Death As Life’s Work: What It’s Like to Be a Funeral Director or Gravedigger
In the early 1970s, labor journalist and oral historian Studs Terkel sat down to interview Homer Martinez, a gravedigger and cemetery caretaker in Illinois, for what would become his classic 1974 book, Working. Terkel left the interview with a snapshot of a man who took a thoroughly pragmatic approach to his macabre occupation. “It’s like a trade. It’s the same as a mechanic or a doctor,” Martinez, who is named under the pseudonym Elmer Ruiz in the book, told his interviewer.
A former truck driver and landscaper, Martinez had been working in the cemetery for eight years when he met Terkel, and clearly took pride in his job; the work was hard, but he knew it was important. Between the nasty weather, weeping families, and his own aching back, Martinez even found a measure of peace in his occupation. “I have this question lots of times: ‘How can I take it?’” he told Terkel. “They ask if I’m calm when I bury people. If you stop and think, a funeral is one of the natural things in the world.”
Alongside embalmers and funeral directors, gravediggers tend to dominate the popular imagination when we think about people who work with the dead. The profession has changed a bit over the years — more heavy equipment, less shoveling — but its purpose remains the same; as Martinez said to Terkel, “A human body is goin’ into this grave.”
Fifty years later, Maximillian Alvarez interviewed another gravedigger for his book, The Work of Living: Working People Talk About Their Lives and the Year the World Broke, and found out how little has changed since Martinez met Terkel. Alvarez, the editor in chief of The Real News and host of the Working People podcast, spoke with veteran gravedigger Nick Galuppo about the realities of his work and the toll it has taken. “Mentally, it has a different impact as I’ve gotten older and I’ve watched people I know die, and as I’ve realized myself, Hey, wow, what do you know? I’m not this young, immortal guy anymore,” he told Alvarez. “I’m getting slower, getting weaker, no matter how much I try to fight it. I’m digging people’s graves…. In due time, I’m digging mine too. But if you’re going to risk living, you have to risk dying. It just comes with the territory.”
The job Galuppo has been doing for nearly two decades is an essential one, despite its largely invisible status; most people don’t think about gravediggers until they need to, and then try to forget them as quickly as possible after the job is done. Without them, though, things can become dire very quickly. The long history of gravediggers’ strikes attests to that, as do the ghoulish images that attend such conflicts. For example, when 1,700 members of Local 365 of the New York City-area Cemetery Workers and Greens Attendants Union went on strike for 27 days in 1973, 1,400 bodies were left waiting by cemetery gates.
For some death workers, their job is just a job; others have a much different experience, seeing it as a calling, a duty, or even punishment for past sins. However a worker processes the emotional, psychological, and spiritual aspects of interacting with a dead person, the job still has to get done. A body still needs to be buried or examined or to have its fluids drained or makeup applied, or to be burned or frozen.
Journalist Hayley Campbell explores that work in her new book, All the Living and the Dead: From Embalmers to Executioners, an Exploration of the People Who Have Made Death Their Life’s Work. As a child, Campbell was “fascinated with death” and loved asking the type of questions that made the adults around her uncomfortable. “The reason I became interested in death work is because everything about death was hidden,” she explains to me over Zoom. “I was like, ‘What happens to the body when it goes away?’”
That theme of hidden labor dominates Campbell’s book, which takes the reader on a journey through 12 different death-related occupations. Not every death worker in the book experiences their labor in a deeply existential way — as Campbell notes, “With the gravediggers, it was just the job they got as teenagers. They didn’t really think about it, and if you probe it a bit, it turns out, they don’t really want to think about it” — but those who do have a deeper connection with the work make no bones about the ways in which the work has left its mark on them.
Campbell’s book opens with the story of Poppy, a gentle, empathetic funeral director who, the author tells me, has “come into this with a manifesto: She wants to change the way the funeral industry works.” The book then introduces us to more people who keep the world of the living running smoothly. Some moments, particularly those that interrogate the high costs endemic to the funeral industry, recall journalist Jessica Mitford’s muckraking masterpiece The American Way of Death; others are more personal, and the writing is imbued with Campbell’s own curiosity and emotional reactions to the unique occupational hazards she’s been invited to observe. To squeamish readers of the book, be forewarned: There is blood. Lots of it.
An embalmer, a crematorium operator, and a couple of affable gravediggers represent the more traditional death-related occupations here, but we also meet a crime-scene cleaner, a bereavement midwife, an anatomical pathology technologist, and the director of anatomical services at the Mayo Clinic. There’s a man who makes his living identifying victims of disaster, and another who sculpts death masks. There’s even an executioner, whose story is the book’s most challenging chapter to read (and was also its “trickiest” interview, as Campbell tells me). As a reader, it was difficult to empathize with the executioner’s viewpoint and occupation, but Campbell did her best to approach her subject with compassion. “He had some kind of PTSD that he was dealing with,” she recalls. “He said he became kind of addicted to doing the executions, and I think he thought of himself kind of as a martyr, because if he did them, nobody else had to take on that suffering.”
As I was thinking about Campbell’s book and the work of death more broadly, I decided to call my friend David Campbell (no relation to the author), a writer and former funeral director/embalmer currently based in Paris. He spent 10 years in the US funeral industry, serving urban, suburban, and rural communities in Virginia; working-class and immigrant Latino communities in Brooklyn; and wealthy Jewish communities in Manhattan. Life as a freelance funeral director was tough on his body and mind, and as he tells me, the money wasn’t great either. He remembers likening the experience to gig work, making about $150 to embalm a body, or up to $250 if it was a more complicated job involving a “radically altered” corpse.
“Working conditions really depend on the individual facility, but they can be quite poor, and include things like unsanitary embalming instruments, such as reused and unsanitized scalpels, or needles and other forms of exposure to biohazardous waste,” David says. “Even if the equipment is all functioning smoothly, it’s a lot of strain on your back to be lifting bodies and caskets all day. Most funeral directors have pretty serious back problems, and young at that.”
“One of the benefits of working for the large, soulless funeral corporations,” David adds, “is that they offer health insurance; small-business funeral homes often can’t afford to. And then, of course, there’s all the psychological stress too.”
As difficult as it was, he knew that he had it a lot easier than some death workers; David at least had a choice in his occupation. “Even when the pay isn’t great in the funeral business, it sure beats filling mass graves on Rikers for a whopping $6 an hour,” he tells me. In 2020, during the early days of the pandemic, the city of New York offered incarcerated workers at the Rikers Correctional Facility the option of burying COVID victims on Hart Island. Those who took the job were paid less than half the city’s minimum wage to bury the unembalmed corpses of the virus’s dead.
The essential labor of those incarcerated workers is part of the broader, secretive landscape of American death work. With her book, Hayley Campbell is trying to change that, or to at least change the way we think about the work of death. During our interview, she shares a particularly painful moment from when she was writing the book: On one of those 2020-era evenings when New Yorkers were banging pots and pans from their windows to show gratitude to essential workers for putting their lives on the line for society’s benefit, Campbell found herself crying angry tears. “Nobody was standing out there and banging pots for any of the people who were doing funerals or looking after the bodies in the temporary mortuaries that were coming up all over the city,” she explains. “There is so much hidden labor going on, and we are benefiting from it, because what they’re doing isn’t just handling the dead, they are doing work to handle our ongoing lives and emotions…. We would be completely lost without them, especially during a pandemic.”
By shining a light on the people who have devoted their working lives to the dead, the author hopes to illuminate their struggles and dedication as well as the dignity of their labor. The living have always performed the essential work of caring for the dead, and those workers deserve to share their stories — good, bad, traumatic, beautiful, and mundane — too. After all, there’s nothing more human than dying.
“I’ve come away from [writing the book] being much, much more conscious of time; the cliché of life being too short is actually true, and to be presented with that every day, if you work in death, that must be somewhere in your mind at all times,” Campbell says. “But what I found with the death workers is that they are not somber, as you think they’re going to be. They are the most fun to have in the pub, because they’ve seen the worst thing and they’ve made some kind of peace with it.”
Kim Kelly is a freelance journalist and organizer based in Philadelphia. Her work on labor, class, politics, and culture has appeared in The New Republic, The Washington Post, The Baffler, and Esquire, among other publications, and she is the author of FIGHT LIKE HELL, a book of intersectional labor history.
Co-published with Teen Vogue.