It's midnight on a crisp October night in New England, and Fred Skinner, funeral director at Levine Chapels in Brookline, Mass., is just getting in to the office. "I kid people that I work in a bloody environment," said Skinner. "But actually, my role is much more comparable to that of a butler in a large country home: I organize several different service providers to ensure that an event crucial to a large group of people goes smoothly."
Those who experience the death of a loved one rely on Skinner not only for his compassion, but also for his ability to organize clergy; find a space for the service or memorial; coordinate transportation; handle publicity, food, and flowers; and care for the remains. And he must do it all within the scope of varying traditions and religious beliefs.
Skinner said he's always wanted the role. He would have chosen a career in the ministry but for the fact that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (the Mormon church), of which he is a member, does not have paid clergy. Without that option, he settled on his career choice when he was a little boy.
"I had a number of pets as a child, and when they died I made them tombs, sarcophagi, elaborate funerals, everything! I doubt anybody took more interest in public ceremonial than I did," Skinner said. He also said that both his grandmothers died by the time he was 14, giving him early exposure to the process.
But, how, exactly, does someone get a start in funeral service? A little initiative paid off for the young Skinner. "When I was 16, I saw our family funeral director in the grocery store, and I said 'hey, do you need some help?'" Skinner's first career duties included keeping the funeral home's fleet of cars clean and in top working order and caring for the lawn. Since he was teaching himself to play the organ, he was able to do that as well during visiting hours.
He got his professional license following a two-year degree in mortuary science. Skinner said that starting training isn't easy. "Once you show you can handle the emotional part of dealing with cadavers," he said, "the other question is, Can you handle the technical side?"
Hot topics in mortuary science? Gross anatomy and restorative arts. The latter training enables funeral directors, during the embalming process, to rebuild or repair remains so that family members see their loved one resting in peace.
It's a topic Skinner feels very strongly about, even though he says it's one that has received criticism recently. "Time and time again I have seen the comfort it gives people who have had to witness the painful decline of someone they cared deeply about," he said emphatically.
One of his most satisfying moments was being able literally to straighten out the remains of a person who had spent years bedridden in a fetal position. "The children thanked me for recreating for them the parent they remembered," he said.
Skinner's charm and lively sense of humor belie the self-control and judgment needed to be successful in his career. Can't remember who's who? Don't become a funeral director. "You never, ever, want to say how sorry you are about somebody's mother then find out it's their aunt!"
Friends tell you you're impatient? Get over it! You'll need everything you have to deal with the client whose requests verge on the ridiculous. "Every family has its little point of craziness. You never want them to see that you think their requests are anything other than normal or fine," said Skinner.
Dealing with the emotional upheaval a major loss brings poses one of the profession's most important challenges. In one case, Skinner helped a teenage boy, beside himself with grief at the loss of his grandfather, to come to terms with the death. The family had chosen that the body not be viewed, and the boy was distraught that he could not see his grandfather for the last time. "I talked to the boy and his mother, and I got the family to give me 24 hours so that I could prepare the remains to give the boy a chance to see his grandfather and say goodbye."
Would-be funeral directors need to be devoted, according to Skinner. With starting salaries at $25K, funeral directors should understand that they will never be paid for all the time they put in on weekends, evenings, and when their customers need them. Skinner compares it to working in an art gallery, where only the owners realistically can ever expect to become wealthy.
Still, funeral service offers enormous satisfaction, involvement in the larger questions of life, and pride in being entrusted with work that fulfills some of the most basic human needs.
So if you enjoy bringing comfort to other people and seek exposure to many different cultural traditions, start studying anatomy, practice your event planning skills...and dream on!