The Undertaker Interviews

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It’s Halloween, and we’re in the spirit of it. As you read about our recent interviews with two morticians, you’ll see that we’re willing to be a bit morbid – without being too grim, we hope. So fair warning is given: As we share what we think is interesting information, we’ll talk briefly about embalming, share a bit of gruesome mortician/autopsy humor, and present some uses for superglue and webcams that you may find a tad creepy. Read at your own risk.

Spencer and Chris

My colleague, Mark Olsen, and I recently visited the Sundberg-Olpin Funeral Home in Orem, Utah, where a young mortician, Spencer Weeks, gave us a tour and answered a lot of questions. Then we interviewed Chris Thompson, owner of Heritage North Funeral Home in Whitehorse, Yukon, Canada. We didn’t visit Whitehorse to tour his facility; Chris and his family were visiting our area.

Spencer Weeks

Spencer Weeks

One of our first questions for both men was, What do you like to be called? Mortician? Funeral director? Undertaker? Spencer prefers “funeral director.” Unlike some funeral directors we know, who don’t like the term at all, Chris actually prefers to be called an “undertaker.” He explained: The word undertaker refers not to a person who puts someone under the ground, but to one who undertakes whatever tasks are required when someone has died. To him the term suggests service.

Both emphasized the great professional satisfaction of helping people through a difficult time.

Why and How

Chris and Spencer came to the profession differently. For Spencer, it’s the family business — as is often the case, he explained, because start-up costs in the funeral business can be prohibitive. Requirements differ from state to state in the US. In Utah a two-year (associate’s) degree in Mortuary Science is required, followed by a two-year internship. Spencer received his degree at Salt Lake Community College in Salt Lake City. He’s still in his twenties and unmarried. We asked him if his profession puts a damper on his social life. He smiled and said, “That’s probably why I’m still single.”

Chris was in the early years of a career in physical therapy in Calgary, Alberta, when an acquaintance suggested he consider the profession. He volunteered to work for a week at a local mortuary. He was already married, and his wife Holly was supportive. On the first day, he observed the embalming of a body which had been autopsied. He remembers being “glued to the wall” in horror — even before the mortician doing the embalming lifted the skull cap off the head and told him, “If you’re interested in this, you’ll have to keep an open mind.”

Chris Thompson

Chris Thompson

He went home and told Holly that he had committed to a full week, so he would finish the week, “but there’s no way I’m ever doing this.” During the week, he “saw the whole process” and changed his mind. He did the required two-year internship, worked for a few years at a funeral home in Calgary, then took a job at the only funeral home in Whitehorse, the capital of Canada’s Yukon Territory. He eventually bought the business.

Since Chris was already married when he chose the profession, our social life question was less relevant, perhaps. But he did note the advantage of being able to tell his daughter’s suitors, “If you mess with my daughter, I’ll cremate you.” His wife, college-age daughter, and teenage son were present for the interview; none of them suggested that he was kidding about using that line.

We raised the subject of actual (as opposed to threatened) cremation with both men. According to Spencer, less than 10 percent of the bodies Sundberg-Olpin handles are cremated, but this varies widely. In California, for example, it’s between 70 and 80 percent. Sundberg-Olpin uses a third-party crematorium. For his part, Chris tells of the difficulty of getting the White Horse City Council to approve a crematorium he proposed to build. He eventually won approval, despite opposition by some residents of the area. In one council hearing, a resident publicly, and apparently seriously, opposed the crematorium on the grounds that they didn’t want all the ghosts lurking in the neighborhood.

Caskets

Spencer showed us a variety of caskets. He noted that in some states, though not in Utah, it is possible to rent a casket for a funeral, if the body is later to be cremated.

We mentioned that it’s now possible to buy a casket at the local Costco. He explained that families were welcome to supply their own casket, but the funeral home could easily beat the price, once the fee for working with an outside casket was added to the price of the discount casket from Costco. According to Chris, this “receiving fee” – akin to a corking fee at a restaurant, when you bring your own wine – is illegal in Canada. But if you bring your own casket, it’s your responsibility, including opening and closing it, plus any needed repairs.

Casket Showroom

Casket Showroom

The most expensive casket in Spencer’s showroom runs about $39,000; Spencer called this “the biggest waste of money ever.” We were amused to learn that there are caskets with built-in skylights, though we can’t imagine the advantage of that. We also snickered a little at the elaborate warranties which come with the more expensive caskets.

We wonder, How long will it be before one can buy a casket complete with an optional battery-powered, wireless webcam, which is focused on the remains?

We asked Chris he if he ever tries to “up-sell” when someone is shopping for a casket. He said, no, never. It’s not that he isn’t a shrewd businessman or conscious of profits. (He plays an aggressive, almost ruthless game of Monopoly, as one of us has twice witnessed.) He just thinks it’s inappropriate to take advantage in that way.

Embalming

We had hoped to see the embalming room at Spencer’s funeral home, but there was a body in it, and, when there is, it’s illegal to enter the room without a license. He did describe the process to us, though. It includes the following:

  • replacing the blood with formaldehyde;
  • wiring the mouth shut (sometimes super-gluing the lips together);
  • putting putty in the cheeks and under the bottom lip, and cotton under the top lip, for a more lifelike appearance; and
  • putting plastic caps over the eyeballs and super-gluing the eyelids closed.

If the body will be stored longer than usually before the funeral, there are more steps in the process.

Our discussion turned briefly to the history of embalming. He told us that embalming used to be done – only a few decades ago – at the home of the deceased, on the kitchen counter or table.

Halloween?

We asked Chris and Spencer if they ever do anything special for Halloween, given their profession and their unique access to certain death-related paraphenalia.

Chris said no, and noted that Halloween isn’t quite as bit a deal in Canada as in the US.

Spencer said yes. He said there have been some Halloween parties at the funeral home, and they have used a hearse for the trunk-or-treat events that are popular in the area. He said he was considering dressing up as the Grim Reaper for this Halloween, and he showed us a six-sided coffin he had in storage, which has sometimes been used for Halloween-related purposes. It was originally used to ship a body from South America. (A typical casket in the United States is four-sided, not counting the top and bottom, of course.)

A six-sided coffin

He also mentioned that they sometimes rent out a limousine, though not the hearse, for prom night.

Thanks!

We express our sincere appreciation to both Spencer Weeks and Chris Thompson for giving us a good look at their profession, and for being good sports about our questions, including the silly ones. We found them intelligent, friendly, witty, and not morbid in the least.

3 Responses to “The Undertaker Interviews”

  1. MaryAnn Eberbach says:

    Could you add me to your blog mailing list or tell me how to do it? I have a WVR membership. Thanks.

    MaryAnn

  2. Mark Olsen says:

    Hi MaryAnn –

    We have a company newsletter that goes out once or more often per month – you can sign up here – http://www.worldvitalrecords.com/newslettersignup.aspx

    Regarding the blog – the best place for viewing each new post is in a blog reader such as Google’s Reader- http://www.reader.google.com
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    adding the WVR RSS feed, RSS – Stands for Really Simple Syndication – (read more here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RSS)

    Here is the RSS feed for our blog – http://blog.worldvitalrecords.com/feed/

    From this page, http://blog.worldvitalrecords.com/feed/ you can also use the drop down menu at the top of the page and find others ways to get the blog feed that may
    be more convenient to your needs.

    I hope this helps.

    Mark Olsen

  3. Jeff Ford says:

    I have a 1st cousin that is half owner, I believe, of a funeral home in NW Washington (state). I often wonder how any why he got into that line of work. My dad, when he used to live in the same town, used to go on “runs” with my cousin. Strange.

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