"At midnight on Christmas Eve I was driving from LA to San Diego and back with 11 corpses. I was Santa Claus and they were my reindeer."
Photo by Jamie "Lee Curtis" Taete. Other photos courtesy of the morticians interviewed
We're in the thick of the the holiday season, and many articles will no doubt be written once again about the alleged spike in suicides during this time of year. According to the Centers for Disease Control, that's a myth. However, there actually is an annual uptick in non-suicide deaths starting on Thanksgiving and running through December. (Recently Dan Diamond at Forbes looked at the data and found is that there is a consistent pattern of more heart attacks and more traffic accidents that occur compared to the rest of the year.)
How does that affect morticians? Are they dealing with a lot more bodies? If so, does that sort of ruin the festive season for them? I put these questions and others to several funeral directors, and three of them found time in their busy holiday schedules to respond.
VICE: What's it like working with corpses at Christmas?
Caitlin Doughty: You want to be home with your family during the holidays, but death doesn't stop because you like to hit the eggnog with your Uncle Hank. I remember the first time I had to tell my mother I wouldn't be coming home for Christmas because I had to work. She was not pleased. But you have to remember that while Christmas at work isn't great, Christmas after your husband dies is a million times worse.
Do people die differently during the holidays?
Anecdotally I've always had more deaths of all sorts around the holidays, so maybe there's more... general giving up? I'm not sure. There's definitely more drunk driving deaths around this time.
Do any stories stand out?
One year my job was to drive a van that picked up 11 bodies at a time and deliver them to a high-volume crematory. I got a call on Christmas Eve that there were so many deaths that the body refrigerators in San Diego were about to run out of room. We can't leave any bodies out of the refrigerators, so I had to come pick them up that night. So at midnight on Christmas Eve I was driving from LA to San Diego and back with 11 corpses. I was Santa Claus and they were my reindeer. In a sad, sad alternate universe, anyway.
VICE: Is the death business different around the holidays?
Jeff Jorgenson: Yes, definitely! Much like retail, there's a real push come the holidays. Granted, we aren't exactly the "Tidings of Joy" bunch, but it definitely picks up in November and December. There's a little bit of a lull right in between the two, but for the most part, it's nuts. Many funeral homes have a no-vacation policy for the two months. July and August can be used for that. The other main difference is the same as any other workplace—there is a never-ending parade of high-calorie desserts showing up to do violence to our waistlines.
What about deaths themselves? Are they different?
Recently I had to go through and review all of the cases from the past few years, and just for giggles, I included cause of death because I was curious about this specific question. I was completely disappointed to find that, anecdotally, at my funeral home the deaths are distributed just the same as other times of year, there's just more of them. Morbidly, I wish I could give you something fabulous like, "Oh yeah, there's 234 percent more turkey asphyxiations than May." Unfortunately it's an equal distribution of congestive heart failure [and] pneumonia in cancer patients, with an occasional chronic ethanolism.
Why might that be?
In all honesty, I have my own hypothesis about why the increase is so substantial. Most of the people who pass away are old and have been in failing health for some time. I think that the holidays provide a time when people come together for one last time, and it is a time where the person can close the chapter. Knowing that they won't make it another year, they have had the opportunity to see everyone one last time, and it's their time to go. I'm a firm believer that we have way more control over the end of our lives than people believe or accept.
Have you ever had someone die from a freak Christmas-related accident?
Like, "Guy dressed as Santa impales himself on mounted buck head while stringing Christmas lights?" No. I think that would probably show up on a death certificate as a completely disappointing "perforating trauma to abdomen." Honestly, as funeral directors, we don't get much in the way of details unless the family offers it up. Although, as soon as you get this posted, I'm pretty sure I'll get the call, "So my sister died this weekend choking on peppermint bark." If so, I will most definitely be following up with you for an addendum. On some level though, it is comforting that there isn't a glut of crazy seasonal deaths. Death is horrible to suffer at any time of year for families, and the fact that most deaths don't involve a menorah, eggnog, or a reindeer is probably a good thing for seasons to come.
I've talked to some other morticians, and they had theories as to why sick people die around the holidays. Do you have one?
Caleb Wilde: For many terminal people in their end stage of life, "the holidays" often represent a final goal. "If I can only make it to the holidays, see all my family and friends one last time, watch a Lawrence Welk Christmas special rerun again, my life will be complete." So they push through the pain and disability like the Little Engine That Could. They chug along until they reach the other side of the mountain. Some make it to the other side of the holidays, and some don't.
So there are more deaths because their trains just tire out?
In addition to the start of the flu season. That's my best attempt to explain why there seems to be an influx of death during the holidays. Those that are "hanging on for the holidays" while battling cancer or some other long, terminal sickness run out of fuel and end up parked at the funeral home.
So the holidays suck for you?
The combination of a heavy holiday social calendar and the seemingly inevitable influx of deaths creates a difficult balancing act between the personal and professional lives of funeral directors. It's a hard season for us, especially when that death call comes right in the middle of a highly anticipated Lawrence Welk Christmas special rerun.
Follow Simon Davis on Twitter