Five Things I Learned from Funeral Directors to Live a Better Life

Lessons learned from funeral directors: feel and show compassion

By Jeanne Schwartz
Chief Strategy Officer

For the past two years, I’ve worked on launching a new e-commerce website for the funeral industry. Aside from getting an education in funeral industry economics, I learned a lot about how funeral directors approach families with a caring that is remarkable and unheard of in business, and in many interpersonal relationships. Here are five things I learned from funeral directors to live a better life:

1. Appreciate everything. Funeral directors, more than any other group of people I’ve had the pleasure to work with, have the distinct ability to differentiate between “alive” and “dead.” And that gives them a robust and amazing appreciation of all that is part of the experience of being alive. Most of us are confronted with this realization only a few times in our lives — after having survived a near brush with death, or dealing with the death of a loved one. But it is an incredible gift to truly appreciate and absorb the wonder of the world around us, our relationships, nature, the little moments that are too often forgotten.

2. Feel — and show — compassion. It’s hard to keep this in the front of your mind. Everyday pettiness and annoyances threaten to overwhelm us. The famous author David Foster Wallace delivered a graduation speech once called “This is Water” that makes this point more eloquently than I can. I recommend it highly. You can find it online. Funeral directors I know, even those who have long since ascended to the role of president as opposed to performing day-to-day duties, still exhibit concern for the smallest detail about how the loved one looks prior to the service, how the family is treated by all members of their staff. They deliver compassion, which is the single most important element of a funeral — and of a life.

3. Every person is special. My dad used to say that waiting for your luggage to be delivered to the baggage carousel was the great equalizer in life. No matter if you were in the first class cabin or the last jump seat in the rear of the plane, you had to wait for your bags to be delivered. And the little yellow “priority” tags are not a guarantee that your bags will come out first. Funeral directors have helped me understand how very true that is. You are loved by people, and to them, you are the most special person on the earth — no matter your history, profession, or mistakes. In the movie The Help, Aibileen says to the precious little girl she watches, “You is beautiful. You is smart. You is important.” Looking at everyone that way can lift your heart every day.

4. Find a calling, not a career. Funeral directors, for the most part, view their profession as a calling. They enter the business to provide care for families, to honor the deceased in tender and honorable ways, to recognize, respect and tend to grief. Your calling may not be the same. But the lesson I’ve taken from watching this inspirational phenomenon is that each of us should search our hearts, be true to what motivates us, and dispense with the “trappings” and prestige that too many chase.

5. Humor is a great stress-reliever. True for all of us, but in the funeral profession they take it to a new level. I guess I would, too, if I was around death all day. And I suppose that’s my point. Don’t worry about being politically correct or formal when you are around your friends and peers. Let loose, make fun, bring a smile to your own face and to others. As the Indigo Girls famously sing, “It’s only life, after all.” But oh, what a life. A privilege for all of us, and the smiles and tears that accompany its passages are all part of the rich experience.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned from funeral directors is that I want to emulate and live by their values and their attitudes.

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