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Working at funerals has made me a witness to the humanity of grief

Most funerals bring out the true goodness of families and friends.

What I've seen in my work has surprised

What I've seen in my work has surprised me and changed my view of funerals: They can be uplifting events that bring out the very best in people. Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto / Michelle Gibson

Like many people, I had an uneasy feeling about funerals. They evoked difficult emotions: sadness about the loss of a family member or acquaintance, and my discomfort with the very notion of death. But I now have a different view of this industry and the people who work in it.

A retired human resource executive, I’m now a part-time receptionist at wakes — the person in the dark suit who greets people as they arrive at the funeral home. I also drive families to funeral services and cemeteries in a limousine.

What I’ve seen in my work has surprised me and changed my view of funerals: They can be uplifting events that bring out the very best in people.

Driving to a cemetery, I’ve heard people describe how they hadn’t spoken to some relatives for years, their relationship fractured by a Christmas Eve gone bad. Then, standing by my limo at the cemetery, I watched as the family ended the decadelong rift after they buried their grandfather. On the drive home, they vowed to stay in touch.

One rainy day at Pinelawn Memorial Park in Farmingdale, I watched the elderly brother of a deceased Navy veteran wait patiently for the military honor guard and a clergyman to complete their part of the burial ceremony. Despite a downpour, he took a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket and sang “Anchors Aweigh,” an endearing tribute to his brother and a surprise to others.

I’ve watched in my rearview mirror as chapters from the oral history of the families are told. Rusty memories of family events are confirmed or corrected. The decedent is usually the focus of these stories, as protagonist, peacemaker or occasionally culprit. I listen as famous family recipes are extolled, and famously bad golf swings laughed about. I’ve heard nieces and nephews of a man who had no children tell stories about him that were heartwarming, some hilarious.

When a custodian at the funeral home died suddenly, everyone, executives included, turned out. As I drove my colleague’s family past the funeral home where he had worked, his co-workers were lined up on the sidewalk in Miller Place, hands over their hearts.

Home health aides who cared for the deceased are often in the limousine, a nod to their special place in the family.

I’ve seen several members of a family tearfully hug a funeral director whose cosmetology skills had erased the effects of their mother’s pre-death illness.

The demeanor of those who do the important behind-the-scenes work of embalming and cosmetology is unfailingly respectful. I continue to be surprised at the attention paid to details likely to go unnoticed by the relatives and friends attending the wake. Makeup may be touched up between afternoon and evening viewings. A creased suit lapel is addressed. These are highly skilled people entrusted to perform one of a civilized society’s most basic functions. They’re also some of the most caring people I’ve met.

Yes, tears are shed at most funerals. And some are overwhelmingly sad, especially parents grieving the passing of a child. And when long-term drug abuse ends with a funeral, there can be a distinctly different undertone: sadness tinged with relief.

But most funerals bring out the true goodness of families and friends — people celebrating a life, helping each other come to terms with life’s most inevitable event.

Reader Dave Smukler lives in Port Jefferson.

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