This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.
Lauren LeRoy gets a lot of surprised looks when she tells people what she does for a living. The 26-year-old doesn't look the part of your stereotypical funeral director, but she has done more than a 1,000 funerals in her six-year career. She has witnessed her share of familial graveside disputes—and been on the receiving end of some unusual postmortem requests.
VICE spoke with her about mortuary makeup, weird smells, and what it's like to deal with death all day (and all night) long.
VICE: When did you know you wanted to be a funeral director?
Lauren LeRoy: I have known since I was 12 that I wanted to be a funeral director. My great-aunt and great-uncle owned their own funeral home, so I would go over there a lot and there wasn't anything odd about it, because they lived above. It was a normal thing. When I was 12, my grandfather passed away, then my great uncle [who owned the funeral home] passed away within eight months of one another. So having those deaths occur—especially my grandfather's passing—that one affected me really hard, because he was the man in my life. That's when I decided I wanted to be a funeral director, even if I didn't know everything that it meant at the time.
Has this career affected your dating life?
If I was not married, I would say yes. I've been with my husband since I was 15. He's always known what I've wanted to do, and he's so unbelievably supportive it's not even funny. I don't have a schedule. Everything that I do is up in the air, so it means that a lot of things he does are up in the air as well. I think if I wasn't with him that dating for me would be extremely difficult. I like being home, after having a stressful day or just working for so long, I just want to come home, sit on the couch and relax. I don't know how I would meet somebody—I wouldn't have the energy to go out and meet somebody. How much of your job is mediation among warring family members?
A lot. But you do what you can with everybody. I have a job to do as a funeral director, and I have to do that job. I can't get in the middle—it's hard. I'm not a lawyer, I'm not a counselor. When it comes down to it, sometimes you have to step back and let family members take care of things themselves. Any pet peeves?
My job is to give people information, so I don't have any pet peeves when family members choose to do one thing over something else. If I have a pet peeve it may be other funeral directors in the industry not wanting to go along with change. I know some funeral directors say they don't want to do personalization [of services], so that's going to affect us all. People think of funeral directors as a whole. So if one does something bad, it really affects everybody.
Has this job enabled you to better contend with your own mortality?
I grew up in a Catholic household. I've always had my religion be the center of my life. I've always believed there was something more, I've never believed that that was it when you died. I don't know if the job itself has helped that or not, but what being a funeral director has done for me is not take any day for granted. I bury old people and I bury babies and young people. You never know what tomorrow is going to hold. If anything, it's taught me to take each day as it comes, and make the most of each day. Favorite part?
The people that I meet. I always say I meet the best people, it's just during one of the most difficult times in their lives. I get to hear really fantastic stories about how people lived their lives, and I just love people. That's why I do what I do. Least favorite?
Probably the unpredictability. I can't necessarily schedule things like normal people. It's kind of a joke among my family—if I get an invitation to something, it's like, I'll be there if someone doesn't die. I like the unpredictability in a sense because every day is different and I never get bored, but it makes planning things for your own life very difficult. What do you wish people knew about funeral directors?
That we're not scary! [laughs] I think when people think about funeral directors, they think of the Addams family. Don't get me wrong, I wear black every day, but funeral directors aren't these morbid death-loving people. I just wish people knew that funeral directors are normal people, just like everybody else. Are you seeing more women enter the field?
My official graduation date was 2010, and the majority of my class was actually female. It was really great. I feel like the female presence is just larger now, you definitely see a lot more. What funeral music is in heavy rotation these days?
"You Raise Me Up" by Josh Groban is one I get requests for all the time. Also, "In the Arms of an Angel" by Sarah McLachlan, I hear that so many times. We have a couple of CDs we keep in our back pocket. I don't know why, but our funeral home gets a lot of Elvis fans, so we have this one inspirational Elvis CD that we have on hand all the time. They'll come in like; "Mom was a huge Elvis fan…." Well, we have the CD for you. Any unusual requests?
I'm never stunned by anything. I don't judge anyone or anything, whatever you want is OK. I had this one guy whose son passed away. They gave us his outfit to lay him out in for the visitation. This guy was in his early 20s. His parents wanted to have him cremated. At the end of his visitation, his dad comes up and says, "OK we want his clothes back." I said; "so you want him to be cremated in nothing?" And he's like, yeah. I never know the reason why people request something. I'm just the funeral director, so whatever you want—as long as it's reasonable and doesn't hurt anyone—I'll do that for you. Do any funerals stick out in your mind?
Two in particular. One I will never forget. It was during the visitation itself. It was a young woman who had passed away from breast cancer. She was only a couple of years older than me at that point. We had prepared her and got her ready. The girl was in her casket, and I just remember watching her father walk up to her casket. He put his hand on her and he just started talking to her. And that broke my heart so bad. I walked away because it was such a beautiful moment between this father and his little girl—it just made me think of myself and my dad. It was so in the moment, just spending time talking to her. That will stick with me for a long time. Another one was a couple years back, a baby had passed away. The baby was about a month old and was very sick. The parents had set up the nursery with butterflies—that was the theme of the nursery. The baby never ended up coming home, and passed away in the hospital.
When we went to the cemetery, the priest was saying the final prayers, and I actually had to interrupt him, because suddenly, all around us, were a dozen butterflies. No one had released them—they had just appeared there. I said, "Sorry Father, but is everybody seeing this right now?" After that, I had the family come back to the funeral home and they said that seeing those butterflies made them feel that their baby was at peace.
How do you prep for this career?
In high school I took public speaking because I figured that would be something I would be doing a lot of. Every state has different rules for how to become licensed. In NY State where I practise, you need to have an associate degree in funeral services, and then you have to take a national board exam in science and art—two separate exams that cover everything you've learned in mortuary school. Once you've passed those, you have to do a year of residency under a licensed funeral director. So basically, he monitors your embalming, meeting with families, removals, things like that. Then after your internship, you have to take a New York State law exam in public health law. When all is said and done, it's about a three year process.
Is the pay good?
The pay can be good, but normally it's not that great. If you own your own funeral home, that's when you're living a better lifestyle. If you're just an employee with the funeral home, it's not the best pay. You're not working a normal forty hour work week. A lot of funeral directors are salaried. When I factored in my salary compared with the 60 hours a week I was actually working—I could have made more working at McDonalds. You don't become a funeral director to make a lot of money, let's put it that way! [laughs] Do all funeral directors do embalming?
All in NY will learn how to embalm, not all will end up practicing that. I've been licensed for six years now, I only embalmed my first three years. Now I meet with families, do arrangements, things like that. You basically choose what route you want to go down. I know funeral directors who do both because they work for a small funeral home and they have to do it all.
Is there a limit [from the time of death to the time of embalming them]?
There's not in New York State. It's better to embalm a body as close to the time of passing because you get better results.
What do you mean?
The blood hasn't had a lot of time to settle and pool. It makes a person look more natural, it makes a huge difference. I've worked on bodies where it's been close to a week (since time of death). Their body has had longer to shut down, decomposition may have set in. So it's more work. I don't think any funeral director likes that—it's a smell you never forget, but it's a smell that I can't describe. It hits you in your face almost, when it's really bad. You just do what you can. You remember that, no matter what's going on, this is a person. They may have been dead for a little bit, but it's still a person.
Have you seen any trends emerge?
The entire nation is seeing a rise in cremation. I work in the Buffalo area, with an older clientele. They are very much in that traditional mindset, where they've had a cemetery plot for years already. That's what their parents had, that's what they're comfortable with.
For the younger generation—baby boomers and younger—a lot of cremation, just because it comes down to cost (it's a lot cheaper). The younger generation doesn't talk about their mortality very much, so they don't have cemetery plots. If you don't have that available, that cost can be so huge for families, that cremation seems like an easier way to go. It's really just personal preference. I know a lot of people who don't want to be cremated because they don't like the idea of being burned, and I know a lot of people who don't want to be buried because they're claustrophobic.
What does a person need to do this job well?
You have to be compassionate. You can't come into this career and not care. This is not just a job you can go through the motions with. You have to want to serve other people and help them through a very difficult time. Because a lot of times you are putting these families above your own. If you don't have that mentality, you won't last in the field.
Follow Tiffy Thompson on Twitter.