I work as a celebrant for one of the oldest funeral homes in Seattle. I remove bodies. I do cremations. I assist and participate in ceremonies: funerals, memorials, inurnments, witness cremations, burials.
I get paid for ministry I feel very happy to do.
I get paid to pause. To enter sacred time.
“Be still, and know that I am God.” (Psalms 46:10) The interrupted time of death is sad but delicious. I even love the subversiveness of the funeral motorcade, the motorcycle cops stopping all those people in cars—pausing them—to honor the dear one, the stranger who got away. I am in slow time with these people. When I drive the hearse, the motorcycle authorities put their hands up to usher me through red lights, stopping time!
I get paid to bear witness—to be a voyeur? —to others’ Big, Profound moments of loss and change.
When the casket gets lowered into the earth, when the handfuls of dirt are sprinkled upon the urn in the ground, when the green button is pressed that pushes the body into the furnace to be cremated—these moments are so cavernous, they echo. Prayers are said, the loss is measured, campaigns are staked out as to how to survive. I get to hear their stories. I get to hear the bereaved count the ways that the departed has blessed them. I get to help the bereaved bless the lost one by remembering them.
I get paid to help others grieve.
My ministry is presence, and to be sure-footed for the unmoored. I give practical assistance. Sometimes I press “play” on their music. Or turn up their mic. Or light their candle. Sometimes, I sweep up the cookie crumbs after their reception.
I get paid to hear stories.
“Every life has a story” is the tagline of my funeral home and ain’t it true! I yearned to be close to stories. Now I am soaked in them.
I get paid to help others remember their loved one well.
Drawing a bead on someone’s story doesn’t feel like work. Neither does trying to understand how they loved well. Or what dark cloud was in their sky.
I get paid to cry. It is absolutely not professional, and I don’t think anyone has ever seen my tears. The stories, the auspicious moments, the rituals, the sadness, the elations, the love, the sheer awkwardness of us humans in our extremity—it’s enough to make a grown man weep. Pretty much close to every day.
I get paid to feel.
I get paid to play music.
To hear music. To create the soundtrack of that person’s life. Play Samuel Barber’s Agnus Deias loud as you can take it. Please. Amen.
I get paid to see wonderful but dizzying American subcultures.
The Hmong slit chickens’ throats and drip blood into the grave. A digital Chinese Buddhist chant box keeps a daughter’s ashes company through the night. Before viewing a cremation, Vietnamese mourners kneel and pray on white sheets I spread over concrete. I lay petals and light palm oil into a Hindu patriarch’s casket. An African-American preacher from Georgia exhorts the bereaved to be comforted, in his beautiful, strong voice. I hear an altar call at the graveside by a white, fundamentalist preacher. I see the lovely, solid farewells of Latter-day Saints. The ubiquitous spiritual-but-not-religious say creative goodbyes and vanilla, lame goodbyes.
I get paid to bless the babies.
To pray over their bodies, boxed and wrapped. Then, after they are burned, I measure the ash into angel urns or pendants.
I get paid to be reminded that I too shall die.
Sometimes my service is humble. I remove the dead from their last place, from where they fell out of life. I touch the bodies of the dead every day. It’s my memento mori—that I, too, shall go to be with the majority, that I, too, shall take my dirt nap. I am taught to number my days—to bless my days by living them and loving them.
In death care, I have never felt more alive.
Paul Boardman is a writer and interfaith funeral chaplain and celebrant living in Seattle. He grew up in Tokyo and is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. Two enduring thematic obsessions in his writing are what constitutes a good life in the face of death and loss and the nature of yearning, even greed, for love. His work has been featured in The Good Men Project, Gravel, P.S. I Love You,and the ICCFA funeral trade magazine, and in the anthologies Just a Little More Time, We Came to Say,and We Came Back to Say. He is seeking a publisher for his memoir.