Growing Up Around Funeral Homes Didn’t Prepare Me for Death

As the daughter of a funeral director, Jodie Briggs thought she knew all about death. Then her dad almost died.

Jodie Briggs | Longreads | March 2018 | 16 minutes (3,925 words)

I have never been afraid of dead bodies. Their frequent appearance in my family’s funeral home quickly normalized the sight of motionless limbs in elegant steel caskets. We were the lone proprietors of death in my childhood home of Denton, North Carolina, and my familiarity with the end of life led me to assume a certain ease with mortality. Or so I thought.

***

Every day after school, I walked to the funeral home with my older brother. My grandmother, who was 79 when I was born, lived in the apartment above the business with her two sisters, and our octogenarian babysitters delighted in feeding us Little Debbie Zebra Cakes and teaching us to play card games. When my brother got too old to play, I began slipping downstairs to practice my dance routines in the empty layout rooms.

The funeral home meant everything to my dad, who had grown up poor in an even more rural town 15 miles from Denton. Raised in a house that lacked indoor plumbing and forced to use an outhouse until he was in high school, my dad vowed to make something of himself. He tore a ruthless path through his teen years, raising hogs for slaughter for family income, risking teen ridicule by driving the school bus for a small stipend, and eventually making it through college and working his way up in the funeral business from summer intern to owner.

Our life ran on death. The entire family was recruited into the business even at tender ages. I was 8 or 9 when my dad asked me to catch the phones while he stepped out. He assured me that we probably wouldn’t get a death call but that if we did I only needed to take down the name of the dead, the phone number, and the next of kin. So, naturally, that’s exactly what happened, except that I got nervous and told them to call back.

As teens, my brother and I worked in the funeral home answering the phone, moving flowers, sneakily reading books (me) and washing cars, picking up bodies from the morgue, and observing embalmings (my brother). Two decades into her school-teaching career, my mom also joined the business. But no one could outwork my dad, who prided himself on working up to 12 hours per day, seven days per week, well into his 70s.

While my brother joined my parents in the business after college, I was eager to leave our town of 1,100 and eventually settled in New York, where I reveled in the anonymity, the public transportation, and the seemingly endless array of bookstores. But I was close to my family and visited often. Each visit brought the same barrage of questions from my parents’ friends, funeral home employees, and, usually, whoever was sitting in the neighboring booth at lunch: Was I married? (No.) Did I really feel safe living in New York? (Yes.) And wasn’t I glad to be out of the city for a few days? (Um, no. That’s why I lived there.)

We were the lone proprietors of death in my childhood home of Denton, North Carolina, and my familiarity with the end of life led me to assume a certain ease with mortality.

The shape of my visits depended on how busy the funeral home was. Dinner plans were contingent upon whether or not local characters like Flossie McDowell, a frequent funeral home visitor, made it through the night. I’d often wait around the funeral home until my dad felt content to leave. “Who’s on call?” he’d shout to the entire office, although he likely knew the answer. The employees rotated being the designated remover of bodies that died in the night. My brother had sometimes gone with my dad on these calls of duty when we were kids but I never joined in.

“Your daddy’s getting mighty old to clock in all these hours, ain’t he?” someone would inevitably say with a wink toward me and a nod toward my dad. Dad might let a good-natured curse word slip as he jumped into the air and, even in his late 70s, click his heels together before landing with a laugh.

***

When I returned to New York I always briefed my friends on the latest town gossip and brought them a copy of our town’s weekly newspaper, whose Talkback column featured snapshots of locals along with their answers to provocative questions like, “What should the Friday movie in the park be?” There was usually an ad for Briggs Funeral Home and at least one friend saved the phone number, daring me not to pay for the first round of drinks lest they call my daddy. Occasionally they’d ask about my thoughts on death or my burial preferences, but I could never puzzle out what death and dying meant to me. Despite the hundreds of bodies I’d seen laid out in viewing rooms, I hadn’t actually been to a funeral since my great aunt died at age 99 when I was in high school. Death, though always a part of my family life, still seemed far away.

And then its long shadow got much closer.

***

In 2015, I reluctantly moved from New York to D.C. for a job. I hadn’t been there long enough to form close relationships when an old ankle injury flared. It would require a surgical fix so I decided to maximize family help by having the procedure in North Carolina after Christmas.

I was six days post-op and still housebound when I urged my mom to keep her haircut appointment. I figured she needed a break and, though my dad was at work, I assured her I could survive a few hours on my own. It was late morning when my brother called.

“Have you talked to anyone,” he asked.

“Nope, just you.” What a strange game he was playing.

“I just got a call,” he said evenly. “Dad collapsed at the funeral home.”

Knowing he had recently complained of some numbness in his feet, I tried to slow my breathing by imagining him missing a step and falling forward. But forward falls aren’t often described as “collapses.” Only a second or two had passed.

“I’m headed down there,” he said. “They’re doing CPR but it doesn’t sound good.” He hung up. I did what one logically does in this situation and grabbed my crutches, hoisted myself onto the couch with my laptop, and immediately deleted the used iPhone I had posted to EBay earlier that morning. You can’t field EBay bids at your dad’s funeral, I reasoned.


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Although I desperately wanted to be with my family I had neither a car nor the ability to drive in my post-op state. After 20 minutes or so my sister-in-law came to pick me up. Dad had suffered a massive heart attack and had gone into cardiac arrest. No one had been able to reach my mom, who regularly kept her cell phone buried in her purse, which was often left behind in her car. Like everything in a small town, the beauty salon was only a couple blocks from the funeral home. A customer who entered mid-way through my mom’s cut mentioned the commotion up the street. The emergency vehicles. My mom called the funeral home and spoke to Candace, the receptionist who graduated high school the year after me, and knew from Candace’s inability to speak that it was my dad.

While Candace called 911, Brantley, the 20-something apprentice who joined the funeral home when he was in high school, began CPR. Luckily, the town police chief heard the distress call on the police scanner and raced to the scene with a defibrillator, arriving in a matter of minutes. My dad had already started turning blue when they brought him back. I would later learn how rare this was — more than 80 percent of people who go into cardiac arrest when they’re not already in the hospital die immediately.

The funeral home meant everything to my dad, who had grown up poor in an even more rural town 15 miles from Denton.

The closest cardiac trauma center was nearly an hour away but we made it in what felt like 30 minutes. Dad looked weak and ashen but spoke with a powerful voice despite being laid out flat on a stretcher like the many bodies he’d retrieved from hospitals. The doctors told us he had multiple blockages and would need a bypass surgery in the following days.

In the meantime, he seemed like himself and boasted to friends over the phone about how “he had a heart attack and cardiac arrest that morning but was feeling okay.” The hospital waiting room soon filled with my parents’ friends and what appeared to be every funeral director across three counties who had ever worked for my dad. When his employees crowded his small room he laughed and pointedly asked, “With all of you here, who in the hell is minding the store?”

Two days later he underwent an 11-hour surgery. The waiting room of the cardiac care unit again filled with family friends, several preachers unused to delivering a funeral sermon without my dad in charge, and more than one employee who told me that my dad “was always like a daddy to me.” Well after midnight the surgeon delivered the news: he had needed a quintuple bypass to repair seven blockages but it went well. Reasonably relieved, we spent the next few days at the hospital where my dad seemed to be recovering normally.

Then the complications began.

***

First his heartbeat was irregular. Then his kidneys weren’t functioning properly. I had been away from my science writing job for about a month, but that time included the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. At first I kept my regular check-in call with my boss, but it didn’t take long for the sleek D.C. office to feel lifetimes away.

When my dad’s kidneys began shutting down, doctors put him on a continuous dialysis machine, specially-designed for the critically ill. The changes jabbed us so quickly that we couldn’t make sense of them in the moment. My mom, brother, and I simply nodded at the doctors and took turns posting updates to Facebook. Since everyone in the county knew my dad, the deluge of phone calls and texts was too much for any one person to handle. Rumors flew throughout the town. “They are putting a stent in.” “No, he is on life support.” At one point a man actually chased my uncle down the street to get more information.

After about a week in intensive care he developed ICU delirium, a horrifying condition marked by intense confusion that can sometimes lead to permanent cognitive impairment. We watched as he alternately moaned and talked nonsense, resembling nothing of the unstoppable, logical father I knew.

***

Before my ankle surgeon cleared me to drive, the burden fell on my mom to drive the hour each way to the hospital every day. Sometimes a neighbor or uncle would bring us. But on many nights the sun set at 5 p.m. and we made our way through the darkness down Highway 52, my mom the chauffeur, me in the backseat with my ankle propped up. We listened to the “Hamilton” soundtrack via Bluetooth from my phone so that I could skip the unbearably sad songs. Still, I openly wept in the darkness and claimed allergies when my mom heard me sniffle. We both knew my excuse was feeble but couldn’t quite openly acknowledge the reality of the situation. It was still too big and I really didn’t want to upset her further.

Early on, when doctors were contemplating opening him back up to directly shock his heart, I seized on the rare moment when my mom left to buy herself a Diet Dr. Pepper from the vending machine and used the brief few minutes to cry. Not an open sob, not an angry cry out loud, just a quiet crumple to which my brother responded with a couple of sympathetic pats on the knee. It was the most affection he’d shown me in years.

It was late morning when my brother called. ‘Have you talked to anyone,’ he asked. ‘Nope, just you.’ What a strange game he was playing. ‘I just got a call,’ he said. ‘Dad collapsed at the funeral home.’

Like a lot of Southern families, we loved each other but never said the words or tiptoed too closely to emotions. But the three of us had pulled together and my brother and I did our best to bolster our mom, knowing which church hymn sung in off-key harmony would make her giggle and when to dispatch the rotating cast of area preachers who frequented the waiting room.

***

The morning my mom and I decided to sleep in was, naturally, the morning when we were most needed. My dad’s lungs had become over-burdened by accumulating fluid. The doctors decided his best chance at survival was to go on a ventilator. They gave him a 50 percent chance to come off it.

The hospital staff tried to give us as much time as possible with him before the ventilator robbed his speech. But to our relief, he seemed calmer once he was on the machine. Gone were the terrifying moans and mumbled nonsense. When I spoke to him he squeezed my hand. He seemed to know us again.

He learned to point at letters on a laminated sheet to communicate. Frustrated with our inability to anticipate the words he was spelling, he’d mouth them. My mom and brother were often incapable of deciphering the words. I always let them try first since lip-reading required me to literally hop on one foot to his bedside to try and follow his mouth’s intentions. More than half the time I succeeded and swelled with pride at the accomplishment, feeling that my dad and I, who shared a long and lean build and similar facial features, were extraordinarily connected.

We also shared an ambitious, independent temperament that had spurred several clashes in my teens and twenties. I loved my dad. I admired my dad but, unlike my brother, I had no desire to be in business with him. I never felt comfortable in the small town south and bristled at any suggestion to move back. One night, left alone with him, he spelled out “C-O-M-E H-O-M-E” on his laminated alphabetical chart. I tried to laugh it off by saying I was already there but knew he meant something more permanent.

As time progressed, and with the blessing of my boss, I managed to do the minimum amount of work required to keep my job while staying at my dad’s bedside. I hadn’t exactly taken to D.C. — my social interactions on the weekends were often limited to the polite greetings I exchanged with my building’s doorman.

During the many weeks I lived in North Carolina, I began to fall down an alternate life rabbit hole. Here was my life near my family. Here I am eating barbeque with my brother and sister-in-law a few times a week. Here I am as a constant companion to my mom at social events, putting pink — never yellow — sweetener into her unsweetened iced tea. I am her shield from the worst busybodies, the women who toured the funeral home the day of my dad’s heart attack and asked to see where he fell.

***

After five weeks in the ICU, doctors began to speak of my dad’s recovery. But he would need additional surgeries. His many complications had left all ten toes “necrotic,” or effectively dead with a form of dry gangrene. For the rest of my life I will see those dead toes. Black, oily from salve to prevent infection, and shriveled to half their size. They more resembled mummified feet than the elongated shape I bear at the end of my own legs and which produce a rhythmic gait I used to share with my dad. Doctors told us they would have to amputate but that he should focus on getting off machines before undergoing another surgery.

For someone so always in control of his life, the experience of coming off the ventilator must have been brutal to my dad. It was certainly brutal to watch as his pleading, darting eyes panicked at the struggle to breath his own breaths during the first ten-minute trial off the machine. But, eventually, he weaned himself off both the ventilator and dialysis and, after a ten-week stay in the hospital, graduated to a nursing home for rehab.

I encouraged my dad to write about his experience and a few weeks later he sent me a twenty-page, single-spaced story of his life.

The good news was that the nursing home in my hometown could take my dad. The bad news was that the nursing home in my hometown could take my dad. Ending the hour-long drive was obviously a good thing, but the thought of my dad living in the facility where I watched my grandmother and two great aunts die, the place where they became weak and incontinent, the place where bulletin boards announced the season, and church youth groups led very dour games of bingo, was too much to handle. But the place was good for my dad. While seeing his printed name outside his door inspired waves of sorrow in me it excited the staff who all knew him from his years of service at the funeral home.

By this point I was back in D.C. and struggling to find purpose in my job. Nothing seemed to matter much anymore so I made the trip down to North Carolina every few weeks. Each time I visited he seemed stronger, his voice louder, his confidence greater. I watched him take his first steps, assisted by a giant harness, a physical therapist, and two long railings. He was finally able to ditch his hospital gown for pajamas, the button-up kind he always wore and which we often likened to his default daytime uniform of suits. As soon as he was able to hold a phone he instructed his employees to forward the funeral home calls to him at night. We wondered if the nursing home would be forced to make a death-call only to find that the call was being answered inside the house.

***

He lived there a total of eight weeks. While Christmas trees lingered on the day he entered the hospital, Memorial Day approached when he finally left the nursing home. Whenever I visited, my brother usually picked me up from the airport and I spent most of the hour-long drive very passively trying to get him to open up about his feelings. I also wanted to compare notes with my mom but none of us seemed able to get our heads around the situation; we were all still shell-shocked. Bit by bit we shared things with my dad about the infamous day he went down and the reactions of the doctors but he mostly wanted to hear about the outpouring of community support, not the details of his body betraying him. “I don’t remember anything from the first five weeks,” he’d tell whichever visitor was with him. “I wish I didn’t either,” my mom, brother, or I would recite on cue.

I was visiting the day he finally came home, 124 days after his heart attack. I encouraged my dad to write about his experience and a few weeks later he sent me a twenty-page, single-spaced story of his life. He expounded on page after page about his start in the business, the ambulance he drove when funeral homes still had that authority, the people he had lost. But about his heart attack and six-month (and counting) recovery he simply wrote: “I am lucky to be alive.” My mom, now unused to his presence in the house and certainly unused to providing care, didn’t speak much about the events either.

I returned once again to D.C. but the trauma of the preceding months lingered. Images flashed before my eyes during business meetings or while riding my bike to the office. Friends at work politely asked about my dad and I wanted to tell them the truth: that no one can prepare you for the sight of your dad in a hospital gown. How you never get used to the sight, even several months in, of your formerly strong, ostentatiously heel-clicking dad reduced to a paper gown. How his shaky hands were unable to feed himself, how his throat, unused to swallowing, needed specially-thickened liquids. How his mouth, unused to passing air, dried from want of use. How this 76-year-old man was afraid to be alone at night, feared a need for assistance, and was plagued with anxiety over almost not waking up. How we tried to make that gown stay on his narrow shoulders. How the image of him being lifted by mechanical crane out of bed and into a hospital reclining chair like a baby bird was possibly the single most haunting image of the entire experience. How my mind still flinched at the pain of it. But mostly I said, “He’s doing better. He’s thinking about when he can get back to work.”

***

For most of my teens and 20s I had kept death at an ironic distance, using my childhood as an escape hatch for mortality-related heaviness. Before boarding a small plane in Zambia, I could instruct my friends that, “If I go down, please order the wreath with a plastic rotary phone in the middle and the banner reading ‘Jesus Called.’” If the news got too heavy I could offer candy I got from the exhibition booths at the National Funeral Directors Association Convention. “It’s almost like trick or treating! With embalming fluids and hearses!” I almost reveled in the above-it-all attitude. I was hip to death. “Need to borrow my keys? Don’t mind the casket keychain!”

It seems so pathetically obvious and reminds me of the unbelievably sheltered life I’ve lived so far to say that mortality is certain; death terrifying and inevitable. Even now, after everything we’ve been through, I struggle to reconcile my childhood knowledge of death with my very grown-up experience of aging parents.

On the one hand, I know that death isn’t precious. I grew up with it. I never lived in the fiction of off-screen deaths. Grandmother B. didn’t move to a farm. She died in the hospital and my dad removed her body and directed her funeral. And yet no amount of dead-body viewing, flower-arrangement moving, or death-call answering could have prepared me for the sight of my father at death’s door. Even though he made it through for now, and is, true to form, back to working funerals, I approach the age where friends’ parents are dying and I know it’s only a matter of time before death comes for my own parents and others close to me.

Even now, after everything we’ve been through, I struggle to reconcile my childhood knowledge of death with my very grown-up experience of aging parents.

Out of these painful realizations emerged a clearer picture of what I need and want from life. No, small town neighbors, I am not married. But I’d like to be. I’d like to have a family of my own. I missed my friends and the comfort of weekly happy hours. I tried dating in D.C. but never seemed to click with anyone in the small late 30s singles pool. New friendships seemed almost as hard, and I often retreated to my apartment rather than attempt another Meetup group.

But despite my dad’s hospital plea for me to move home, a plea we never spoke of again but whose sentiment lingered at every visit, I couldn’t imagine living in Denton as an adult. Most of my childhood classmates have been married for 15 years. Some have kids in high school. When I thought about arming myself to confront the scariest things in life I realized that I needed my old friends, I needed better dating odds, I needed my bookstores.

On a recent trip to Denton, my dad’s friend asked where I was living. With a

smile, he responded: “She moved back to New York.”

* * *

Jodie Briggs is a science and health writer in Brooklyn, NY. She writes about tobacco control and rural health issues and holds Master’s degrees in Public Policy and Science Writing from Johns Hopkins University.

Editor: Sari Botton