It's not 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. You take these families home with you.

 

 Jenny Vannatter

Funeral Director, Sunset Funeral Care, Redlands, CA

 

As young as two years old, I had a fascination with cemeteries. That’s kind of where it started, I loved walking around cemeteries. For some reason when I was a little girl, I was always looking for other little girls in the headstones, as odd as that sounds, but it was just more of a fascination, I think, at that age. And then I was about 7 or 8 and we lived next door to a funeral home so that just intensified my interest and maybe started molding it toward the funeral home side versus the cemetery. Back then there were no HIPAA laws and things like that, so they would just throw things away. I would literally go through their trash and I could remember seeing death certificates — back then, they would type them and so if they’d mess up, they’d throw them away. I would look at the death certificates and I was like “Oh my gosh, that’s so neat.” We ended up moving again a few years later and sure enough, if you walked outside of my parents’ house and looked up the street, you could see another funeral home. It just completely fascinated me, every aspect of it.

I think going into it, people should have a true feeling of compassion for other people. It should never be just a job. Because it’s not just a job. It upsets me when people come into it just for a paycheck because it’s not 9 to 5, it’s not Monday through Friday. You take these families home with you whether you communicate with them when you’re home or not… you think about them.

 

Other than compassion, I would say a strong stomach because it’s not always just sitting here and hugging families when they’re crying. There is the other side that is the preparation side, and it’s never like you see on TV. You have what you see on TV in your head, always, and then reality is completely different.

 

I hate how the medical examiner on television, they pull out this tray, and there’s a nice clean white sheet over them. They may put makeup on the actor to make them a little bluish or something like that, but that they’re so at peace looking and almost perfect, the way that they looked in life. The drawer thing… for one thing, in sixteen years, I’ve never seen that, other than in a really, really old hospital. That presentation, it just doesn’t exist. And, you can’t just go to a medical examiner and see a loved one. Not here, anyway, not locally. But that leads people to walk in my door, when they’re coming in to make arrangements, and expect “Oh, can I see them now?” Well, no, it takes a lot of preparation and movement and it’s physical to do and it takes somebody that’s trained to be able to do something that we call setting their features: make sure their eyes and mouth are closed, brush their hair, clean up anything that could have taken place from death, so it’s a lot different. I think that’s my main pet peeve.

 

There is so much done by the time a family goes in to have a viewing. In order to get through those steps, you just have to have a strong stomach and a strong mind, because it’ll eat at you and if you don’t go in with the right frame of mind, then you won’t be able to live life. People start worrying about their kids, they worry about everything, and of course I worry. But I can’t let it get to me.

 

I don’t have nightmares, and I’ve probably seen the worst things you can possibly imagine… the after effects of the worst things, I should say. I don’t have nightmares about them, I don’t see the people in my dreams or anything like that. For some reason, I’ve always been able to separate that. People would give me a hard time: “You don’t know if you can handle it…” There was some website, I don’t even know if it exists anymore, where they did have pictures and I would always go on there and see if there was anything that I couldn’t handle. There’re things that are hard but there’s nothing that I can’t handle seeing or that makes me sick. I don’t know if it worked and it desensitized me or if I always would have been fine with the things I see. We’ve had employees that go into dry heaves just because of what they’re seeing. And that’s when you know that they’re wonderful people but it’s not for them.

There’s special make-up for the purpose of funerals, but even though I have it all, I don’t always use it all. Sometimes I use regular make-up because if you have any prior experience going to funerals, I know that everyone’s main complaint to me is “Don’t cake on the makeup, I went to this funeral or that funeral ten years ago, twenty years ago, whenever, and there was just so much makeup they didn’t even look like themselves.” So I try to only use it when it has to be used, and sometimes it has to be used. When we pass away and we have any type of liver problem, there’s a big possibility that under that makeup, that person’s green. I mean, green as the trees outside. So, it’s a must. Like if you get the most cakey makeup from Mac, it’s kind of like that; it covers anything. I try not to use it too much, because it takes away the pigmentation, the freckles, things that make you, you. That’s why I have regular makeup as well. The biggest worry that I have when doing funeral services is that somebody’s going to be disappointed at the way their loved one looks.

 

It’s hard because in life, even when we’re sleeping, we have so much stress. And that stress makes us who we are – the lines in our faces, the way our eyes crinkle when we smile. Even when we sleep, there’s muscles being used, and when we pass away there’s no muscles being used at all. A lot of people are like “Why is their face like this?” Well, it’s nothing that we did; however, when you embalm somebody, it does kind of lock it in. When somebody is older, taking away the muscle tone kind of makes them younger because the wrinkles go down a little bit. Usually with the older people, they’re like “Oh my God, they look so amazing.” I never get a complaint about an older person. It’s the younger people. The younger they are, the more anxious I get because for one, they’re not supposed to be dead, they’re not supposed to be in that casket. Number two, they were so full of life… the shine in their eyes, the sparkle, the little lines when they smile, all those things are gone. It’s something that nobody is ready for. I really stress out about appearance because I know the stigma is that nobody ever looks right. But they’re only seeing the before and the after – who they knew every day, who they saw on Facebook, who they went out to lunch with, not who we’ve shown them.

I used to tell people all the time [what I do], and now I don’t so much because it’s exhausting sometimes. You get the same silly jokes: “Oh, people are just dying to see you!” I get that all the time. At first I think I would tell people because I was so excited about it and it was so new, and eventually you start getting the people that you suddenly realize they went from talking to you in a group setting to… they don’t really seem to care for you all that much and I think that it’s just… it’s not that they don’t like you, it scares them. So, although I’ve always been super interested in it, there are people, they don’t want anything to do with talking about it, being around me. I have a friend – I used to live at the funeral home here in town and if she needed to pick me up, she would honk her horn. If she needed to drop something off, she would run, drop it on my porch, and leave. When I opened this place, I barely got her in the front door just to have a glass of wine because we did like a little open house.

 

Or sometimes, I’m almost like a party favor! People will be like “This is Jenny. She’s a mortician!” Which technically is a word that is obsolete, but it’s creepier so people will use it. Then you get all the questions. No, nobody’s ever sat up and if they did, I wouldn’t still be doing this; it would freak me out! There’s an old wives tale that you still move after you pass away… no, you don’t. When you pass away, you pass away. And something I’ll never understand is how people are scared of dead bodies. Scared of them! Like they’re going to get up, like a zombie, and come and attack you. What they’re forgetting is that every dead person, every dead body anywhere is somebody’s loved one. Somebody loved them and they loved somebody and that body is still the same shell that had a soul walking around in it not long before they passed. So, I’ll never understand that. 

The main goal [of embalming] is to remove the blood from the body because it does decompose the fastest out of anything, and we replace it with the formaldehyde, the preservatives. The first thing that is done would be the cleansing of the body, just the general disinfection, and then making an incision. Every embalmer’s different – some people prefer to do everything through the femoral artery. The incision’s made; you have to locate the artery and the vein in whatever area you’re going through. You want to drain the vein and you want to put the formaldehyde through the artery. Through the machine, it’s kind of like you have the circulatory system going artificially, the machine is pumping the fluid through and that makes the blood come out through the vein. Everything is done in one incision and you’re done. But of course there’s a lot of issues with different diseases, the food we eat and then our arteries are clogged… at a certain point maybe in the leg the fluid’s not reaching anywhere so then you have to do another incision. We always say “Oh, I had a six-pointer.” That means you had to go through six different points of the body. It’s very time-consuming, it’s frustrating because you also have to find these veins and arteries and not every body is exactly the same. Some bodies are bigger, some are smaller, some you swear they were living without arteries because you just can’t find it. It’s not like you make an incision and it just pops out at you.

 

I think one of the funniest stories that I have is after I did get my first job, it was just evenings and weekends and I had my day job and I said “If you ever have embalming that I can come and watch, let me know.” And right away they had one. So I’m watching, I’m fascinated, for years I remembered this lady’s name; I don’t remember it anymore. There was a part of the embalming that I had never known about, and that’s aspirating. Once the embalming is all done, there’s fluid and things in your thoracic cavity that don’t necessarily get all of the embalming fluid that they need, and that’s another area that decomposes very quickly. There’s a trocar, it’s this long sword-looking thing and you put it in the thoracic cavity. You have to punch it through and it’s hooked to a hose that’s sucking, basically. You’re making holes in all of the organs and it’s sucking any fluid out. Then you put special cavity fluid in that area; it’s a very strong fluid. The holes are made because you have to have a way for that fluid to get in to those organs. So, having no idea of this procedure, they hand me the trocar and they tell me… “Ok!” They were men, I was a girl, this 21-year-old little blonde girl that thinks that she wants to be an embalmer… and I know they’re laughing at me! So I did it. I was like “I’m so proud of myself! I did it!” I realize now that not everyone would have done it. But literally, on Day One, I always felt like I had to prove myself.

There came a time that the business that I was a part of was kind of falling apart – the owners (they weren’t family, they were just two owners) they were having issues and when owners have issues, that trickles down. I really felt I needed to go. The prices were rising and I knew they didn’t have to. I saw there was a need locally, in Redlands, because the two funeral homes in town were owned by the same place so I knew how many families each local firm helped. If you pulled the statistics, I knew how many families were not going to one of those two. They were actually going outside the area; the only reason they would do that is because they couldn’t afford it. When you can’t stand behind something, you know you have to move on.

 

Redlands is a small town and the families that have gone to the two other places in town... they’ll always go. It’s very traditional in Redlands. But there’s also a new set of families moving in that doesn’t have the roots in Redlands and they need a place to go. And the families that we knew weren’t coming to either of the other places, that were going out of town because they couldn’t afford it, that’s what we wanted – to be their place. I think it was August of 2012 when we got our business license and by October 1, 2012, we opened our doors.

 

If I had known then what I know now, I don’t know if it would have happened so easily. It really was scary. How do you go from a set amount of money that you’re bringing into the household to no income, taking everything, every credit card and maxing it out, every penny of savings and putting it into this. And you don’t know how you’re going to be accepted. We went back and forth, where do we open? I was adamant that we had to open in Redlands. I know Redlands, I know the people… I may not have grown up here but I know the people, we knew our competition. Were there other places that maybe we could have opened? Yeah, but I don’t think we would have been as successful. But then before that success comes “Is anybody going to come to us? Are they going to trust us? How do we get families to call us?” All the what-ifs: What if we fail? Where are we going to go? You can’t go back to where you came from. In my head, if we failed, corporate was where we were going, and how do you go from family-owned and owning your own to working for a corporation? That would be really difficult. I think the more we went into it, we didn’t have a choice. It was going to work. It was scary financially, but we didn’t let failure really come into our mind because we were so busy, we just had to keep pushing, going, going, going.

 

Now it’s been just over five years. Everybody says “Oh, how’s business going?” and how do you say “It’s great!” and then start crying? Because if it’s great for me, it’s not great for a lot of people because they’ve lost someone they love. Of course we want to support our families and support our employees’ families, but we know in order to do that somebody has to have a loss in their life. It’s kind of hard. But there’s nothing I look back on, how I got from A to Z, that I regret. I think everything fell in place the way it was supposed to… and here we are.

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