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  • laurawagner71

Welcome to The Undertaking

Updated: Jan 27, 2022

THEN & NOW: (Left) Our family's original funeral home, Bosse Funeral Home (my husband's paternal grandmother's name), at its former Hancock and Broadway location in Louisville, Kentucky. It was founded in 1865.

(Right) The undertaker, Robert C. Wagner, and his apprentice wife on my first day of work at Highlands Funeral Home, where we've been owners in a partnership since 1959. I'll be the first woman in our family business' 157 year history to become a licensed funeral director, owner, and operator.

It’s been almost a year since I've written something for other people to read online in a blog or newsletter.

I write for myself in my journal every day, but I stopped publishing any of my writings on purpose at the beginning of 2021. I'll share more about that some point, but what you're about to read will explain a part of it.

On November 2nd, 2021, while I was at home recovering from my bout with COVID-19 for over two weeks, I realized it was All Souls' Day, the day of prayer and remembrance for those who have departed.

I'd written some of these paragraphs during the week, but that day, I knew I had to finish and share the work.

I went online to edit and send it out as a newsletter, just like the old days : ) .

I figured the people who willingly subscribed to my email list over the past 10 years would be a pretty good audience.

This was like anything I'd ever sent them in the past -- I wasn't talking about personal development, announcing a new group coaching program, or anything like that.

Before I hit send, I kept getting stuck in my head and making edits over and over again:

What would be the best words for this undertaking?

In the end, I picked up my laptop and wrote this:

I’m here to share a story, and in the future, quite a few stories.

They will be about the ordinary life I'm living right now in an extraordinary space: my family, where I work, what I do there, what it’s like, what I feel, and what I’m learning.

After you read this, I think you’ll probably know if you want to stick around and see what else I have to bring to this blog.

I always say this about the work our family does, which is now the work I do:

It's something people seem to either want to know quite a lot about -- or not much at all.

If you and I are connected on social media, you may have seen my posts about a huge life transition I made at the end of this summer.

Since August 3rd, I have been working at our family funeral home as an apprentice funeral director.

An apprenticeship in funeral service is a two year, full-time, paid (barely lol) internship where I learn the business and then take an exam to get my funeral director’s license.

This is something I’ve wanted to do for over two decades, which is news to a lot of people, unless you know me pretty well.

Essentially, I set aside about 90% of the professional life and therapy practice I’ve built for over a decade and upended everything.

I haven’t looked back with any longing or regret since.

I love what I do every day and know I am 100% in my purpose and passion.

My mental health background is an excellent companion to my developing career, and how that will look in the future is something I definitely have plans for and am excited about.

I will always be sharing both personal and professional perspectives about mental health and creating a meaningful life, but it will have a different lens.

Right now, though, I’m devoted to what happens every day when people trust my family and our funeral home to care for someone who has died.

What I believe more than anything about my work, though, is that we are there to shepherd those who are living with the loss as much as we are taking care of the person who has passed.

People are with us during what might be the worst days of their lives, and it’s a calling to walk with them through that time and meet their needs.

I think that’s why I like to refer to people in funeral service by one of the terms people used generations ago: undertaker.

I’ve never met a thesaurus I didn’t like, so I had to look up some of my favorite synonyms for the word undertaking:

Pledge. Commitment. Action.

Experience. Covenant.

That’s the gravity of what I get to do, and it’s a privilege to serve.

I meet people and guide them as we create a contract for our services that aligns with their wants and needs.

I offer them empathy and options.

I am intuitive and pick up on interactions between family members that might be supportive or strained. Maybe both.

I translate their visual and verbal cues into the appropriate questions and guidance.

I’m also learning to step into the other parts of “the trade” -- the questions I ask and the calls I make from the beginning to end of the funeral process:

  • Asking for permission to embalm.

  • Making sure I give people our general price list per FTC rules.

  • Casket and vault orders.

  • Cremation authorizations.

  • Cemetery grave openings.

  • "Ordering cars from the garage” (reserving hearses & limousines).

  • Collecting clothing and other items from the family if there's visitation with a viewing.

  • Hiring cantors and / or musicians (bagpiper, pianist, harpist … oboe player).

  • Filing death certificates.

  • Writing and submitting an obituary.

  • Time coordination ... with everything.

It’s a mixture of heart work and putting together pieces of what might seem like a rote or cold process to some, but not me.

I love all of the moving parts and everyone involved.

Most importantly, it’s opening our “home” to people -- our funeral home -- just as I would receive visitors in the home I share with my husband and kids.

~ It’s walking family and friends into a stateroom for the first time where they might view their loved one in a casket.

It’s making sure people have whatever they need to be as comfortable as they can be, in a place where they would rather not be.

~ It’s welcoming their other friends and family members who come through to support them.

~ It’s witnessing grief and holding the space for whatever emotions rise up -- and it can be anything and everything.

Much of the time, it’s sweeping up the lounge, hauling flowers, filling the refrigerator with bottles of water, walking the floor, and opening the door.

In the first month of my apprenticeship, we had more than 30 funerals (which we refer to as "calls") in 31 days.

It was full-on, non-stop, and it moved like music. You have to have a good team to make that happen, and we do.

There are also the stretches of time where there are “no death calls” -- the days of silence that can come after you may have had 400 visitors in the building the week before.

That’s what I get to do every day, and I love it.

So if you’re still here -- still reading -- and wonder what will come next as you hear from me in the future -- well, this is it.

I figured this work and these stories deserved their own online home, so I took the time I was getting well and created this space.

l'll be showing up here with stories of life and death -- the undertaking.

I have things to share from the combined perspective of all that I am:

  • A woman who married into a “funeral home family.” I had no ambitions to do this work when I was younger, but I became fascinated with it when I met my husband.

  • A mental health practitioner. I've helped hundreds of people over the years; and, time and again, I found myself wanting to be in the service of those struggling with grief or trauma.

  • A writer who can make a picture with my words of some of the most beautiful, painful, complex, and familiar parts of life.

  • A person who is listening, learning, doing, seeing, and experiencing a unique vocation. An apprentice at a funeral home is, more often than not, a 20 year old mortuary school student -- not a 50 year old woman.

It's also important for you to know that when I share words or images:

  • I won‘t be sharing identifiable information or specifics that would violate a person's privacy or grieving. I tend to write in more general terms with composite examples of situations that someone in my profession would frequently encounter.

  • I‘m mindful, diligent, and protective of images, places, or situations connected to my work and the people we serve. Any person featured or mentioned with specific or identifying information has been asked and given me consent.

  • If I take photos of myself (that’s what you’ll probably see a lot of lol), it’s during the quiet times I find myself in before the building fills with people, or a funeral service location is empty of congregants.

  • Images of me (or my husband) in cemeteries are (or were) taken on my after-hours"walks with the souls," or by a professional photographer to promote a community close to my heart, Friends of Eastern Cemetery. This year, we volunteered at this once abandoned cemetery to do groundskeeping with a wonderful group of people. I promote FOEC as much as I can, and my friend Carrie Radford captured the stark beauty of this place.

  • At its heart, most of what I share will be my observations about the human experience of grief and loss. Life and death. It's something our culture, for the most part, wants to turn away from in conversation or examination of what it means to them.

There's so much to learn about who we are in the scope of all of this. I hope I offer that to you.

If you've subscribed to this blog, thank you -- you get to know when I've written a new post!

Please feel free to share my work; I'll be back soon.

~ Laura

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