Life lessons from the people we call to lay someone to rest.
Michael Schmiedicke at his woodshop in Front Royal, Va.
Story by , and
Photos by Marvin Joseph

We recently interviewed and photographed people in the Washington area who are intimately involved in the aftermath of death. Their occupations are diverse, but their insights about death, grief and life are universal. (Interviews have been edited and condensed.)

Michael Schmiedicke

Owner of Strong Oaks Woodshop in Front Royal, Va.

Michael Schmiedicke at his woodshop in Front Royal, Va.

I’d been doing woodworking for a while, and it never occurred to me [to make a casket]. But about 12 years ago my mom called and said, “What would you think about doing a casket for Grandma?” She had dementia, and the writing was on the wall. I had to sit down and figure out the general construction problems, but it turned into something really special. At the time, a couple of my younger brothers were here visiting. It was a project that we worked on together and was so completely different from anything I had experienced up to that point. It was this last gift we could give to somebody that we love.

As often as we can, the people who are asking for the casket, we try to get them involved in the process. One gentleman had a family with German heritage, and we did a hand-carved German wayside shrine that was mounted on the top. His 14-year-old daughter came and trimmed that out in gold leaf. Doing this takes away the feeling of helplessness that death brings. She was able to take her grief and use it to good purpose. There’s something fruitful about that.

I get very personally involved in these projects. Every job’s great, but around here everybody knows that when a casket comes on deck I kind of just have to drop everything and disappear for a couple days. I’m a Catholic Christian, and we believe that God himself chose a human body to inhabit and he lived a human life here on Earth. I’ve had really good Catholics say, “God have mercy, Mike, that coffin is too beautiful to put in the ground,” and I just say I flat-out disagree. I don’t think we could honor that person too much. A body was considered a fit enough vessel for God. Anything I do to honor that human body is pretty pale by comparison.


Jennifer Downs

Home funeral guide and co-founder of Threshold Support Circle in Baltimore

When you die, why would you want to be somewhere other than your own home? We feel the tears, but we also feel the love, the connection with other people. I actually experienced this with my own mother. She had dementia, and we brought her to my home in Baltimore and cared for her before she died. At first, when my father saw my mother in the bedroom, lying with flowers and a little curtain blowing in the wind and music playing, he was sobbing, and said, “I don’t know if I can go back and see her again.” But then other people came, and he saw them go upstairs to spend time with her. He said, “I want to go back up.” And he grew so comfortable.

We’re in a culture that doesn’t really want to deal with death that much. But death can be a meaningful experience that families share. It allows the grief to be hands-on. And what people don’t realize is that they can do more by themselves than they thought. In some states you can be your own funeral director. I’ve become trained as a home funeral guide, so I can guide other people through this: bathing the body, keeping the body preserved for a few hours or overnight before it’s moved. There’s a way to use dry ice to cool the body down so it doesn’t begin to decompose. I’m there as a support, as a counselor, somebody to reassure you that you’re doing fine.

You want to feel that people are attended to and cared for. It’s a privilege to be accompanying a family at a time like that. I tear up over the loss and also am moved by the love that I’m hearing. To be able to share that with other people, to have other people come and be with you, it’s so comforting. We’re so devoid of meaning in our lives sometimes. What’s more meaningful than accompanying a loved one as they approach their death, or after their death?

David Zinner

Executive director of Kavod v’Nichum, which educates and supports chevra kadisha groups, volunteers who perform burial rites for Jews, based in Columbia, Md.

Tahara is a Jewish tradition that goes back thousands of years. This is a ritual in which people from the community come together and, with respect and intention, say prayers, and wash and dress the body of the person who’s died. As part of our prayers, we ask the person who’s lying there before us to forgive us if we do anything to disrespect them. Most people don’t talk to dead bodies. But we do, because we believe that the soul is hovering above the body. Until they’re buried, it’s part of them, or with them. The essence of the person is still in the room.

There’s lots of emotion involved in this. I went to Pittsburgh to provide support to those who were washing the bodies for people who were murdered [in the Oct. 27 shooting]. What made it so much worse was that two of the people — one who was killed, one seriously injured — were part of the group that washes bodies on a regular basis. When the chevra came out of the room we stood in a circle, held hands, put our arms around each other. People talked about the experience, about Jerry [Rabinowitz, one of the 11 people killed at Tree of Life synagogue], about how they appreciated the support, and then they went ahead and did another one. And the night before they had done three. That’s not an easy thing to do.

I was nervous the first time. But the thing that stands out most is not what happened in the tahara room, but what happened when I went out into the world and saw trees and people that were living and said, “Oh, I get it now: Life is really precious.” I’ve come as close to death as I can possibly come. I’ve embraced the person, I’ve turned them, washed them, dressed them. I can’t treat people as I did before. I can’t not treat every living person as a miracle. How is it possible that people can live?

Michele Vetula

Funeral director of Hines-Rinaldi Funeral Home in Silver Spring, Md.

I’ve been in the funeral industry almost 19 years now. The first place I worked served 250 families a year, and 200 of those were Hindu. The place I am at now is a real melting pot, serving people from all over the world.

We don’t have a crematorium on-site, but we still do a good number of witness cremations. We have families, they want to be involved in the entire process. We go to the crematorium. The men would wash the men, and women would wash the women. They’d enshrine them, put flowers around the body. I’ve seen them putting ghee [clarified butter] on the body to start the fire in the casket as it goes into the chamber. The oldest son would start [the crematorium]. The priest would come out too. In some of the other religions it would be monks. There’s a lot of praying.

It is not like being in a church or a cemetery, though. The crematorium is a very industrial, big metal machine lined in brick. The temperature alone — they can be very hot places to work. It’s a dirty job. That’s the reality of it.

People do all kinds of things with the ashes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve mailed them to India. One woman, I remember her husband died young. He had cancer, and she was in her early 30s. She decided to make a diamond ring out of his remains. She was going to wear it on her right hand because she was convinced she was going to get married again.

There’ve been times when I’ve come into contact with the dead and the living, and what people have had to endure has just changed me. I once helped take care of a little girl who had been murdered in a really horrendous way. I went into work one way and left another. I saw the world through a different set of eyes.

Ehsan Baig

Funeral coordinator for All Dulles Area Muslim Society Center, a mosque and community center in Sterling, Va.

Any death around our area, in our community, they call me. I oversee everything from the hospital to after the burial: what needs to be done, where to call, who to call. It’s a 24/7 job, 365, because in Islamic culture, you have to bury the body as soon as possible. If somebody passes today, we make sure the body is buried tomorrow.

I’ve been doing this for about 10 years. I always wanted to help people, and I thought this was the best venue. Families were struggling with how to do a funeral, how to wash the bodies, and if I had time, I’d go assist on the weekends. My wife is a volunteer coordinator for ADAMS, and her mind-set is the same way: We should do something, help out people.

My brother and sister-in-law passed away in 2009. Since then, I’ve been taking care of their three kids and my own four. I had been doing funerals for two years, but I panicked, just like everybody else. My mind was a clean slate. So I remember my situation — how panicked I was, and I actually knew how this worked — and think of other families that have no idea what to do.

You can deny everything, but you cannot deny death. I’m [volunteer] clergy at Inova Fairfax Hospital, and whenever they have patients who need help or something, they call me. Some are near death, which is really tough. I try my best to comfort them and the family, and just remind them this is the truth, everybody has to go, everybody has their time. It’s not easy. Somebody’s right there in front of you and is dying, and you can’t do anything. You feel powerless.

But it definitely gives people comfort. I remember last year, there was an 8-year-old kid with cancer. The doctor was saying he would go any time. We saw the kid, prayed, recited the Koran. I was on my way home when his mother called and said he passed. It seemed like he was just waiting for us to hear God’s words, and he felt comfort.

Joanna Ellsberry

Professor of mortuary science at the University of the District of Columbia

I worked for an insurance company, doing customer service. I knew my dream job would involve a high level of customer service. I worked with a podiatrist, and that’s where I became familiar with bone, blood and tissue. I knew I wanted something of a surgical nature.

From the first class in mortuary science, I knew: This is it. I can do this. It’s the perfect combination of service and science. Not everyone can do this, and yet I am drawn to it. It’s recession-proof. I will never be without a job. My parents taught me to be kind and compassionate, especially my mother. We were grown to be nice, to exhibit a natural kindness to people who are hurting. That is essential to this work.

My mother always teased me that she should have known. Since I was a kid, I’ve loved horror movies. I want to be deathly scared when I go to the movies. But I don’t think of embalming as horrific. I know that dying is a part of life. As soon as we are born, one thing is for certain: We will die. Our bodies will stop. It’s my faith that keeps me from being scared. When I embalm, I’m praying for this person’s soul. I’m believing they’ve gone to heaven. That helps, especially when I have to do the babies. Someone has to do the babies, right? Because it goes beyond the babies; I’m doing this for the mothers, for the fathers, for the families.

It all makes sense that this is the job for me. That doesn’t stop my family from teasing. My little cousins will ask: Did you wash your hands? When I visit relatives in the hospital, they’ll say: What are you doing here? I’m not ready to go yet!

Nubia Fasil

Owner of Convention Floral in Washington

We are with people at the big moments. When something happens — weddings, births, deaths — they come to us. It is very intimate to share those moments. I’m
passionate about that part of my job.

When someone dies, the family has so many questions. Our job is to guide them and explain the role flowers can have. Different flowers have different meanings. For example, in a Christian family, a wreath means continuity of life after death. A broken heart means someone lost someone very close. It’s so personal. I don’t ask too many questions; I let them tell me what they want me to know in their own time.

One longtime client wanted us to deliver flowers to a cemetery at exactly 4 p.m. on Halloween, take a photo and text it to him. We’re usually closed by then, but he said he’d pay extra. I didn’t question why. We went — I couldn’t do it alone, so I had my family with me — said a prayer and put the flowers on the grave. After a few days, he called. He was so happy. He explained the reason: It was the exact time the deceased had passed away. He asked me my favorite charity and donated big numbers. He continues to order flowers every year for the cemetery — just no longer on Halloween.

My faith is Orthodox Christian. Death and the afterlife are always in our thoughts. Our daily decisions are driven by that. Constantly, I am asking myself: Did I do the right thing? Am I treating people the right way? Being so close to death keeps you in touch with reality. I’m thankful for every moment, every turning of the leaves, the singing of the birds. When we go to the funeral home, we are often with the deceased. We see them. We see their families. It makes you wonder: This is all chaos, and one day, we will each leave, say goodbye and let go.

Andy Del Gallo

Stone carver for Eastern Memorials in Washington

Some people are just so remarkable. They’re with me when I’m doing the original sketches, when I’m working with the stone, when I’m in the cemetery. One Marine was the victor of 50 close-quarter fights. He weighed 150 pounds. That means he fought off 50 men with a knife. How can you not think about people like that? You get a good reminder of how lives can be cut short. This job, it’s an excellent motivator. I’m constantly being made aware of death. It makes me get up every day and go out there and do as much as I can. In fact, I don’t sleep much because I’m always trying to do more with the very limited time I have. At any moment, it could be me under that stone.

The permanence of it, the purpose of the work — they’re almost sacred. You’re let into a special moment in people’s lives, and you’ve got the opportunity, really, to be an instrument. The best job I can do is to be the hands that they couldn’t be. By talking the art talk, by asking questions and making decisions about the stone and the design and the details of the process, that helps the mourners put one foot in front of the other. Sure, there will be tears; we get through it together.

I’m a big self-help guy. I think it was Stephen Covey who asked: What would people say at your wake? It’s the same thing for a tombstone. What kind of life are you living, and what will your actions inspire people to say about you when you’re gone? I don’t really think about what I want my tombstone to say, because memorials are for the living. It’s not what I want to say about myself. It’s how loved ones want to remember me.

Anola McNair

Chair of hospitality ministry at Ark of Safety Christian Church in Upper Marlboro, Md. (Pictured above, front right)

I’m very meticulous. I can tell someone, “That centerpiece is off-center; those salt and pepper shakers are in the wrong place.” And they laugh at me! I used to beat myself up about it. But then I said, somebody’s got to be that way. If God gave me that kind of eye, so be it.

Hospitality in its essence means giving back, lending a helping hand. One of our biggest missions is running a repast, the dinner after a memorial, a funeral, or a home-going service — when a person’s going home, to their next life. Our typical menu is baked chicken and gravy, rice pilaf or mashed potatoes, honey-glazed ham, rolls, green beans and a tossed salad. In times like this people want to be comforted. They want to have something they’re familiar with.

I always hope that something in this meal will touch someone. And I usually have at least one person come to me and say thank you so much, that was so delicious, it made me think of such and such. Or: He would have loved that, she would have loved that. The funeral we did in the first part of November was for a mother whose famous meal was chicken wings, mashed potatoes and green beans. No iced tea or lemonade; she wanted Cokes and Diet Cokes, her mother’s favorites.

I’ve changed my way of thinking about death, because I’m in the midst of it all. I told my daughter, “Please do not give me a repast.” I think I’ve done it so much I just don’t want it for myself.

It’s tiring, physically and mentally. We’re all thinking: What if? What if we were doing this for a family member? All these repasts make me think about my mother, Winkie. I got my cooking skills from her, and knowing she would not want me to leave this dish uncovered, or to leave this place unset. I’ll come home, sit down on my bed and reminisce about things we talked about over the years. There have been times where I’ve said, out loud, “Oh Winkie, it’s over, it’s over, it’s over.” And I take that exhale and know that it’s done. You got through one more. You’ve helped another family through a hurdle. Their healing begins, and my tiredness ends and I can get some rest.

Jeff Herbert

Bagpipe player based in Montgomery Village, Md.

There’s just something about the bagpipes. It serves as a catalyst for this cathartic release of emotions that helps the healing process. The sound is emotionally all-encompassing — so much riding through the conduit of a song.

I did a funeral last year, just a fascinating guy. His daughter told everyone, “My dad always wanted bagpipes, even if it was only a recording. But we got the real thing.” As soon as I struck in the drones [pipes that play one harmonizing note], the floodgates opened. I’ve played a lot of funerals, but this was different. I’d never seen such a concerted release. I think because she’d prefaced it as something her dad had wanted, she gave everyone permission.

I played at the funeral of Tommy Keelan, a beloved member of our band [the D.C. Fire Department Emerald Society Pipes and Drums]. He was so dedicated. He was retired and lived in Pennsylvania, but he never missed a practice. He died tragically, suddenly. He was getting ready to play the pipes at a family function. While warming up the pipes, he had a heart attack. All of us in the band knew we had to play, but it wasn’t easy. We played “The Fields of Athenry.” He loved that song. Now we call that “Tommy’s Song.”

I came back from a funeral recently and said to my wife, “You know, I enjoy playing funerals more than weddings.” She says, “Better the house of mourning. …” That’s from Ecclesiastes: “It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men.” Going to so many funerals makes you consider — I’m a dad with six kids. I want to leave a good legacy. I always make a point to listen to the eulogies. Often, it’s the fruit of the well lived, but invariably, it’s the fruit of the well loved.

Teresa Doniger

Grief and trauma psychotherapist for the Wendt Center in Washington

When people find out what I do, the first reaction is to applaud this work, just the fact that anybody is able to sit with people who are grieving. And the second reaction is: Wow, I could never do that.

I have experienced a fair share of grief and loss in my life. It makes me a very particular kind of companion with clients. I don’t know if this is the first thing I would have jumped into out of college. But now in my 40s, having learned so much from my own grief and loss and those of others, it’s not unfamiliar, nor is it something I’m afraid of.

We are in a different place in conversations about death and grieving than 25 years ago. But still, for some reason, we just don’t like sad. Many people are not able to witness sadness, and many are just not comfortable being sad.

Grief is not just sadness. Someone grieving six months or six years out, they won’t stop feeling a certain longing, a yearning, an emptiness, a void, a hole. Those sensations and experiences aren’t sadness. They’re: I’m no longer the person I was. Something is missing.

We know how to have funerals, burials, cremations and scatter ashes. But grief? It’s not something where there’s a recipe. I have clients who just want to be done. They want to tackle it, accomplish it. I encourage people to shift from the idea they can conquer this to recognizing that it will change — especially if we pay attention and really attend to it. It doesn’t knock you to the ground if you are able to truly attend to the experience.

Clients don’t make me sad. I can be sad with them. If I walked out of my office with everyone’s sadness, I wouldn’t get out the door. I would fall apart. Partly because we don’t open up and easily talk about death, it’s a very sacred space. When people are sitting with me, what I feel is honored and privileged.

Amanda Long is a writer in Falls Church. Harrison Smith is a Washington Post obituary writer. Annys Shin is an articles editor for the magazine.

Credits: Story by Amanda Long, Annys Shin and Harrison Smith. Photos by Marvin Joseph. Designed by Michael Johnson. Photo Editing by Dudley M. Brooks.