Trigger Warning: death, grief, suicide and miscarriage.
After a couple of rings, he picks up the phone.
“Hello,” he says in a voice steeped in sobriety.
“Hi, is that Jason? I’m calling about the interview?”
“Awk- hello! How’s about you?” Jason booms, instantly brightening his tone, “Sorry, I didn’t know who was ringing, I never like answering the phone in too good of form in case it’s about a death.”
Jason has served as an undertaker in County Tyrone, a border region of Ireland, for over seven years. At just 28, he has prepared thousands of deceased people and has faced death every single day.
But you wouldn’t know it. Throughout our conversation, Jason cracks jokes and demonstrates a knack for storytelling that would rival the most seasoned late-night show hosts. Yet despite his easygoing attitude, Jason is adamant the job is made for him.
“Some people have said to me that I suit being an undertaker. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing… People are usually shocked to hear when you’re an undertaker because it’s not very often you get one my age.” Jason said.
Unlike most who get into the industry, Jason didn’t have any family connections. He found his passion completely on his own. At 13 years old after witnessing the death of close relatives, he became fascinated with the funeral arrangements and stayed close by the funeral director’s side throughout the service.
The intrigue never left and by 20 years of age, Jason had begun training at his local funeral home. Jason explained, saying:
“It was the first of September, and I was hanging out with friends, and [the funeral director] phoned me to tell me somebody was dead in the hospice. So, I was obviously very anxious when I arrived. We went up to the Donegal hospice and removed the gentleman back to the funeral home. That’s the first ever time I saw how a mouth was sewed together.”
There is a level of morbid curiosity surrounding this particular job title. Minds flicker to the embalming table, or shiny instruments and non-descript jars lining the walls.
In reality, undertakers are just trying to make families’ lives easier when they are at their most difficult. Jason emphasised the attention to detail needed to enter into the profession. Undertakers must do the jobs forgotten about in the shock of grief.
“If they have died in a bed at home, protocol for undertakers and funeral directors have always been to make the bed before you leave, it doesn’t look good if the bed is still messy and left. We always make the beds,” he insisted.
Of course, preparing the deceased is a key aspect of the job. Undertakers must have a stomach strong enough to completely remove the blood from the body, empty the bowls, dry out the eyes and sew the mouth closed.
“There are two different types of embalming. We don’t really need to go into much detail, but basically there’s a thing called a post-mortem embalming which is a lot more graphic because all the organs need to be removed and embalmed individually so it’s a lot more blood. It’s gory,” explained the young undertaker.
As well as making sure the deceased look their best on their big day, the whole team must look presentable. That includes the hearse.
“As I always say undertakers are the best car washers that ever walked on two feet because of the amount of times we wash cars in a day,” Jason said, laughing.
“We could wash the removal car maybe four times a day. The hearse is washed maybe three times.”
The way that Jason speaks about his job could come across as clinical to some people, but this perception couldn’t be farther from reality. Talking to Jason, you can get a sense of the time and respect he designates to his work.
“The rewarding side of it is to see the comfort you show to the family. When you spend the time preparing the deceased. Bringing them back to life just for a little bit is a very important part of the healing process.”
But this comes with its own problems. Death is never simple, but the circumstances that Jason must deal with can leave a lasting impression.
“I’ve dealt with many a suicide. Suicides aren’t very easy to do, especially the first one. It is a sight you never really want to see… I can still see the individual faces to this day,” he admitted.
It’s hard for anyone when the difficulties of a job start to bleed into our personal lives. Nobody wants to bring work home, but sometimes it is unavoidable.
Jason spoke candidly about the time his partner began bleeding six months into her pregnancy. Thankfully they got the all-clear, but Jason still had to face an alternative reality the next morning.
“The funeral director rang me to say they had a stillborn that was dead in [the local hospital] and asked if I could go and lift them. Now, telling people about that after, they were going ‘jeepers that’s a bit wrong or a bit raw’. But it’s the best thing that ever happened to be honest, because it proved that I could do the job I’m in. It proved how strong I can be.”
Seeing such devastation, even if it’s part of the job, is difficult. That’s why it is so important to have healthy coping mechanisms beyond the parlour.
“I teach a bit of ballroom dancing and I socialise with friends… I know we all have our own social life outside of the funeral home, nobody just sits in and waits for a phone call,” Jason explained.
This isn’t a typical assumption about undertakers. You are forgiven for imagining a stooped gentleman in a long black cloak, moving like their day job had latched onto their bones. Instead, we have a ballroom-dancing aficionado with an affinity for morbid jokes.
For instance, the undertaker explained how he likes to tease friends whenever he says goodbye, warning them that he hopes he doesn’t “see them too soon”, all because he gets a kick out of their white faces.
Indeed, Jason is adamant that undertakers are not a gloomy cohort.
“A lot of people have the perception out there that undertakers are always unhappy people. They always have a frown on their face and they’re always very sad looking and there’s no way that they’re good craic. But I can say it is totally opposite.”
Even though Jason and his colleagues always perform their job with the utmost respect and professionalism, there are times when the undertaker admitted that there wasn’t anything else you could do but laugh:
“One time my foot slipped, and I nearly dropped a coffin. It was the shock on the people’s faces. Those are the moments that can happen on days of funerals where you can’t laugh then but you’ll laugh after.”
The problem is that people don’t want to know about this side of the death industry, because they don’t want to know about death. During our conversation, Jason was amazed that somebody wanted to know what he did. Usually, he said, the reaction to his job is very different.
“That’s when you can grasp from people straightaway- are they comfortable with death? Or are they not? If they’re comfortable with death, they’ll sit with you, and start asking a few questions. When they’re not comfortable usually the conversation stops there.”
We seem to shut down as soon as death is brought up. You would almost think it was a disease you could catch if you talked about it long enough.
In the western world, we go a step further by systematically hiding death from view. We went from accepting it as part of our destiny to shrouding it in secrecy, hidden away in hospitals as if dying is a forbidden act.
Even people like Jason are a dying breed. Many families now opt for a quick cremation. No fuss, no high fees, but no real closure.
But there are other ways to grieve. If you look at the rest of the world there are countless traditions that accept death as a part of living.
The Igbo tribe in Nigeria buries their dead twice. Once to say goodbye and a second time to celebrate their life. Countries like Costa Rica in Central America stay up all night, eating and drinking to the memory of their loved ones.
In the Middle East, it’s a more sombre occasion with relatives often screaming out in pain and beating their chests. But still, there is a sense of duty to acknowledge the death head-on. Not attempting to move on quickly for fear of ever feeling an emotion.
Jason argued that giving the thing that scares us a name can help to demystify the process.
“I do believe that if the conversation is brought up a lot of people should engage more in it. Death is not as scary as people might think… the respect that undertakers give afterwards would probably put a lot more people at ease.”
By understanding the funeral industry, and the people that help to keep our traditions alive, we can start to accept the one thing we cannot change.
“As I always say: the only thing certain in life is death,” Jason added comfortingly.
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