April 18, 2007 News & Features » Cover Story


The Peacemakers 

Their business is death, but they're working for the living.

click to enlarge cover041807.jpg

Two things are certain in life: death and taxes.

Or so we thought. But because the IRS extended its usual hard-and-fast deadline of April 15 this year, we bring you the alternative.

It's the final appointment that we rarely schedule; it's always on time and almost always sooner than we'd hoped.

And so here some of Richmond's funeral directors remind us that while you'll need them when you leave this world, it's the people you leave behind who need them more.

The good news: no more 1040s. The bad news: you may still face an audit.

Richard A. Lambert Sr.

Scott's Funeral Home

When I was young, I used to go with my father to view family members and neighbors who had passed.  Just about every funeral home we went into, he knew the owners and funeral directors very well.

When people died in the community, we would go and visit the family.  A lot of times after we arrived, the funeral director came, and I experienced them taking the remains out of the residence. The funeral director was one who was very calm and very comforting to the family. I said, You know, I want to be like that. I was interested in becoming a mortician.

A lot of times people think that I'm in a family business, but I'm not. It took me 30 years to get to this point. As a matter of fact, I think my daddy was very impressed with that because he knew — I think he wanted to be, when he was young — he wanted to be a funeral director too.  He was very impressed that I had something I wanted to do.

After I finished high school, I went to Virginia Union University and majored in business administration. Then I enrolled in the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science and did my training there,  and came back and served an apprenticeship.

[At Cincinnati College] we got a lot of practical experience as far as the preparation of remains.  I take pride in the way bodies — the appearance of bodies — look after death, because that makes a difference for closure for families.

When they can come in the funeral home and see their loved one in a very happy state and with a very pleasant smile — especially when you can take some years away — they're happy and they're comforted. That makes me feel good. It helps bring closure to this experience.

The first thing you do is disinfect the remains, and you do that for the safety of the public and of yourself. Then you start the embalming process. There are certain things we have to know about the condition of the body,  what to use as far as chemicals. There are certain chemicals that have certain reactions on bodies as far as certain illnesses.

There are certain chemicals that put moisture back into body.  Bodies become dehydrated, and we want to get the selflike appearances back.

Some chemicals are stronger than others. If people are obese, you use a much stronger index fluid for that person than you would for a person who is emaciated and who weighs 100 pounds or something like that. If a person is emaciated [and you use too high a concentration], you'd have a tendency to overembalm the body. Rigidity and dryness of the body would turn the body dark, the stronger the fluids.

During the embalming process, the first thing you do [is] set the person's features. The mouth has to be sutured closed and the eyes have to be closed, and there's a certain way that has to be done to make it look normal.  And the setting of the hands, posing of the hands, is very important.

A lot of times you can't do it afterwards because [the body] becomes too rigid. You can still set them, but you can't get the normal setting as if you do it before. The fluid preserves the body, and at the same time it causes rigidity.

Two hours is a normal time on a body, start to finish. Sometimes it takes a little longer because an autopsy has been performed. The makeup can take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour.

Prior to that, most of the people see suffering in the hospitals or at home, months and months of suffering. When death comes, a lot of times people feel comfort because people are not suffering anymore.

When time comes at the funeral home and they see the person not the way they remember seeing them, but the way they looked three or four years ago, it brings closure.

They're at peace. — C.D.

Robert Lee Potterfield III

Affordable Cremation & Funeral Service

When I was in the seventh grade, we were talking about what we would like to do as far as a profession. I raised my hand and told my teacher I wanted to be an undertaker.

I come from a small town — Leesburg, Virginia — and at that time Leesburg was small. The local funeral director owned a furniture store and had the funeral home. I thought, Gosh, he drives big cars, wears nice suits.

It becomes very much a part of your life — seven days a week, 24 hours a day.  Rain, snow, sleet, sunshine.

If a family wants it, and it's not illegal or immoral, we do it.

I've imported flowers from Holland.

One time, I drove to a casket manufacturer to take [the deceased's] favorite rifle made of wood.  We had [the casket] stained, when I got there, to match the gun. I don't think of that as being out of the way.  We're here to work with the family, ease their pain as best we can.

It is emotional, needless to say.  When I was at mortuary school many years ago, funeral homes did ambulance service. You saw live people in a lot of pain.

As a funeral director, now the pain and suffering is gone. My job is to do the best I can for [the family] to have the best memory of that person.

At that point the idea of dealing with death is there,  but as we know,  that also is the beginning of another life.

As you listen to the family's stories and emotions, it gets difficult. The day I lose sight of their feelings is the day that I'll retire and go fishing somewhere off the [Outer] Banks. — A.B.

Ed Barden

Billups Funeral Home

We help people — the families — because they can't help themselves. That's where the name originally came from, undertaker. We would undertake to take this burden off of you, [to] prepare your loved one.

I'll do whatever you want. My theory is, this is your affair. And my motto is, I'll do anything as long as it's legal.

Several times I've had gentlemen come to me and say — especially the sneaky ones — he'll say,  "Can I talk to you for a minute?"  This is one of the sons, and we go back to the back, and I say, Sit down.  And he says, "Well, this won't take but a minute."

I don't know what he had on his mind. And he says, "Will you put these [makes a motion of passing a pack of cigarettes across his desk] in my daddy's right pocket?"

He made me promise him I'd put a pack of cigarettes in his pocket. He said, "My mama always hated smoking, and if she knew, she'd be very mad."

I said, Well, you're not going to do it. I'm going to do it.

So we go up every once in a while to straighten out the remains. People hug them once in a while, and that gets things out of order, and we straighten out their tie and all that, and I just went up like I was doing something and [gestures] into the pocket they go.

He promised pop he'd do it. It makes you feel good. You did what your loved one asked you to do, which is good.

We try to do everything possible … no matter how silly it seems to an outsider. When you ask me to do something for you, it means something to you.

I had one time I had to change the shirt [on a body]. The family came in, and it was a wife and two or three kids. One [of the children] looked at the other and said, "That's not pop." And the brother said, "You're right."

But the wife wasn't saying anything. I just stood there, stupidly wondering. And I said, Well, is there some adjustment you'd like for us to make? I had to say something.

OK, here it comes: Yes sir, I never saw my daddy in a white shirt and tie in my life. He just didn't wear them. Could we bring one of his shirts over and … could you do that?

I said it loudly because it was the kids and the wife, and I want to make sure it's OK with her too: If that's what y'all want. Because you can do things and someone says, What in the happy have you done?

We changed the shirt, and they came back in the room and they said, Yeah, that's pop.

Of course to me, it's always a little of a joke. We've got all of these gowns for ladies, and it's really just a super-negligee. And there's the man in the suit and tie. Even in death, he's dressed to go to work. — C.D.

James and Carey Barnett

Bliley Funeral Home

James: I've been at Bliley's for 10 or 11 years — this should be my 11th year.

Carey: I've been there nine.

James: And we met in the back flower room at the [Bliley Funeral Home] Augusta Chapel — when was this?

Carey: Second day I started working there.

James: I ended up stealing my first kiss in — that was smooth — I ended up stealing my first kiss in one of the flower vans.

Carey: We were going to get signs at St. Bridget's.

James: We had been kind of going out — on and off, on and off, on and off. We hooked up at the funeral home.

Carey: Isn't that the major thing our bosses said not to say? [laughs]

James: If you're going to get it from me, that's how it is.

From dating for so long, I knew what I wanted, and she fit all the criteria on everything except the small things — and I was willing to overlook those small things.

What if we'd never met? I'd still be out gallivanting. … I'd still be living at home with my mom. [laughs]

Carey: One of the big things for him was my big family.

James: I've always wondered if that's part of why I've found working at the funeral home so easy,  too. Because I've always been around people who've gone through unfortunate stuff or bad things have happened for them,  I've always been there for that stuff, and maybe that's why it's easy for me — everything but kids [who die].

Carey: Especially because we've had kids.

James: We had [a funeral for a child] the other day — it takes a piece of you with you. That's when you have to leave the funeral home and get a 20-pack of beer and go home and drink yourself to sleep. That'll tear you up.

Carey: It was hard before we had kids — seeing that — but it's a whole nother story once you have them.

James: It's tough too, man, being up there — and they want closure and … Well, I actually have them help me close the casket. To me, that's the last time they're going to see their child. I want to treat everybody the way I'd want to be treated.

Carey: Working there and seeing death all the time — and car accidents and murders. It does make you look at life a whole different way. You respect it a whole lot more.

James: It makes you come home and hug your kids.

Carey: More than that — even before you have kids.  Death doesn't know a race, it doesn't know an age. This is terrible, but I've buried my own children in my mind before, because of seeing things.

Before kids, there would be car accidents and you would think wow.  You left to go to work and — [snap] — you're gone.

I had to deal with a 2-year-old recently, and the mom wanted to hold the baby. All I could think about was my child. I just couldn't think about how the [parents] could function.

James: That's one thing that I will say, as much as I hate to admit it: Women are much stronger than guys are — in death and in birth.

Carey: It's true — you'd think that men would be much more the ones to hold it together. But it's just not the case.

Sometimes I feel like the troubled teens should work in a funeral home for a long time.

James: Anybody can look at a dead body.  Let them look at the family …

Carey: … suffering from it. — C.D.

Kevin Monaghan

Hanover Memorial Park cemetery,Monaghan Funeral Home and Cremation Services

I've always thought every funeral director I've ever met was hilarious — has a neat outlook on life. It might be they realize their own mortality.

Every funeral director I've ever known — the ones that have passed away — when I envision them, they're up there laughing. They're just belly-laughing.

It really is that funeral directors are a different kind of folks. You need a little bit of difference, because if you really dwelled on half the things you've seen or done, you wouldn't be very productive.

[The HBO series] "Six Feet Under"? There's a little bit of truth, but all in all [funeral directing] is a lot of work. They never show them standing behind the hospital at 3 a.m. with a suit on making a [body] removal. Nobody gets to see that part.

No, that show bothers me. If it was true to life, it would make nobody want to go into the funeral business.

Everybody is under the assumption that funeral directors make a bunch of money,  but they really don't for the poise that they have to have.  They don't make anything.  You can make the same working an 8-to-4 job at Circuit City.

But I love it. …

You can go into a room to work with the family of a homeless person. They live in the worst part of town. You work with them and you connect with them.  And doing the same thing, you go into a room where there's doctors or politicians or blue bloods, and you do the same thing. It's kind of hard to do.

And it's sincere. I've always thought funeral directors should make a lot of money. The funeral homes do, but they don't pass that along.

When I was in college, I had a professor that had never worked in a funeral home and he was teaching ethics, and he started the class off by saying the definition of death — and it was a really cool definition — it was the total cessation of all metabolical activity.

I thought, wow, that really does say it all: the finality of death. But it is so much more.

I have been in the funeral business for 28 years, and a lady told me about a year ago something that almost knocked me off my feet. It's changed my philosophy on how a funeral should be run.

She said: "My husband was my best friend. The cancer was hard, the hospice was hard — that was all tough. The visitation, the funeral — that was all tough."

But, she says: "You know the hardest thing that I had to do the whole time? The worst part of the whole thing? Throwing away his toothbrush."

You know, after you go home. Every drawer you open. People at home, they still have to live. My dad died and my mom still lives in the same house. That's the worst thing — it's the loneliness.

My dad, he's out here [gestures out a window toward graves]. Up until he got real sick, he helped with every service.

My mom took my dad's place since my dad passed. She leads all the funerals in and helps us out a lot here. It's weird how everybody shifts into gear. Even the kids. As soon as they know we've gotten a death call, they wouldn't dare ask, "Hey, would you run me up to KB Toys?"

The grave has to be dug, and the meeting with the family and the surveying and all my equipment has to come out. When it's all done and the grave's filled, it's a pretty tremendous feeling of satisfaction.

The big things I don't sweat. This too shall pass.

— C.D.

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