Sixth generation funeral director Caleb Wilde discusses his new book, 'Confessions of a Funeral Director: How the Business of Death Saved My Life.'
Photo by Jamie Lee Curtis Taete
Caleb Wilde comes from a long line of funeral directors. He's the sixth generation to work at his family's funeral home in Parkesburg, Pennsylvania, starting there part time at the age of 16. However, a year after starting full time, he reached his breaking point and became severely depressed. In his new memoir, Confessions of a Funeral Director: How the Business of Death Saved My Life, Wilde chronicles how he was able to alter his view of mortality and ultimately start to find fulfillment as a funeral director.
In the book, Wilde tells the stories of memorable funerals that helped him arrive at the "spirituality of death" that he now embraces. Last week I spoke to Wilde about his memoir via Skype. We talked about his evolving religious views as a seminarian who works in death care, what it means to be "death positive," and why he really hates the phrase "it's all part of God's plan".
VICE: In the book you describe feeling a bit burned out by the profession at first. How long before you started feeling that way?
Caleb Wilde: It started in school. A lot of questioning as to my career choice. I didn't have the perspective to be able to handle—especially the tragic deaths—as well as the child deaths. In fact, I don't think many funeral directors do, especially at a younger age. It took me a while to figure out that I was going deeper into depression and nearing some of the suicidal ideation that can come with that. It took me about a year into licensure to realize that I was indeed burned out. To realize that I needed some significant perspective change or I wasn't going to continue on in the business.
Was there an incident where you realized how miserable you were becoming?
There was a car accident that killed four people, two of which were children. I was tasked to determine whether or not the children were "viewable". Which means of course unzipping the body bags, examining their face and bodies. [This was] compounded with the tension within the [victims'] family. There were conflicting factions: one side was Christian and the other side was pagan. The parents were separated, they had just lost two kids, so emotions were running high. There were some words that were spoken that made us involve the police. So the tension involved with that conflict coupled with the images that I saw... Yeah, I had a fainting episode and the policeman that was there called an ambulance. Burnout coupled with stress and depression, there's psychosomatic effects where your body isn't acting normally. For at least a couple months I had been having sharp headaches and eye twitches which were uncommon for me. So when I fainted, and being a funeral director who thinks every time I get a cold it's possibly cancer, I thought: this could be it. That was the eureka moment when it all came together and something had to change.
The book's subtitle is "How the Business of Death Saved My Life." A part of this is you changed your perspective from a "death negative" one to a "death positive" one. Briefly, define what those two terms mean for you.
I think the death negative narrative is the idea that there's no redeeming value, or there's no sustenance in death. On the other hand, I've actually kind of gravitated towards the term "death spirituality", but happy to use "death positivity". For me, it's a matter of finding sustenance and some type of beauty around death and dying.
Can you break the "spirituality" part down for me? I'm an atheist, so when I hear that word, it's not something that I personally experience. Describe the spirituality that you get from death care.
I like to remove spirituality from the traditional moorings that tie it to soul and spirit and place it in something that is slightly more broad in definition. It doesn't necessarily involve religion.
When I say "death spirituality" with that reframing of the term, what I mean is that death has the ability to enliven life. And enliven the days that we have on earth, and how we make meaning in the context of our limitations. Things that I see that include death spirituality are the ability of death to inspire contemplation, meditation, inspire community within groups, inspire individual identity. I'm trying to use these terms neutrally, even though they have religious baggage. I think as we approach our mortality, as we approach our life as limited, it enlivens us to embrace those things more fully.
Watch: The man who buries dead terrorists when no one else will
What about what you personally get out of death care? Does your spirituality provide a positive feedback loop for you? A lot of us writers, if we don't write for a while, we get a bit of an itch to write. If you take a long vacation or something, do you get the same kind of itch to do a funeral?
I do. I feel that in some respects, death care workers are almost like cultural anthropologists. For instance, somebody dies at home under hospice. The family's been there kind of on death watch for the past 48 hours. The dynamics that are created in those 48 hours is like an entirely unique culture. So we walk in and we're part anthropologists, part imperialists as well. We're trying to put society's standards of a clean death and apply them to this virgin culture that hasn't been touched.
The itch that I get is walking into that space and seeing the intricacies of the relationships that have been created. I find it really interesting how people develop. You just get to see a transparency and a vulnerability that I enjoy taking a part of.
You talk about how you're not really sure what most people consider heaven is real anymore. And yet, you're a seminary graduate. Was there a particular death that made you reconsider your view?
That was kind of a culmination seeing a lot of ways that we use heaven, especially in connection to death denial. If anything, I would tend towards agnosticism. I'm kind of happy to say "I don't know," and I'm comfortable in the silence. I'm not prepared to say heaven does or does not exist. I am prepared to say that the way most people use it is an abuse. Even as a young child... of course I grew up in an Evangelical family... I saw how heaven was used to get people "saved". It was kind of like the golden carrot that they stuck out to lure people into the tribe. I questioned that at a young age. Preachers used it as a calming device, and I felt as though it was used especially as a way to overlook the value that death can bring. I think future focus perspective disables us from finding the life in the present.
Would you consider then most Christian notions of an afterlife to be in the "death negative" category?
Yeah. I think so. Because they—in effect—take people away from the current lessons that death has to teach us.
Would you say that having a strong Christian upbringing makes it harder to have a death positive view?
Yes. It does. Evangelicalism and most Protestantism, even Catholicism teaches that "the wages of sin is death." If you believe that death is punishment, then there should be shame surrounding death. And so, if you start from the premise death is bad, then you have to assume that there's nothing good in it. That's one of the major things I had to overcome in order to reframe how I viewed death.
Do you still consider yourself a Christian?
That's tough. The present way that Christians present themselves in America, I don't really want to associate with that. The heart of Christianity seemed to revolve around the poor, the ostracized, and the neglected. That's something that I still resonate with. So, yes, I feel as though I want to make my life more empathetic towards those in need, but no, I do not identify with evangelical Christians, and most of the other kinds as well.
You mention that it's kind of shittty thing to tell the relatives of a kid that's died of an overdose—or anyone really—that this is "all part of God's plan." Can you explain what it is about this cliché that makes you dislike it so much?
That gets thrown around, it seems, at most tragic funerals. That cliché is.. .I want to say it's an assault. Because you're getting fed something that's so—I'm being careful how I choose my words here—it's so violent and dangerous. Often times against your will. The traumatic repercussions can have a similar effect as some type of physical or sexual assault. For the parents of the children who die and they're told that "it's part of God's plan," the entire worldview that the parents could have—whether believer or not—could really be fucked.
Being that you've probably witnessed your fair share of similar cringe-worthy "words of comfort", can you give folks some general guidelines on themes to avoid?
I think that we have to learn to be comfortable in the silence. If we want to find ways to meet the bereaved where they're at, and to give them space to talk, or share, we have to be comfortable in our own silence. We have to give up the right to answers that we all feel like we have. So much of death is silence and so much of death doesn't have answers. If we come in as the imperialist who needs to make everything look neat and tidy, we're only going to end up hurting the chaos that needs to take place.
Follow Simon Davis on Twitter.