Just like parents say they don’t have a favorite child, editors try not to have favorite authors or books that they work on. But if I were to pick a favorite from the last couple years, Caleb Wilde and his book Confessions of a Funeral Director would be up there. He is gracious, humble, and has a wicked sense of humor. He works hard, putting as much effort into selling his book as we are. And he’s passionate about his job as a sixth-generation funeral director (yes, really). It’s a job description that includes ushering families into the hushed realm of death, meeting them there in the sacred spaces, and giving them room to mourn the loss and celebrate the life (along with a healthy amount of embalming liquids and bodily fluids). Working so close to death has given Caleb a unique perspective on life.
One example: About halfway through the book, Caleb shares a story about a nursing home that called him to come pick up one of their patients who passed away. As was standard practice (what Caleb calls “hide-the-corpse mode”) Caleb expected to go around back to pick up the patient, where the body could secretly be moved out of the facility. Instead, a nurse told him, “We have a ‘front-door policy’ here. We do an honor walk where our staff forms a line along the walls of the nursing home, from here to the entrance.”
“You do this for everyone?” Caleb asked, surprised.
“Day or night,” the nurse responded.
Caleb was struck by how sacred it was to honor and celebrate this person in death, as in life.
And yet, his story also illuminates how unusual this practice is. That what Caleb usually comes across in his line of work is how furtive we are about death, how suspicious, how fearful and avoidant, how negative. Which is why I appreciate Caleb shining a light in the dark to us, beckoning that it’s not so bad over there, and making us feel welcome in that shadowy place.
Caleb writes, “I believe that both mortality and death can enliven us to become more true to ourselves and to those around us.” Death can enliven us, making us more patient, more open-minded, more empathetic, and more true to ourselves. It can bring us together as families and communities. It can add deeper meaning to our endeavors here on this mortal coil, instead of primarily looking ahead to an afterlife. In the end, I concluded that we all have a lot to learn from Caleb—the sixth-generation funeral director—about living.