What's in a word ... when you work at a funeral home?
Updated: Jan 12
November 2021 - Fall at the funeral home
I was (and still am) so excited about the welcoming, curious, and encouraging response I got from people when I released this blog on November 5.
It's been wonderful reading all of the kind messages.
If you're new here, you're not far behind -- this is my second post. You can read the first one by clicking HERE.
Earlier in the week, I was working at an evening visitation with my husband when we started talking about the year (2004) I spent as an apprentice at our smaller funeral home.
Most people don't know I did that work all those years ago (or why I stopped); and that is a whole other post coming in the future.
I have a lot of memories that are serving me well in my return to funeral service this year.
Someone will do or say something I haven't thought about in 17 years, and my mind pulls it up like it was yesterday.
I also also realize some of the words I used at one funeral home do not mean the same thing today in another funeral home setting.
Every trade has its terminology or shorthand for the things the people who work in that field do or say all of the time.
We do this at the funeral home as a means of communicating something quickly or efficiently. I think of certain terms as kind of a code when we refer to something that might fall hard on the ears of the public if we described it any other way.
I share a lot of stories about the human experience when it comes to my work, but it's also important to understand it's a business.
I know people know this, but I also know it might seem abrupt or cold to talk about taking care of the dead and the logistics that go with that.
It's how my family makes our livelihood.
We’ve been continuously operating in this industry for 156 years, and that means taking care of business in order to serve the people.
I love what I do because we get to help people as well as build a solid, family-owned business.
I'm learning I have what it takes to do all of this, and do it very well.
With that, I’m adding "What's in a word ...?" as an ongoing feature of this blog.
This first "What's in a word...?" word has a bonus ... kind of.
For me, this word has two uses and meanings when I'm at work.
However, in a conversation with my husband Bobby the other night, I found out we only share one way of using the word when we're in mortuary mode:
#1 - Removal ~ refers to the act of taking the body away from the place where the death occurs for its preparation for burial or cremation
Y'all. It was challenging to find a photo that would somehow illustrate what a REMOVAL is without it having a graphic or "yikes!" factor. This one works. FYI: These days, a lot of funeral homes now use vans more than hearses (hearses are also referred to as "coaches") that are manufactured by coach / funeral car companies.
I have a word for these, too: "vearses."
On the apprenticeship documentation I keep for the Kentucky State Board of Embalmers & Funeral Directors, I have to record any removals where I am present with a licensed director and/or embalmer.
When someone dies and our funeral home gets consent to bring them into our care, we take the hearse with a funeral cot (stretcher) to "make a removal."
At a hospital, we arrive at the morgue where we move the decedent to the stretcher, use a cot cover to discretely cover their body, load the hearse, and return to the funeral home.
I've also gone on removals at the airport when we have a ship-in, which is when a person has died out of town / out of the country, and their remains are shipped to us via a major airline's specialized care and cargo division.
Just like a regular flight, we know the departure and arrival times, except upon arrival, we drive to a designated cargo area.
We take our documents and go to a counter for a H.R. pickup (human remains).
Papers are signed, and we back the hearse up to a dock where we load the shipping container and tray carrying the deceased person.
Those are just a couple of examples, and the logistics are different depending on certain factors.
My late father-in-law, Bill Wagner, was a fourth generation funeral director.
Years ago, when he was "taking call" for our funeral homes, my husband says his dad would answer the phone at home throughout the night, and often leave to make removals all over the city.
1940s: My father-in-law, Bill, is the kid standing in the back behind this bunch of undertakers (left to right): his grandfather, Henry Bosse, Jr.; his uncle, Robert G. Bosse; and his father, Will Wagner.
He'd pick up the body with a co-worker, take it to the funeral home, embalm, if needed; and then go back home.
If another death call came, he'd get out of bed and do it all over again.
These days, instead of the funeral home's staff, there are mortuary services we can hire to make removals (especially during the night).
A mortuary service transports the remains of someone who has died and, at times, embalms their body for the funeral home (known as “pick up and embalm"). They will deliver the decedent to us, as well.
#2 - Removal(s) ~ refers to items that are to be removed from the casket before closing and heading to church, the cemetery, or crematory
I created my example of removals for you: My wedding band, a pair of earrings, and my Dollar Tree reading glasses.
Once someone removed those items from me while I was in the casket, they would place them in one of our velvet jewelry pouches, and give them to a designated family member.
There are standard terms that most people in an industry use, and there are terms that might be regional, cultural, or even specific to one funeral home.
I was working with my husband last week and we were talking about the details of an upcoming funeral, including the jewelry and keepsakes that were with the person in the casket.
I call these items removals; however, that night, I learned for the first time that Bobby does not.
When I worked at our other family funeral home in 2004, the men I worked with spoke of removals in alternating ways:
- the removal of a body
- the removal of items with or on a body in a casket before closing
This was confusing for a little while.
I was the only woman doing this job among male funeral directors. I was also 33 years old, not nearly as secure with myself as I am now, and striving to look like I knew what I was doing as much as possible.
I knew"going on a removal" meant we were going to pick up a body and bring it back to the funeral home.
I also learned what removals meant in another context.
After a family we were serving paid their finals respects, our staff would prepare to close the casket and load the hearse.
Before we closed, one of us would always ask the other:
"Are there any removals?"
Does the person's wedding band remain with them, or is it removed and returned to someone in the family?
How about the rosary?
The photo of the grandchildren?
That lucky golf ball?
Does the family want the eyeglasses to stay on when we close, or does someone in the family want them? (We can also donate the glasses.)
These are very important questions.
When I ask what is to be removed during the arrangement conference or in a later conversation with the next-of-kin, I write it down, initial it, and keep it with a file we refer to throughout the week.
I check again the day of the funeral service in case anything has changed.
Listen ... there's a point-of-no-return, so to speak, when you cannot remove something anymore, if you get what I'm saying.
And more than that, we're here to take care of people.
Those items -- those removals -- mean something to that person's loved ones.
We have to get it right for that reason, foremost.
Fast forward to the present day: I still walk into a stateroom when we're getting ready to leave the building for a funeral and ask a director:
"Are there any removals?
Remove her engagement ring and wedding band, or just the engagement ring?"
No one seemed to act like this was a strange question, probably because I clarified it by naming particular items.
But again, my husband shared with me that he’s never referred to this process or the kinds of items I've mentioned using this term.
I'm with this man for almost 25 years, and I don't know this lol??
It hadn’t occurred to him to call removals "removals."
"Well, what do you say, then?" I asked.
"We usually ask each other, 'What comes out?'" he said matter-of-factly.
Me: "’What comes out?!‘ Really? That's all you got?"
One of my co-workers said they had heard my use of removal before, and said they could see why it worked for that purpose.
My brother-in-law, Jim, is a funeral director and embalmer; we worked together in 2004.
He's got my back : ) and stands by the context, since he uses the word "removal" in the same way, too.
In the end, though, I guess the question:"What comes out?" reigns supreme.
As far as my seniority at work, I don't have any as an apprentice.
I do, however, have something on my own terms.