Another long one today. If you'd rather listen, here is the YouTube link: https://youtu.be/77A9P7m7Y2M
I wrote this while working as a transport driver for a funeral home. We were located in a county with a large population of indigent and transient people. My job was to go out into the desert and bring back those who had died in their cars or vans or camper trailers. Most would say it was gruesome work, and it was, but I loved it. It felt more like a calling than a job. And that was a common sentiment in the industry.
I remember going into the chapel side of the funeral home when nobody was there. I would sit in the silence and soak in the sacredness of it. It was the same feeling I felt when I was taking care of someone who had died. I loved that part of it.
But there were things I didn't like, like the politics and the increasingly corporate nature of the business. The owner was the son of a funeral director. But he was more entrepreneur than undertaker. And he treated it like a business. Several years earlier, he had bought his father out and proceeded to "expand the business". He bought funeral home after funeral home. He centralized. He consolidated. He turned it all into a finely tuned machine, well, kind of. Sometimes it seemed that he was buying mortuaries faster than he could run them. But he didn't seem to care. His eyes were on some distant goal that kept moving further and further away as he approached it. And mortuaries were not all he owned. He bought sandwich shops and strip malls. He expanded, expanded, expanded. And as he did, he streamlined everything toward the goal of profitability.
Luckily for me, my little branch was not profitable, or if so, the margins were slim. And on top of that, we were ninety miles from the home office and our county had strange laws and rules that made it so that we had to do things differently than the rest of his mortuaries. This meant that I was left alone for the most part, which suited me perfectly. I did all the transports. I pushed paper around in the office. And now and then, I even met with families, a duty which was usually reserved for the funeral director who worked forty minutes away.
And since I was on my own, I didn't really notice the corporatization of our industry as much as those who were closer to the home office. Traditionally, undertaking was a family business. But things were changing. Several years before, the other funeral home in our small town had been purchased by a large corporation that was quickly gobbling up the independents. The last I knew, there were over 2800 mortuaries in the network. And to spite our owner's ambitious inclinations, we were very small apples in comparison.
But things were about to change. There were rumblings among the employees. And upper management was acting funny. They stopped having me come into the office, and they started letting things go. The sign blew down and they didn't fix it. Somebody vandalized the front of the funeral home and they did nothing. And they transferred the woman who had babied my little branch along to a different department and put me under a transport supervisor ninety miles away. Almost overnight, my little branch stopped feeling like a funeral home and started feeling like a place to process dead bodies - ship them in, ship them out, and do so with as little cost to the company as possible. It was disturbing. But still, I felt called to stay.
Until a few months later. I came to work one day to discover that we had been acquired by a larger corporation. Instead of ten, we were now two hundred funeral homes strong. And then it all made sense. I was actually relieved since the previous owner had obviously checked out early. And my hopes rose upon the winds of change.
Unfortunately, I quickly discovered that the new owners were just a larger version of the old regime. Like the corporation that owned the other mortuary in town, they were gobbling up new assets as fast as they could with little regard for the individual problems of the entities they acquired. Everything was streamlined for profitability and the sacredness that had pervaded the profession was sanitized by policy and blind protocol. The old sentiment of "from our family to yours" was gone. And it was sad to watch it disappear and be replaced with cold unfeeling numbers. At least the old owner had been raised in the business. He and his father had once been undertakers, trusted servants of a community that they served. And a portion of that remained even as he shifted his focus to other things. But now it was gone.
The difference was so stark that many employees moved on leaving those who stayed with double the workload as the new management scrambled to find new people. One woman who left, a funeral director of twenty years, said that she was checking out of the business and out of the rat race altogether. It had all become too corporate. She was going to get a little camper, park it in a friend's yard, and take a part-time job so she could do the things she loved the most, paddle board on the lake, and spend time with her daughter. I wrote this poem as I thought of her and others like her.
By this time, I had also given notice. I finally felt as if I had been released from the calling. And I wondered what the company would do. It's not easy to find people willing to get up at all hours of the night to take care of dead people. But the scarcity of help seemed to be ubiquitous. Everywhere I looked, companies were short-handed. People were working less, checking out, moving on, going home, and giving up on the rat race. And something felt strangely right about it.
"It will leave chaos in its wake," I thought. "And perhaps that's exactly what we need."
One day very near the end, I came to work to discover that our landlord had walled up the entry to the chapel from the office side of the funeral home. It was an accident, a miscommunication from one of the lawyers of the old owner. But I wasn't surprised. So many important details were falling through the cracks. And as I stood there looking at the wall that blocked the entrance to the chapel, it seemed ironically fitting. The sacred thing had been severed. And I knew that it was only time before it all began to come apart at the seams, not just the funeral industry, but every enterprise that had forsaken the sacred thing in favor of nameless goals that served the bottom line.
They are moving out, one by one,
From the system that promised so much
And now cannot deliver the pleasure that it promised.
And as they do, they leave chaos in their wake,
Precious chaos, like the heat that beats down
Upon a smoldering mass of leaves.
I always loved the Fall, so silent, so pure.
So reminiscent of a thing I couldn't place
Except in the memory of other cool and dying days,
And in the precious recollection
Of childhood feasts of love,
Of family, and of all that exists when work is put away
And we remember what we were working for.
And perhaps that's what they are doing,
Going home to the reason,
Forsaking the scream of getting more
And choosing family over the press and pressure.
If so, then I look forward to the dark and fertile soil
With which God will plant his garden
In the Spring that follows
His Long Winter.