It has finally happened – I have a bad back. I’ve gotten old. I own heating pads and go to physical therapy and sometimes even have to turn down work.

Several years ago, I was the one who got called when there was a 350-lb body in the morgue. I’ve lifted 300-lb bodies off toilet seats and out of recliners. But back then, I was using steroids. I’ve been off for a few years now and I’ve gone from being a bodybuilder to being…well…kind of fit for my age, I guess. Now I work out with 5-lb dumbbells and I’m sore the next day. I don’t even have a gym membership.

After too many unpleasant incidents, I’ve realized I can no longer agree to pick up a body without first knowing the weight. When I was new in the business, I never asked the weight. It seemed rude. You just plain don’t ask someone how much they weigh; any woman knows that. If they could fit on the cot, I could lift them. When I worked for funeral homes that wanted the weight estimate, I would try to word it in a different way when speaking to the family. “Are there any special situations I need to be aware of, for example, are there stairs in the house? Is the person…large? Are there tight corners?”

Later, I started asking for “the person’s estimated height and weight” so it would sound like I only wanted to be sure they would fit on the cot, which is still a valid concern. A person over 300 lbs may not fit on a standard cot, depending on how their weight is distributed. I’ve also learned that not all 200-lb people are equal. A 200-lb body flat on the floor will be very hard for me to lift. Another time, I accepted a call for a case reported to weigh 200 lbs…and saw he had no legs. He was basically a large ball of a person who couldn’t be secured on the cot. Likewise, I have picked up bodies nearing seven feet tall, and they don’t fit, at least not if they are to be covered.

Now I’m a lot bolder. As long as I’m not speaking directly to the family, I will just flat-out ask, “How much does she weigh?” If it’s a nurse, they will almost always hem and haw. “Well…we don’t have that information…”

They have the information. Any time a person goes to the hospital, they are weighed. So I press harder. “I need that information before I can come out there.” Nurses don’t like waiting on funeral directors, so they usually “remember” they have the information after all.

It’s been somewhat of a blow to my pride. My strength, and my ability to handle large cases alone without having to take the next day off, was one of my selling points. But staying on steroids wasn’t worth it, and all strong people will eventually see a day when they can’t do everything they once could. Realistically, a five-feet-tall middle-aged woman can’t expect to keep lifting double and triple her weight every day. Human tissues eventually wear down and break, and I have to work with what I have. Yesterday, I picked up a 275-lb case from a morgue with very little trouble. A few weeks ago, I had great difficulty with a 250-lb case, and had to take the next day off.

However, we must also remember we as funeral service professionals are here to provide a necessary service, and that service extends to everyone. Knowing we are going to pick up or work on a heavy person should not make any difference in how we treat their families, or in the quality and enthusiasm of our service. It only means we have to secure extra help, and possibly another cot.

Another tip – when getting the weight from a nurse, be sure to ask if they meant in pounds. “He weighs 180” can mean two very different things.