The Carriage Trade
by Carlton Shamburger

What can one take from the grave?

You might wonder, “What would you want from the grave?” But if you are going to survive funeral directing, you better find something, something to take with you to fill the space inside from where so much has been given.  Funeral Directing is a profession of giving of one’s self in service to others.  What a funeral director takes from the grave is also the answer to the never-ending question we are asked: "How can you do this every day?"  In this profession we can do something; the surprise is that what we do is more for the living than the dead.  We are there when no one else is – any hour of the day or night, no matter when you call, we get up and go because we can do something. We do this because it is our calling.

I want to tell you a story that shows what one can take from the grave and how we do this every day.  The phone rang about 2:00 a.m. It was a floor nurse at a Houston hospital telling me a family had requested us.  The family had already left the hospital, so I arranged to have the body prepared and brought to Carthage. 

The next morning over coffee we held our usual conversation of who we have and who are his people. I found it strange that even crusty old Honeycutt could not place him. There were no immediate family members with any Carthage connections.  During the arrangements, the family told the story of their husband and father who we will call “Tom.”

Tom was the son of a minister who as a youth moved quite often. His father preached the longest in rural Panola County at a Baptist church that had a small cemetery next to it.  His years in rural Panola County were his fondest memories; the place he always felt was home. His father and mother were buried there.  Tom worked for a large computer corporation and moved with his company all of his adult life as he had as a child.

Tom had expressed his wish to be buried in the only place he ever felt was home. We arranged a graveside service in the small cemetery. There were no local friends since the people who knew his father were long gone themselves. In attendance were his wife and three children and a cousin who drove eight hours to be with the family.  There were no soloists in attendance just Pete, myself and the family.  The casket remained open at the family’s request, and we began Tom’s service.

I watched as I always do sometimes feeling like an intruder in this most personal moment as each child got up to speak of their dad and give testimony of what he had done for them.  I watched as his wife stepped up to hold his hand and tell him and their children know much they had meant to her life.  His daughter recited the 23rd Psalm, and we ended the service reciting the Lord’s Prayer.

What I took from the grave that day was a full heart. Yes, these things are sad, but to see the love and respect shown by this family, to see human kindness at its best, is an inspiration to anyone privileged enough to witness such private moments shared in the presence of our funeral director.

What I know is this husband and father who came home that evening had a much bigger heart than the husband and father who left that morning.  More than anything, it posed a question I had to ask of my life – or more so my death. When at my grave they gather, what will the funeral director take that day?  I hope and pray it will be a full heart.


There I was a young apprentice wet behind the ears mimicking those around me trying to learn and commit to memory the verse and chapter of each situation. How wonderful to know just what to say and how to act as the situation in Chapter 4, verse 5 unfolds; after all, you have the complete manual committed to memory. You are a funeral director and you should always know the words for every situation. When you don't know the words, you're just an apprentice; those wiser know just what to do and say. What a queer feeling when your mentors fall by the way due to a simple phone call. You've seen them take so many death calls so professionally before, why is everything so different, so dreadful when you are left alone? I was alone at the moment I learned the names of the infant and the grieving parents and grandparents. Where is the manual and why can't I find the chapter and verse for this one? It was my first experience with infant death.

I was quietly standing by as the director spoke to the parents. I was handed the clothing with the errand of dressing the infant for the parents to see after the arrangements were made. I was the father of three – dressing an infant seemed simple enough. I removed the sleeper he was wearing placing it aside to wash and present later. After dressing and snugly wrapping the baby in the soft receiving blanket, it was time to bring him into the arrangement room for the parents to see. I had never felt as naked as the moment I realized I had been patting the infant's bottom since carrying him from the preparation room. There I was surrounded by his closest family as I patted his behind as any father would do handling such a tiny bundle. The nakedness came from the realization that I was treating this infant as if he were alive, as though I should be carrying him any different in death as in life? I felt as one holding a carrot in front of those starving for food of which they would never taste. I felt so hot and flush. Did they notice? Are they going to be angry? I placed the bundle in the arms of the grandmother and quickly departed the room. I was relieved to be unscathed and referring to the manual found yet another chapter missing... The attention was on the infant, and neither the director nor the family seemed to notice my misdeed. I made a mental note to remember to never do something so stupid again. As the arrangements concluded, I remained hidden in the background somewhat ashamed of my actions. The family spoke kindly to the director in their parting, and at that moment the mother turned and came to me, placed both her arms tight around me, and thanked me for keeping her baby and taking such good care of him.

"I almost forgot his pajamas," she said. I told her I would wash them before we returned them. Emphatically she said, "No, don't wash them. I need them now." I came out with the small footed cloth, which she swiftly placed upon her face, and with a great and deep inhale she seemed intoxicated. She asked if I had children. I immediately grinned, as a father does, and bragged. "Yes, twin girls and a boy." Once again I felt ashamed, as if holding a carrot only for a starving mother to see.

She said, "I thought so by the way you held my boy, just like I do."

Later that evening as the director prepared for the family time, I watched him carry a rocking chair into the stateroom. I thought since she would never be able to rock this baby again this seemed cruel, but I trusted and followed my mentor's lead and made another entry into the manual. I was making coffee when some family members seemed taken back.

"I can't believe they let her rock that baby," the mother's young sister railed at me. "Now what do you plan to do if she wants to hold the baby tomorrow! DIG IT UP?!!" She was young, only about 19, in the unfamiliar territory of grief.

Through these things others found so painful to watch, I saw a softening of the edges of a mother's grief, not solved or extinguished – for grief is never completely extinguished. I realized the rocking chair was for her, not the infant child. I'm sure the manual stated that funerals are more for the living than the dead. What is it these people understand that others don't see, since the needs of a grieving mother seem known to some and not to others? Experience counts for something, not only in funeral directing but in the actions of women who have crossed the line of conception, that very line that leads to blessed joy or grief. A young 19-year-old cannot "conceive" of such a loss.

Gray hair and a few hundred funerals later I've noticed the ripple effect of a mother's grief in a pool and how it affects those around it. There is a sisterhood. "Ya Ya" or not, it is there - the women who truly understand, through miscarriages and infant loss, who know the pain. I see them coming into the staterooms in the early hours when no one else is there, but not out of morbid curiosity – they know the grief and are compelled as mothers to see and comfort. They leave unmarked mementos, they pray, they mourn, they leave without signing a register. They need to be there. I don't really know all their reasons, but I feel it is part of the sisterhood of which they are forever a member. In my manual I indexed this as the "Ma Ma" Sisterhood, but my manual will only tell me of their existence. As a man I will never "conceive" the grief of its membership.


Well, it is not your average sleepover; after all, there are gravestones, caskets, and the dead about. But what sleepover would be complete without ghost stories in the graveyard, and how convenient for Mom and Dad when the girls sneak out than to know they are only in your own backyard.  Such is life when the funeral home is your home. It is that proud moment when you hear your eight-year-old son giving his cousins a tour of the funeral home; after all, he’s heard dad give the tour so many times for people interested in such a grand old place. “Here is the office my dad makes the funerals in. This is the stairway. These are the staterooms, and this is Mrs. Murdock – SHE’S DEAD.” At that moment, you phone your wife to call all the parents involved to forewarn them of their children’s educational experience for the day.

I know the days of mom-and-pop businesses are fading. Proprietors no long live next to or above businesses with the exception of a true family funeral home. Many establishments are solely businesses – opened for the one purpose of doing business. However, if the business has heart, then it is part of a family. It will reflect the caring and heart of those families serving within. But it is not without its pitfalls, such as that moment when you think you are being so professional in the casket selection room, and in runs a small Jack Russell terrier for a bit of affection from the funeral director only to be followed by that same eight-year-old boy with dirty bare feet to retrieve his companion.  These are the things that bring smiles to our faces and remind us how sweet life can really be. It changes our perception of a “morbid” funeral home. We see that if children and small dogs can live there, maybe this place is more about life and caring for the living and not only the dead. All the families that have been raised or lived over funeral homes or next to them know there is so much more life.  I know as a family funeral home owner, there is no place I would rather be than HOME.