My husband, myself, and our dog Olga recently moved cross-country for his work. In turn, I quit both of my jobs and somewhat unexpectedly dedicated myself to being a full-time stay-at-home-dog-mom. While it’s been rewarding work (insert eye roll) I miss the challenge of being a chaplain. I miss sitting with people in difficult spaces and exploring the uncharted. Actually I miss seeing people, period.
So good news, everybody, in a few weeks I start my new job as a hospice chaplain. Palliative and hospice care have always been a something I love, but this is the first time I get to focus exclusively on it. It’s a pretty exciting start for me. But working with the dead extends far beyond the scope of helping people die well in hospice care. Funeral directors are dedicated to dignity for the dead and medical students work with the dead to learn more about the living. If a person is unfortunate enough to end life violently they may be surrounded by forensics, detectives and other people dedicated to getting justice for the dead. So, in honor of my new job (and the upcoming All Soul’s Day), this Wildcard Wednesday is dedicated to the professionals who work with death.
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I have found one of the more difficult aspects of being a hospital chaplain is talking with a family about entering their loved one into hospice care. Families often feel like they are “giving up on” their loved one if they choose hospice care. It is difficult to explain why discontinuing a feeding tube isn’t starving a loved one, or why the rattle in their throat is supposed to be there. Over the years I’ve read dozens and dozens of books on death and dying to help me better communicate with families and Final Gifts: Understanding the Special Awareness, Needs and Communications of the Dying is one of my favorites. It goes deep into what the dying process looks like and brings it into a relatable sphere. Written by hospice nurses sharing their experiences it is a very real look at the last moments of life. Macabre note: I read this book on our honeymoon.
Also known as an undertakers or morticians these are some of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. Funeral directors are tasked with picking up, embalming, dressing, cossetting, cremating and burying bodies. Often times they orchestrate the actual funeral ceremony.
I have had the supreme honor of working as the presiding minister at many funeral services. Traditionally, families choose a longer service at a facility followed by a shorter graveside service. It’s not uncommon for the minister to ride along with the funeral director to the gravesite instead of driving separatly. This carpooling insures the minister won’t get lost, saves gas, and (my main reason) it provides some of the liveliest conversations I’ve ever had. It has been my experience from these rides that funeral directors could define “customer service” and “professionalism” as they remain cool, caring and polite in the midst of high emotions and bizarre requests common to their profession.
Does this Mean You’ll See Me Naked?: Field Notes from a Funeral Director by Robert Webster is a memoir that gives the reader a behind the scenes look at the funeral industry, including odd human behavior, your body after death, industry secrets and how to avoid common pitfalls. It’s a really honest look what happens behind the scenes and what may someday happen to you.
The Hearse You Came in On (Hitchcock Sewell Mysteries) by Tim Cockey is the first book in a series featuring an undertaker who gets involved in a murder investigation. The author is compared by several reviewers to Janet Ivanovich because of his writing style and quirky, humorous prose. There are plenty of lively characters to keep you interested and Hitchcock is one of those characters you develop a bit of a crush on.
My grandmother refuses to entertain the idea of burial. She’s been terrified of the idea of being buried alive all her life and adamantly insists on being cremated. Odd phobias aside, cremation is become a popular choice as space for a ground burial becomes limited. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty is a memoir of a very young mortician/crematory tech and her musings on the subject. At times it’s laugh out loud funny (I spit my coffee out when she described going from her crematory job to a tutoring gig all dusty from the day and being tempted to look at the parents of her students and whisper to them “people… I’m wearing people.”) Perhaps the most important part of the book for me is her encouragement to face death head on and demystify the experience. It’s well written, poignant, funny and existential all in the same breath.
There are two things I’ve always wanted to be when I grew up… be a United Methodist minister and a forensic anthropologist. I wanted to be a forensic anthropologist so bad I did my undergraduate in anthropology before going to seminary. Ten years later I’m working a pursue a PhD in anthropology and STILL trying to find a way to combine the two (I refuse to accept that just won’t happen). Forensic anthropology is the study of remains that are no longer of pathological interest (think: bones, charred remains, bodies submerged under water for a long time etc etc). One of the books that helped me fall in love with the profession is the the Temperance Brennan Novels (starting with Deja Dead) by Kathy Reichs. Eventually this series was made into the hit television show Bones, which I did not think even came close to doing the series justice (but I appreciated the effort). This long running series of thriller novels are a fun combination of suspense and information.
Pathology is the behavior of a disease…any disease from congenital to a cause of death. Forensic pathology is examination of the pathologic process, injury, or disease that leads to a person’s death. In layman’s terms a forensic pathologist is the person performing an autopsy. Often times a medical examiner or a coroner are trained in pathology or forensic pathology, but not always. (Fun fact: the basic generalized difference between the two is the former is elected and does not have to be a physician the later are typically appointed and must be physicians).
During my high school years it was the Jack Stapleton and Laurie Montgomery series (starting with Blindsight) by Robin Cook the started my obsession with forensics. In this series Dr Laurie Montgomery is a forensic pathologist and her friend Dr Jack Stapleton an ophthalmologists, murder investigations, investigations and maybe even a bit of romance make this series addicting.
Arguably even better than Robin Cook’s series are the Rizzoli and Isles novels (starting with The Surgeon) by Tess Gerritsen. These novels blend the viewpoint of a homicide detective (Rizzoli) with the eyes of a medical examiner (Isles) to form a well rounded and engaging thriller. I personally find Gerritsen’s writing to be a little more rich and complex than Cook’s.
This final book is being toss on the list because it is so unusual. I found Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin while I was researching this article and immediately put it on my “to read” list. Similar to the above books the characters featured are strong female lead but takes place in medieval Europe instead of modern-day. A young woman, trained as a doctor in Italy, must dress herself as a man to help solve a mystery in King Henry the II’s court. It combines the genres of medical thriller with historic fiction in a unique blend that has the ability to keep you engrossed.
In a world that sometimes seems so dark it’s an interesting testament to society that we are dedicated to finding justice for those who have died violent deaths, and an integral part of organizing the process of justice are homicide detectives. An engrossing perspective on what it is really like to work as an advocate for the dead is found in Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by (the inspiration HBO’s The Wire). Unlike some of the other books on the list, it is not a memoir, rather journalist David Simon was granted unlimited access to a Baltimore homicide unit and wrote an incredible account on what it’s like to be a detective for the dead.
Crime Scene Investigator
CSI is a career that has been developed and transformed in the last thirty years. In Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay we meet Dexter Morgan (of Showtime fame). Dexter is a blood splatter analyst (part of the CSI team) who also happens to be a serial killer of serial killers. If you’ve seen the TV Show don’t worry…these books will still blow your mind. The series is way dark in a way that could not possibly show on TV. If you don’t believe me I have two words for you: Yodeling Potato.
A Medical Cadaver
Hang with me on this one. Maybe you don’t have the stomach, inclination or calling to work with the dead and dying… but you could allow your dead body to be used to help others. Instead of working with the dead it’s putting your body to work AFTER death. Working in the hospital I often heard of families who could not afford a funeral. (Fun fact you can actually buy a coffin online from a retailer (even Walmart) and it must be accepted by the funeral home. Look here if this cost saving measure sounds too weird to be true.) For those who literally could not afford a funeral I would often talk to families about donating their body to science. Often times these donated cadavers go to medical schools and are used for learning purposes, cremated, and then sent home to the family. My brother is currently in a physical therapy program and mentioned to me that all tissue taken from the body had to be saved so the remains would be in tact when sent to their family. Gone (and perhaps never were) the days of disrespect, these students are extremely careful with their cadavers. However, donation to a medical school isn’t a bodies only option. In her fantastically researched book Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers author Mary Roach explores the different avenues a body can take and what we can learn from the dead. One of my favorite books of all time. For extra reading bonus check out Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife also by Roach.
If you know somebody who works in the death industry this Halloween take time to give them a hug. While people who do this work are extremely dedicated to it sometimes the sadness they witness day to day can take a toll. A friendly thank you or cup of coffee is a kind way to show your appreciation for a difficult role.