Eight thousand funerals later, Vicki Tanner is glad she took the job.

Tanner became a cemetery representative at Arlington National Cemetery in 1976. Her job was to plan and coordinate military and civilian burial services. She also ordered headstones and stayed with the families during the ceremonies.

After a few days of five burials a day, she doubted she was cut out for the work. "I'd never been around death very much. People were sad and angry and crying on your shoulders. You don't know what to say. ... I wasn't sure I could do this," she says.

But then she changed her mind: "After a while I said, 'It's something that needs to be done. It's more than a job. You're helping someone out.' "

Tanner still works at Arlington, now supervising a staff of five cemetery representatives as chief of the Interment Services Branch. Her office window looks out on one side to heaps of dirt dug up for future grave sites. Sometimes while at her desk she can hear taps floating in from a funeral on the surrounding grounds.

"I love Arlington Cemetery," she says. "When you come in those gates, it's like another world." She enters that solemn world every morning, driving through huge black iron gates that swing from winged columns and past a sea of headstones on the way to her office.

Area professionals who, like Tanner, work with death -- funeral directors, medical examiners, autopsy technicians and others -- all say their work is sometimes saddening but generally satisfying, citing the importance of the services they perform as one of its main attractions.

Many echo Tanner when she describes her work as a profession, "not just a 9-to-5 job."

District Police Lt. Kerwood C. Nixon, a homicide detective since 1981, investigates natural, accidental, industrial, criminal and suicidal deaths. He looks into about 10 natural deaths a month and has worked on eight murder cases so far this year.

He has seen a full range: brutal killing, fire, drug overdose, disease and old age. Sometimes he has the always-sad task of notifying relatives of the death of a family member.

A broad-shouldered, friendly man, Nixon notes, "We don't see much happiness at this job."

Nixon says there are rewards for such a difficult calling: "People take the pressure because they feel the responsibility of the job. ... There's no greater challenge than to investigate the death of another human being."

Silently underscoring this point is a snapshot posted above some family photos by Nixon's desk. The picture is of a dead man's face lying beside a revolver with a little pool of blood underneath the dark entrance wound. In one unflinching glance it reminds Nixon what he gets paid to do.

Dr. Frances Field, assistant chief medical examiner of Northern Virginia, who normally examines a body a day to determine the cause of death, shares Nixon's almost scientific interest in unraveling the mysteries surrounding many deaths.

Her job is most satisfying, she says, when, "you find something that's not expected. There are a few cases that come in and are thought to be a natural death and when you do the autopsy you find evidence of an accidental or homicidal or even suicidal death."

"I wouldn't do anything else. You're helping people at a time when they really can't help themselves," says Joseph Ambrose, owner and funeral director of Ambrose Funeral Home, in Arbutus, Md., a community of 10,000 outside Baltimore where "everybody knows everybody." When death strikes Arbutus, Ambrose is part old friend, part counselor and full-time funeral director. It's a position he feels qualified for. "I know 90 percent of the people I'm burying. I know their eccentricities," says Ambrose, a vice president of the Maryland State Funeral Directors Association.

"I love the mortuary field: dealing with the public, being able to help ... preparing the remains and having the family come and say, 'My, they look good,' " says Victor Forney, an autopsy technician with the District Medical Examiners office and mortuary science student at the University of the District of Columbia. Forney says eventually he wants to open his own funeral home.

Some of the same professionals who enthusiastically describe their jobs as satisfying and, in some cases, people-oriented, also are quick to acknowledge the strains of the work, such as facing bereaved families.

"Families will use you as a sounding board. ... It's not like going to an office. ... It's difficult to work in a business-like atmosphere and try to talk to someone who's going through grief," says John P. Chaplin, assistant general manager and funeral director of the Robert A. Pumphrey Funeral Homes in Rockville and Bethesda. Chaplin is president of the Metropolitan Funeral Directors Association of Washington.

And although state law requires he provide the bereaved with an itemized list of burial expenses at his first meeting with them, he still finds "going down a price list" awkward.

Another difficulty in this line of work, say those in the profession, is a child's death, or any unusually premature death: "The death of a child is against nature. Children bury parents; parents don't bury children. You're fighting nature," notes Ambrose.

Field agrees. She says that Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) affects her more emotionally than most autopsies, which she usually performs dispassionately. "A healthy baby dies and an autopsy shows no cause of death. It's difficult to explain as a medical examiner why the baby died."

Field says that, besides SIDS deaths, "The deaths that affect me are the true accidents. I don't mean auto accidents, because most people who get into their car think, 'This could be the day I'm going to have an accident.' But a young man going off to work at a construction site and having something fall on him. ... Those are truly sad."

The least difficult duty in jobs dealing with death, according to those in the field, is the actual working with corpses.

Bob Kalas, funeral director of Kalas Funeral Home in Oxon Hill, Md., says, "The body is just a shell, not a person. ... That helps me and that helps people who come in when dealing with death."

Most funeral directors come into contact with corpses in transporting them to the funeral home (known as "going on a removal"), embalming and dressing them.

Dr. Charles Tartaglia, assistant professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University, says the reason people employed in death professions aren't squeamish about corpses is that a dead body is no more than "the remains," with "no intrinsic meaning of itself." Tartaglia has taught college courses on the process of dying.

In studying the subject, he says he watched a film called "Dead Man," which is a compilation of camera shots of a cadaver. The film's effect on most viewers is to deflate the shock value associated with a corpse.

"There's not that much interest in the dead themselves. We seem to be propelled back to focusing on the living," which is why the deceased family is a more forceful reminder of a life lost than a body, Tartaglia explains.

People who work in the field say, in general, that sadness is not the prevailing mood at work among employes in death professions. While many say they have witnessed cases of employe "burn-out," and an autopsy technician says some colleagues reported work-inspired bad dreams, most say they are able to maintain an emotional distance from the dead and a sympathetic concern for the living.

"On a day-to-day basis, if we were affected emotionally by every case we did no one would ever do this job," Field says.

Tanner says her job at Arlington Cemetery doesn't depress her. True, she is not immune to the somber mood of the massive, majestic graveyard, saying that, "Every time I hear taps it's very sad."

But she leaves work behind her at the end of the day when she drives out of those gates.

Chaplin says funeral home employes use humor "as a way of venting emotions. An outside person, if they came in and saw the people {employes} during their work breaks" would find "they talk about current events, where they're going. They don't dwell on the clients."

"You don't want to get so emotionally involved or it would make you morbid," Tanner says. On the other hand, "You've got to get involved enough to help people at the right time. ... You've got to put yourself in their shoes."

According to The Director, a magazine published by the National Funeral Directors Association, the qualities required in a funeral director include "the articulate, sensitive and empathetic personality required for arrangements and other 'front room' operations."

It comes down to compassion, according to Nixon, who often has to question grieving family members in death investigations. "You have to show compassion," he says. "You can't be callused." At the same time he urges, "Stay professional. The main objective is to find out how, why, where this happened and who did it." It's not always possible to remain impassive professionally when a death at work parallels a personal tragedy. Nixon's 20-year-old son killed himself in 1984. Since then Nixon continues to investigate suicides, and finds investigations of adolescent suicides wrenching. He says he thought he would be "over it {his son's death}" enough to resume his duties before he actually was. "I used the get-back-on-the-horse theory. I went back too soon," he says.

When Ambrose's infant son died on the day he was born, he was unable to make the funeral and burial arrangements. "I had to get out of the way and let another funeral director be the professional," he says.

Working in death can carry over to one's personal life in less serious ways, complicating one's social life.

Kalas says he does not mind funny reactions or sometimes ignorant questions about his job from people whom he meets socially, saying that, "Most of the questions are about embalming."

In The Director magazine, one funeral director laments he has "the respect of the community, but not the envy." To counter the shrinking pool of morticians entering the field, the magazine proposes that funeral directors conduct educational outreach programs, with the hope that they can earn envy along with respect.