By Bridget Monaghan
This piece is just another example of my mom always being right. Since the release of the first issue she has been hounding me to talk to Bridget, a woman she knows from a small
business association. She told me about her family business (a funeral home) and about her going back to school to become an estate planning attorney. My mom was positive that she had a story to tell. Within one email to Bridget she said she absolutely had a story and, oh, yeah, she also happens to have a degree in Journalism, so yeah it was a match made in heaven. In this piece, she talks about the realities of growing up in a Six Feet Under situation.
I remember the first time I saw a dead body.
My Dad picked me up from CCD in our black Suburban and said we needed to make a stop before heading home. He backed the SUV up to double doors of a funeral home, opened the trunk, and unlocked the four wheels of the stretcher onto the pavement. He asked me to hold one door open as he pushed the stretcher into a cold, sterile room. I watched silently as he gently slid a gray-haired, frail lady onto a porcelain table. He draped a white sheet over her body and we quietly left. At nine years old, I started to understand what my Dad did everyday when he left for work. And it was the last time I got into a car without looking over my shoulder.
My family has been in the funeral business since 1919,starting with my great grandfather in Centralia, Pennsylvania. Although my childhood didn’t perfectly align with Vada Sultenfuss in My Girl, it was close. I was often exposed to death even though I didn’t grow up in a funeral home and my Dad didn’t work full time in the business until I was about nine years old. Despite a normal household environment, my friends were sometimes apprehensive to come over to play considering there was often an empty stretcher in the car in the driveway, or a casket catalog on the coffee table. Death calls often pulled my dad from lacrosse games or Sunday dinners.
At 11 years old, I sat at my mother’s hospital bedside as she took her last breath, succumbing to her six-year battle with breast cancer. I swore at that point in my life that I would never step foot in a hospital or funeral home again. Ten years later, after graduating from Penn State and realizing my dreams of being in television production were out of reach, I submitted my
application to mortuary school. I began my endeavor as a funeral director in the hopes of one day running the family business.
People often ask me how I can work in such a depressing and scary profession. Sure, I’ve seen my share of awful things: opioid overdoses, gunshot wounds, and decomposition. I’ve had to show caskets to grieving mothers and write obituaries with spouses who lost their partners after 70 years of marriage. It can often be depressing, but like in any profession, you have to extract your personal emotions and be strong and accessible for your client. The funeral business, however, isn’t all gore and horror as people imagine it to be. In reality, I spend most of my time at a desk or in conferences with families. It’s a noble profession that truly helps people through the darkest of times. It’s much more than morgues and dead bodies.
It has been a challenge to be accepted in the business as a young woman. The funeral industry has been very much male dominated for centuries. I have to admit that it’s difficult to lift a stainless steel casket, or dress a 200-pound body without a helping hand. At the same time, women excel in other areas. I’ve been able to connect with most of my clients on a personal level that even my dad admits is different than his interactions. Women bring a softness and approachability to the business that I believe is paramount. I think suffering the loss of my mother at a young age has given me an upper hand as well. Yes, I make a salary for the work that I do, but I truly want to help people through the grief that I can so personally relate to.
I’m sure most women in the business world experience their share of setbacks or challenges. Earlier in my career, I would feel discouraged or offended when clients would ask, “Where’s the funeral director?” when I would knock on their door for an appointment. As the years went by, though, I started to feel more confident in my own skin. I’m a woman doing a “man’s job” and I’m damn proud of it. Now I smile and wave when I get doubletakes as I’m driving the hearse.
Working in a funeral home isn’t always a scene from CSI. I get to see people at their worst, but also at their best in a sense. I’ve met countless interesting and talented people. I’ve heard stories about successful people and brave veterans. I’ve witnessed so much love between family members and friends. This profession has exposed me to all of the good and bad aspects of both life and death. As a result, it has made my life more precious and much richer.