It’s 5 o’clock in the afternoon and I’m sitting in a cocktail lounge in Bellevue, Washington—just outside Seattle. I’m awaiting the arrival of Jeff Jorgenson, owner of Elemental Cremation & Burial, an innovative business which provides families with environmental alternatives to traditional funerals.
I sip a G&T while my eyes dart nervously around the room. I’ve never met a funeral director before. In my mind’s eye, I imagine a character from a Dickens’s novel, dark and brooding, with a keen eye for sizing up bodies to stuff into caskets.
Imagine my surprise, then, when a young man with impeccable fashion sense and a winning smile enters the room and sits down across from me. Jeff is the very antithesis of what one might envision a funeral director to be. He looks to be an all-American boy, the kind that ought to be out playing baseball, or waving a flag at the 4th of July parade. Not preparing the dead for burial or cremation.
He apologizes for his tardiness—he was fingerprinting a corpse so that the thumbprint could be embedded onto a charm for a necklace, he explains. I stare at him, disoriented, trying to reconcile the image before me with the information coming from his mouth. Who knew you could do this?
Jeff, that’s who.
Eventually, we settle back and I begin to probe the deep recesses of his dark and morbid mind. No, not really. He’s perfectly normal, except for the fact that he works with the dead. Here’s what the fascinating owner of Elemental Cremation & Burial had to say about everything from Viking funerals to advanced decomposition.
C.A. Is the term ‘funeral director’ synonymous with ‘mortician’ and ‘undertaker?’
J. J. My pat answer is that a funeral director is ‘a wedding planner with a compressed time scale.’ Funeral directing is nothing more than two parts paper pushing and one part event planner. In short, a project manager.
Modern funeral service titles are based on licensure: funeral director, embalmer and cremationist. The embalmers are usually ‘dual license’ so that they can actually find a job. (Embalming is going to be a lost art sooner rather than later.) Mortician can be broadly applied to a dual-license although it is a term largely out of fashion. The cremationist, aside from putting people in the cremation chamber has to be a meticulous document reviewer and master of detail.
Funny you should ask about undertaker. It is an archaic term that refers to a funeral director-embalmer, but if you look at the definition in colloquial parlance means ‘one that undertakes: one that takes the risk and management of business: entrepreneur.’
I would put it on my business card, if I thought people would get the double entendre.
C.A. Which cases are particularly difficult?
J. J. Most people in the business will tell you that children are the most difficult. I would say that they are tough, but I don’t think that the age of the deceased is what tips me over. The circumstances of the death, and the dynamics of the family are what make it difficult for me.
C.A. What are some of the more bizarre requests you’ve gotten from families?
J.J. I think the lady that asked me a few weeks ago if I would drain all the fluids out of her body was a pretty good one, although the people that I talk to in the industry seem to be pretty lukewarm on that one being weird. Here in the Northwest, there’s a fair amount of people that want to do a ‘Viking funeral’ and be burned on a boat set afloat in the bay. I’ve had people call to inquire about Egyptian mummification, burial at sea, sky burial, and wanting to come in to remove the teeth of their loved ones.
I did a viewing one time for a fetus that struck me as a little odd; attendance for that one was markedly light. I had a very wealthy gentleman that wanted to be embalmed so he could switch caskets when he was moved around the cemetery at random intervals.
C.A. Are you working on any projects right now related to what you do as a funeral director?
J.J. Caitlin Doughty (Order of the Good Death) and I have a little project that will be coming out soon that is called ‘Is it Legal?’ This will address the stranger things that people seem to want to do with their bodies after they die. I think that it’s part of the human condition to think that we are individual and that there is something unique about how we think and feel. The irony is that no-one has much of a departure from ‘normal.’ Even the weird have a lot of company.
C.A. Can you dispel any myths about the dead?
J. J. Yeah. They aren’t very interesting. You aren’t going to let me off with that answer, are you? Common myths are that the corpse sits up during cremation or embalming; or that people get buried alive with regular frequency. There’s no sitting up, and the way the modern process works in this country, no one is getting buried alive. Unless they duped their medical team so they could hang out naked in a 40F cooler for 72+ hours while the bureaucrats record their death certificate, they are all pretty dead before we get them to their destination.
C.A. I have to ask—do you believe in ghosts or spirits?
J. J. You really want me to, don’t you?
C. A. I think many people have a very specific view of what a funeral director looks and acts like. Do you come across a lot of prejudices from people outside of the business?
J. J. I don’t really, but I think that it’s a matter of engaging with people and making connections with them, whether it be in a social setting or professionally. I don’t know what the stereotypes are out there for funeral directors anymore, if only because I’m in the thick of the industry. I suppose it’s something like Lurch in the Addams Family, but the olden days of the stodgy old white male are mercifully giving way to a more diverse and distinctly female group. I recently watched Departures, a Japanese film on a guy that cares for the dead, and I was struck by the reaction in that culture to him being ‘unclean’ because of what he does. I suppose there’s an element of that in our culture as well, but with the crowd I mix with it doesn’t crop up at all.
Wait, are you saying that I look and act like what people expect from the creepy death guy?!
C.A. Does anything repulse you?
J. J. Yes. If anyone that handles the deceased tells you that advanced decomposition ‘isn’t that bad,’ they are either sick or lying. It is repulsive, vile, nasty and downright wretched. Every cell in your body is programmed to get away from that.
C.A. Do you think our attitudes towards death are more ‘unhealthy’ today than they were in the past? Do we live in ‘death denial?’
J. J. You bring up an interesting challenge that many people point to when illustrating the shortcoming of our modern funeral practices – the sterilisation of the dying and death process. I’m certainly not a psychologist, so it’s outside my scope to make a judgment as to whether or not our new cultural norms are ‘unhealthy.’ I think that it is a larger discussion that science should address. How does modern funeral practice help or harm the grieving process?
Many people that are in the home funeral movement point to the bygone days of yore when the midwife brought you in and took you out with all of your family wiping the sweat from your brow as you drew your last breath. It is a notion that plays squarely to this idea that the past was an easier, simpler time and that we need to return to it. To wit, I reply ‘150 years ago most people didn’t have running water, and I have no intention of returning to that.’
The way that we handle and prepare the dead today is better for one simple fact: we have the options at our disposal to facilitate whatever a family wants so that they can have the services they need to heal. Healing may be best served with embalming so that a Latin American family can have a multiple day visitation and shipping back to their home country. Another family may want to put mom on dry ice so that she can have short term [non-invasive] preservation to have an environmentally sensitive viewing before transport to a conservation green burial ground.
It’s this wide array of process, ritual and product that allows families to make it into something so much more meaningful than just ‘sipping all the fuss.’ My opinion is that the lack of discussion, coupled with the polarised information out there, is what is hurting the families that we profess to be helping.
C.A. Thanks, Jeff, for the fascinating insights into today’s funeral industry! And no, you don’t look like the ‘creepy death guy’… yet.