It was nearly six in the morning when I heard the sounds of hovering helicopters a couple hundred yards away from my house. At the time, my wife, Nicki, and I lived in a small half of a double on the farthest fringe of the Borough of Parkesburg. While the occasional helicopter could be heard in Parkesburg proper, our little house on Upper Valley Road was sandwiched by the sounds of the trains that ran on the tracks a hundred feet from our small backyard and the speeding cars on Upper Valley a mere twenty feet from our front door.
I peeked my head outside the window but couldn’t see the machines that were producing the sounds I could so clearly hear. The idea that something must be very wrong entered my mind. I turned on the television, and sure enough, the Philadelphia station I turned on had a Breaking News update.
The rhythmed and practiced voice of the news anchor read the prompter with all the outward concern he could exercise: “Two young boys and their aunt and uncle died in a fiery car crash outside of Parkesburg, Chester County, late last night.”
Parkesburg is an hour outside of Philadelphia. We’re the small town of thirty-five hundred that claims Philadelphia as our closest “big city” while Philadelphia has no idea we even exist, except when something horrific happens. This morning, Parkesburg had made the news. Today, Philadelphia reporters descended upon Parkesburg to fill their 6 a.m. quota.
There have been a few times when Facebook has informed me of a death before the family has called us at the Wilde Funeral Home. But this was the first time I had turned on the television and watched aerial footage of a disaster that was soon to be passed on to me. When I got to the funeral home later that morning, I learned we were the ones entrusted to handle the services for all four of the deceased. The two adults (the aunt and uncle of the boys, who were babysitting the boys at that time) were to be cremated, while the boys, eight and ten years of age, were to be embalmed and viewed, depending on the condition of their bodies.
The following day—after the coroner performed her duty—I drove our van to remove the two adults first (our removal van comfortably fits two in the supine position). After I dropped them off at the funeral home, I jumped back in the van to pick up the bodies of the two boys. When I go on these tragic calls, I’ll usually either sit in silence or find some upbeat music on the radio to distract me from the void. It can be anything: Pop music. Oldies. Katy Perry.
After driving the bodies home, it was my duty to unzip the body bags for the two boys to see if their faces could be made presentable for a public viewing. The smell of burned human flesh is somewhat distinct. It’s not like the smell of barbecuing chicken or a pig on the spit. It sticks to your hair, to your clothing, and when I opened those bags, what I saw will forever stick in my mind. You’ve seen the Hollywood versions of burn victims, and it’s all horrible, but the visuals we see on the TV screen don’t do justice to these tragic deaths. Tragic deaths have a presence about them, something that can’t be captured by the makeup and advanced special effects. All deaths have a type of presence, but tragic deaths have a presence that fills a room. I don’t know if I believe in ghosts, but I do believe that the dead have some kind of aura.
I had to look at the boys’ faces to determine whether or not we could have a viewing, hoping to find a visage that could—through hours of work—be presentable to the family. Unfortunately, I didn’t find what I was looking for and had to inform their stricken parents that a public viewing was outside of our ability, which—in a way—produces a small sense of guilt in me. Whether the pressure is from an inward or an outward expectation, there’s always this nagging feeling that we should be able to restore any form of disfigurement, that embalmers should possess some Harry Potter magic in our prep room and magically wave our trocar (a large needle-like instrument we use during embalming) while chanting Abracadabra, pulchra cadaver and then “poof”—we have beautiful corpses. But there is no magic trocar. And there are no mystical chants.
The family was broken in more ways than one. They were fighting about who would officiate the service. One part of the family wanted a nonreligious service while the other side wanted a Christian service. Threats were made. Words were spoken that should never be spoken, and we had to involve the police. The day before the service a police officer came to the funeral home to go over the plan of action if the funeral became volatile.
As we were going over the funeral procession route with the officer, I collapsed and momentarily lost consciousness; the policeman called the ambulance, and I was taken to the hospital’s emergency room with what would later be generically diagnosed as physical exhaustion.
On my way to the hospital, not knowing what was happening to me, I had a moment of unshackled clarity: Did I want to continue working in this profession? Was this what I wanted to do? Is this who I wanted to be?
Months before I found myself in the back of that ambulance, watching the strobe lights bounce off nearby houses and road signs, I found myself struggling with depression and compassion fatigue. My doctor had prescribed me antidepressants to combat the day-to-day experience of depression, but there wasn’t anything rejuvenating my burnout. Life lost its value. I lost empathy. And the boundaries that stood between me and self-harm became fragile.
The first couple years of working at the funeral home, I felt like a duck swimming in deep water. From the outside, I was calm, confident, and natural, but underneath, I was kicking furiously against the darkness. Although I knew what I was getting into when I joined the funeral business, it wasn’t my closeness to death that was destroying me, it was how I viewed it. I saw death as a certain kind of darkness that needed religion and some degree of flat-out denial to make it ever so slightly lighter and brighter. I assumed that there’s nothing good in death. If someone had suggested to me then that there’s beauty in death, that there’s goodness in death, that death could inspire a healthy spirituality, I would have thought them both morose and naive.
Even though I had grown up around death, I was just as susceptible as anyone to what I call the “death negative narrative” that so many of us have come to believe. On a practical level, I had seen too many tragic, traumatic, and horrific deaths portrayed on TV, on the Internet, and at work. These extremes had normalized the bad deaths so that I had come to think all deaths were bad. It’s not entirely my fault that I had bought into the death negative narrative. Tragic death sells news. It’s great clickbait. It keeps the cycle rolling. But in normalizing the extremes, my perspective about death had been painted in black and it only heightened my mortality fears and strengthened the monster.
Besides the normalization of extremes via the media, the death negative narrative is wired into our very biology. Humans are a most advanced death-defying machine. We have highly evolved systems to fight against the onslaught of death, foremost of which is a brain that sets us above all our competition. And that brain has kept us alive and given us the chance to evolve through its fight-or-flight mechanisms. Death is our oldest evolutionary enemy, and we are so advanced at fighting it that for about fifty to ninety years, most of us win. Still, fearing death is part of our biology; it numbs our minds whenever we try to think about it, and even the most rational among us struggles to find clarity when confronted with the death negative narrative.
Another thing that made me susceptible to the death negative narrative is that even though I had seen thousands of dead bodies, I had never seen someone die. Many have had the privilege of holding the hand of a loved one as he or she passed, but many others of us haven’t, in part because the dying process has been isolated in nursing homes and hospitals. In times past and in many other cultures outside the United States, death and dying happen in the home and community, with family and friends acting as death doulas, leading the dying through their final life stage. Today, though, doctors and nurses have replaced family and friends, an unintended consequence of the advancement of medical science. We fear death because we don’t know it, we don’t see it, and we don’t touch it. And what we don’t know, we’ve painted in broad strokes of darkness and negativity. The death negative narrative wouldn’t be so strong if we only had the ability to see, touch, and hold our dying and our dead.
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. The idea that can come out of this is that we are meant for something more than death and as long as we are mortal, we will never be enough.
I needed a new view of death. So I had to tell myself a new story. Death is dark, but it’s also light, and between that contrast I saw a death positive narrative begin to appear. The dark and light can produce a rainbow of color that exists in a spectrum of hues, shades, tints, and values. Its beauty is firmly planted in the storm, but we’ve become color-blind. And I tremble to say there’s good in death, that there’s a death positive narrative, because I’ve looked in the eyes of the grieving mother and I’ve seen the heartbreak of the stricken widow, but I’ve also seen something more in death, something good. Death’s hands aren’t all bony and cold.
Some may hear me say There’s a death positive narrative and think I’m saying Death isn’t as hard as you think it is. Let me be clear, that’s not what I’m saying. Death is as hard, if not harder, than any of us can imagine. I’m saying we’ve heard an incomplete narrative. Death is like mud; it’s dirty, messy, and incredibly tough to walk through, but, surprisingly, it holds vital ingredients to life, and when seeds are planted, it can help sprout new life.
Death isn’t just the dirty and the messy. We see death as a loss, and it is. But in death, we often find our most honest self, a stronger community, and some find that they are able to overcome the fear of death and live life to the fullest. It’s not a supermodel-type beauty that is genetically ingrained in the
DNA of death, but a beauty of struggle and resiliency that, in the end, can produce a spectrum of growth.
For much of my life, I tried to find meaning outside of death—and outside of death care—because I feared it, and I assumed it was only negative, but as I was riding in the back of the ambulance that day, I was finally desperate enough to look past the death negative narrative and attempt to positively reframe death. If I was to stay in the business of undertaking, this was my last straw. I was depressed, and if I couldn’t find something good in death itself, I knew I’d either have to quit or I’d succumb to self-harm or unhealthy self-medication. I wasn’t looking to glorify pain or paint suffering as categorically redemptive, but deep inside, my survivor instinct kicked in and unlike my evolutionary ancestors, my survival in death care depended on my ability to lean into death.
I was at rock bottom in the back of the ambulance. For the first time in a long time, strapped down on the gurney, I looked up. We look up, and sometimes we find that the rock-bottom experience is somehow a mountaintop experience, because for the first time in a long time we can see the light at the top.
It occurred to me that I had a choice, that I could leave the funeral business, that I was someone who could choose what I wanted to be. It’s invigorating to remember that we have some degree of freedom in life, in our relationships and our vocations. Nobody would have blamed me if I had chosen to leave the funeral home that day. I could have claimed that it was too much for me to handle, left the family business, and tried something else. Instead, the next day, against the doctor’s orders, I showed up for work.
Not because I was a Wilde.
Not because it was a way to pay the bills.
Not because it was what the Parkesburg community wanted for me.
Not because I needed to help out my dad and my grandfather.
But because I wanted to do it.
This book is my journey from believing the death negative narrative to finding something more in death. It’s the story of reluctantly joining my family’s funeral business, having my personal beliefs called into question, and eventually finding the positive side of death and death care. It’s a hard story, not something you’d talk about over a plate of spaghetti and meatballs. But, for me, it has become a good journey, where I’ve found a renewed sense of spirituality formed in the cauldron of mortality.
I wanted to find life in death and find the life of being a funeral director.
To read more please visit https://calebwilde.com/book/