What I Learned in the Death Care Industry
by Josefina Jarosova
“A mind that is stretched by new experiences can never go back to its old dimensions.”- Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
We’ve all had that one experience that changes us forever. Sometimes for better, sometimes worse. Maybe it made you question everything or maybe it made you a bit numb. Perhaps it led to self-discovery or perhaps it led to more confusion. Everybody has had that formative experience that makes them realize what they really, really want or what they really, really don’t want; what they truly care about and what they couldn’t give a damn about.
I was on the receiving end of an experience like this very recently and I’ve changed considerably as a result. My mind is more open, my heart is more sensitive to certain pain, my instincts have morphed, my relationships have changed; I’ve discovered things about myself I never knew were within me.
So, what was this game changer you might ask? It was a summer long internship completely outside of my comfort zone – and probably a lot of others too, and understandably so. I interned as a writer for one of the front runners of the death care industry: OneWorld Memorials.
Making a Living in Death Care
As many of my millennial cohorts surely know, you can’t just have a summer to laze around and relax anymore. The job market is incredibly competitive and we’re all feeling the pressure from academic inflation by the kilopascals. So, as the ambitious and paranoid individual that I am, I set out on the job hunt for a summer internship in February. After a great deal of letdowns and lack of success, I finally received an invitation for a preliminary phone interview by a company that called themselves by their initials only, therefore I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
Shortly before my interview, I realized that “OWM” stood for OneWorld Memorials -- a memorial products retailer for things like urns, cremation jewelry, and such. I’ll be honest, I didn’t really know how I felt about working in such close proximity to death. On the plus side, it’s something different, a challenge in a very “out there” field. And the remnants of my inner child rebel thought, “HA! Bet Mum wouldn’t expect that”! Because guess what, she works in healthcare. It would provide just a little bit of familiar irony that I can appreciate.
On the minus side, I had no clue what I was doing in this industry, especially since I have never had anyone close to me die (as I knock on wood). I am a very sympathetic person and have witnessed the loved ones of my friends pass away, but it’s not the same. Still, that was the extent of my experience with death.
As I was contemplating the offer, I reminded myself that I love writing and challenges, so I said to myself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” As you could guess, I took the job.
While I’m not sure how much of this was all in my head or it was some effect that rubbed off from working in the death care industry, there had been some interesting things I dealt with since I decided to take the position. It all started with a series of traumatic dreams that I had in my first week of my internship.
In the first one I was the mother of two beautiful babies (I’m still at the age and of the mentality that babies are gross, so this was weird) and they both died in my arms from some disease that my hypochondriac brain conjured up. In my dream, I felt a kind of pain that I had never felt before and I cried like I had never cried before. When I woke up, my head was in such an unfamiliar place that I didn’t really know what to do with myself.
A few days after that one, I dreamt that one of my closest friends was continuously dropping hints that she was “going away” for a long time, yet I was completely oblivious to all of them. Then one day, the news of her death due to an aggressive brain tumor got to me and then it all made sense. Again, I cried and suffered for what seemed like days in my dream, it felt so real.
I definitely had more dreams than just those two, but they are the ones that stuck with me the most. In retrospect, I understand that I had those dreams because my brain was just trying to process how it felt about death since it was being exposed to it so much more than it was used to.
Being continuously surrounded by so much death and seeing families argue about how they want their loved one commemorated, this internship really pushed me to consider what I want from life, my relationships, and what I want to leave as my legacy:
- How do I want others to remember me? An ambitious career-driven woman that proved that men and women are truly equal.
- Am I really living my life to the fullest? I’d like to think so, but I’ve never been skydiving, I’ve never gone on a spontaneous trip, I’ve never spent completely pointless money on a completely useless thing… Should I?
- Am I letting the people closest to me know how much they mean to me? Nobody has ever said the words “I love you” to anyone within my family, but we know that we do. Should I be saying it even though we all know?
- If my parents were to die, would I know how they want to be remembered? What kind of funeral do they want?
All these questions whirled through my mind throughout the summer and while I have some answers now, I’m still finding the rest. I’m not the spiritual type, but I do think I need to step back and examine my life and relationships from an outside perspective and that does require some alone time without distractions. I’ll just do it in gentler way, like a week or two in a cabin in the woods… more like the castle type from Kings of Summer, but with plumbing.
We’ve all had that idea to escape to your own slice of the world, just to be alone and live solely for ourselves. And, in our younger years, to run away from sometimes overbearing parents of course. Because I didn’t have the opportunity to escape to my own parentless natural paradise, I went a different route.
Two Sides of the Same Coin
As I mentioned previously, my mum works in healthcare and we often joke about how funny it is that I went into death care (even if just for the summer). At first, those fields might sound like polar opposites, but healthcare and death care are so much more similar than you might realize.
If you look at the two superficially, you might think as I did initially: death care comes in when healthcare fails, making it a consequential relationship rather than a symbiotic one. When you really think about it, you find that both focus on caring for others, providing support during difficult times, and closure when things go wrong. As one of my managers during my internship so eloquently said, “Healthcare mends the body, death care helps mend the souls of those left behind.”
Doctors are the ones who initially “call the death” of a person; they are the first part of the death protocol. Further down the chain, we in the death care industry actually deal with the living, the ones doing the grieving, the ones who had to endure the pain of the loss. There are instances where the two interact, like hospice for example. Only terminally ill people live out the rest of their days in such a place. If one would draw a Venn diagram exploring the healthcare/death care relationship, a hospice would be the overlapping middle. It’s small observations like that that have really expanded my mind in terms of my understanding of the two industries.
Another thing that I sensed a change in were my instincts when it comes to responding to the death or the nearing death of a friend’s loved one or pet. Before my internship, my first instinct would be to try and cheer them up and make them think about something else. I’ve learned that that course of action can actually do more damage than good. What people need is someone to acknowledge their pain, not take it away. Now, I feel like I’m able to help in difficult situations that are naturally clouded in emotion and confusion.
I’m not sure if that makes me a way better friend or not but at least I’m thinking ahead. To show you how serious I am about having a plan for the end, I actually picked my own way out already (cheers to being ready right?). I wish for my cremated ashes to be mixed in with the seeds of a tree, a living memorial so to speak, that would be cared for by my family.
A New Perspective
Though I did not personally come into contact with the customers, I did spend most of my time putting myself into their shoes. My job was to point out what type of person a specific memorial product would be the most fitting memorial for. I had to imagine the family’s pain and explain how this exact homage could help them find comfort in such a difficult time.
This was not something I wanted to half-ass, so I poured my heart and soul into my writing. Before I started writing about each product, I would stop and think about the color, the shape, the imagery: What kind of person was the image of this memorial piece conjuring in my mind? If I had to personify each of the products, what personalities would they have?
If I saw a bright pink urn with blue polka dots, I would think “this was definitely an extrovert that always stood out of the crowd;” if I saw a dark green urn with a tree of life engraving, I would think “this was definitely silent leader type with a spiritual connection to nature.” By doing this so many times, I felt like I had met all these people and then the second I met them, they we’re gone.
All that was left, was their grieving family. Reliving this sort of experience did leave a mark on me and impacted the way I perceive the world. My writings will forever be a part of some people’s worst day of their life, but maybe I was able to make it a little less horrible by doing my best to understand their loved one. I like to think so at least. I can’t say I’ve gone through losing a loved one personally, but I do feel like I’ve been a part of a lot of many stories of grief and that will never leave me.
I am pretty sure that when the school year restarts and we all share what we did last summer, I’ll probably get the most raised eyebrows and puzzled faces, but that’s fine with me. I know that my life has taken a turn and I dare say it was a turn for the better. My brief internship with OneWorld Memorials has opened my mind and I’ve started considering concepts vastly past the thoughts of the average 20-year-old, like what urn I’d want my cremains (yes, you read that right) to rest in.
My heart has softened with coming to terms with not just my mortality, but my family’s too. It gave me the kick I needed to build a more open relationship with my parents, one where we can talk about the end of life and how we want to be remembered. My perspective on the world around me has also significantly shifted. I look at the world not just through my eyes anymore. I look at it as if I had absorbed at least a small portion of the sum of experiences of the people that we have provided closure too.
Isn’t that what the death care industry is truly about?
Josefina Jarosova is currently a Digital Media student at the University of Stirling in Scotland with a focus on writing and media production. She spent her summer 2018 internship with OneWorld Memorials as a junior copywriter and social media manager, assisting the company with their digital media presence and creative content production.