Jerry Shaner walked up and down the Family Dollar aisles in search of the perfect gift.
Reaching out to his daughter who teaches preschool for recommendations, a small, plush pink and white unicorn and a matching baby blanket caught his eye.
It was only $10.
But when Shaner went to check the 5-year-old, he realized the cost of providing a toy for a girl in the morgue costs much more.
Shaner, who is the business manager, crematory director and funeral director in training at Parson Mortuary and Cremation Center, said funerals for children are always the hardest.
After the young girl was accidentally shot in her home, Shaner’s job was to make her beautiful again, allowing her family to remember what their little girl used to look like one last time.
“Had it not been for them having a service, the last memory would’ve been in the bedroom on the floor,” he said.
These are the cases that keep Shaner up at night.
Funeral home employees do more than work with the deceased and help people pick out caskets; they’re responsible for helping families with their grief and making sure each goodbye is perfect.
And while the job is fulfilling, it’s not for the faint of heart.
The Nature of the Job
Parson Mortuary and Cremation Center opened in 1934, and they have been owned and operated by the same family since. Craig Malone, the general manager, funeral director and embalmer, has been there for the last 13 years.
An embalmer, according to Funeral Partners, is the “process of preserving a body by delaying the natural effects of death.” Funeral directors plan the funerals, and in Indiana, funeral directors are required to be licensed in embalming.
Malone knew he wanted to be a funeral director at the age of 9. He had a big family, so he attended funerals often. He always had a desire to help people when they were hurting, and he couldn’t think of a time when people needed support more than when they lost someone close to them.
“I grew up with the idea that if you could accept your own morality, then that’s when you could start to live,” Malone said.
Unlike Malone, it took 53 years for Shaner to figure out what he wanted to do when he grew up.
Shaner, a Ball State alum, started at Parson Mortuary three years ago after being in law enforcement, saying there was a bit of a pipeline. He was scared to deal with death at first but ultimately gave it a chance.
“When I look at it from the frame of mind of helping grieving people, that helps a lot,” he said.
Shaner has been training with Malone to become a funeral director while he attends mortuary school online at Mid-America College.
“Our future can change in five minutes with a phone call,” Malone said. “Currently, we’re not as busy [as during COVID-19], but neither are the other funeral homes.”
When death rates decrease, the number of services go down. According to World Population Review, as of 2023, the average number of deaths per day in the U.S. is 7,974. According to the CDC, the death rate in the U.S. increased by 15 percent.
Shaner said from beginning to end, a funeral director will spend about 60 hours on one family, so they get to know them fairly well.
“Every person handles grief completely different than someone else. We have situations where families come in, and they’re very angry,” Shaner said. “We have situations where families come in, and if the husband dies, the wife may be so distraught, she can’t talk, so the children have to.”
While some instances are full of pain, others can cause a bit of relief. Shaner hated when his parents died of cancer, but he was glad they weren’t in pain anymore.
“If you’re the one providing the care, and oftentimes you’re working yourself to exhaustion, the main thing is that families look at us and say they’re no longer in pain,” he said.
Still, he said there are some cases you can’t prepare for.
As embalmers, they use similar practices to botox and liposuction to restore the body to a lifelike experience, so the deceased look like they did before they died.
“You can’t put a price tag on that, especially when grandma was ravaged by disease, and you’ve not only put her back together, but you’ve made her look like grandma,” Malone said. “And really [we’re] the only place in society, a funeral home, that can do that.”
But when it’s a tragic accident, funeral directors sometimes have to tell families it’s better for them not to see their loved one again.
Shaner said the employees often take on some of the grief for families. It weighs him down, but he is okay with it because he is able to help absorb it for someone else.
PTSD is very real in funeral homes, Shaner said, because the employees are constantly around death and are with the families for the whole process.
Malone and Shaner are both men of faith, so they use that to help them get through constantly working around death and sadness.
“I’ve got two minister friends of mine that have been like mental restoration to me,” Malone said. “They’ll see me walking down the hall and just hold their arms open and just let me cry.”
Malone is an avid Civil War reenactor, so he uses that as his escape. Ironically enough, he is the regimental embalming surgeon in reenactments. He said he wants a Civil War funeral where he is taken to the cemetery in a horse-drawn hearse and a 21-gun salute is performed, among other things.
Malone said it’s important to get away in a healthy way because when people try to medicate their pain, ultimately, when they sober up, that pain will still be there.
Two services Malone had to step away from were for his parents.
“When my parents died, I made sure that everybody on staff knew I wanted to be the son,” he said. “I didn’t want to do this professional stuff. I felt like I needed to grieve.”
Shaner was the opposite.
Though it was difficult, when his brother died, Shaner promised his brother he’d be the one to cremate him.
“It meant more to my niece than I could have imagined,” he said.
When one of his friends died, he was sure to be the one to pick him up and give him an escort to the church service and back. Afterward, his friend’s wife told her how much it meant to her for him to do that, and it made Shaner “feel incredible inside.”
Still, the constant work and stress of planning out these funerals can delay their own grieving process.
Shaner said a mix of dark humor, dad jokes and his guitar help him get through these hard times and “wash his hands” after each day. He tries to spend time with his family and watch movies to relax. Still, it can be difficult when they are on call one to three nights a week.
“What we try not to do to stay positive is take our work home with us in the sense that if when we clock out,” Shaner said, “we can put what we’ve seen in our mailbox and pick it up the next day, that’s great, but it’s not always possible.”
He said having people thank him, especially in the community, makes all the long hours worth it.
Both Malone and Shaner said the best funeral directors are ones where you don’t know they’re there.
“I want it to go smoothly, … but if the only time they see me is when they come in, and I walk them in and talk to them and help them get over the initial shock …” Shaner said, “and if they don't see me until at the end when we’re dismissing, to me, that’s good because it’s not about me.”
A Family’s Goodbye
Edgar Faulkner Jr., owner of Faulkner’s Mortuary, said he’s been a funeral director for so long, the only services that make him feel emotional are children’s. They make him uncomfortable because they make him think of his own kids and grandchildren.
“At this point, I’ve gotten so in the business, I’ve become immune to the emotions of family, unless it was my family,” he said. “I’m more interested in serving them and getting them pleased than I am about any particular other elements.”
Faulkner took over the family business when his father died in 1972.
Faulkner said his father and mother’s services were the ones that disturbed him the most.
“I did it because you want your parents to have the best service possible, and you know you’re good,” he said.
The mortuary has been in business for 71 years, originally opening to serve the Black community at a time when funeral homes were segregated. According to History.com, Jim Crow laws legalizing racial segregation remained until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, though even afterward, it didn’t guarantee integration.
Though Faulkner’s is primarily a minority firm, he does work for everyone, and he said he did a service for a white family a week prior. Faulkner Jr. decided to serve the minority community because there was no other place established to help them.
Faulkner said he enjoys being able to help families out in any way they need, including financially by helping them with social security, Medicaid, etc.
COVID-19 had a large effect on the funeral home business: creating attendance caps, causing the cancellation of funerals and cutting out of the body of some services, according to the National Library of Medicine.
Faulkner said before COVID-19, he’d allow families to see the deceased before cremation, but once the pandemic hit, he couldn’t allow people to see their loved ones unless the body was disinfected and embalmed.
The pandemic caused a great amount of backup for funeral homes, according to the National Library of Medicine. Since doctors couldn’t keep up with death certificates, funeral homes quickly got backed up, and loved ones couldn’t be laid to rest until a death certificate was presented.
A Special Moment for Families
Molly Haaff started at Elm Ridge Funeral Home and Memorial Park three years ago during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There were times where you couldn’t walk through our care center, it was so full,” Haaff said. “Our funeral home was built to serve 80 to 100 families, not 200 plus.”
She said early on, she’d have to serve 10 families at once, so there were thousands of details for her to remember. She was working 10 plus hours of overtime every week. She said it was tough to have to give service maxiums, where the services were restricted to only 50 people or so.
But being so busy at the beginning of her career makes things feel easier now.
At age 23, Haaff has already found her dream job. She is a full-time funeral director and embalmer.
The southern Indiana native graduated from Vincennes University in 2019 and started at Elm Ridge shortly after.
Haaff found mortuary science after looking for jobs where she could help people every day, but nursing and teaching didn’t resonate with her.
Someone suggested working in a funeral home, so she job shadowed in her hometown, and that was it.
“It was just fate,” she said.
Elm Ridge began as a cemetery in 1927, followed by a mausoleum with 888 crypts three years later. The funeral home didn’t open until 1998. Haaff said Elm Ridge serves around 200 families a year.
Haaff said Elm Ridge has a motto that they “don’t say no to families.”
Haaff said she enjoys Elm Ridge because they serve families for generations and give back to the families. Elm Ridge offers free burials for babies, and they have special services for holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day and Veteran’s Day.
Elm Ridge offers a wide variety of options. They do traditional services, celebrations of life and cremations, but they also offer more unique services.
Though not all types of body disposal are legal in Indiana, other alternatives include aquamation and mushroom suits. According to Death With Dignity, aquamation is when chemicals and heat are used to dissolve the body. Mushroom suits place a special shroud of mushroom spores on the body that accelerate decomposition. You can also be buried at sea or donate your body to science.
As a plant lover, Haaff said the service she leans toward is human compositing. This is when your body is composted and turned into soil. Haaff said it produces enough to fill the bed of a truck.
“Just turn me into soil, and keep all of my plants alive,” she said.
Haaff is grateful for her job because she gets to help people and hear the most beautiful stories.
“With it being so sad and mundane all the time, you have to think these are happy memories,” she said. “These are people that were very loved. ... Grief is love turned inside out.”
She tries to be there undeniably, 24/7. She constantly talks to families and helps them to be aware that no matter what, they can call, even if it’s a “silly question.” No matter what, she wants to be there to make their wishes happen.
Haaff said it can be exhausting and overwhelming. She naturally carries it home with her because she spends so much time with each family. She has even dreamt of the families before.
“When the family sobs and hugs you and tells you that everything's perfect, that makes it all worthwhile,” she said.
Haaff tries to put herself in each family’s shoes to understand them better. Constantly working around death reminds her that life is short, no matter how prepared a family is.
She said she had a woman who was burying her 94-year-old mother, and the woman said she thought she’d have more time.
“Many people just are blind to the elephant in the room that it could be over for you when you leave this room,” Haaff said. “You never know.”
Haaff said she has a wonderful memory she believes helps her be a good funeral director and better connect to families. Because of this though, she can remember awful situations and traumatic cases.
“You carry everything with you,” she said.
Haaff still remembers her first funeral for her grandma Ann. She always had her nails painted, and they were never chipped. Seeing her sick was heartbreaking, so when she was able to see her grandma looking like herself at her funeral, it was very important for her closure.
This is what she wants to provide for her families.
“At the end of the day, that’s all that matters to me,” she said, “that my families are happy, and I made a special moment for them.”
Contact Lila Fierek with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.