One small matter to address – I totally don’t care if other funeral directors want to take credit for my work. I understand people are trying to do me a favor when they tell me they heard a funeral director claim my embalming job, and I don’t care, because I already got what I wanted. I made the viewing happen. I’m good at something that actually matters, so good that people will flat-out lie and say it was their work. Please do! You can call in potential employers and all your friends from mortuary school and say you threw this case together in an hour without any help.

In other workplace issues, I made a job posting for an assistant and then realized…I might have to talk on the phone?! Not worth it! Why ruin everything? I did put in the posting that I required a willingness to communicate by text. I probably should have been more specific.

I work alone for a reason. It might be good to continue this arrangement. I set up my business to be a one-person operation. If I only accept the amount of work I can complete by myself, I can remain a one-person operation. But I like to be useful, and I happen to work mostly for people I consider my good friends, and of course I don’t like to say no to my friends. It’s only natural to think that if I had just one extra person, I could take on so much more additional work, possibly until the extra person was driven off in exhaustion.

I also realized I’m uncomfortable leaving my cases with someone I don’t really know. Even if all I’m doing is picking up the body and dropping it off and will not be involved in the service, that is my case. That body is my responsibility until left at the funeral home. Other funeral directors hire me with the expectation that I will take these responsibilities seriously, and I don’t know if I can ethically bring in an unknown person to be equally responsible. It all makes me really uncomfortable. I work alone for a reason.

An overwhelming part of the job is moving people from one surface to another, driving them from point A to point B. I am busy constantly because it’s something that always needs to be done. Not all bodies are embalmed, but all of them do need to be moved from where they died. Since I work for myself, I fortunately have a lot of leeway in the kinds of calls I accept.

One request I get a lot is for the “one-person house call.” Normally, a funeral home will send two directors to respond to a residential death. Two people moving a body will always be a smoother and more professional transition than one person trying to move that same body. Many home deaths also include situations that would be impossible to navigate alone, such as stairs to climb or a very cluttered house.

I have seen only a handful of what I would call “easy home calls” where you just walk in, put the [clean, clothed, average sized] body on the cot, and walk out. Nearly always, there are going to be obstructions. In an unexpected death or a death not noticed right away, there are going to be bodily fluids. A person’s home isn’t going to be designed with my job in mind. There are going to be end tables with knickknacks on them right next to the doorway. There will be doodads on the walls that will get bumped. If a person has been bedridden for a long time before death, their room will have been turned into a comfort sanctuary for them and a spatial nightmare for us. Their family has most likely surrounded the bed with the furniture and other items the dying person needs, without regard for our access to the bed. Incidentally, when the family says the body is “in bed” they don’t always mean a nice hospice bed that can lower and raise and has removable sides. Sometimes they mean he’s on an air mattress on the floor, or in the center of a very high, soft waterbed. He might be facedown and naked on that bed in a pool of blood or vomit. You’ll be glad if you have already brought another person with you.

What does “small” mean? I am unarguably small, so when I hear “it’s a small person” I expect to see someone who looks like me. But to many directors, “small” simply means smaller than that particular director. I’ve learned not to take the director’s word for it if he can’t put it in a numerical value, and that’s even more true for the family. No family is going to tell you up front that their loving mother is 400 lbs. It will be “about 240 or so” because that’s how they see her. Her driver’s license probably says 240 or 220.

Many families have absolutely no idea what our jobs consist of, and how specialized an act it really is to get some people out of some spaces. Their homes are often completely unprepared for us, because there is no reason they should know what we need. Sometimes I have to ask several people to move cars. They are having the worst day of their lives, so they aren’t thinking of my van and my clear walkway and holding the gate. They didn’t secure their dogs. They don’t know how long my gurney is, or that it only steers from one side. They might not even know I have one, and some families, when they see it, are adamant that I can’t use the front porch because Someone Might See. I may have agreed to take on this call by myself with the understanding that I was using the front porch, and the back porch might have stairs, so that’s why it’s good to have that second person with you. I remember telling my mom I had hurt my back on a call and she said “Why don’t you just put the body on a stretcher and wheel it out of the house?” She honestly thought I was fireman-carrying everyone out of their homes, and she’s not the only one.

Regarding stairs, normally the director will ask “Are there stairs?” and this is often taken to mean “Does someone have to climb up a flight of stairs in order to get into your home?” One family answered honestly, no, no stairs into the home…but the body was in a basement. Face down on a waterbed, 250 lbs, and a very short 250 lbs at that, so not easy to belt onto a gurney. I was very glad I had a second person with me, although I recall he was not so glad that his second person was me as we carried that body up a steep flight of stairs we weren’t expecting.

I had another case, another home death, and I was told he was only 200 lbs. I figured that was no problem, except he didn’t have any legs and was this very round 200-lb ball. That kind of weight distribution is different to maneuver. And on this call, I had a second person with me but ended up wishing I hadn’t, or that it wasn’t him, or that I hadn’t gone on the call, or hadn’t moved to this state, or that I was dead, or that this body had legs. For the sake of this director’s anonymity I think I won’t say exactly what went wrong, but if I had my way – as I should, at all times – I’d use a backboard on every home death and not bother with a gurney at all.

I’m a huge fan of the backboard. It’s light and compact and maneuverable and yes, it takes two people. But for some reason, any time I end up on a home call with a male co-worker, he won’t want to use the backboard. I have no idea why it’s mostly men, but I think it may be a height issue? I’ve noticed that men over 6 feet tall (I’m 5’1”) really don’t have an easy time doing removals with me when stairs are involved, so it must have something to do with weight distribution, limb length and angle, and our individual strengths and weaknesses. But most men decide “We don’t have to carry him; let’s just put him on the 60-lb cot like usual and we can sort of crash and bang it down the stairs and I’ll say ‘You got him?’ and ‘Sorry about the thing on your wall’ a lot and the wheels will leave black streaks everywhere, and the family will look at us like we’re morons, and you’ll remember it like a decade later” and since I’m not assertive I just kind of squeak “ok” and I wonder if there has ever been an instance of someone losing a body and a cumbersome metal gurney over a banister and just what an awful sound that would make and how I’d have to quit the business in disgrace and everyone would be screaming.

It makes no sense that a small woman with a back surgery and totally wrecked joints would have an easier time lifting someone on a backboard than some guy would. Probably another good reason not to get an assistant.   

I could get way off track listing everything that can go wrong, but I’m trying to focus on common issues on removals that a family or another funeral director might not consider when deciding if the call is “easy” enough to send only one person. Another situation that instantly complicates things is if the body is flat on the floor.

Even if you can physically lift the body without difficulty, keep in mind the family will probably be watching, and there’s just no way you can lift a person from the floor in a dignified manner. Two people, on the other hand, can sort of ease a blanket under and around the person and lift them in kind of a cradle hold and the person will look protected, rather than sort of hoisted. I have done a literal deadlift of a dead body; she was about my size and I was in flat shoes so I grabbed the waistband and the collar and did a perfect-form conventional/bent-leg deadlift, and it was easy and safe…but I’d never do that in front of a family. I don’t want to wow them; I want to give them an impression of a smooth and proper transfer.

Different funeral homes or removal services will have different rules about families observing, or assisting, on a removal. I have always been open about allowing families to watch. On every call, whether at a home or a hospital with the family at the bedside, I remind them that it can be a hard and unpleasant thing to watch, especially if this will be the last image they have of him, so they are welcome to step out or to observe if they feel comfortable. From a liability standpoint and purely business sense, it’s better if they don’t observe. If it’s something especially difficult, like a body in a bathtub, I just say “I really recommend you do not observe this” and I’ve never had a family argue about it. I don’t know what I’d do if I had a family insisting on being around for something like that.

As far as assisting, many families offer to help, and I’ve always allowed it when it comes to handling the body, although I don’t recommend allowing a family to operate a gurney because they are easy to collapse if you don’t know what you’re doing. Some families, for cultural or personal reasons, want to be as involved as possible in their loved one’s final steps. However, even if the family offers beforehand to help, or if they say they have six brothers there who can help, I would not go to that house by myself. What if the family changed their minds and decided they would rather not be there after all? What if they were a lot older or weaker than they made themselves out to be, or what if the body was a lot bigger than they said?

One final factor that can make a difference in whether I can handle a body by myself is the ground. Will I be pushing the body up a ramp, or guiding it down a ramp? Along grass? Gravel? Is there mud or flooding? Is the ground smooth and flat, or cracked and uneven and hard to roll over? Is it a straight path to the car, or a winding one? Are there gates to go through, and do the gates stay open or does someone need to hold them open? Will I have someone available to hold the gates open or do I need to clumsily try to hold the gate with my foot and push the cot by holding the side? Is the walkway well-lit? Is it windy, making it hard to hold the quilt over everything by myself? Finally, since I drop off at various funeral homes, I have to consider their drop-off procedures and building setup. Some have staff available who do almost everything for you. Some have no one and you have to ride an elevator with the gurney and operate several keypads. Virtually all of them have annoying tables that are a couple of inches higher than the gurney, so you have to yank the body upwards and then over and hope you don’t tear the bag. These are all things families and funeral directors might not consider when they say “She’s only 100 lbs, you should be able to do it by yourself.”

Picking up a 250-lb body from a medical examiner office is fairly easy, while getting a 200-lb body from a nursing home might not even be possible for me. And even if I can get these people into my car, what if they’re for that one funeral home with the uphill gravel driveway?

I can’t take the risk of accepting a home call by myself UNLESS the director understands I won’t do the call if there is some weird surprise when I get to the house. A lot of things that go wrong on home death calls aren’t due to strength or size issues, but just plain awkwardness. We’re going into a stranger’s home and they’re trusting us to take away the person who meant everything to them. Bring along a second person so you don’t have to worry about knocking stuff over and breaking stuff and finding out they meant kg and you thought they meant lb.