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Robert D. Webster

DOES THIS MEAN YOU’LL SEE ME NAKED?

Field Notes from a Funeral Director

This book is dedicated to my wife, Mel; my daughter, Anna; and my sons, Michael and Ben, for enduring the consequences of my chosen profession. I appreciate the patience afforded me as I was the husband who had to leave the dinner party and the dad who had to exit early from the school play and miss many baseball games over the years because someone’s family experienced a death.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Much appreciation to Colleen Armstrong, for her push and encouragement to finish this work.

And a special thank-you goes to Cindy Blizzard Browning, for her comment that led to the title of this book.

PROLOGUE

I once buried a pickup truck. I’ve also handled the funeral plans for 4,500 people, which you’d expect for someone who has more than thirty-three years of experience in the death-care industry. You just might not expect a graveside service for a Ford.

But those of my ilk—and call us what you like: undertakers, embalmers, morticians, funeral directors, or death-care providers—would understand that, unique as it is, this request is all part of a day’s work.

I sat down with an elderly man one morning to discuss his funeral plans. The gentleman caught me off guard when he told me he wanted to be buried in the front seat of his Ford pickup truck. When he emphatically assured me that he was not kidding, an amazing discussion occurred.

He had already arranged with a cemetery to purchase two grave spaces to accommodate his truck, a vehicle measuring nineteen feet long and sixty-nine inches wide. He handed me a contract from the cemetery to prove that he had in fact purchased the two graves and a custom-made concrete grave liner, and he pointed out on the contract some specific instructions from the cemetery. That is, the cemetery would honor this unique burial only if the truck was first delivered to a mechanic who would agree to drain all the fluids and remove the battery. After I called a repair shop to obtain such an estimate, we finalized our deal.

The gentleman died a few months later, and I honored his requests. We conducted a visitation and funeral ceremony as usual, with the gentleman reposing in a rental casket. After the funeral service, the pallbearers lifted him out of the casket, and we placed him onto a mortuary cot. The cot was rolled outside to the waiting pickup truck, the pallbearers lifted him into the front seat, and the truck was then pulled up onto a flatbed tow truck. That tow truck, the hearse for the day, led the way in procession to the cemetery. Upon arrival, the pickup truck was lowered to ground level, and then a large construction crane positioned nearby lowered the truck into the grave.

Sometimes it’s the request that’s unique, but sometimes it’s another thing entirely.

My son and I removed one elderly woman from her residence, transported her to the funeral home, and placed her on the preparation room table. We removed her clothing and placed it into a shopping bag to return to the family. When the woman’s family arrived, we finalized arrangements and came to the discussion of payment. When I first began my career as a funeral director, I was almost apologetic to bereaved families when discussing the funeral bill. I genuinely felt bad to have to assault them with yet another, perhaps uncomfortable, aspect of the funeral process. After all, it was sobering and sad enough that the family before me had lost their loved one, and I had to tactfully determine whether payment would be forthcoming.

The elderly lady’s daughter quickly stopped me midsentence to say, “You already have Mom’s funeral money.”

I was taken aback. Had her mother prearranged and prepaid, and I hadn’t found her file? Had she assigned her life insurance to the funeral home already? Was her funeral money in a trust at a bank? Had she transferred a plan from another funeral home to me?

No—it was much less complicated than that.

“You removed Mom’s clothes, didn’t you?” the daughter asked. “Her funeral money is in her brassiere.”

Sure enough, the woman had sewn a pocket inside each cup of her bra and had deposited $3,000 in each side.

The daughter explained that her mother had told her years ago not to worry about her funeral expenses, that she had set aside money for such a purpose. Her mother usually kept the money in a bureau drawer, but as the grandchildren got older and more inquisitive when visiting, she was concerned that some innocent rummaging might reveal her cache. Therefore, she altered her bras, equipping them with pockets to accommodate her stash. The daughter further stated that on several occasions her mother had commented, “Don’t forget, my funeral money is right here,” and cupped her hands to her chest.

These kinds of things are what really go on after you’re dead.

CHAPTER ONE

When the telephone rings in the middle of the night, my semi-awake mind instantly buzzes into action. Since I have a business phone right next to my bed, and I happen to be a very light sleeper, I have no problem answering and sounding as if I had already been awake for hours. I have discovered that even after thirty years in the funeral business, I don’t mind being jolted from sleep.

After I hang up, I sit on the edge of the bed and make a decision. If the death has occurred at a hospital or nursing home, then I will take a shower, get dressed, and get moving. If the death has occurred at a private residence, then I will simply wet down my hair, comb it as well as I can, get dressed, and really get moving—a bereaved family is waiting.

The location of the deceased also determines which vehicle I’ll use. I can accomplish a hospital or nursing home call with a minivan. A residence requires a hearse. Why? Many years ago, the son of a man who had expired at home was most upset when my assistant and I arrived in a Chevrolet van. As we pulled the mortuary cot out of the back, he exclaimed, horrified, “You came to get my father in a truck?” After that, I resolved never again to attend to a residence call in anything but a hearse.

After working at other funeral homes for more than twenty-five years, I built my own funeral home in 2001, and I have developed my own sense of how I prefer to perform certain tasks. During the drive from my home to the funeral parlor to retrieve the necessary equipment, I make certain observations concerning the call. Does the surname of the deceased sound familiar? Perhaps we have served the family before. Did the family pay their bill the last time? Do I remember anything else about them? Which cemetery did they use? We already have two other deaths this week; which day will these folks request for the funeral?

These and many more thoughts bombard me while on the road in the middle of the night, with only police

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