him throughout the funeral experience from beginning to end, and frankly he was a marvel to behold.  I saw gentleness, compassion, caring, concern and above all professional understanding that I just didn’t think any person was capable of, and up to this time I never would have suspected my “grumpy” boss possessed such humanness.  Of course since that time I have seen this combination thousands upon thousands of times in and from funeral directors across the globe. 

My boss took care of this family, and I mean he took care of them.  He was attentive without being overbearing, he was helpful but not overly intrusive, he was competent but not solemn, he was spiritual but not overly religious, he was cordial but certainly not intimate, he was ready to help but not overbearing, and he was gentle while being himself.  Today I still warm to the memory of his abilities – and I thought he was a grump!  Boy was I wrong!

I believe that funeral directors, thousands of them, have this delicate skill. They balance this skill very well, and they use it constantly – and that my friends is a good thing.  Yes, we have individuals who knock us, criticize us; yes we make mistakes, errors in judgment.  Certainly these are complicated time to be gentle in – no reality TV program is going to be centered around people being nice and respectful to each other – but funeral directors are nice and respectful, even the ones whose bark is loud and intimidating and causes people to tremble. 

I concluded long ago that I was wrong about my loud, intimidating boss who did have the ability to make me tremble.  I learned that as I tried to imitate him he actually stopped barking at me so much. Maybe there is a growing up lesson in this story – who knows?  However my opinion of his wife ... well, that is for another time ....

Anyway that’s one old undertaker’s opinion. TVB



The beginning of the story caused me to believe it was going to be about Harold (S&B), but alas, it was not. A sobering story of the fragile nature of life and how we interact in that nature. As usual, you capture it beautifully.