Photo credit: Laura Makabresku

The following interview was conducted by Laurel Elizabeth Hasara on March 31st, 2023 with a licensed mortician & funeral director in the state of Maryland. The interviewee has request to remain anonymous... and I will be honoring this request, referring to her as Ruby for the duration of this blog post. This interview was transcribed in real time {to the best of my multitasking capabilities} via a phone interview. Direct quotes will be italicized in quotations, while the rest is subject to paraphrasing. The final publication has been verified by the interviewee for accuracy. This is not the full conversation, but the parts I'm willing to share publicly at this time. 

Do enjoy & this material is not for the faint of heart.

What's the purpose of this interview, you might ask? 
A {Laurel}: to better understand an industry that's fascinated me since childhood. No source is better than the working professional who's living it everyday. This is my attempt at gaining insider access. My next script is set in a funeral home so, study I must... and study I shall.


"The highest praise possible for 
a mortician is when the family requests 
the casket be left open."

Q {Laurel} : What education is required to become a funeral director & mortician? What are the responsibilities of both positions?

A {Ruby}: Funeral directors and morticians both require an associates degree {a two year program}. Mortician is synonymous with embalmer. Embalmers are responsible for the embalming and cosmeticizing of the deceased. Facial and body restoration makes the deceased recognizable to the families for viewings. It's much more medical {details of the embalming process provided later in the interview}. Funeral director are responsible for making funeral arrangements, calling churches, finalizing documentation needed to transport and bury bodies, death certificates, answering phones, leading funeral processions, driving the hearse and meeting with families. It's much more counseling-oriented, much more desk work. I decided to become both an embalmer and a funeral director to be well-rounded. I wanted to understand the behind the scenes of every role in the funeral home. However, it's not required of an embalmer to become a funeral director or vice versa. "I do not treat grief because I am not trained to do so, but we do help families with the resources to seek the proper treatment {example: a licensed grief counselor}." 

Industry terminologies:
Arrangement conference or funeral arrangement - means a designated time for a family to come to the funeral home and discuss the final details for the funeral of their choosing. The finalizations for families, information to fill out the death certificate, picking prayer cards, caskets and obituaries. 
Pre-arrangement means pre-planning a funeral of somebody who has yet to die {usually, but not always, the elderly or the terminal ill}
AT-NEED - means planning a funeral of somebody who has already died

Q {Laurel}: The ultimate question, what drew you to the death industry? 

A {Ruby}: When I was younger, I was always fascinated by death. Whenever my mother mentioned someone had killed themselves or there was a death in the news I would always remember it. I was obsessed with the music video, 'Mary Jane's Last Dance' when it came out because there was a dead woman in a white dress sinking to the bottom of a river. "I always remembered people's birth dates and death dates... and I don't know why." Zoology was my favorite subject in school because I loved dissecting pigs. The body portion of death was my main interest. "I only wanted to work with the body in the beginning, but I soon realized helping a family through one of the most difficult times in their life was a huge honor." In my late 20's, I worked in an assisted living home and developed close relationships with the elderly people who kept dying. "I'd watch the funeral workers from the local funeral homes come in and take them away... I HAD QUESTIONS." 

Questions Ruby had: 
"What happened when funeral homes took the dead bodies? What did they do with them? What did it look like? How did the human body break down?"

"It took me a long time to no longer 
be embarrassed about my job."

Q {Laurel}: Was there scorn or dissenting opinions when news broke you were going to mortuary school? 

A {Ruby}: YES, there was - and continues to be - a lot of outward disapproval. I never knew anyone in this profession. It's not something that runs in my family. I had to go into it completely blind. My husband still doesn't like what I do. It makes him squeamish. When I have to bring the hearse home, he hates it and thinks it's disgusting. "It took me a long time to no longer be embarrassed about my job." Many looked down at me, saying things like, "I don't know how you do that all day" or flat-out insulting me in public. One man called me a, "cold-hearted b****." My reply was, "sir, you better hope you have someone as caring and passionate about this work as me taking care of your loved ones after they've died." I've noticed it's really one extreme or the other like, people are either really intrigued and ask a million questions or are totally uninterested and don't do any prying. But my childhood friends admitted to me later in life, "Oh, Ruby... we always knew that's what you wanted to do {be a mortician}, even in middle school." It was my calling. It had always been my calling, but I kept ignoring it. I remember when I was at embalming school and it was the first time I had to cut into a human body. I kind of froze in the classroom doorway. It was really a "shit or get off the pot kind of moment." I was scared and felt sick, but I did it. And now, I see naked dead bodies every day and it's my normal. I'm completely desensitized to the naked human body, but that doesn't mean I'm desensitized to death or how families are feeling.

Q {Laurel}: What are the types of personalities that excel in the death industry, how do you decompress after you clock out & how have you changed in the past ten years in this profession? 


A {Ruby}: Everyone I work with has a dark sense of humor. we often joke, "even when we {morticians} die, we'll still have to come into work the next day." My confidence and public speaking skills has soared in the past decade. I have to walk into arrangement rooms and keep grieving families on schedule even if they are all over the place emotionally. "Leave your feelings at the door," is a common standard we {death industry workers} live by. It doesn't mean we ever lack compassion for the bereaved, it just means we have to steel ourselves and stay composed no matter the unpredictable calls or situations we're tasked to deal with day to day. As a woman, many people underestimate my  strength when I go on house calls {to pick up dead bodies}. I'm very physically strong. Sometimes the deceased will have died in the basement or on a second floor and have to be carried down spiral stairwells. I can handle lifting and transporting bodies myself, but officers and relatives of the deceased will think there's another person who needs to assist me when I do it by myself. My {work} partner will be like, "No, step aside. She's fine. She's got it." Some people request women funeral directors expecting them to be softer, but that's not always true. I've been told I'm a little cold at times, but it's not that I'm cold or that I don't care. I care a lot, but I have a schedule, you know? I have a job to do. When in a state of grief, people will delay in conversations or talk in circles or not really want to make hard decisions. I have to get them to make these hard decisions. I have to direct them or else nothing gets done. I decompress after a work day by making myself a nice cocktail and confiding in my closest friends.

Q {Laurel}: Are funeral homes open 24/7?

A {Ruby}: We are not a 24/7 service. It throws me off when people think they can just walk through our door at any hour of the day or night and get service. Now, what can happen is I'm assigned to be 'on phones' from 8:00 PM - 8:00 AM in the morning in case the funeral home gets a death call during our off-hours. Our funeral home has a separate entity {a removal service} that picks up and transports the bodies during these off-duty hours, but not all funeral homes have this. Our directors are on rotation so, once every 8 days {because there are 8 directors) we'll be assigned to be 'on phones.' This rotations all depends on how many directors a funeral home employs.

Q {Laurel}: What is the worst display of grief you've seen?

A {Ruby}: "One of the worst displays of grief? Oh, I've seen people get into the casket, throwing themselves on top of their loved ones during viewings while in hysterics. Usually these are the parents of deceased children."

"Families often don't know the extent of their loved one's injuries."

Q {Laurel}: Are there any generational differences you've noticed?

A {Ruby}: "The younger generation is opting for cremation, which could be cost driven. Older generations seem to prefer having a viewing. They seem to really need that memory picture before burial."

Q {Laurel}: Could you describe the embalming process & why it's meaningful to you?

A {Ruby}: Embalming takes about a few hours and isn't overly invasive. You 'set' the {facial} features, closing the eyes and mouth. Incisions are made in one of the major arteries {femoral artery in the thigh or carotid artery in the neck}. You dig through and find the artery, pulling it up with instruments and exposing it. Arteries and veins lay together. You take embalming fluid and pump it into the arteries (formaldehyde). This preserves the tissue, firming it. You cut the vein and then the blood pumps out the vein. Bodies can be so decomposed you don't even recognize the person by their picture. The speed of decomposition depends on the elements, the size of the person and how they died. There are a lot of burn victims that can't be viewed. One man we performed difficult restorative work on died from self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Families never want to see this process. It is re-traumatizing for them if they did. It's always re-traumatizing to watch the restoration process, which is why morticians embalm strangers. The embalming and cosmetizing process is "a lot of smoke and mirrors." "The highest praise possible for a mortician is when the family requests the casket be left open." One young man got into a fatal car accident {I worked on him for a long time}. Half of his nose was gone, destroyed in the wreck. I had to create the other half of the nose from scratch. In the end, the mother said he didn't look like her son and wanted to close the casket, but if she had seen what I was working with she'd understand how much of an amazing transformation he was from before. "Families often don't know the extent of their loved one's injuries." This mother, for example, didn't know about half of his nose being fully restored and this is why he was so unrecognizable.

Industry terminologies:
Rigor-mortis means the tightening in muscles post-mortem. 
Breaking the rigor - means when a post mortem limb is stiff, morticians would move, rotate and massage the muscle to get it to relax. An example is if someone dies clutching a steering wheel of their vehicle and the hands are locked in that position even after death. 

Q {Laurel}: Have you had any encounters with people becoming attached, maybe unhealthily so, to you or your funeral home as if staying in contact with you mitigates their grief?

A {Ruby}: Yes, I have actually. There was an elderly man who was a retired funeral director and would come into my work all the time. He seemed to have attached to me and was obsessed with planning his own funeral. He would wait outside the funeral home in the parking lot and call to see if I was working that day. We had buried his wife already. He would request to see the crematory {he wanted to be cremated}, to see the box he was to be burned in and write drafts of his obituary. He would bring papers in for me to read, articles. He demanded a certain bugler play taps at his funeral {he was a veteran}. He wanted little medicine bottles to each be filled with his ashes to a certain line he drew with a marker. We actually became good friends. He died in hospice and left a note behind for me. It was a script for me to read as i cremated him. "I think I was filling a void for him." It's common for people to call the funeral home and just... talk, spill the beans, overshare. They just want someone to listen to them.

Thank you eternally for interview part 1, Ruby <3

To be continued...

Do come again.

Laurel Elizabeth Hasara


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