Lessons of Life from a Merchant of Death

David chats with his friend, a funeral director, and learns a bit about life and acting

Written by David Patrick Green

Usually when I sit down to write, I just pontificate from my own point of view based on my own experiences since voluntarily or not, I tend to relate what happens in my life to what happens or could happen in my acting career.  Sometimes, however, someone else’s experiences are so vastly different from my own, and yet their perspective and experience seems so incredibly deep and related to all of us that I feel like simply listening to what they have to say and passing it on.  A very good friend of mine and I recently did a weekend road trip, and he is in a business most of us would find extremely uncomfortable.  In fact, most of us would be happy to never enter his place of business at any point in our lives.  My friend is a funeral director.  

I met my friend (let’s call him Body Bob) in high school and we became fast friends.  It was only later that I learned that his family was in the business of death.  It really freaked me out when first learned that his dad went around collecting bodies, embalming them and dealing with the families of the deceased.  He used to call the business, “The Body Shop” for obvious reasons.  Once, during a wild dinner we were having at his house, he brought us next door to the funeral home and let us see a corpse before it had be embalmed.  It is amazing how universal the feeling of eeriness is when faced with a corpse.  There is something that brings home our own mortality when we see the body of another.  You realize we are not long on this earth and that it could be us lying there.

Bob didn’t immediately seek to follow in his father’s business.  He started in sales, but at some point found that it didn’t have sufficient meaning for him.  Before long he enrolled in a funeral director course, complete with a ‘preparation’ class – the nice way to describe the embalming process (embalming, by the way, is now only done in approximately 15% of deaths due to the decreasing need for viewings, as embalming is done only to preserve the body for extended preservation.  It has nothing to do with burial – things you wish you didn’t know, right?)

So during our drive, I thought it would be interesting to know what Bob had learned about life while dealing with so much death.  After four hours, I had learned not only a lot about the funeral business, but also a lot about the acting business, not to mention the business of life.  

What actor and Funeral Directors have in common

Funeral homes generally attract very empathetic and sympathetic people.  People end up in the business often via some kind of experience they have had with a death in their family or they are very service oriented people.  It is almost like a calling the way a priest feels drawn to the church.  This makes sense since there is probably no more sensitive time in a person’s life than when they are dealing with the death of a loved one.  I immediately thought that there was a great deal of parallel with the life of an actor.  Actors are generally sensitive people who feel compelled to do what they do.  They tend to portray people during the most dramatic points in their lives.  Actors are not usually hired to enact the boring drudgery of day to day existence but to demonstrate the highlights and lowlights of the people they are portraying.

What can actors learn from a merchant of death.

I asked my friend what is it that makes a successful funeral director.  Below are the main points I was able to get out of him (of course there are family secrets he would not reveal) 

Body language is very important.  You need to make family’s feel relaxed.  When a family walks in the door, a touch is often well received.  People underestimate the power of a small touch.  A box of kleenex offered indicates that it’s ok for the family to be emotional.  Funeral directors have to read people in the same way an actor does.  They have to see what kind of state a family is in.  Not interrupting people is very important.  They have to listen very actively to ensure that the person’s wishes are carried keeping in mind that this is a business transaction.  

The old cliche about funeral directors being cold and creepy is gone.  

Everyone remembers the funeral directors from a variety of films being portrayed as ghostly pale and seemingly wanting everyone nearby to drop dead.  That guy from one of the Poltergeist films makes my skin crawl.  Bob tells me that the old stereotype is like most…it was born from reality.  In the past, funeral directors were often quiet, withdrawn people who got into the business often by accident or by having an experience that led them to discover the world of the funeral business.  Eventually the business became more like a career and schools developed programs designed to develop the next generation of directors (not the film kind).  They implemented both business and customer service models that taught the next generation that being a funeral director is about more than just burying people.  They deal with people in their weakest and most vulnerable moments, and must behave according to the highest ethical standards.  Today’s directors are more balanced.  They are business men, marketers, mentors, and leaders in their communities.  They are often known by everyone in their towns or neighborhoods because eventually everyone is going to need to deal with them.  They need to set an example to that community.  Being that people are so vulnerable, the temptation can arise to take advantage of bereaved relatives.  There is a strong push/pull dynamic between running a successful business and taking care of people.  Actors have a similar job in that they can actually affect the lives of their audience with their work and their work is an escape from the drudgery of day to day existence and can actually be used to make someone feel better when they are feeling down.  So actors and funeral directors have a similar job.  They try to make people feel better about themselves, the world, and their situation and they get paid to do it, but they really don’t do it for the pay.  Both help you forget your troubles and disappear from a world that can be very harsh and cruel.

There’s a fine line between being empathetic and getting caught up in the reality of the situation.  Just as actors can blur the lines between fiction and reality, so can funeral directors.  Every single day, a funeral director faces death and the misery it can cause.  Imagine if every fire that a fireman attended resulted in a death.  Imagine if every crime a policeman investigated was a murder.  It would be horribly painful.  Funeral directors face death, not just every single day, but often multiple times a day.  Imagine dealing with family after family that has lost a loved one.  If they became emotionally involved in the least, they would be a basket case in no time.  Similarly, there is danger in an actor can’t becoming too involved in the life of the characters they portray.  Many ‘artists’ such as actors and musicians live tortured lives.  They could learn something from funeral directors.  Do you job, but don’t become your job.

I asked Bob how he avoided the trap of getting emotionally involved in his work.  His advice is to make sure his work doesn’t define him.  He understands his role is helping out a community in need like a doctor, ambulance driver, police or firefighter.  You must make it seem personal, but never let it become personal.  The bereaved has to believe you care about them, but you can’t help someone if you feel sorry for them.  You help them by being the strong one.  You get people through a few really rough days to honor the deceased by being the rock they can’t be at that moment.  Make difficult decisions seem easier or at least manageable.  Actors can learn from this.  Many beginner actors think that to be a great actor you need to be emotional.  Some actor think that crying makes them a great actor.  Actually the opposite is usually true.  It is by not crying and fighting through pain that the heroes we actors portray help others.  Indiana Jones wouldn’t be much use to anyone if he just collapsed into tears everytime someone he loved was kidnapped or killed.  It is the ability to remain calm or at least fake it really well in the face of pain and danger that defines a hero.

One thing that Bob mentioned that doesn’t really have anything to do with acting but more to do with life is how instrumental and educational death can be.  We humans can get so caught up in our ‘stories’ and trying to be right and winning that we often lose all sense of what is really important in life…relationships and love.  It is easy to bicker and fight over the pettiest of things, but when our loved one is taken from us or even just the threat of it, clarity is instantaneous.  When you find out your husband/wife/father/daughter/mother/brother has six months to live, do you really care that they don’t dry the dishes properly or squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom?  Suddenly everything becomes clear.  The lesson here is to act as though you may only have six months left with your loved one all the time.  It may actually be true, so why not act that way.  Love your loved ones.  Don’t try to be right and win everything.  Appreciate people and maybe you will show them how to do the same.  Drop the act and try to love someone.  Try to love everyone.

Bob has seen people go from emotional basket cases to rock solid overnight when they see what it is that is important in life.  We have so little in this world that is of any real use.  Beyond food and shelter, what else is there other than love?  Actors can carry around a bunch of baggage that keeps them from doing what they really love.  They blame others for their problems, they anticipate, they live in the past and many other forms of self-destructive behavior.  They fail to see that they are the only ones in control of their lives and their careers.  They refuse to take responsibility.  They would rather complain or make excuses why they aren’t doing what they need for their acting careers.  What if your career was about to die?  Would you wake up then?  If your acting career is a loved one, then behave like it only has six months to live.  What could you do for your career in the next six months to show you care about it?

Bob told me that death can close the circle for people…they are living with no real vision of their own lives.  No goals for their relationships and hence no idea what to do day to day to nurture their relationships.  They don’t know what kind of life they want to live.  Death can be a huge wakeup call.  Nothing brings life into focus like death.  In an instant, it is possible to see things objectively for what they are.  What it requires is to stop looking at everything through the eyes of the ego, and start looking at things as they are.  If you were outside your acting career, what would it look like and what might you do about it?

A lifetime of pain can be erased in an instant when death enters the picture.  Think of how it would feel if you were to lose a loved one or even if their was the threat of it.  What would you do then?  Would you stop the bickering?  Would you drop that lawsuit?  People spend half their lives fighting to make a point…for what?  Move on folks…we teach children what is childish behavior and what is adult behavior.  Which type of behavior is running your life?  See things how they really are, not through the eyes of the ego.  Some people are never capable of this.  Their egos are so powerful that faced with the death of a loved one or even their own death, their egos win.  The best example I can think of this is from an episode of the Jeffersons.  I get most of my philosophy from 70’s sitcoms.  In the episode in question, George Jefferson saves the life of a racist by giving him his blood for a transfusion.  The man’s entire family changes their minds about race after seeing this act of kindness from George toward their father.  When the man himself awakes, he asks how he survived.  The son tells his father that George saved his life giving him his blood.  The man looks at George, then to his son and says these chilling words, which I paraphrase but will never forget for as long as I live.  They might be the most profound words ever uttered by a sitcom character.  Upon realizing that George saved his life and that the blood of a black man is now coursing through his veins, the man looks at his son and says, “You should have let me die”.  If that doesn’t blow your mind and make you rethink everything you know, go back to the alien world you came from because you’re not human.  The scary thing is that it is believable.  People’s egos are that powerful and because they are so powerful but actually act against our own best interests almost all the time (there’s a reason pride is one of the seven mortal sins), anything that puts them in check should be welcome.  If it takes death or the thought of death, then imagine it.  You’ll notice that fear is not a deadly sin.  It is highly motivating.  So biblically speaking, fear is ok.  Just make sure the fear you use to motivate yourself is fear for your ‘self’, not your ego.

Another profundity Bob taught me is that it is almost impossible for children to grow up until they lose their parents.  They are always thought of as children by their parents and as long as someone thinks they are children, they behave like children.  But upon the death of their parents, they can finally accept that they are adults.  Are you acting like a child or an adult?

A few disjointed lessons for the living…including actors

There is a weight lifted when someone dies…especially when there is a wait involved…

Acknowledge that death represents a change.  Don’t try to get it over a death until you have considered the meaning of this death to your life and the potential for positive change.  

There are so many opportunities that arise from death…the ability to reconnect with people they have issues with, stopping the blame game, stopping hate, reconciliation…a chance to act without ego.

It is not necessary to go over every bone of contention.  Just recognize that there are bones of contention based on nothing but a superficial desire to win or be right.

The past is the past.

Death gets people to live more in the moment and put the past behind them.  The past is of no use to anyone.  Looking at the past to determine your future only leads to repeating the past in the future.

From looking at death in the morgue…Bob says we are just a shell…we are so caught up in how important the body is…it is not important.  Our spirit is what defines us, not our bodies or our minds.

Death is not to be feared…it is just a change of form…

So there is some profound shite to consider here.  Actors face a constant struggle.  Their sense of self is largely determined by what others think of them or their performances.  Few other careers require such a personal connection to our work and as such when our work is judged, we think we are being judged.  True or not, the lesson is to not judge ourselves, but to accept our selves and to present our selves as much as possible because this is what people actually want to see.  Learn to be your ‘self’.  There’s only one of you and we all want to get to know you.  There is no winning…there is only peace and love…either way, a sobering thought…death is going to get all of us one way or the other.  Make use of it while you’re still alive.

David Patrick Green is a red-haired, left-handed, only child and ideologue who also happens to be a professional actor, not to mention running the universe’s only acting-career-management program at Hackhollywood.com.  It is there that he inspires other actors to be ruthlessly creative in their approach to the art and business of acting and life in general.  Mr. Green has an MBA from the University of Southern California and was an international management consultant and advertising executive before noticing that Platinum frequent-flyer status has few rewards other than bedbugs, beer and boredom.  Among other places David has lived and worked in Warsaw, Poland and is still kicking himself for leaving the French Alps where he taught skiing and drank wine with European royalty.  He has spent the last 10 years acting in Los Angeles, Vancouver and Toronto and coaches/consults to actors and businesses who want to get on the short path to success while maintaining a sense of humor.

He can be reached directly via [email protected] or by visiting his site www.hackhollywood.com.

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