Working With the Living to Honor the Dead

Bob Arrington, a funeral director in Jackson, Tennessee, talks about the emotional elements of his job and what he thinks it takes to plan a good funeral.

Bob Arrington (Rebecca Clarke)

Recent years have seen a rise of non-profits, websites, and weekend-long mortality salons that all seek to give people space to talk about death. Yet many people still nimbly avoid talking about one of life’s most certain realities: What happens after someone dies, and how should families explain loss to younger kids?

But for Bob Arrington, a funeral director in Jackson, Tennessee, his interest in the funeral home started at just 7 years of age. Funeral directors are often portrayed as the salesmen of the death-services industry, pushing grieving customers to spend exorbitant sums of money. The average funeral, after all, can cost up to $10,000. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Arrington about what makes a good funeral, the emotional elements of his job, and why funerals have become more intricate over time. The interview that follows has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adrienne Green: What inspired you to go into funeral work?

Bob Arrington: When I was 7 years old, my grandfather died and I was living in Milan, Tennessee, and something just clicked. The gentleman that owned the funeral home was my next-door neighbor, and my elementary school was across the street from the funeral home.

I just kind of hung around on the weekends, and the owner of the funeral home took me under his wing and would answer any questions I had. I would just dress up, open doors, and carry flowers. That's all a 9- or 10-year-old could do. It just really intrigued me. I don't know if I was intrigued because I saw how the funeral director cared for my dad, who lost his parents. I didn't know this until later, but when I was 9 years old my mother went to a child psychologist and said, “I got this 9-year-old boy, and all he wants to do is hang around a funeral home.” That guy said, “Well, he’ll outgrow that. Just pacify him.” We ended up moving to Jackson, Tennessee when I was 15 years old, and I went to work for a local funeral home there.

And then, once the economic growth had gone north in the ’90s, Jackson needed a funeral home where the people lived. I found some land and put a group of guys together. In June of 1995, we opened this business from scratch; we didn't have a paperclip. That was 21 years ago, and I now own 80 percent of business and I still have three partners.

Green: Death is not something that a lot of people want to expose their children to at a young age. What intrigued you about helping people grieve, when the process can scare other kids?

Arrington: I was so comfortable with the person that owned the funeral home, because I grew up with him and his kids were two doors down. I never ever remember being scared. I don't know if it made me feel grown up, being 7 years old and wearing a tie and being around a professional group of people.

Green: What is it like to be around people who are part of the grieving process as a professional?

Arrington: I see it as a ministry. I am helping guide people down a path that they don't want to go, nor do they know how to go down it. I finished working a funeral service today, and actually the guy that I buried was a partner of mine. I'd known him for 40 years, and suddenly his heart quit last Thursday. By working with his two daughters and close friends, and guiding people through one of their darkest times, I can really lay my head on the pillow at night and say, “You know I have done good work today.” The Lord puts you in certain places to do certain things.

Green: Do you think your job is emotional?

Arrington: Yes, this [funeral] was very emotional [for me]. If we had a service with another family, one that I don't know, I’m not as emotionally connected as burying a friend of mine I’ve known for over 40 years. We’ve both been down bumpy roads; we've laughed and cried together. It is totally different. The ministry part is the same, but when it’s a close friend or a family member, it's emotional.

But [in general], if you don’t get a little emotional then it’s time to go home. You can’t do this job and be cold and callous. It’s never just another funeral. We are not casket salesmen; we are funeral professionals. I don’t work with the dead; I work with the living to honor the dead. That’s what we do.

Green:  What happens if you don't take time for yourself away from work?

Arrington:  When you deal with those emotions and that grief [for work], you do need to cleanse your mind out every now and then to recharge and refresh. You may be here 14 to 18 straight days dealing with that so, and some are tragic. There are some like this lady, who was 91 years old and you understand those. But when you have these tragic or unexpected deaths, or especially when you deal with teenagers or someone in an automobile accident, those are tough to deal with. If it was that way everyday, I wouldn't even be doing it.

Green: What's an average day at work like for you?

Arrington:  Last week we had one funeral service, so the other days without a funeral is when we do the paperwork. There's always something to do—like shampoo carpets or clean closets—but if we have a funeral service, I get here before 7 get things ready before going to a church. I may have a plan to do something on a Thursday, but if a death occurs in the night and a family comes in and they want to have something, everything I planned revolves around what a family needs me to do.

Green: What makes a good funeral?

Arrington: What we have done since the beginning is we do more listening than talking. Our culture around here is that everybody has one mother or father or spouse, they are going to die one time and they're going to have one funeral. We got one shot to get it right. There are no do-overs. We have to stay focused, because it may be the third or fourth funeral we've done this week, but again it's their only one. They've entrusted us with the most priceless asset they could ever have, and that's to have the proper funeral and the proper remembrance. We can't go, “Oh, we messed up, let's do it again Friday.”

For example, this guy that we buried, a big part of his life was riding his Harley Davidson motorcycle. Large portions of his friends were his motorcycle friends. We got his motorcycle and brought it into this building yesterday and had it in the chapel during his visitation. He was a Navy veteran, so we put flags out in the yard with a sign out on the street that says, “Honoring a veteran.” It's listening and understanding what really needs to happen to properly celebrate somebody's life. We try to do that with every family we talk to. More and more, people have told me that the deceased would have been proud of [the service] that took place.  That's what makes for a good funeral.

Green: What do you think has changed about funeral services over the years?

Arrington: Twenty years ago, funerals were all the same: a visitation, a funeral, a psalm, a scripture, and everyone would go to the cemetery. There are no cookie cutter funerals anymore.  Now, you need to literally celebrate a life because it's not about a funeral. I think a lot of it started with the increase in cremation, because when there was not a body present in a lot of those services, they took the time to celebrate the life and not bury the dead.

Your job is to get the dead where they need to be, but get the family where they need to go because families have to go forward with the rest of their lives. And their lives will never be the same.

When I try to encourage people to do a proper memorialization, they think I'm just trying to sell them something. I will say, “I don't care; you don't have to do a service here, just do it somewhere.” My advice is to stop your life for a couple of days, and realize that your mother died and what she did and the impact she made. A lot of this fast-paced, “give me a number three with a large coke” world just wants to know the quickest, cheapest and fastest we can get it done.

Green: How does your job influence your identity?

Arrington: It is my identity. I'll have people say, “I remember we were in high school, you were always working at the funeral home.” I had a date one time, and I took them by the funeral home because the funeral service has been my identity my whole life. I guess it's because that's all I've really ever done and everybody just says, “Well you know Arrington, he was just meant to be a funeral director.”

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with an obituary writer, a pastor, and a home care worker.