“… the meaning of life is connected, inextricably, to the meaning of death; that mourning is a romance in reverse, and if you love, you grieve and there are no exceptions — only those who do it well and those who don’t. And if death is regarded as an embarrassment or an inconvenience, if the dead are regarded as a nuisance from whom we seek a hurried riddance, then life and the living are in for like treatment.”
– Thomas Lynch, The Undertaking: Life Studies from the Dismal Trade
Time is irrelevant to the dead.
But for those taking care of the deceased, says Russ Weeks, funeral director of Weeks Funeral Homes on the Plateau, nearly nothing could be as precious.
Weeks grew up in the funeral home trade — his parents moved to Enumclaw in 1966 to manage the city’s funeral home, and he was born a year after. His parents bought the funeral home in 1970, and then the Buckley funeral home in ‘78.
At first, Weeks thought he wanted to be a lawyer or politician, but in order to pay for college, he turned to the one profession he already knew plenty about, and discovered how much he loved it.
But that doesn’t mean he has a morbid interest in cadavers, fulfilling the stereotype of a dark-suited Grim Reaper that spends his time brooding among bodies in a refrigerated basement.
In fact, “while we care for the dead, most of our time is serving the living,” he said, speaking in a plain and respectful manner that exposes his education and personal experience, despite the grave topic at hand.
Weeks considers one of the most important duties people in his position have is “to educate people when they talk to us. Educate them on the importance of taking time to make the decision that’s right for them,” Weeks said. “[And] whatever they choose, we’ve got to serve them to the best of our abilities, so they don’t have to worry about the details, that the family can just sit and grieve and be together, support one another, and honor the person who died.”
It’s not unlike the role of a wedding planner: “We do everything that you do for a wedding,” he said, adding that this includes much of the legal paperwork like Social Security forms and death certificates. “We just do it within about a week’s time.”
Of course, as the owner of Weeks’ Funeral Home in Buckley and Enumclaw, Weeks is more often involved with managing and directing his staff than sitting down with families and planning funerals himself.
But he is qualified to perform most — if not all — of the duties the rest of his staff perform, from counseling clients to embalming and cremation.
Education requirements vary by state, but Washington stipulates anyone wishing to become a mortician to earn 60 college credits, which includes mortuary school and two years of instruction under a licensed embalmer. And to move up to funeral home director, you must receive an associate degree in mortuary science, spend another year as an apprentice, and complete an additional 10 hours of continuing education courses every two years to keep the license.
But while being a funeral director means getting a science education, it is also “a lot of… psychology, sociology, understanding what people experience as they experience a death within their family,” Weeks said.
Being able to talk comfortably about death — especially after a loved one dies — is an important skill for funeral directors; death is a weighty topic, one that Americans appear to not enjoy speaking or thinking about, at least in practical terms, researchers and scientists say.
According to the Pew Research Center, more than a quarter of Americans have given little or no thought about their own end-of-life treatment, and those who have given at least some thought to it may have unrealistic ideas and expectations. Although most Americans say they want to die at home, one 2009 survey examining more than 3,300 seniors found only a quarter of people did, while another quarter died in nursing homes, and the rest either in hospitals or other institutions.
There are multiple reasons why this pattern has emerged — increased access to institutions and advancements in medical care to prolong life have led to a cultural shift away from treating the dying at home, which was still a common occurrence in the early 1900s.
Back then, the dying elderly would be treated by friends and family, which exposed people of all ages to the concept and reality of death more than many are accustomed to now, Weeks said. Because of this, people in his profession would go to these homes to perform their embalming and funeral duties — the idea of a centralized location where the dead go for funeral preparation only started to become popular in the 20th century.
Though clearly beneficial for his trade, Weeks believes our society’s emphasis on speed and efficiency negatively affects how we interact with death.
“Rather than taking time, stopping what you’re doing, stopping as a community to honor the person who has died and support those that are living… we tend to be quick. ‘Let’s get it done, let’s do whatever we think is easiest,’” Weeks said. “So the family may choose things they think are easy, and really, they might be better off to take a moment and talk and discuss what’s going to be most meaningful and appropriate to them, rather than just making a quick decision.”
Like wanting to die at home, another common last wish of the elderly is to not be a burden to their loved ones, Weeks said. This often results in the soon-to-be deceased not making any large decisions concerning their treatment after they’ve died, believing this allows friends and family the ease of choosing what should happen.
“Because they don’t want to be a burden, they’ll say just bury me, just cremate me, or I don’t want a service or a big fuss. What they’re trying to do is make it easier on their kids,” he said. “And yet, the kids come in and say, we want to… have a memorial service, we want to have a gathering, but mom or dad said they didn’t want anything, so they feel torn between what they want and what they need and honoring the parents.”
This is why Weeks encourages people to talk about death, both among loved ones and with a funeral home, before they require those services — discussing clear wants and desires is a better way to alleviate potential angst over memorial, funeral and burial plans than trying to “make it easy” on loved ones.
Having those priorities already set also gives good funeral homes a chance to shine, as staff can then focus on listening to their clients as they reminisce about the dead, picking up both large and small details of their life that can be incorporated into a service.
“I remember there was one service where a gentleman was a member of the military paratroopers. After he was in the military, he started a parachuting school,” Weeks said, adding this was not an event he or his staff planned. “[When] they went out to the graveside… out of the distance, you saw these planes come over, and out of the planes jumped a whole bunch of parachuters. They parachuted right down to the graveside, and one guy had the flag with him, and he carried the flag over and presented it to the family. Another one had the family Bible with him, and he put it on the casket.”
“The family didn’t know that was happening,” he continued. “A good funeral director will listen — and it probably won’t be that dramatic — but will listen and key in on some important things about the person… that will be extremely personal and meaningful for the family and for everyone in attendance.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Weeks family has had these discussions; his father wants “Pomp and Circumstance” played during the procession and the Hallelujah chorus played as he’s led out, “because he said he always stood for that, and if he can’t stand, we know he’s dead.”
But despite his comfort with the subject of death, which does allow him an appropriate sense of humor, Weeks has held on to a reverence for his trade where others may become jaded or numb.
“This business really gives you an impression of how fast and fleeting life is,” he said. “I’ll go to a funeral and… I’ll see a picture that is fairly recent of him and his wife, and they’re both in their 80s, and I’ll see a picture of him and his wife when they’re in their 20s on their wedding day or on their honeymoon. And I just think, for that person that died, he looks back at those pictures where they were just married and thinks that was yesterday. That always hits me… I’m always thinking, I’m 52 now, I’m going to be 60, 70, 80 before I know it, and I’m going to look back and think, man, it seems like just yesterday I was starting out in my career, starting out getting married. Life goes so fast.”
And though he’s made career out of death, death won’t be the end of his career — if everything goes according to plan.
“I’ve often said, when I retire, I’m going to do something where people want to do business with me. It doesn’t matter how good we are, nobody wants to work with a funeral director,” he said. “I don’t know what it is, but I’ll find something.”