Well, gosh darn if this isn’t a brutal thing to write. Who wants to be a crusher of dreams? Creating dreams is obviously way more fun.
I get a lot of messages from people who say the Order of the Good Death inspired them to explore their interest in death, go back to mortuary school, and start a career in the funeral industry. The fact that I could have that kind of effect on someone is incredibly flattering. But as a wise man (ok fine, it was Spiderman) once said, “with great power comes great responsibility.” It is my responsibility to be transparent and honest. It’s disingenuous for me to say, “woo! Alright sweet angels, go out there and follow your deathy dreams!” without making sure you know the realities.
Reality One: Embalming is on its way out
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe embalming is not on its way out. As an advocate of natural burial (i.e. burial with no chemical treatment of the body of any kind) I’m about the farthest thing there is from an unbiased voice in this matter. But the data backs me up. Recent numbers from the Bureau of Labor and Statistics list embalming as one of the 15 disappearing middle class jobs. Our national cremation rate rises every day, and shows no signs of stopping.
Here’s the issue: embalming is what mortuary science schools teach. They have pretenses towards other subjects (we got about two hours over the course two years on cremation) but really it’s embalming. The first mortuary schools were founded by embalming chemical companies. The North American death industry has a whole system in place to support embalming. Except the public no longer wants the service. Embalming followed by burial still has a stronghold in certain geographic areas, but culturally we’re turning to cremation, and fingers crossed, natural burials.
The embalming we’ve seen lately, like the guy who was hyper-preserved and buried in a glass case propped up on his Harley, has a sort of crumbling-of-the-Roman-Empire feel to it. The bizarre decadence that shows up historically at the end of eras or civilizations.
If I were to encourage you to go to mortuary school, you’d be paying quite a bit of money (and giving several years of your life) to something that may very well not be a long term, stable career for you. Even if you do make it through mortuary school and get a job, there is a massive turnover rate in this industry. Massive. Long gone are the days when you got the “funeral director”-result on your career aptitude test and could safely say, “weird, ok, cool. I’ll just do that.”
Reality Two: I did not attend mortuary school in order to enter the funeral industry.
Did I graduate from mortuary school? Yes. Have I worked for years in the funeral industry? Yes. I did these things because I was fascinated by cultural death practices and studying behind the scenes. Almost from the beginning I knew I wanted to devote myself to what I am doing now: empowering families to take care of their own dead, taking charge of their corpses and their rituals in a way that is meaningful. If you want to be a “mortician like me” (which, again, welp, is so nice of you to say) you should be fully aware that my work is part of a movement attempting to reduce our culture’s dependence on morticians and the death industry. Essentially, I AM TRYING TO GET RID OF MYSELF. Bye, me!
I also needed the stupid titles to be the type of advocate that I am. Mortuary school graduate. Licensed mortician. I knew people in the death industry would say “who is this girl, I bet she didn’t even go to mortuary school!” Surprise, surprise, they do say that, all the time. Sadly, it’s important (especially as a woman) that I be able to respond, “I did go to mortuary school and I do have a license” before I can go on to say, “and I still think we can take care of our dead radically different than how we do now.”
Reality Three: You can’t just “take a job” in the alternative death industry instead.
“Jobs” in the alt death industry is kind of a misnomer. The people in the Order who work in alt death (Jeff owns his own carbon neutral cremation and green burial funeral home, Sarah is a caretaker at a natural burial cemetery, Cassandra is a home funeral midwife) all had to create this reality for themselves. We came from jobs in the traditional death industry and have found a way to make it work somehow. You can’t Craiglist job search positions like these. I’ve been working to start my own business, Undertaking LA, and I still have no idea if it’s going to work. It’s scary.
The fact is, as much as we believe in natural burial, home funerals, etc, they are NOT part of a booming industry. There can be trend pieces about them in the New York Times, but that doesn’t mean the culture at large has changed (yet). In economic terms: the market for alt death hasn’t caught up yet to the people who want to serve the market.
Reality Four: A young, single person has the specific privilege of revolution
Starting Undertaking LA and the Order of the Good Death has been brutal. I make myself sick working long hours and go through periods of being real broke. But it’s 100% a choice I make to follow this passion, this compulsion. I did this to myself.
More importantly, I only have myself to think about. Many of the messages I get regarding getting into the death industry or attending mortuary school are from young mothers, looking for a stable career that they love and that will also support their children. I would never recommend what I do (working outside the traditional industry) to people with young children. Is it because I think women with young children couldn’t handle it? That’s not at all what I’m suggesting. I know that having children is an exercise in stress and logistics beyond what I could ever understand. All I know is I would crumble like a sad, wet cookie if I lived the life I do now with kids or elderly parents that depended on me financially, emotionally, or otherwise. Hell, before her sweet fluffy butt went to the great kitty beyond, I found caring for a cat stressful.
Even if you are one of the people who snags a job in the traditional funeral industry, the work involves long hours, and completely erratic hours. It involves taking in the deep sorrow of others.
Where Does That Leave Us?
Maybe you’re the type of person who reads everything I just wrote and says, “suck it Caitlin, I don’t care what you say, a life in death is for me.” Well, then you’re probably just the type of person who will make it, who will carve out a place for themselves in the world of death. Jerry Seinfeld was talking to Louis CK, about the people who ask him “how do you make it in stand up comedy?” His answer: “if you have to ask, you’ll probably never make it.”
The people who will have careers are the people who will do whatever it takes: knocking on funeral home doors, apprenticing, figuring out how to innovate and learn and discover where the industry is going. Don’t get me wrong, I want you to pursue this if you are smart, innovative, and ambitious. Lord knows we desperately need you. It’s the Wild West out here, we don’t know where death will go in the next 10, 20, 30 years and we have the unique opportunity to shape it. Go to mortuary school (especially if that is required to become licensed in your state) but research exactly what being in the industry means. In my dreams the mortuary schools are flooded with revolutionaries. But we’re at the beginning of a movement here, and the path is not yet clear and easy and free of brambles and knocked down trees.
And if you have to do this, it’s a calling, you can’t not do this? Then welcome to death, we’ve been waiting for you.