The Blessings & Curses of Being a Funeral Director

Every career has its blessings and its curses.  I can’t think of one job where at some time, a person goes home walking on a cloud of happiness and success – or goes home in the depth of despair and laments the day they decided to get involved with “this job!”

Even the eternal optimists and Pollyanna’s of the world have a bad day.

Oh, yes, there have been moments when I could have pulled my hair out, and yes I left several meetings wondering why people did not agree with everything that I said, but overall, over a perspective of 40 plus years I have concluded that funeral directors are really nice, caring, and very concerned people.

With that said, here are some blessings and curses I have experienced firsthand as a funeral director:


We do not run away from death.

Few if any career choices require the ability and perspective to deal compassionately, yet at the same time professionally and financially, with people who are experiencing the death of somebody significant to them.

Nurses deal personally and professionally with people but I have not ever encountered a nurse who is also involved with the financial payment agreements between the patient and the hospital. Nor have I ever seen a nurse ask how the towel they just used is going to get laundered, how much that laundry is going to cost, and who pays the laundry bill.  I also don’t know of an instance when the chief hospital administrator asks the orderlies on the floor how much brain surgery ought to cost, and then takes the advice.

We have the capacity to build a trusting relationship with a stranger.
When was the last time you went to Wal-Mart, café, or dentist and the clerk or waiter, or hygienists referred to you as their “family”? I believe funeral service is probably the only career where total strangers to the funeral director can consistently expect such treatment.  This is a blessing to our communities.

The human attitude that most funeral directors possess a universal compassion is certainly an admirable trait. It is also a trait that drives the anti-funeral people nuts because they can’t control what is in a funeral directors heart – and if funeral service is anything, it is a matter of our hearts.

Our funeral home’s become a family’s “real home”.
I remember a veteran funeral director telling me once that when I opened the front door to our funeral home I was, in reality, welcoming our client families into THEIR home.  The funeral home is a place maintained for the families so that they feel not just comfortable, but that they may hopefully feel right at home.  I have always liked the old home concept in funeral home buildings.

Every city I have ever visited I have noticed that overall, the funeral homes are the most beautiful buildings in the town. I have concluded that the beauty of most funeral homes is an unconscious way of buffering the perceived ugliness of death.  I also believe this is the motivating reason behind beautiful caskets, beautiful flowers, etc.


Sometimes we’re too compassionate, too often.
I understood grief, compassion, caring, and being concerned.  I was the freebee king, the Santa Claus of funeral service… free services everywhere.  I added service upon service, but failed to add up my blasted ledger book until it was way too late.  Those “little items of consideration”  I was so proud of (and I  hoped drove my competitor nuts) really added up over time and translated into lost revenues and lost profits.

Things have definitely improved in this area, mostly due to a great form called the General Price List. If you’re reading these words and my story rings a bell, I offer this simple thought:  balance compassion with business reality.

We have a bad rep in pop culture
Popular culture invariable characterizes funeral professionals as the undertaker with wringing hands, with a vulture-like appearance, and a person who is creepy, morbid and ghoulish. Screenwriters in Hollywood almost universally depend on this untrue image, and even the widely popular television program “Six Feet Under” presented the funeral directors as horribly dysfunctional people.

In real life, many people literally cringe at the mention of funerals and funeral homes and funeral directors, almost with a root feeling of revulsion. We have all experienced this, have we not? As a funeral professional I do not want anyone to think of me as being a bad guy or gal – not in any way, and not by anyone.  Funeral directors are not bad people. We know it, and everybody who knows us personally knows it, but still it is no fun for funeral directors to comprehend that even a few people in our universe automatically associate us with something unpleasant, and conclude that we as human beings are also somehow unpleasant.

One of the great blessings in my life is that by guess or by golly, by accident and certainly not by design, and to my own amazement and surprise I have been fortunate to work with thousands of funeral directors across the globe in my career, which is now long (and has not been totally uneventful). I have to confess that I have not found a more wonderful group of people to work with than funeral directors.  This profession is more rewarding than I could have ever imagined, and I’m thankful for every experience, conversation or meeting that has led me to where I am today.

Are there any other blessings and curses you’d like to share? Leave your comments below!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Todd VanBeck lives in Decatur, GA with his wife, Georgia. He received an honorary Doctorate Degree in Humane Letters from Commonwealth Institute of Funeral Service, Houston, TX, Master of Arts Degree in Pastoral Ministry from Mount Saint Mary’s Seminary, Cincinnati, OH, Bachelor’s of Arts Degree in Psychology and Philosophy from Mount Mercy College, Cedar Rapids, IA and Mortuary Arts and Sciences Diploma from New England Institute of Anatomy, Sanitary Science, Embalming and Funeral Directing, Boston, MA. He formerly owned the T. W. Van Beck Funeral Home & Ambulance Service, served as general manager of John B. Turner & Son Mortuary, Cedar Rapids, IA. Todd was an educator at Cincinnati College of Mortuary College of Mortuary Science, Hudson Valley College, New England Institute and Commonwealth Institute. He was the Dean of the College of Funeral Management and the College of Embalming and Restorative Art at the University of Memphis. He is a Certified Funeral Service Practitioner and a member of the Academy of Professional Funeral Service Practice, a Certified Embalmer, The British Institute of Embalmers, on the Board of Trustees, the President Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation, the author of 4 books, 400 professional articles. Todd is also a member of the Dr. Albert Schweitzer Memorial Fellowship, and the American Guild of Organists.

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