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DEATH BECOMES HER : Q+A WITH A YOUNG, FEMALE FUNERAL DIRECTOR

Can you stare death in the face and live to talk about it? Allison Futtner, a young female funeral director from Connecticut, not only stares at death every day, she makes it look pretty. Death is so difficult for many, that I was intrigued about the decisions that lead a confident woman to the industry of helping others with it. Allison sheds some light on her experiences, advantages, and the difficulties of her job below.

The fact that Allison was born on Halloween is just another reason I think her life should be written into a YA novel. Irony I love you.

Enjoy!

Can you stare death in the face and live to talk about it? Allison Futtner, a young female funeral director from Connecticut, not only stares at death every day, she makes it look pretty. Death is so difficult for many, that I was intrigued about the decisions that lead a confident woman to the industry of helping others with it. Allison sheds some light on her experiences, advantages, and the difficulties of her job below.

The fact that Allison was born on Halloween is just another reason I think her life should be written into a YA novel. Irony I love you.

Enjoy!

When did you first realize you wanted to get into the funeral industry?

I have always been interested in the dark and macabre; being born on Halloween may have something to do with it…I had tried a couple of other career paths that had not panned out. I knew I had to find something unique that would keep my interest but also bring me some personal fulfillment. My Grandfather had been helping out at a funeral home in our hometown for many years, and asked if I had ever considered being a Funeral Director. I hadn’t, and laughed it off. Then I thought about it. I did a bit of research, did a Q & A with a local funeral director, and was enrolled in a Mortuary Science Program in Boston that was to begin that fall.

What is the first reaction you get when you tell people you are a female funeral director?

I’ve learned there are typically two reactions people have when I tell them what I do. The first is intrigue; their eyes widen and the questions start rolling out. (This is my favorite.) On the flip side, I’ve had people physically take a step back from me, or be so disturbed by the fact that the conversation ends there. I take no personal offence to this, as I am very aware that this job is not cut out for everyone!

 Were your family / friends hesitant of your decision?

I can’t say that anyone was overly shocked by my choice… My parents have always been and continue to be my biggest supporters, allowing me to pick and choose my paths and letting me endure the consequences of those choices, but forever being there for guidance. My sister is quite the opposite of me; bubbly and perpetually positive, someone that would never be caught working in place surrounded by such heaviness. However, she knew that I had my whole heart invested in this. My friends were more interested in the morbidity of it. They now had someone behind the scenes to a world that is usually kept behind the curtain…

 What’s a typical day of a funeral director?

I can’t say there’s ever a typical day at the funeral home, but we follow a loose schedule to keep everything organized. We begin our day with a morning briefing session which includes every person on staff for the day. We go over the calls that we have and the notes for each, making sure every step of the process is being covered. I started my career as an embalmer, so at that point we would go into the back and begin our embalming’s or getting our loved ones ready for their services; dressing, cosmetizing and placing them in their caskets. We would also make any removals and file any paperwork that needed to be filed.

I have switched over to meeting with families now, so my day has changed a bit. I am now responsible for assisting families to plan the services completely, a totally different challenge. Now I am face to face with the loved ones that have lost someone important to them, and it’s my job to help bring a dignified, loving tribute to life.

 Do you think you are breaking a stereotype in the industry or are there more women pursuing it?

It’s very exciting to me to see that just in the time that I have been a funeral director the stereotype is being shattered. Lady Funeral Directors are on the rise!! I believe this is nothing but advantageous to the industry- I have witnessed firsthand people being appreciative of having a woman handle their loved one. There is a certain compassion that a woman brings to the table that can be utilized and embraced by all.

 Do you think there’s an advantage to being young AND a woman in what is a difficult time for most?

I believe my age has been an advantage but has also had its downfalls as well.

I’ve been asked how old I am many, many times, and I know there is no disrespect intended, just concern with how young I look. All I can do at that point is let my knowledge and experience of the ins and outs guide the family and provide them with the comfort that I am determined to help them through this. Being a woman has its own challenges… This new wave of females joining the industry has absolutely mixed the bag up a bit. I personally have experienced the antiquated sexism and stereotypes that come with the territory. I constantly have to and will continue to prove that I have the strength to do certain tasks that may be not only physically challenging, but emotionally.

 What has been the most difficult experience you’ve faced?

I will never forget that I went into this career as a young woman that had never experienced real loss of her own. I had all four of my grandparents (still do!), close family and friends. I felt like a hypocrite coaching my families through their grief, when I had never felt it for myself. Of course that wouldn’t last forever… and when it hit, it hit hard. I (very) unexpectedly lost my manager, my mentor, my friend while we worked together at the funeral home. It was a hurt that I’d not felt before, and one that still resonates today. On top of mourning the loss of our coworker and friend, there was a complexity to it as it was now our task to help coordinate and hold his services. We came together as a staff and did what we knew best by giving him a beautiful albeit emotional sendoff. With this scar I take with me a deeper understanding of what families are going through in their moments of grief, and with that a new perspective to learn from.

 What are a few things you find most rewarding?

I feel my heart flutter a bit when I have a family member come to me to tell me how wonderful their loved one looks, or that they had intended to close the casket and are going to leave it open instead. I was taught to take great pride in the way we lay out our loved ones, and to recognize the impact this may have on the families. I want their last image to be a comforting one, not a reminder of the loss. Honestly, when a family is appreciate of the care that is put into our organizing the services, that is reward enough for me.

What was it like to see your first body?

I remember this very vividly. It was one of the first days of class at mortuary school; I was very anxious and a bit concerned that I may have some sort of visceral reaction to first seeing a body laid out on the porcelain table. They brought us down to the morgue, trying to emotionally prepare us before we walked in. I took a long deep breath, praying that my leap of faith into this industry was not in vain, and took a step inside. Luckily my reaction was one of fascination, not fear. This experience made me so eager to learn the process of preparation and embalming, and I couldn’t wait to begin.

 Have you planned your own funeral? If so, how do you envision it?!

I don’t have an actual service planned, but I feel that I know more what I would want it to be like after having seen so many beautiful tributes. My generation’s funerals are leaning towards more casual services, with an upbeat, celebratory vibe. I love when there is some sort of personal touch to the day; such as passing out seeds at the wake of someone that loved to garden, or when guests are asked to wear a certain sports jersey or color. My one request is just that I have my red lipstick on…

 Have you ever broken down emotionally?

ALL THE TIME. This profession has forced me to grow up, and quick. I’ve buried family members, friends, teachers, and neighbors among many others. I feel the burden of it often, but have also learned to be grateful for the experiences, and have been able to meet some wonderful people along the way. One of the first graveside services I assisted on was for a U.S. Veteran who was getting the full military sendoff; folding of the flag, firing of the rifles, and taps. As soon as I heard the bugle begin to play, I was overcome with sincere sadness. I silently cried during the service, ashamed I had broken down and was hoping the son of this gentleman had not seen me break face. He had, and came over immediately after the conclusion and told me he had seen me crying. I apologized profusely and was convinced I had made a fool of myself at my first service, when he looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Thank you.” I was confused, but he continued to tell me that it touched him that I had not only been affected by the service, but that I showed it. I explained to him I come from a family strong with proud Veterans, that I couldn’t suppress it. He told me he would never forget it and that his father would have been so appreciative. From that day forward, I allow myself to cry if I am touched by something, give a family member a big squeeze if they (or I) need it, or reach out to a friend to let them know I may be hurting that day.

 

Does working with death make you appreciate life? What lessons have you learned?

If I were to take one lesson away from this crazy career, it would be that we get ONE SHOT at this life- and nothing is guaranteed. I’ve seen people celebrate their retirement and then pass away the next day, people that die of lung cancer that have never smoked a day in their lives, or the tragedy of accidents and the void that they leave in people’s lives. I’ve seen the ripple effect that the loss of one life may cause, and it has irrefutably changed the way that I live my day to day life. I am reminded to jump into new experiences, to laugh and most importantly, let people know you love them. I take no shame in telling the people I love that I do, and as often as I can. You just never know when you won’t be able to say it again.

 

Do you believe in an afterlife? Has anything happened to make you believe / not believe?

I want to believe that all of the people that I love are going to be waiting for me with balloons and streamers when it’s time, but I just can’t get my mind to follow suit. I have not had any encounters with the deceased to convince me otherwise; no fun stories of people sitting up on the table, or twitching or making noises. It’s a cynical way to think, but also attributes to my wanting to make this life count while we have the chance.

 

Do you interpret a funeral as a sad or celebratory event?

Depends! The manner of death, family dynamics and personality types can all affect the tone of the service. For me, my highest priority is to provide a personalized, dignified service that does justice to the deceased’s life, but also one that provides the remaining family comfort and peace. Sounds a lot easier than it actually is sometimes, but it is always, always worth it.

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