Of Grave Concern: Being a mortician is so much more than just handling a deceased human body

Photo by kzenon/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

FEATURE — Once people find out I am an undertaker, heads turn quickly and the questions begin. My vocation becomes the conversation piece in most every social gathering.

The first question is always “So, how did you ever get into ‘that’?”

I begin telling them how I became a mortician, which is the more modern term. The word “undertaker” comes from the idea of “undertaking the care of the dead” – post-Industrial Revolution. Before that, families were much more involved in the process and there were no state or federal funeral/cremation regulations and laws. The work of a mortician evolved as people became more busy and handed over the care of their loved ones to educated and trained professionals.

Most people cringe and move around a lot during discussions. Their body language tells it all. And yet they keep asking question after question. It soon becomes an opportunity to educate people on a “taboo” subject in American culture.

Yes, America is one of the most death-denying societies in the world. We want to be forever young. Folks say “If I die …” and I correct them with “When you die.” Nobody is getting out of here alive. They look at me and offer an uncomfortable laugh.

Over the years, I have met with thousands of families who have come to me: the mortician. They come needing help with the process of caring for their deceased loved one and help preparing a service to celebrate a life that was lived. It is an odd profession, this I admit.

For me, it was a third choice in professions. The first and second choices did not work out the way I had planned. That is life sometimes. I have no regrets. For me, the work of a mortician and funeral director is a ministry.

As a boy growing up in Iowa, I attended a lot of very traditional funerals that included three- to four-day visitations at the mortuary followed by the funeral. It could be an all-week event. As a little boy, I got a little antsy sitting around. I got curious and started exploring the funeral home. It was interesting and creepy at the same time.

Later, as a senior in high school, I got a brief job being a “night man” at a funeral home. My job was to help with the viewings, lock up and then sleep there – yes, sleep there all night. There was a small apartment on site. I would answer the phone during the night, just in case someone passed away and then go out with the funeral director to bring the deceased back to the funeral home. It sounded, well … doable.

I will confess, the first night of that job, I prayed the phone would not ring. I locked up and turned off the lights in each visitation room, ran to the apartment and locked the door. What was I doing?

By the way, someone did die the first night. I got up to help. Temperature-wise, it was at least 10 below zero. The mortician asked me if I would like to watch the embalming when we got back. I quickly said “no” and went back to the apartment only to hear him downstairs as he prepared the body. I was not doing well with this.

After a few weeks into this new job, my mother asked me why I looked so tired and thin. The little secret was that I was not sleeping or eating well at the funeral home. I had no appetite and was scared. Like many of us, I think I watched too many creepy movies growing up.

My sweet mother encouraged me to give notice. I came back home, and as I entered I saw on the kitchen counter a cake my mother had made in the shape of a casket. Written in frosting on the top was “Welcome Back To The Living.” I love my mom. However, these experiences still left me with more curiosity and questions.

A few years later I got over my fears. I attended the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science, did my internships, passed the national and state boards and became licensed as a funeral director and embalmer in California, Oregon, Washington and Utah.

Why does someone enter the funeral industry? Well, as I said, I had other careers in mind after high school graduation. My first year of college I attended a private Protestant church school. I was studying to be a Protestant minister and then began going through lots of questions in the faith I was raised in. I took a break from that. I auditioned and worked as a tour guide for Universal Studios. I got an agent and worked in the entertainment industry. Talk about a change!

Hollywood will devour you if you let it. I was struggling to find my niche in life. Long story short, I was introduced to missionaries with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and became a member. It was a great fit for me and answered my “life” questions.

With that decision, I quickly learned that I could not be a minister for the LDS church … and be paid. There went that option. I got it. With the entertainment industry, well, I saw too many put their morals and values up on a shelf to “make it.” I’m thankful for my upbringing and parents who taught me better. I walked away from that dream on the very day I was called to audition for a part in a soap opera. We all have our choices to make.

So I went with the next option: Become a mortician. What a journey. This choice has blessed my life in so many ways as I have ministered to literally thousands of people over the years. There are so many stories. I have seen the results of mankind at their worst: the outcome of wars, the results of terrorism, the horrible results of child abuse and spousal abuse, the spike in suicides, drug overdoses and so much more.

And yet despite all of this, I have seen the remarkable goodness that follows a death. There is an innate general goodness in people as they reach out and lift up those left behind. I have seen state, local and federal leaders comfort those “that stand in need of comfort.”

Despite all of the many tragic experiences – the results of which I have helped families pick up the pieces – I have grown to see that most people in this world are good.

There is so much more in being a mortician then handling a deceased human body. Most people do not see beyond that. It is a ministry to the living. It is giving hope to the hopeless. It is lifting others higher to see beyond the current hurt and pain, that life is still worth living and much good can be done as  we carry the memories of the past with us into a new future.

Written by DAVID JOHN COOK, public relations and funeral director for Spilsbury Mortuary.

• S P O N S O R E D   C O N T E N T  •


  • Spilsbury Mortuary | Address: 110 S. Bluff St., St. George |  Telephone: 435-673-2454 | Website.
    • Hurricane location | Address: 25 N. 2000 West, Hurricane | Telephone: 435-635-2212.

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