The man the myth the undertaker

By Ryan Helfenbein

During dinner my daughter asked me about my day at work. Before I could give a response my oldest piped up to explain that Dad probably had meetings in Easton and Annapolis today. He was then cut off by my other son saying that Dad most likely drove around all day and talked to families on the phone. My daughter then retook control of the table and followed up on her own question with “Daddy, did you help people today and make their families feel better?” It was amazing! Now granted, it was not stated in the most elegant of ways, but she got it. My little girl knew my role as an undertaker and even though the other two simply explained what they had seen me do, it was Emma that was able to put it all together and truly define the role of an undertaker today: helping families heal. 

To many, the role of an undertaker is focused solely on the deceased. In reality, this responsibility has morphed into a grief-counseling, family-supporting, legal/financial resource-providing, short term event-planning, all-inclusive helper. Add to that the understanding that these ‘job duties’, which get assigned at any hour of the day or night, come during a time of intense emotion with only one chance to get it right, and in a very short time frame. Ultimately, there are no do-overs for undertakers; there’s only one chance to carry out that time sensitive perfect final farewell. While the deceased do play a large role in the duties of an undertaker, much more is focused on finding ways to help family members through this difficult time.

A typical day in the life of an undertaker has been filmed, written and blogged about more times than can be mentioned. We have yet to see one that truly reflects the way in which undertakers navigate the complicated emotions involved every time a family is assisted with a loss. Every undertaker could share experiences of families they have worked with that have affected them personally. This is especially true when there is a tragic loss, or when young individuals or friends of the community pass away. Undertakers often absorb not only the grief of one family, but of the emotion from the community as a whole. Fortunately, these last responders can surround themselves with incredible associates dedicated to assisting the community. Associates in this profession work like Santa’s elves in processing paperwork, answering calls at all hours of the night, keeping all communications and requests organized and together, creating unique celebrations to focus on a life lived. Working together as one, the undertaker’s team of death care professionals give their attention to every detail in order to ensure the best possible experience for each family during such an emotional time. Working together to assist their community, this team of special individuals forms a strong bond. 

Now, I know I pick on my fellow dark suited night owls quite often, but the majority that choose the path of undertaking are truly special people. They put their own lives on hold for that of their community. They step away from their own family during Thanksgiving dinner to care for another on the other side of town. Undertakers are known for missing their children’s first steps, birthday celebrations and sporting events to assist another family when they need them most. As my father has always said to my brothers and me, “we can sacrifice our time together for that family’s final moment with their loved one.” 

I typically write about new things in our profession, but today I want to give thanks to my fellow Undertakers and our team of associates. In thinking more about my kids’ comments, they were all correct. Undertakers do drive between communities, take countless calls, and meet with multiple families on a daily basis. We are fortunate to have undertakers and their incredible team of associates to aid the departed and focus on ways to assist families with life’s worst problem — the loss of a loved one.

Ryan, owner, supervising mortician and preplanning counselor at Lasting Tributes on Bestgate Road in Annapolis, offers area residents solutions to high-cost funerals. He can be contacted at (410) 897-4852 or [email protected].

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