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  • Writer's pictureGlen Burkholder

The Forgotten Responder

Updated: Aug 7, 2020

(2020 Volume 4)

A friend of mine left the funeral profession after contributing more than twenty years to the practice. At the time he was forty and he had always had a dream of becoming a police officer. This is not unusual. As funeral directors we often work close with the police in times of death, whether that be natural, accidental, or intentional. I myself seriously considered becoming a police officer at one time.

When Pat was going through the steps of transition and attending the academy, I remember meeting one of his new friends, Sean at a cocktail party. These two gents were both hired by the provincial police, who in my specific area are responsible for our highways. As I think of today's topic; my thoughts go to the memory of Sean’s first day of active duty. On Sean’s first day he was dispatched to a motor vehicle accident. It was a car meets transport truck collision in which the entire top of the car was sheared off including the head of the driver. Imagine, your first day on the job and you are faced with the ungodly sight of a decapitated man! To the average person this would institutional him/her in a psych hospital.

Over the years, the first responder industry (police, fire and emergency medical services) has recognized that witnessing such events, in these career paths, have very taxing repercussions. The major result is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD can result in a plethora of mental and physical disorders: insomnia, depression, rage, isolation, alcoholism, and suicide to mention a few. Therefore, the first responder industry is proactively seeking to ensure those involved get the treatment that they need and deserve in order to find a sense of well being and balance in one’s life.

Then there is the funeral industry, a profession that I designate as the forgotten responders. Most people view funeral directors as: well dressed and extremely poised people; shined up professionals driving shined up luxury cars. Most of my readers, unless you are in the industry like me, are surprised to learn that we are the ones who receive the torch, in the relay race of misfortune, and run with it until its final disposition. For much of my time in funeral service, I worked for a firm that primarily did all the “Coroner’s Calls”. Unlike what Hollywood brings to your living rooms, there are no black painted vans with white arial font letters carrying teams of coverall wearing persons to handle the victims. In Ontario, that response team is your local undertaker who arrives at the scene with polished shoes and a tailored suit stepping into a completely unique theatre of death every time the phone rings.

I am comfortable in saying that I have seen the results of thousands of deaths. From small town Niagara to the “Big Smoke” (Toronto), you really can’t surprise me anymore…yet when you think you have seen it all, the phone rings again! Murder, a man ties himself to his woman, shoots her with a shot gun, turns the gun and removes everything above his chin. Fifty-seven stab wounds in the over-zealous take down of a martial arts expert who just couldn’t overcome a team of professional assassins, who broke into his crib and surprised him while he slept. A mother and father who were enjoying their years of retirement, bludgeoned to death by their mentally disturbed son. Suicide, self-inflicted gunshot wounds, too many to recount. Hangings; from a man who chose to climb a mature tree and hanged himself so high they needed a fire truck with a cherry picker to bring him out of the foliage, to one man who bought enough rope that he could have tied off in the crown of that tree and still step off a stool at ground level…and yet he tied it to the rail of a clothes closet and squatted into his demise. Arteries cut, blood, blood, and more blood. Lest we forget the jumper. From rooftops, balconies and into the path of a speeding subway; into Niagara Falls, off the escarpment beside Niagara Falls and even off the power generating station from the top of the pen-stocks to the roof that shelters the turbines below. Motor vehicle accidents of every nature, transport trucks, motorcycles, two guys trying to beat the train at the crossing and those killed at the hands of drunk drivers. Natural death not discovered for days; from being frozen solid in a deeply wooded area to being found days after the death in a hot, third story attic apartment during the dog days of July.

I don’t recall all of the sweet, white haired grandma’s and grandpa’s I have laid to rest in their shiny caskets of oak and cherry, but I can recount with high definition, technicoloured memories, the tragedies I have encountered. The irony is that, not only does your funeral director encounter these events; he or she has to follow through and comfort the families of these deaths. It is our job to get them through the funeral process without showing the internal pain; the cracks in our souls and psyche, all while doing it with finesse and moxy. How do we do it? The average funeral director has about $250/year in their health care benefits to get psychological help and therapy. That will barely get you two or three, one on one, face to face sessions with a qualified practitioner, and that won’t scratch the surface. So we find outlets because we need outlets. For me, it was raising children in an environment in which they didn’t know any different. Beyond that, I enjoy fishing, taking pictures, riding a motorcycle and giving back through my charity where I can. Also, I drink. I am not an alcoholic, but I like a beer after work. I think most can understand that.

However, alcohol and drug addiction is a problem in this profession. Sometimes it's the only coping mechanism that some find and It has killed some really good funeral directors. After an incident, the first responders are initially debriefed and given time off, then they are granted thousand upon thousands of dollars to get past the trauma. It wasn’t always this way, but times are changing and maybe those who oversee the funeral profession will recognize that in their employees. When I came into the profession, I was told, “suck it up…you chose this job and that’s a part of it.” 37 years later and now I am left with a hard, callous shell, like an armadillo, protecting my broken heart and soul.

The phone rings, again…”Hello, my name is Glen, How can I help you?”

If you're in a high stress job, please leave a comment and share what you do and how you cope.

Next: Professional vs. Home vs. Common Unity and Collaboration

We’ll explore the subject of the Home Funeral, otherwise known as Family Lead Funerals.

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