Most of us probably think about death, grief, mourning, tears, and the well-dressed corpses of lost loved ones. But Caleb Wilde, a longtime funeral director, says that working funerals has taught him about joy, community, faith, and the beauty of a life well-lived. His new book, “Confessions of a Funeral Director: How the Business of Death Saved My Life,” is both a fascinating look into the funeral industry and a compelling reflection on what it means to be a living, breathing human.
Here, Wilde discusses how the church has promoted a “death negative” narrative and what his line of work can do to reverse that.
RNS: Let’s start with a selfish question. What are some of the weirdest things you’ve seen in the funeral business?
CW: The weirdest things are “R-rated” in nature, but this story might interest your readership. And I should preface this story by saying that all grief expressions are valid, but not all are healthy.
A couple years ago, we served the family of a 50-year-old man who died from a sudden heart attack. He and his wife were members of a Pentecostal church that believed with enough prayer, enough faith, and a dash of anointing oil, God would happily raise the dead. The day before the funeral, the wife, a couple pastors and a few elders came to the funeral home and prayed for the deceased’s resurrection. After about five hours of prayer and a couple ounces of oil, they left and gave us these instructions; “Don’t close the lid of the casket in case he revives during the night.”
The next day came, and the man was still dead. To make this worse, as we put the casket in the cemetery vault, the wife was utterly despondent. She was afraid her husband would resurrect in the grave and, unable to get out, would suffer death all over again.
RNS: The subtitle of your book is, “How the business of death saved my life.” How so?
CW: Death has a way of ripping off the masks we wear in everyday life. If you don’t like someone, you generally keep it to yourself – but not so much when you’re grieving. On the other hand, we tend to mute our affections in everyday life. But all the hugs, kisses, and I love you’s come pouring out when we’ve lost someone. So death creates this culture all its own, where everybody reveals a more honest version of themselves. Death has often been personified as this dark and brooding figure, but it can be an expert teacher that leads us to a fuller humanity. I’ve found that teacher-version of death while working in death care. It’s revived my life, and you could even say that it saved it.
RNS: Most people don’t like to think about death. I don’t! What has your work taught you about how can the living can prepare for the inevitable experience of death?
CW: Living with an awareness of my mortality has become my source for spirituality, so I’m slightly unusual in regard to the contemplation of death. Spirituality is the air that fills up our chest and enlivens us, and sometimes that air is a mixture of darkness and light. There’s so much talk today about how to embrace our humanity, but most of that talk somehow overlooks the very thing that defines us as humans: our mortality.
This is who we are. We are mortals. We aren’t gods. Neither are we dirt. And finding that tension, finding light in the shadow of death, instead of ignoring or denying it, just might be the key to helping us fully live. This is my story: I’ve found a death spirituality that has drawn me closer to myself, closer to others, and closer to God.
RNS: You say that churches often promote a “death negative” narrative. What does that mean?
CW: The death negative narrative permeates all of Western culture, but many churches have an added theological layer that fortifies it. The death negative narrative starts from a position that death, and our mortality, is at heart both shameful and has little to no redeeming value.
The narrative has a lot of sources but for me, my Christian upbringing also contributed to my negative perspective about death. Many Christians teach that death is the punishment — a curse — for the horrible act of sin. All of us are stained with mortality, it’s not a natural part of who we are, nor is it something that’s healthy for our species. Death is to be fought in every case, just like our sin, or just abdicated to the professionals like me.
RNS: How can churches change this and develop a “death positive” narrative?
CW: The church has a long history of death positivity, of embracing mortality and death care. Cicely Saunders, a visionary for the modern day hospice movement, was informed by her Christian beliefs. During the Black Plague, the Ars moriendi (The Art of Dying), a widely used Christian instructional book on how to die a good death, allowed families to both physically and spiritually care for their dying and dead. And taking its cue from the Jewish Chevra kadisha, the early church surrounded its dead with a group of men and women from within the church community.
Today, traditional churches have a great sense of the communion of the saints, with their use of icons and observance of holy days like All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Yet, like most communities, the church has abdicated death care to the “professionals” because in a capitalist society it’s easier to pay someone to do the work than let love and volunteerism do the work of the dying and the dead. If the church swings back into our traditions, it can help the church swing forward into the future of death care and death positivity.
RNS: How has dealing in the business of death taught you about what true community looks like?
CW: I tell a story in my book about two preschool-aged granddaughters who are cousins. I watched them while I was helping their parents close the lid of their grandfather’s casket. They were sitting in a church pew watching their parents say their last goodbyes at lid closed. Tears started rolling down the cheeks of the younger of the girls. The older one took notice, got up out her pew, grabbed some tissues and walked the tissues back to her cousin, wiping the cheeks of her cousin.
One of the most rewarding parts of my profession is seeing the sacred spaces that death creates. The basis of community is the basic recognition that we need each other. If we see ourselves as gods who can stand on our own or if we deny our mortality, we’ll never reach out to another. Death creates the cauldron for community. It’s that reminder of how much we just can’t do on our own. It’s the reminder of how much we need each other.
RNS: You say you’ve had a near-death experience. How has that changed your perspective on death and life?
CW: I have near death experiences every day I go to work! But I had an experience at the funeral home when I briefly lost consciousness after feeling a sharp pain in my head. As a funeral director who sees too much death, my mind quickly jumped to the worst possible conclusion after I regained consciousness.
In the back of an ambulance, on my way to the hospital, I had an honest moment of self-reflection that only the feeling of being close to death could have given me. At the time, I was at a crossroads at the funeral home. I was depressed and nearing burnout. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to keep working in the funeral business. But in that moment of clarity, I decided to stay and see if I could reframe the way I see death.
After a number of tests at the hospital, the doctor told me I was physically exhausted and needed rest, but those moments when I felt close to death allowed me to clarify my life and led me on a path that birthed the contents of my book.