across the table
"At the age of 3, Lilly told her grandmother that her throat was closing up after eating at a Chinese restaurant. The epi pen was administered.“
"This was one of my favorite maternity sessions, simply because this Mama was so excited to capturing her pregnancy. Previous losses gave them gave them such gratitude for this growing baby in her belly and it showed in her eyes and in her smile."
"Creating sauce from fruit is so delicious and perfectly simple. It's the perfect way to welcome summer into our kitchens.
You can add it to ice cream, shortcake, pancakes, french toast, angel food cake, biscuits, oatmeal or just lick it directly off the spoon.
April 22, 2019
So, we all die.
We just don’t talk about it. And by IT, I mean, what actually happens when someone dies. We’re all curious about it but we also know that we can’t say “I’m sorry your Grandma passed away. Who did you call when it happened? Did she go to the morgue? Did you write the obituary?“
Almost two years ago exactly, Kirsten, Joe and their daughter, Colette, were in the studio for a newborn session. They’re the type of people that you just want to hang out with, kind, interesting, good people. As they were packing up to head home, I asked Joe what he does for a living.
“I’m a funeral director.”
I looked at him. “Sit back down,” I said.
I proceeded to ask hundreds of questions and Joe answered them so well. I said to them “someday, I’m going to have a place where I share interesting people with other people and this is why…THIS IS SO INTERESTING.” And I kept my word because here we are…
Fast forward, they’re back in the studio for another newborn session, this time with their delicious son, Theo. (Collette calls him feedore.)
I asked to feature him, he said “absolutely.”
I have great news for you. This is just post #1 about Joe and what he does. After this, you can ask YOUR questions, either in the comments or you can email me – firstname.lastname@example.org and he’ll answer them, the next time around.
Let’s meet Joe.
Can you tell me what you do and who you work for?
I am a licensed funeral director and embalmer (however the latter of the licensing titles I don’t do much of) in both Illinois and Indiana, basically what that title means is when someone goes through one of the most tragic events in their life I am the one they call to get them through the memorialization and funeral process.
I work for Elmwood Funeral Chapel and Crematory at all 3 of our locations. In March of 1989, my dad at the age of 28 years old opened up the first of our locations at 112th and Ewing Ave. in Chicago’s East Side neighborhood, we are still there to this day. In 1999 we expanded and built a 2nd location in St. John, Indiana to continue to serve the many families and friends who relocated to Northwest Indiana as well as set our roots in a new community. Then in 2011-2012 we broke ground and built a brand new funeral home and on-site crematory in Cedar Lake, Indiana to meet the growing needs of Northwest Indiana as well as the statistical rise in cremation as a form of disposition.
This being a family business, did you always know you would be involved? At what point in your life did you know this was what you would do for a living?
Yes and no, like many family businesses you kind of always know you’re going to be involved one way or another, whether that’s just randomly helping out one day or full time employee, but it wasn’t until I was probably 22 that I knew this is what I wanted to do for a living.
So, an individual passes away…can you tell me the typical process that occurs?
Typically, we receive a phone call from one of three parties; the family themselves, the hospital, or the hospice nurse. Once we get that call we arrange a time to bring the deceased into our care as well set up a time to meet with the family and discuss their wishes and plan everything accordingly. Following that arrangement conference the tasks will vary pending each individual family’s decisions moving forward. No two funerals are the same and that’s one of the things I enjoy about this business is it’s not the same thing day in and day out.
Who makes the decision to call a particular funeral home?
Usually it’s the spouse or children who make that decision to call a particular funeral home. However, more and more individuals are taking advantage of preplanning their own funeral services years prior to dying and making sure all their own individual wishes are met and planned ahead of time. Quite honestly when this is done it makes it so much easier for the family suffering the loss.
Describe the unpredictability of your job…you have an amazing wife, two gorgeous kids, but your job pulls you away…why? How do you all decide who gets the call?
I couldn’t agree with you more, my wife Kirsten is amazing and extremely understanding, I think over the years she has learned a lot from my mom in this regard. Colette and Theodore are extremely lucky to have a mom like her. The unpredictably is definitely the most challenging part of the job. I am not going to lie, it can be very frustrating when you are just about to sit down to dinner or head to the park with your family, your phone rings and you have to drop whatever you are doing and go take care of a family who just lost a husband, a son, a dad, a brother. I can’t begin to tell you over the years how many events or trips my dad had to miss or cut short growing up. However, 30 seconds after that frustration, you remind yourself that this family is going through the worst day in their life. You apologize to whoever you were with and you go take care of that family. These families called you for a reason, they trust you to take care of them and that trust and confidence they have in you is what drives you even in the most frustrating days.
We have 4 full time funeral directors on staff and we rotate during the week and every other weekend. Of course there are times when you have a special event while you’re on call and we simply work out a switch between us. With that being said, there are several occasions where you’re scheduled off but a family might be looking for you specifically and you make it work.
Are there still cases that shake you up?
I wouldn’t say there are cases that shake me necessarily, however, there are a couple that you never forget. The common denominator seems to be children. Kids aren’t supposed to die, parents aren’t supposed to bury their children, it’s not the natural cycle intended. However it does and its terribly sad. Now that I have children of my own, it really hits home.
Let’s talk embalming…is this something you do? I believe you once told me that your brothers prep most of the bodies for viewing and that they’re particularly good at what they do…when I picture this, it feels like art to me, like something spiritual, special. Can you expound on that?
The guys at work joke and say I left my embalming tools at mortuary school. So to answer your question, no, I haven’t done that in years. I’m more of the front of the building guy. We have two main embalmers at our funeral homes. Hank and my brother Matty and they are both extremely good at what they do and they enjoy it. You have to enjoy doing it and to your point it really is an art, almost a gift. These guys see the worst of the worst and are able to take what would be a typical closed casket viewing and spend hours working on the deceased and give that family an opportunity to see their loved one a final time and say goodbye.
How does your job affect your daily life from an emotional perspective, do you feel you live life better?
The job can be very emotionally draining at times and I try my best to leave work at work, it’s not always possible but it’s something you have to do or you will go crazy. I do feel I live my life better on a daily basis. The job is at the forefront of showing you that tomorrow is not promised to anyone. I try and be the best person I can be for my family and friends. All while trying to enjoy daily life, especially on my days off by doing things I enjoy to get my mind completely off of work.
So, I like to think I’m a pretty good at having gratitude in life, does it make you crazy when you see people living life recklessly? Using drugs, speeding, drinking and driving, etc. Even if you’re completely uninvolved, even if you just see an arrest online, does that trigger anything for you?
Gratitude is absolutely something this job teaches you. It doesn’t necessarily drive me crazy when I see people living their lives recklessly because I truly don’t know what’s going on in their world that has driven them to that experience. I actually wish I could help them. I wish I could show them the hurt they leave behind for their parents, spouse, or children. It’s amazing how one little mistake can cause so much pain for others. I think in today’s society the thing that triggers me the most is just the plain disrespect for human life. We recently had a case where a young man was killed because he was mistaken for another individual. Killed for no reason other than being the first Hispanic the murderer came across. Watching that family mourn over the loss of their son was horrific.
Why is a funeral/memorial service important to families?
People forget funerals are not only for the deceased they are for the living, too. It’s a time to say goodbye, a time to share all the good memories, the good stories, get together with your family and not just mourn the loss of someone but celebrate their life. When doing that, it provides the closure, the finality that the person is gone. That is essential in the process of getting through the grief of someone dying and no longer being with us. It’s amazing how many times after a funeral or memorial people will say, “Wow it was so nice to hear that about my dad, I never knew that”. Providing that only helps the memories going forward.
Do you have cases where a cremation/burial takes place without a service? Why would someone make this decision?
We do have cases where a cremation or a burial takes place without any service at all. There are a variety of reasons they might occur. I can’t exactly say what might drive a person to want that or choose that but what I could say is more often than not when we talk to families after the fact they say, “I wish I would have done this…” That just goes to the point of the previous question, having those services, hearing those stories helps you grieve, helps you move forward.
If you could advise everyone to do one thing, what would it be?
It would be simply to enjoy your life and family and be good to others. You only have one chance on this earth don’t waste it doing something stupid.
If you could change anything about the business aspect, what would it be?
If I could change one thing about this business it would be the current trend of rushing to get over with. It seems in the society we live in, instant gratification is the new norm and with death I feel like it shouldn’t be rushed. Taking the time to celebrate that person’s life is extremely important not only for their legacy but for the family going through things and moving forward.
What do you know for sure? Time doesn’t stop for anyone.
How do you take your coffee? Two creams, two sugars.
Thank you, Joe! If you guys have any questions, ask away! But before you go, I want to add one thing… with the regards to Joe’s last paragraph. We do rush through the grieving process and we absolutely need to stop this. After losing my twins, I went to therapy five weeks after their memorial service because I didn’t think I was grieving quick enough. I went there and cried, hysterically “Why am I still so sad? Why does this still hurt so much?” After awhile, it’s like a literal wound that constantly hurts, nothing can provide the relief and some days, you just want to rip it off…but you can’t.
“Beth…do you hear yourself? It’s been five weeks. This will take a lifetime…take this time and grieve and don’t try to rush it. Remember your boys, take care of yourself and do whatever you need to do to get through the next minute.” And that’s what I did. And I reflect on that time not as just painful and hard but also, clarifying and soulful.
Grieving should not be rushed.
and I will always, always be grateful to the funeral home that guided us on the foreign journey we were on. They helped us through the darkest time in our lives.