Burying my Undertaker
Posted on April 15, 2016 byunder
Last year, I moved across the country from a small town in Wisconsin for a new life in Northern California. Recently, I had to return briefly to Wisconsin to bury one of my own..
My dear friend, mentor and fellow undertaker, Paul Olson, had passed away after a difficult winter and snowballing medical issues. We worked together nearly every day for 8 years, and in that time, got to know one another very well. I learned a great deal about being an undertaker, and about life from my friend Paul. My wife pointed out to me the night Paul died that I had probably spent more time with Paul than I had with my own father, who died when I was 8. In many ways, leaving Paul had been the most difficult part of my move. Before I left Wisconsin, and while Paul was still in good health, I had promised him that when he died, I would return to direct his funeral.
More than anyone in the world, perhaps, I knew what he wanted for his funeral. I knew what was important to him, and what could be left to chance. I knew how his hands should be set, and how he wanted the pall bearers to do their work. I knew the kind of casket and vault he wanted, what kind of hymns he wanted and that there better be no picture boards at the visitation.
Most of all, I knew that this gentle and well loved man, who dedicated over 50 years serving his community as an undertaker, should have his funeral conducted with the care and love he deserved. I felt it to be a great privilege to be entrusted with this task. As it turned out, I learned first hand how important a funeral can be to a survivor. Though I deal with death and grieving families every day, this was the most significant death in my life in many years. Unlike many of the families I serve, however, I had the duty and the privilege to participate in many of the most important tasks involved in laying Paul out and laying his to rest. This experience renewed my commitment to encouraging and facilitating the participation of family members in the funeral process.
Having been alerted of his failing health by Paul’s family, I made ready to fly as soon as he died. I was able to call and speak with him during a time of consciousness, and while I couldn’t make out his words, I know he heard mine. There were a couple days of false hope, a second wind it seemed, where Paul was walking and eating. But soon the phone call came that shocked me despite the fact that I was expecting it for a week. A sensation of falling, like an elevator going down a bit too quickly, and a hot thickening of my face and throat came over me when I heard the news during a break at my evening Spanish class.
Absolut vodka had been Paul’s drink of choice since I knew him, so when I got home, I placed a glass of in in front of his photo, and joined him with several glasses of my own. In between these, I made my airline reservations, and flew back to Wisconsin two days later.
Despite being around death so much in my life and career, my emotions surprised me. I knew that I would be sad, but forgot how long and deep the effects of grief can be. Somehow, despite so many experiences to the contrary, I had imagined a tidy compartmentalized and subdued period of sadness. Even before flying out though, I was already more emotionally raw than I had anticipated. The busyness of packing and planning helped me to keep my mind off of the situation, but the closer I got to the funeral, the more Paul’s passing effected me.
I stopped in at the funeral home as soon as I got into town and saw Paul, embalmed and peaceful, but not fully prepared for public viewing. I placed my hand on his face and talked to him briefly, knowing then, that at some point, I would break down and really deal with my loss. I wasn’t ready to do it yet, and while I knew that the emotional dam would burst, I had no idea when it would happen, just that it would.
The next day was long and started early as days in funeral service often do. I was at the funeral home at 7:30 am and after the morning coffee ritual, my colleague Bill Clark and I began the final preparations. Bill knew Paul well too, and had learned much from him, just as I had. Thankfully, the solemn tasks of preparation, dressing and placement of Paul’s body within the casket were lightened as we shared memories of Paul’s advice and preferences. For years, Paul had overseen our work; suggesting an adjustment on the angle of the head, the fluff of a pillow, the filling out of a feature, and the right time to stop fussing and leave certain things alone. We were grateful for this sharing of his tricks, techniques and experience with us. We were also comforted by knowing that we were doing things just the way he would have wanted.
The dressing, bathing and preparation of a person’s remains is often an act of caring and is especially meaningful when you are giving this last act of service to someone you know. I know that this work helped me by giving me an opportunity to give back to Paul. The process is also like developing a photograph, in that the personality and individuality of the person becomes clearer and more distinct. Paul certainly looked like himself when I first saw him, but the emotional impact of seeing him dressed in his customary way, with his facial features and skin tone right, that was a very different experience altogether. It really hit me when we put his glasses on. Oh my God! Paul! There is a difference between knowing in your mind that your friend is dead, even seeing physical proof of the death, and seeing him, himself, as you know him. That is something I will always treasure, even as it brings my heart into my throat.
The rest of that day was spent in extending hospitality to Paul’s family and friends who came to support one another in saying goodbye to Paul. The atmosphere that was at once festive and poignant. They had the luxury of time, a whole evening to engage in conversations and recollections. Time to share old stories and hear new ones about the person they loved and missed; time to demonstrate by their very presence that Paul’s life had been important to them. Though I was busy greeting guests and swinging the front door, I had an opportunity to share in this connection too. Among the many visitors I opened the door for were families I had served over the years. We shared memories of Paul and news about our own families. After the visitation, I spent a few wonderful hours with Paul’s family over a late dinner, sharing some very humorous and sweet stories.
The funeral service was held at First Lutheran Church the next day. It was the same church that Paul had attended his entire life, and very few funerals had taken place in the last 50 years there that Paul had not been a part of. His casket and flowers were set up early, and then we waited outside to guide the family cars into their places in the procession line. For an hour, family and friends looked upon Paul, said their goodbyes and visited with the family. Fifteen minutes before the service, I led the family back to the church library for a prayer with the Pastors. As Paul had done for 50 years, I bode the family to take their time, “every one waits on the family”. After bringing in a couple stragglers back to the library, it was time for me to close Paul’s casket.
How many times have I closed a casket? Too many to count. I have closed them while the family’s gaze is discreetly hidden, off in another room praying with a Pastor. I have closed caskets in front of weeping, gasping spouses and children. It is always a gentle farewell. A tucking in of soft fabric, removal of glasses, and slow careful movements. Some traditions call for the casket to be closed in front of the congregation right before the service, sometimes it is opened again at the end to allow guests to file by and say goodbye before leaving for the cemetery. Sometimes a casket is opened once more at the cemetery to allow ‘the sun to touch him one more time’. At First Lutheran, the casket is closed during the family prayer and is never opened again. As hard as it was for me to do it, I will never regret the fact that I was there and I know the goodbye was as tender as it could have been. I was starting to lose it as I headed back to the library.
Slowly, and I hope with some degree of grace and dignity, I ushered the family into their pews and made my way to the narthex at the back of the church where Paul’s casket, Pastors and the other Undertakers were waiting. This is when the emotions hit me full force and I wept and sobbed nearly uncontrollably and almost silently as I pushed his casket down the aisle of First Lutheran Church. With a practiced precision, we turned Paul’s casket parallel to the altar and walked back to the narthex in measured steps. It was a relief to be free to sob, now that I was out of view and earshot. I am not ashamed of my emotions, but part of being an undertaker and an important part for Paul, was always the humility of staying in the background. The deceased and the family should always be the focus, while the work of the undertaker should take place gently and quietly. The last thing I wanted to do at Paul’s service was showboat around! Tears continued through ‘Children of the Heavenly Father’ and ‘Beautiful Savior’. I knew enough to allow my tears and sobbing to come out, this is what the funeral is for after all, and I am grateful for the opportunity to play this out, but I really did not expect the depth of my emotions, or the strength of their outpour. I was grateful that Pastor Richard Halom was delivering the message that day. He is a gifted eulogist who always seems to get things just right. He described Paul and his work with great insight and affection.
Through the procession and burial I remained shaky. After the family left, we watched his casket lower into the ground and sprinkled some dirt on it. I was proud of our work. Bill Cress, the president of the firm, and a longtime colleague of Paul’s , along with his wife, Sherry, a great team of directors, Jessica Pharo, Jennifer Heimdahl, Jeffrey Olson, of course, Bill Clark, and Assistant, George Kaminsky. did a great job that Paul would have been proud of.
As tradition goes in Stoughton Wisconsin, family and guests returned to church for a wonderful luncheon. The undertakers are always invited, though we wait until everyone else has gone through the line. Standard fare is ham sandwiches, along with various hot dishes, salads, jello salads, cookies, bars, and cakes of all descriptions, and plenty of hot black coffee. Having eaten so many funeral lunches over his years, and consequently, untold thousands of ham sandwiches, it was Paul’s often repeated directive that there should be no ham sandwiches at his own lunch. Paul preferred ham salad sandwiches, and this was served instead. The ham salad was prepared by Paul’s family and it was delicious, as was Marion Gjertson’s almond cake, the lemon bars and the pulled pork from Jacobsen’s deli. Unfortunately, Pearl Elvekrog was in poor health and unable to make her famous baked macaroni and cheese dish.
Many times I had sat with Paul at these lunches. We always tried to find a table with other guests to visit with, and the cold or heat of the graveyard was relieved by friendly conversation and hearty food. Sometimes I would remark to Paul how kind and gracious the family was. You can tell a really nice family by the way they visit each table, making sure everyone else is comfortable, well fed, and their presence recognized and appreciated. This was certainly the case with Paul’s family, concerned with others even in their own grief. A wonderful family.
I think now what it would have been like if I had not been able to attend or direct Paul’s service. Where would I be emotionally? I had traveled out as a gift to Paul, but in giving, I was the one who gained. Without the opportunity to give, and to feel and to touch, see and hear, to share my loss with others, I don’t think I would have moved forward from Paul’s death very well. I don’t think I would have even realized how profound my loss, or his gift to me, had been. As foggy and painful and exhausting as the experience was, it brought release, reassurance, and ultimately a satisfaction that I done the right thing for my dear friend. I will take that tomy grave.