Friday, July 26, 2013

TOP STORY >> Day in the life among the dead

Leader staff writer

What is it like to work alongside the second greatest fear of people worldwide? Five local funeral directors shared what it takes to get into their profession and the difficulties they face every day.


Funeral director and owner John Harris of Moore’s Jacksonville Funeral Home said, “It’s more of a calling than a job. This isn’t for everybody. In the funeral industry, we work weekends. We work holidays. More people pass away between five and eight than eight to five.”

Funeral director and owner LeRoy Wood of Arkansas Funeral Care and Crematory said, “You have to have a passion to serve or you won’t be in the business long.”

Harris said his job is to give families a service “how they want it and when they want it.”

He continued, “People say ‘you’re around crying people all the time.’ Not as much as they think.”

Harris explained some families are happy that their loved one isn’t suffering anymore from a painful illness or degenerative disease, such as Alzheimer’s.

He noted, “The biggest challenge we have is we’re service providers and we’re dealing with people at a very emotional time.”

AndraĆ© Blackburn of Griffin-Leggett Rest Hills funeral home in Sherwood, who recently spoke in Jacksonville as part of the Nixon Library’s summer program, said, “I’ve seen just about everything. I don’t focus on how that person passed away. What I and all funeral directors do is take that terrible situation and make it better. We have to help the family through a very difficult time.”

Harris agreed. “What we do here is serve families and help people through the worst times of their lives,” he said.

All funerals are different, Blackburn noted.

“I’ve run the whole gambit,” he said.

At some funerals, the family and friends laugh the whole time, celebrating the life of their loved one. “Those are the best kind by the way,” Blackburn said.

He’s also seen the opposite where everyone, including him, cried. “Funeral directors are human, even though we see death day in and day out. It’s really hard on us,” Blackburn said.

Harris shared that one of the most difficult situations he ever faced was a triple funeral for a grandfather and his two grandchildren.

The three died in a plane crash on Dec. 5. The grandfather had taken the kids to look at Christmas lights from the sky.

Harris said, “You’re just heartbroken that these two kids were killed and the grandfather was killed trying to do something neat.”

Wood said, “I’ve never had a family here that wasn’t in shock. Every family is different.”

One of the other funeral directors at Arkansas Funeral Care, Glenda Beard, said, “We try to follow (the family’s) wishes. Family dynamics are a big issue because of divorce or maybe kids are fussing and fighting.”

But Wood noted that families tend to set those things aside after a death.

“It’s commendable when estranged families come together at that time to take care of their loved one,” he said.

Wood continued, “We pray for patience but we want it now. It’s time to listen. It’s time for the family.”

He added, “Every death, you have to put your mind to the task and make sure the family gets the very best service possible.”

Funeral director Tim Weems of Weems Funeral Home in Carlisle said, “We try to give them a better memory of their loved ones. We try to get them through it. We try to make it as easy for them as we possibly can.”

He continued, “(The hardest part is) doing the young children who didn’t really have a chance at life.”


Blackburn said that in order to become a funeral director a person has to work at a funeral home as an apprentice and learn on the job.

A lot of funeral directors are small business owners although a corporation owns Griffin-Leggett and he handles day-to-day operations, Blackburn said.

Funeral directors who want to be embalmers have to attend a four-year mortuary college and complete a two-year apprenticeship, he continued.

Students can do their apprenticeships while attending classes or after they finish college, Blackburn said.

Restorative art is part of the curriculum, but an embalmer does very minor things to restore a person’s body for an open-casket funeral, he noted.

Blackburn said, to do that, he had to learn the same basics plastic surgeons must know.

He also explained how coroners and medical examiners are different from embalmers.

A coroner determines how the person died and must sign the death certificate before the funeral home can have the body.

The medical examiner is in the coroner’s office and they do autopsies, usually if foul play is suspected, Blackburn said.

Although he couldn’t legally perform an autopsy, he knows how to do an autopsy, Blackburn added.


“Embalming is the preservation and disinfection of human remains for a funeral,” Blackburn said.

He noted that becoming an embalmer may take four to eight years.

Blackburn said embalming has to be hands on and it is very connected to medical science.

“The same cadavers doctors learn on on we use,” Blackburn said. “I had to track a single drop of blood from where it started at the heart all the way back. That’s how intense mortuary college is.”

He also learned how the Egyptians performed embalming although that method is no longer used.

The heart, lungs and organs play a role in the simple process that has been in practice in the United States since the Civil War, when bodies had to be shipped home from the battlefields, Blackburn said.

It slows down decomposition so that the loved ones are seen as families want to remember them, he explained.

“We want them as natural and comfortable as they were when they were alive. That’s part of our culture,” Blackburn said.

When people are embalmed a small incision is made on their clavicle, also known as the collarbone, so that the formaldehyde-based fluid can be pumped through the body.

“It’s a very quiet, dignified process. It’s nothing as graphic as what you’ve seen in the movies or on TV,” Blackburn said.

Embalming a body is hazardous to the embalmer’s health because the fluid is very carcinogenic and poisonous. Complete protective clothing is required, he noted.

The body itself isn’t dangerous unless the person had a contagious illness such as tuberculosis, he continued, but embalmers may not know if a person had something like that.

This is why “universal precautions” are required, Blackburn said, meaning that every body is treated as if the person did have a contagious illness.

Something else an embalmer sees on a daily basis is rigor mortis, which is caused by a chemical reaction in the muscles that causes them to stiffen. It takes about four hours to start, Blackburn said, but can occur instantly if the person died suddenly and their muscles were tense.

The history of embalming is interesting too, he continued.

During the Civil War, people who were alive were sometimes embalmed because medical science was much more primitive. A person may have been knocked out and had a weak pulse or they could have been in a coma, Blackburn said.

But, he continued, people who clawed their way out of caskets were not embalmed because embalming people who are alive would kill them.

He added that people used to be very afraid of being buried alive. Many of them would have a pipe aboveground that ran down into their caskets so that they could breath if they were buried alive. They could also ring a set of bells to let someone who could dig them up know that they were there, Blackburn said.

He noted that he has never seen a body sit up on his embalming table like in the movies or on TV.

But Blackburn said that he has been more than certain someone’s spirit was with him while he was at the funeral home alone.

“If you ask me if I believe in ghosts, I do. They don’t bother me,” he said.


Blackburn is from New Orleans, where loved ones are buried in crypts above ground. He said the bodies of up to 50 people might be buried in a family crypt.

Another option before or after a service is cremation. Blackburn said he and most funeral directors want to be cremated.

Twenty-four hours have to pass before the certificate that allows a person to be cremated is signed, sealed and stamped, he continued. One reason for this is that the family could change their minds about it.

Every person is placed in a type of casket, usually made of cardboard, to be cremated. Blackburn said, “Every person’s remains are sacred. Every person’s dignity is preserved.”

The ashes can be used to make a painting, jewelry, glass sculptures or any number of items that family members can have to remember a loved one, he added.


Harris explained that it is difficult to ask families for money to conduct a service, especially when many of them are not financially prepared.

He said it is hard to ask for payment without appearing insensitive. “It’s not all about the money,” Harris noted.

That part of the job is why he encourages people to purchase their funeral services on a payment plan before they pass away. “You’re doing your children and family a favor,” especially when those left behind don’t have the option to buy the services on a payment plan, Harris said. “Our society is based on monthly payments,” he noted.

Wood agreed. The former pastor spoke at hundreds of funerals before his wife passed away in 2003. That is when he learned how expensive it is to honor a loved one’s memory.

So Wood opened up shop. “Our goal is to give people a traditional, complete funeral at a price most people can afford,” he said.

The cost of an Arkansas Funeral Care service is 60 percent less than those of Wood’s competitors in 2011. He is confident his business continues that.

A traditional funeral service without a casket can cost a family more than $6,000 but Arkansas Funeral Care offers a complete service with a casket for just $2,490, or $2,390 for veterans. While direct cremations run up to $2,000, Arkansas Funeral Care charges $575, or $555 for veterans.

The home also serves people all over the state. The staff will pick up the deceased for free within 100 miles. The charge for every mile over that is $1.50 because of fuel costs.

Wood said, “When a death occurs, it’s the most difficult time of a family’s life. It’s very stressful. It’s the worst thing in the world to plan a funeral.”

This is the first part of an ongoing “Day in the Life” series.