Why I would enlist in a career as a hospice chaplain must be quite a puzzler to many. To tell the truth, I have my own list of allied professions that I could not picture myself doing, such as being a funeral director. That may strike you as illogical, since both deal with death, right? And privately, I bet everyone thinks the same thing about both professions: Why would anyone want to be in a career like that? This reaction is kin, I am sure, to when laypeople gaze upon a priest or nun and instantly think, “How can they (presumably) have given up sex?” Of all the career choices in the world, why pick ones such as these?
After officiating at a graveside ceremony recently, the funeral director and I had a chance to “hang out” and chat after all the mourners had cleared the scene and the grave diggers were going about their task (another career that is not for me). As required, the funeral director had to wait around anyway until the burial was complete. The conversation turned to comparing our jobs, and neither of us would want to trade with the other. She said, “You have to deal with the people when they are still alive, and face all their feelings about it. I could never talk to them about it. When I see families, their loved one is dead and I just go ahead and make the arrangements.”
I then told her I would be squeamish about handling the bodies and doing any work required to prepare them for burial. I would also miss establishing relationships with patients and their families, however short-lived. In the end, I asked her what people have asked me, and that is, “Why have you, and most in your profession, chosen this kind of career?” This particular director answered that it was because she was afraid of death! She even felt that was true for many of her peers. “They are trying to deal with their fear through this career and become more comfortable with death through being around it.” To me, that is quite an extreme and roundabout way to go about reducing fear. I asked some funeral directors on Twitter about this, and they felt that giving fear of death as a reason was “a stretch.”
I suppose that the reasons both on the surface and under it (approximately 6 feet under) vary from person to person, just as they do for chaplains. I think some funeral directors grew up with their parents being involved in the same profession. I think some find meaning in this career as a community service, and feel empowered by their ability to help in this way. Now that is something I can relate to: unlike so many people, my ability (and that of chaplains in general) to stand steadfastly with those facing the Beyond or those who are first setting out into the alien landscape of bereavement, gives me a special place for me to occupy in the scheme of things. Searching for a place to belong, professionally and otherwise, has been a prominent theme in my life story, and I have found that place in pastoral care and in teaching.
If you are a funeral director, hospice worker, mortician, grave digger or the like, can you express why? Can you dig deeper, so to speak, as to some of the psychological or philosophical reasons for your career choice?
Announcement: Encountering the Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died (Pen-L Publishing, April 2014) is now available on Kindle.