Hardening of the heart

Charles Cowling

Image from Dippy Designs

What happens to the minds of those who deal with death every day? How do they cope with the endless procession of grieving people and dead bodies? Is it emotionally healthy to specialise in death? Isn’t undertaking something best combined with a therapeutic something else – a little landscape gardening or, in the case of Jeremy Clutterbuck, undertaker to the good folk of Cam in Gloucestershire, ironmongery? It is difficult to see, on his website, any affiliation to any of the funeral industry trade bodies, but he is proud to proclaim his membership of the British Hardware Federation.

In his excellent book Curtains, Tom Jokinen quotes Alan Wolfelt on ‘funeral director fatigue syndrome’. He lists the following symptoms:

  • Exhaustion and loss of energy
  • Irritability and impatience
  • Cynicism and detachment
  • Feelings of omnipotence and indispensability

I wonder if any funeral director out there has any comment on this? How do you look after your emotional health?

Funeral directors apart, what happens to those at a less exalted level – the trade embalmers, those who work in mortuaries, especially hospital mortuaries? What coping skills are they taught? Anecdotally, we are aware that mortuary practice in some of Britain’s funeral homes is not always what it should be and can be deplorable.

Here are two recent stories which illustrate what I’m getting at. See what happened to these people:

Staff at a historic cemetery in Genoa are being investigated for allegedly stripping gold fillings, jewels and artificial limbs from corpses for resale.

Seven employees at the wooded Staglieno cemetery, built in 1851, are suspected of having secretly amassed their booty in a workroom where buyers purchased materials by the pound.

Zinc stripped from coffins, as well as wooden coffins themselves, stolen seconds before cremations, were also up for sale, reported Genoa daily Il Secolo XIX. Artificial limbs were prized for their titanium content.

Read it all here.  Hat-tip to Tony Piper.

Questions about staff turnover, working relationships with funeral homes and the treatment of bodies at the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office merit a review by an independent, third party, County Council Chairman Dave Gossett said … The scrutiny comes after an anonymous, online complaint the county received in August 2009.

The writer claimed to help run one of the county’s largest funeral homes and said bodies the funeral home received from the medical examiner’s office were “in vile condition.”

Read it all here.

9 thoughts on “Hardening of the heart

  1. Charles Cowling

    And we do, GM, we do!! (I don’t know about enlighten, but I do know join.)

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling

    Charles/Jonathan, I thank you gentlemen, you are always welcome to join me and enlighten me further, as I trundle along mortality’s branchlines pondering and wondering…

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    Surely numbers must play a role too? Maybe for one 2 deaths a week may be healthy for some 5? Just a thought.
    Not being part of the industry I can imagen every one has a different threshold that they may consider ‘heathy’ and I imagen Quantity over quality will aways take a toll, and one size does not fit all’just like everything else.
    I mean what’s the point of doing anything if you cant pour your love into it?
    I loved ‘departures’ by the way, exellent viewing, this should be shouwn in schools!!

    Charles Cowling
  4. Charles Cowling

    Gloria Mundi’s excellent blog, Mindfulness and Mortality, can be found here: http://mortality-branchlinesblog.blogspot.com/

    Charles Cowling
  5. Charles Cowling

    Looking forward to your shining post-mortem-posts, Gloriamundi.

    P.S: I can’t find your blog any more – can you take the liberty of using Charles’s to redirect me to it? (With your permission of course, Charles.)

    Charles Cowling
  6. Charles Cowling

    Not I, Charles, for sure, bouncing from one emotion to the next, though mindfulness helps – see future posts sometime in my perfectly balanced future when my understanding of mortality and my intense love of life are in perfect harmony and I am the jewel in the heart of the lotus and…oh, bugger, it must mean I’ll be dead!

    Charles Cowling
  7. Charles Cowling

    “Efficiency and empathy…” Yes, GM, that’s exactly what I thought when I read those words. Perfectly expressed. Brilliant. Humane and no-nonsense.

    Suicide is so often wrapped in mystery. So often its legacy is ‘Why?’

    But who of us can boast of balance?

    Charles Cowling
  8. Charles Cowling

    Charles, another line for the training manual:

    “…efficiency and empathy (because there are things to be done but humanity to be factored in.)”

    Not only good ministers, but stable and secure ministers, have to find that mix, that balance, or they may be either inauthentic, callous at worst, as a defense, or they may suffer in ways that are very bad for them. FDs too, I guess.

    An FD of my acquaintence – an efficient, tactful, considerate man – ended his own life some months ago. No-one had any inkling he was under pressure or over-wrought. He was well-respected, well-liked, a good man, a quiet man – perhaps a dangerously quiet man, for his own good. OK, this could have happened to a bank manager or a postman, but – he was an undertaker. Some people round here feel he undertook too much. Yet he was efficient, and he had empathy.

    Thanks Melissa.

    Charles Cowling
  9. Charles Cowling

    I hate the last bit of that post about pinching titanium etc. I also don’t know about it so can’t comment. How depressing!!

    I can’t speak for funeral directors or hospital staff because I only deal with burials but I do speak to shocked/raw/grieving people often and sometimes that can be pretty inwardly harrowing. You know the sort of deaths I mean. I think I’ve got something useful to say about that.

    I think that the reason some of the people who do the kind of jobs you mention can handle it is because they have built up a ‘strength’. Not in a detached way, rather a combination of life experience, competence and their own emotional make-up. If this manifests itself as combo of efficiency and empathy (because there are things to be done but humanity to be factored in) then they might be in the right job.

    Lots of people I’ve met in this profession also seem to have interests that are completely separate from their work and which give them joy. (Mine are music – that’s the most important one, tennis, very close inner circle of friends etc. etc. – I live!)

    I bet (and hope) that most death industry folk find it extremely satisfying to be able to do their job well.

    Is funeral fatigue syndrome more common in America by the way? And, are the British better equipped as a nation?

    That’ll annoy everyone!


    Charles Cowling

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