David J. Fone
  • 67, Male
  • La Mesa CA
  • United States
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People Who Work in Funeral-Cemetery Industry

I have reviewed this forum's guidelines respectfully, so I will not list what I do or where I work in the San Diego County death care industry. My reasons for posting here are not commercial, but to learn from the personal experiences of the many people who post here in a candid and compassionate way.

I will say this, and hope the forum moderators OK it:
--- I have worked directly with more than 800 San Diego area families in the last four years involving end-of-life issues, and helped counsel hundreds more.
--- I am state-licensed on both the funeral and cemetery side.
--- Perhaps most important, you may wonder what on earth compels someone to make a career in the funeral-cremation-burial business.

In my personal case, it's to fulfill a karmic debt to my beloved, late father. Every single time I help a family in this industry, I am making up for what I'll never forgive myself regarding Dad.

Dad was 65, and on October 9, 1987, I received the phone call from Mom that the doctor just gave Dad six months to live. That calendar date is especially cruel, because October 9 was also the day in 1974 that my First Great Love of three years informed me it was over.

Dad was a grade-school dropout who was illiterate. As a cross-country Teamsters truck driver with a Million Mile Safe Driving Award, he was immensely proud that he was able to support a wife and six kids despite his lack of formal education. What Dad lacked in schooled skills, he more than made up in common sense and people skills.

However, in the early '80s, Dad lost his trucking job when his employer moved from our home in St. Louis to Indiana. For the next several years, Dad was reduced to scrounding for work in lowly hourly positions, where he was the oldest employee and with no chance to move up, given his age and education.

While Dad was suffering both financially and in his self-confidence, I was gallavanting around the country as a small-market morning radio talk show host, journalist, and sportscaster, calling high school and college sports at night immediately after writing and announcing the 5 pm local news. Dad knew of my love for journalism and being factual, so he encouraged me every way he could, despite the godawfully low pay in small markets. We both figured pursuing my brass ring in radio was my ticket to the big cities and big paychecks.

There's a funny, but painfully apt, bumper sticker that reads "Wanna make God laugh out loud? Tell Him your long-range plans." I learned this firsthand with Dad.

After a few years of laboring at menial jobs with no health insurance, Dad took ill. Working 100 hours per week at my radio stations still didn't deliver a respectable paycheck, so I returned to St. Louis to help Dad through his final months.

The most difficult part was not only seeing Dad physically wither each day, but in realizing we would not be able to provide a dignified final farewell for a man who had sacrificed so much for us. With no health insurance after his trucking job disappeared, and his life insurance cashed in just to keep the rent paid, Dad had nothing left to pay for a funeral....and I was barely scraping by for three years of small-town radio, so I couldn't help, either.

I thought of all of the overtime checks he passed up so he could attend my baseball games at Hickey Park in north St. Louis. All of the spelling bees he cheered me on at so he could be proud of a son who had a skill he never possessed. All of those times he could have been making more money that would have helped him now...but he put his kids first. And at the time Dad most needed me, I couldn't deliver.

Dad and I had to sit down and discuss what kind of "disposition" --- I hate that word, but we in the funeral/cemetery biz have to use it --- he desired. We quickly learned that we couldn't afford ANY of them. Not even cremation. Dad was so determined to protect us financially during those tight days that he seriously considered a violent suicide so the taxpayers, instead of his family, would pay the bill. Fortunately, I talked him out of that.

Finally, Dad and I agreed that he would donate his body to a local university's medical school. Even THAT cost us $150 (and, 17 years later, $300 for another relative in the same straits). Don't get me wrong: Donating your body AS YOUR CHOICE is a wonderful option, if that's how you want to go. However, I will always remember body donation as a sign that my family could not provide what Dad wanted, and we had to settle for our choice, strictly for financial reasons.

As a result, there was no final goodbye for Dad. No final viewing or get-together with either his body or cremains present, since the medical school gets complete control of donated bodies, and does not return cremains. I have no memorial plaque or marker for Dad, and no cemetery plot where I can go and talk to him to update him on the life he built for me. I still carry that failure to provide for Dad with me every day.

In the book "St. Louis Arena Memories" by Patti Smith-Jackson, I wrote a eulogy to Dad's final good day on this planet....sitting rinkside with us during a performance of Ice Capades, during which the performers, seeming to sense Dad was near the end, made Dad part of the show three times. He was not able to remember any of the good times we had always enjoyed at that old St. Louis landmark, but he laughed out loud several times, for his last times ever.

Four weeks later, Dad was gone. A phone call came from the hospital, and because we had signed over everything in care to the medical school, that was The Closure That Wasn't. We never really healed that ache.

Please keep this in mind the next time you have to deal with people working in the funeral/cemetery business. Many of us were drawn to this field because we know the pain you're in. We understand loss. We know you often wake up wondering why God is putting you through another miserable day....but we also learned that we're all stronger than we think.

Every single family that I work with is, in my mind, an extension of Dad. I have a chance to do for them what I could NOT do for him. Like John Walsh of "America's Most Wanted", every time he helps capture a violent criminal, he's repaying his karmic debt to his son Adam. Like Candy Lightner,who founded MADD, every time a drunk driver is pulled off the road thanks to her work, her daughter, killed by a drunk driver, is flashing her a heavenly thumbs-up.

The former Baptist preacher-turned-business motivator, Zig Ziglar, says "The secret to getting anything you want in life is simple: You help enough OTHER people get what THEY want."

Every family I help, I am repaying Dad. There are a lot of us in the San Diego funeral-cemetery industry. We're certainly not in it for the money, but for something far, far deeper. That's why so many of us make it our life's work.

DJF

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