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Death in the Family

Carol Myers doesn’t come off like a typical funeral director, but the job is in her blood.

Carol Myers’s makeup kit includes powders, creams, lipsticks, and hydrating lotions. Although she doesn’t wear makeup herself, the kit is an essential part of her job. 

“I put down a base coat first,” she says, “which is a massage cream, almost like an undercoating that keeps the skin hydrated. It’s mixed with a color palette to get a normal-looking complexion.” Myers does her best to match the skin type. “It’s tougher for a man, because men don’t typically wear makeup,” she says. “You just want to make them look natural.” But Myers doesn’t work the cosmetics counter at Macy’s. Her kit contains wound filler, and her job as a mortician requires using an array of scalpels, a needle injector, and various straps and hoists.

On a slow day at Hampden’s Bergee-Henss-Seitz Funeral Home, where Myers has been funeral director since 2011, the prep and viewing rooms are unoccupied, so she has some downtime. In the upstairs casket showroom—a dozen models, both wood and metal, are on display—the 36-year-old Myers points out that she comes from a long line of funeral directors and ticks off the names of a great-grandfather, an aunt, and two cousins in the business. In her family, casket is both noun and verb, as in, “I casketed Mr. Burns.”

It’s a bit like Six Feet Under, the HBO show Meyers credits with humanizing funeral directors. “It showed that we’re people with everyday problems, too,” she says. “We don’t sleep in black suits, and we aren’t morbid.”

Still, she says, “People tend to be taken aback when I tell them what I do. Some people think it’s creepy, but when they find out I’m from a family of funeral directors, it makes more sense to them, like it’s an acceptable way of getting into the business.”

A boyfriend once broke up with Myers after learning what she did for a living. New acquaintances have been known to mishear her stated profession and ask what instrument she plays. With her bobbed hair, floral print skirt, and cardigan, she does, indeed, look more like a musician than a mortician. “Sometimes, I just say I do hair and nails, which is basically true,” she says. “That way, I don’t get bombarded with questions.”

A co-worker pops her head into the casket room to inform Myers that someone has arrived “to pick up their loved one.” Myers excuses herself to retrieve an urn of ashes and says it might take awhile. Such transactions can turn into counseling sessions, which is part of the job.

“We’re here to help people get through their grief,” she says. “That doesn’t happen on a strict timetable, and it’s one reason why I believe women are particularly well-suited for this job. We tend to empathize with people.”

Traditionally, funeral directors have been men, because the job involved a lot of manual labor, picking up literal dead weight and moving heavy caskets. In fact, 40 years ago, 95 percent of funeral directors were male, but that changed as the job required less physical labor—thanks to jacks, hoists, and/or burly assistants—and more women entered the workforce. Now, women comprise 57 percent of students enrolled in mortuary-science programs.

“I went to my embalming class and everyone looked at me like, ‘What are you doing here?”

Myers earned her degree at the Community College of Baltimore County’s Catonsville campus, like her older cousin, Liz Dowell, who runs the Gary L. Kaufman Funeral Home at Meadowridge Memorial Park in Elkridge.

“When I went to school, there were hardly any women taking mortuary science,” recalls Dowell. “I went to my embalming class and everyone looked at me like, ‘What are you doing here?’”

Morticians like Myers and Dowell also are required to complete extensive apprenticeships and pass state and national exams. While at Catonsville, Myers apprenticed with a trade service that transported bodies and dressed and embalmed them for area funeral homes, but didn’t arrange for services and burials. The company had a contract with The George Washington University’s Department of Anatomy to retrieve bodies donated to science, and she regularly made pick-ups around D.C., Virginia, and Maryland—sometimes in the middle of the night.

“It was good training,” says Myers. “I quickly learned that calls come 24/7, anytime of the day or night.”

Dowell got her degree and immediately started working for Lilly and Zeiler, the Fells Point funeral home started by her great-grandfather in 1904. It’s not to be confused with Highlandtown’s Charles Zeiler Funeral Home, which was owned by another family member. “From the get-go, I did everything,” says Dowell. “I removed, embalmed, casketed, made arrangements, and drove the hearse.”

A funeral director’s job responsibilities are extensive and, according to the National Funeral Directors Association’s website, comprise “all aspects associated with funeral service.” This can include grief support, arranging and directing ceremonies, transporting the deceased, preparing the body, getting pertinent information for legal documents, filing the death certificate, and helping prepare death-benefit claims.

Because Myers and Dowell currently work at facilities owned by Service Corporation International [SCI], a conglomerate operating more than 2,000 funeral homes and cemeteries in the U.S. and Canada, they don’t do it all anymore. The embalming, for instance, is now done off-site at one of SCI’s local “care centers.”

Both women say they miss it since transitioning to more administrative positions, though they still do an occasional hair or makeup touchup.

Cremation urns are sold, though some folks are partial to Seagram’s bottles or Folgers cans.

“I actually loved embalming,” says Myers, who worked at an SCI care center until getting pregnant four years ago. “I had to stop because of the chemicals involved, but it’s probably the most fascinating aspect of what we do.”

Myers, sitting in Dowell’s office, explains that the process involves injecting formaldehyde into a carotid artery and draining the blood through a jugular vein. “The embalming machine does the heart’s work,” she says, “and pumps the chemicals through the body.”

“Embalming is a science and an art,” notes Dowell.

The job also involves its share of mending and patching, and the cousins trade stories about dealing with injuries from car crashes and motorcycle accidents, the latter tales inevitably beginning with, “He wasn’t wearing a helmet.”

“I’ve had people who were practically split in half,” says Myers, “and I worked hard to put them back together, which is incredibly satisfying if it gives the family closure.”

Myers recalls a particularly gruesome gunshot wound that distorted the victim’s face to the point where he was nearly unrecognizable. But a determined Myers “rebuilt him,” using metal hangers and dental floss. “I felt like MacGyver,” she says.

Myers’s work received the ultimate compliment from the man’s family, who opted for an open casket at the viewing.

When asked about urban legends involving strange noises coming from corpses and bodies twitching, or, more dramatically, bending at the waist, they smile knowingly, having heard it all before. “Never,” says Dowell, succinctly.

“The day they sit up on me is the day I’m gone,” says Myers.

Myers and Dowell have seen funerals change profoundly over the past few decades. “They definitely aren’t what they used to be,” says Dowell, who recalls that it was once common to schedule three days of viewings, with a service on the fourth day. Everyone wore black, and little, if any, music was played. “Now, it’s more of a celebration,” she says, “and our facility reflects that.”

The Kaufman complex does, indeed, look more like a hotel or catering facility than a funeral home. It’s something of a one-stop, with visitation rooms, a chapel for services, a reception hall, a kitchen to prep food, and a sprawling cemetery for burials. Bergee-Henss-Seitz, where Myers works, is more homey—“like visiting your grandmother’s house,” says Myers—but no less accommodating.

“We come in contact with a lot of different types of people,” says Myers, “and we try to somehow reflect who they were and what they liked.”

These days, football fans are buried in their Ravens jerseys, and rods and tackle boxes surround the caskets of avid fishermen. A viewing at Kaufman for an avid coupon-clipper included a table with scissors and circulars from local stores. Visitations for a pair of bikers were once held on the same night, with a motorcycle displayed alongside each casket.

Myers and Dowell recall Buddhist and Hindu rituals and note that gypsy funerals can be particularly chaotic, with families camping out and cooking food.

They also note another changing aspect of the business—there are fewer actual funerals. The rate of people opting for cremation has increased profoundly over the past half-century, from 3.5 percent in 1960 to 43 percent in 2012. “For some people, it’s something of an environmental issue,” says Myers. “They think, ‘Why put somebody in the ground? It’s taking up space.’ But you can still gather and honor the person.”

Cremation urns are, indeed, sold alongside the caskets at Bergee-Henss-Seitz, though Myers notes that some folks are partial to Seagram’s bottles or Folgers cans. “Whatever works for you is fine with us,” she says.

Myers exudes a seen-it-all demeanor that could be interpreted as an inner peace gleaned from her work. “No, not really,” she says, when asked about it. “I see death every day, but that doesn’t mean I have some unique insight into it. I don’t think I do. In fact, I still have the same fears, like the next person.”

That said, Myers remarks that she feels completely at ease in the funeral home, even when she’s alone with the deceased. It can actually be calming.

“After all,” she says, “it isn’t the dead you need to worry about. It’s the people that are alive and walking around.”