Training for Life in the Context of Death

This article first appeared in Christian Living, May 1983, 11-14 and
Appears here with Permission

I was born the year that my father attended mortician school. For both that fact and Daddy’s choice of profession I am grateful. For neither do I apologize.

Why, when many persons are predominately negative toward funeral directors, do I prefer to speak a word in their favor?

My reasons are multiple: 1. Because my parents—Herman M. and Bessie (King) Yoder from Kalona, Iowa—modeled ministry as central to their professional career. 2. Because death is a universal experience from which we may learn, making our living more profound. 3. Because negating becomes a “cop-out” for the more difficult task of creatively reshaping funerals and burial into a service-oriented profession.

Death surrounds our living. Transportation accidents take their toll: 40 children in a bus, 140 passengers on an airplane, one farmer beneath a tractor. Environmental disasters override human social divisions; the avalanche, flash flood, and tornado strike, reminding all of our finitude. War and mass deaths evidently both repel and intrigue, thanks to media and technology. We numb ourselves while reading and watching reports from West Beirut and El Salvador.

But what do these phenomena have to do with a hometown funeral director? While they remind us of life, they combine the reality of death within life. They nudge us toward connecting the philosophical and experiential.

I grew up in a funeral home in a small town of twelve hundred within a large Mennonite-Amish community. Any of us four children—now living in Ohio, Ontario, Indiana, and Kentucky—would focus the experience differently. Exposure to death within life was not the sole advantage. There were many others as two people, our parents, offered distinct perspectives to their chosen profession.

1.They modeled working together. Each of my parents was equally important for meeting the public, for decision-making about purchases, for ministering to people in emotional pain. Even as a close observer, I would be unable to judge which contributed more to the success of the Kalona Yoder Funeral Home.

While both were organizationally-oriented, Mother especially gave attention to details with ease. Daddy was formally trained to embalm, but Mother’s two hands often assisted his. Both persisted sensitively with duties to their completion. Both were hard workers. Each expected the other to be involved with secondary task—washing dishes, milking a couple of cows, or arranging the house for its public and private uses.

In light of how many church and community leaders achieve their positions at the expense of a spouse’s personal growth and identity, I am most grateful for the rare pattern that I had as a child of parents who both contributed equally in public and in private. They both have been recognized within and beyond the home.

2.They anticipated the unexpected. We followed suit. That involved flexible planning—having enough gas in the Buick used for the ambulance, being specific about where a person could be located, altering family activities to accommodate professional calls. That often meant having one family member stay at home when others went to an event where phone service was not available. It meant that in planning an all-day activity—butchering thirty chickens, attending WMSC sewing, tackling a major project at the insurance office, or picking the 40 acres of corn—each could be interrupted with a call for business.

Adaptability was the first order. One learned to adjust to disappointment, to take extra precautions, to honor another’s pain. There was the occasion when our family was packed ready to go to Illinois for a cousin’s wedding. But the phone rang. Someone had died. To express empathy for an older sister who truly wished to attend that cousin’s wedding, a little sibling said “Perhaps when that person gets done dying, we’ll be able to go.” Understanding the situation, we unpacked our suitcases while Daddy went to work.

And there was the year of bulbar poliomyelitis cases. Following those ambulance runs or death pickups, linens met boing water a second time.

We were taught to respect others’ feelings, to “be more quiet than usual elsewhere in the house” when a deceased’s family or viewers were present. But we also found space to express ourselves as individuals and a family. Fortunately, we had a back stairway in our house. And if that became too crowded with items stored there, we could resort to Daddy’s homemade elevator that crawled from basement to ground or second floor.

Fatal car accidents affect all of us. A couple from Kansas had this misfortune while traveling through Iowa. The surviving husband stayed at our house for a couple days. How he wailed. How I valued his authenticity. And the night that my high school senior classmate died, I could initially only say, “Oh, no.” But by the time that I had uncovered and opened the caskets for the family’s decision-making, my grief was in process.

3.Our parents exposed us children to values inherent with dying. Living with a framework of dying taught us about death’s profound sameness, yet diversity. To live with dying reinforces that all living has a way of concluding or dramatically changing into another manner of being. How unfortunate if this were not the case; our world could not accommodate modern Methuselahs.

This principle of creation we also observed from Mother’s many African violet plants on the wide window sills. Life constantly changes. Alongside new growth was that which had completed its course, for one reason or another. As young children, we knew that sometimes death confronts life and seems harsh. Sometimes it offers appropriate closure or deserved release.

Living with dying has taught me to respect God and to acknowledge that human beings are not ultimately in control. Some professions counter that fact. I still ask “why” questions when comprehension fails. But some measure of resolution follows when I restate my belief in the Infinite.

Further, living with death has oriented me toward readiness and purpose for living or dying. With life guaranteed for no one., intentionality in living shapes me. My will to live and the human body’s innate efforts toward survival are strong. But I also believe that an attitude of willingness to be or not to be is appropriate.

Such a stance promotes diligent being. Yet it frees one from taking oneself too seriously. It balances resolve and resignation. I determine to contribute and accomplish whatever present that is available. I trust a future for others without me.

4.We children learned that our home was not ours alone. Our parents were not ours to selfishly possess. Nor were they dependent on our being dependent on them. Their friendships were many and genuine because they reached out in care. Our house absorbed many a conversation—expressed and unexpressed—not voiced by the six of us who regularly called it “home.”

For that cement block house on the corner had a large, often open, front door. Of that we were aware. When your living room became viewing room, you wish you had practiced piano longer the day before. When family photos were taken off the mantle and folding chairs set up, private space becomes public. When food preparation gave way to “There’s fruit in the frig to go with bread soup,” we learn independence.

5.We learned about pastoral ministry. Our parents were ministers in the fullest sense of the word, caring for those experiencing pain or relief, loss and adjustment. Before the current validity for discussing death and owning grief, our family knew that talk about death and dying need not be morbid or flip. We learned to respect shock’s reality and grief’s demands.

Part of caring for a family encountering death was Mother’s giving time “in the southwest room” to intercede for them. For that there was no fee; for her, it was part of the service offered. Daddy and Mother simply demonstrated what they knew best. Not prone to rush others, they themselves brought needed organization and calmness to disrupted lives and families. Not prone to excessive talk, they sensed appropriateness of comment. Not prone to unpreparedness, they planned a way of being that could accommodate emergency.

Because I perceived them as so effective in relating to grieving people, early in adulthood I felt inadequate in the task. But a year of CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) working with grieving people in a Disciples congregation taught me a further basic truth that I had previously overlooked. My hesitation or “not knowing what to say to bereaved folk” was a cover-up for my not wanting to hear what they had to say. Once that insight emerged, I could minister in freedom, like my parents.

That Mother and Daddy chose the professional stance of availability was well received by the community. That all in the funeral directing business are lumped into a “money hungry” category is unfortunate and unfair. Offering services “beyond the call of duty,” our parents with consistent care set modest fees. Those too were adaptable, depending on the deceased’s family circumstance.

On the occasion of their 50th anniversary in August 1981, friends and relatives had this to say about their professional ministry:

“They worked side by side with such poise and professionalism.”

“Their honesty and sincerity in business endeavors will long be remembered.”

“The Yoder Funeral Home was a place of real beauty . . . They both kept things running smoothy and quietly and showed empathy toward the bereaved.”

“When they were funeral directors, I always appreciated their service to the church . . . I hated to think of the time when they would no longer be able to serve in this capacity.”

“My views on death are much different because of having observed and worked with Herman and Bessie. They didn’t do any preaching; they just lived and worked with what they believed to be a very real part of life.”

We heard many additional expressions of appreciation when Daddy died in April 1982. As cancer and other complications destroyed his body and mind, we had to come to terms with death in a new way as a family. To have lived and learned in a funeral home managed by our parents was a definite privilege. That exposure to death has enhanced my life.