17 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Funeral Directors

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iStock

Despite the fact that almost everyone will need the services of the "dismal trade" at some point in their lives, the specific job duties of funeral directors often remain shrouded in mystery. Mental Floss talked to several to learn some little-known facts about the profession, from what happens behind the doors of the embalming room to the real reason you might want to think twice about that “protective” casket.

1. THEY DRIVE MINIVANS.


“The reason you don't see the dead being picked up in your daily life is because we're stealth like that,” Jeff Jorgenson of Elemental Cremation & Burial in Seattle tells Mental Floss. “We are soccer moms and we are legion! Actually, we just use soccer-mom vehicles: Minivans are the transportation of the dead. We rarely drive hearses—those are ceremonial vehicles only.”

2. THAT SWEET LOOK ON THE DECEASED’S FACE TOOK SOME WORK.


Funeral directors say that the most important part of preparing a body for a viewing is the “setting of the features”—creating a peaceful facial expression with a pleasant smile. But while it might look nice at the end, the work creating that appearance can be grisly. Morticians stuff the throat and nose with cotton and then suture the mouth shut, either using a curved needle and thread to stitch between the jawbone and nasal cavity or using a needle injector machine to accomplish a similar job more quickly. Small spiked cups are also inserted under the eyelids to keep the lids closed and the eyes from caving in.

Of course, some bodies take more restoration than others. One mortician says that to prepare a decapitated corpse for an open-casket viewing, he uses a wooden dowel to rejoin the head and body, then sutures the neck back together.

3. THEY MIGHT MAKE A TRIP TO THE DRUGSTORE. 


In her best-selling book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, mortician Caitlin Doughty says: “If the usual methods of setting the features aren’t sufficient to keep the eyes closed or the mouth shut, superglue is a secret weapon.” In Grave Matters, author Mark Harris points out that superglue can also be used to close up any puncture marks from needles on a corpse. Brooklyn funeral director Amy Cunningham of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services tells Mental Floss: “If you need to keep a deceased person’s hands folded neatly at their abdomen, but their arms keep falling down into the sides of the casket, you can gently bind their thumbs with a ponytail tie.”

4. COMPARISON SHOPPING IS KEY.


Sixth-generation funeral director Caleb Wilde, known for his popular blog Confessions of a Funeral Director, shares this story with us: “About a year ago, a husband and wife died about four months apart. The wife knew us, so we buried her, and the husband knew the funeral home in a neighboring town, so they buried him. They both had the same funeral, same casket, vault, etc. The family called us to let us know that the other funeral home charged $3000 more. Same value, different cost. Call around to different funeral homes. Shop. Ask for the GPL [General Price List]. Remember, cost doesn’t always equal value.”

5. YOU MIGHT WANT TO THINK TWICE ABOUT “PROTECTIVE” CASKETS.

Some caskets that have vacuum-seal rubber gaskets are marketed as “protective” or resistant to the “entry of outside elements.” As Harris details in Grave Matters, this creates conditions that encourage the growth of anaerobic bacteria, which break the body down by putrefying it, “turning soft body parts to mush and bloating the corpse with foul-smelling gas … Inside the sealed casket, the result is a funereal version of the decay that’s found in swamp bottoms and the bowels of unturned compost piles.”

6. SOMETIMES CASKETS EXPLODE.


In fact, the aforementioned buildup of methane gas can cause what people in the industry call “exploding casket syndrome,” where the gas will literally blow the lids off of caskets and doors off of crypts. Some casket makers have added Tupperware™-style “burping” features to their sealer models to release the accumulated gases. Harris spoke with a former cemetery owner who told him that those “protective” sealer caskets are “routinely unsealed after the family leaves … to relieve the inevitable buildup of gases within the casket.” Staff may also just leave the caskets unlocked, not engaging the seal to begin with, in an attempt to avoid those “fetid conditions inside the casket.”

7. SOMETIMES PACEMAKERS EXPLODE, TOO.

If a pacemaker is left in a body when cremated, “it can explode and can cause upward of $10,000 of damage to the retort [cremation machine],” Wilde says. “So, pacemakers need to be removed before cremation. And don’t worry, the funeral directors/cremationists will do the removal for you.”

8. SOME FUNERAL DIRECTORS RARELY SEE THE DEAD.


Jorgenson says, “The bulk of what funeral directors do is paper-pushing—filing death certificates, getting permits, editing obituaries, and sending them to the paper. [Some] will only see a dead person when they are delivered for a service. In the case of some funeral homes, a [corporate] funeral director could literally go years without seeing a dead person.”

9. THEY SEE THINGS THROUGH ROSE-COLORED LIGHT BULBS.

While the formaldehyde embalmers use does contain a rosy dye to restore color to graying, lifeless flesh, it’s not always sufficient. According to Cunningham, “mortuary schools teach color theory and stage lighting—how to use colored gels over the ceiling lights.” Doughty also mentions that bodies are often set out for visitation displayed under rose-colored light bulbs.

10. IT ALL GOES RIGHT DOWN THE DRAIN.


You’d think all the chemicals and body fluids involved in embalming would be disposed of like biohazard, but it’s industry practice to just wash it all off the table, right into the drain. Harris points out that just one embalming can generate 120 gallons of “funeral waste”—blood, fecal matter, and the former contents of internal organs, in addition to any chemicals in the preservation fluid itself—and it all ends up in the public sewer system, to be eventually released into waterways. Although, as Wilde points out, “Blood isn’t any worse than the other things that go down the loo.”

11. FORMALDEHYDE MIGHT BE DYING A SLOW DEATH.


In addition to causing relatively minor problems, such as sinus issues and rashes (including one called “embalmer’s eczema”), formaldehyde is a carcinogen. The U.S. National Toxicology Program, among other groups, has said that people with high levels of exposure—such as embalmers—are at a higher risk for nasopharyngeal cancer, myeloid leukemia, and other forms of cancer.

Usually, criticism comes from outside the death-care industry, but that’s starting to change. In the May 2016 issue of The Director, the official publication of the National Funeral Directors Association, Carol Lynn Green, the NFDA’s environmental-compliance counsel, writes, “there is no dispute that formaldehyde poses a health risk.” She says that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is gearing up to make their workplace regulations stricter, and recommends that funeral homes start to transition to preservation products that don’t use the dangerous gas.

12. YOU CAN’T REALLY BE BURIED UNDER A TREE.


Some consumers who dislike the idea of embalming, or have environmental concerns, choose a “green” burial. Alongside that often comes a romantic idea about being buried beneath a favorite tree—perhaps a stately oak, for example. Sarah Wambold, an Austin funeral director and green burial expert, tells Mental Floss: “A body must be buried at least four feet from a tree to protect its root system. It’s a bit of an adjustment for people who are committed to the image of being buried under a tree, but that’s not always the most green option for the tree. Wouldn't they rather allow the tree to continue to live?” You can, however, plant new trees or shrubs atop a grave after a burial, and the roots will grow down over the body.

13. AT LEAST ONE FUNERAL DIRECTOR WANTS TO TEACH YOU TO PREPARE DEAD BODIES YOURSELF.


Caitlin Doughty

Doughty, who runs a funeral home called Undertaking LA, told WIRED“I’m a licensed mortician, but I want to teach people that they don’t need me.” She advocates people learning to take care of their own dead at home, and says she wants the public to become comfortable with the way death looks naturally: “A chemically preserved body looks like a wax replica of a person. Bodies are supposed to be drooping and turning very pale and sinking in while decomposing. Within a day or so after they’ve died, you should be able to see that this person has very much left the building. That’s the point. I think dead bodies should look dead. It helps with the grieving process.”

Doughty encourages the idea of home funerals, which are legal in all 50 states (although 10 states require the involvement of a funeral director). For more information, check out the Home Funeral Alliance.

14. IT’S HARD TO BE THEIR FRIEND.


Any friend might disappoint you once in a while, but funeral directors will probably do it more often, according to Wilde. “We might miss your birthday party; we might have to leave in the middle of dinner. Death has this way of keeping an untimely schedule, and as death’s minions, we’re tied to that schedule. Whether it be in the middle of the night, or in the middle of your wedding, when death calls, we have to respond.”

15. NO ONE WANTS TO PROFIT FROM THE DEATHS OF CHILDREN.


“It is a tradition in the funeral industry to provide funerals to the families of stillborn babies and very young infants at cost,” Cunningham says. “Funeral directors do not care to make a profit on the deaths of children, and in fact, the death of a young child saddens the whole firm more than almost anything else.”

The funeral industry also includes a number of charitable projects devoted to helping parents after a child’s death. A volunteer group called Little Angel Gowns makes burial garments for babies out of donated wedding dresses, and provides them at no cost to hospitals and funeral homes. The Tears Foundation assists grieving parents in paying for burial or cremation expenses after losing a baby. Eloise Woods, a natural burial ground in Texas, will bury infants at no charge.

16. YOUR GRANDFATHER’S HIP JOINT MIGHT BECOME A NEW ROAD SIGN.


According to Doughty, families can ask for replacement medical parts back after a cremation, but most do not. Hip and knee implants are often melted down and recycled for road signs and car parts, among other things. Unfortunately, she says, breast implants usually melt all over the cremation machine.

17. SOME FUNERAL HOMES EMPLOY THERAPY DOGS.

A large part of a funeral director’s job is comforting the bereaved. Some use grief-therapy dogs to give the families a furry shoulder to cry on. For one example, check out Lulu the golden doodle.

All photos courtesy iStock unless otherwise noted.

This story originally ran in 2016.

Wayfair’s Fourth of July Clearance Sale Takes Up to 60 Percent Off Grills and Outdoor Furniture

Wayfair/Weber
Wayfair/Weber

This Fourth of July, Wayfair is making sure you can turn your backyard into an oasis while keeping your bank account intact with a clearance sale that features savings of up to 60 percent on essentials like chairs, hammocks, games, and grills. Take a look at some of the highlights below.

Outdoor Furniture

Brisbane bench from Wayfair
Brisbane/Wayfair

- Jericho 9-Foot Market Umbrella $92 (Save 15 percent)
- Woodstock Patio Chairs (Set of Two) $310 (Save 54 percent)
- Brisbane Wooden Storage Bench $243 (Save 62 percent)
- Kordell Nine-Piece Rattan Sectional Seating Group with Cushions $1800 (Save 27 percent)
- Nelsonville 12-Piece Multiple Chairs Seating Group $1860 (Save 56 percent)
- Collingswood Three-Piece Seating Group with Cushions $410 (Save 33 percent)

Grills and Accessories

Dyna-Glo electric smoker.
Dyna-Glo/Wayfair

- Spirit® II E-310 Gas Grill $479 (Save 17 percent)
- Portable Three-Burner Propane Gas Grill $104 (Save 20 percent)
- Digital Bluetooth Electric Smoker $224 (Save 25 percent)
- Cuisinart Grilling Tool Set $38 (Save 5 percent)

Outdoor games

American flag cornhole game.
GoSports

- American Flag Cornhole Board $57 (Save 19 percent)
- Giant Four in a Row Game $30 (Save 6 percent)
- Giant Jenga Game $119 (Save 30 percent)

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

11 Secrets of Aldi Employees

Aldi is known for its unique cost-cutting measures that allow the chain to have some of the lowest prices for groceries.
Aldi is known for its unique cost-cutting measures that allow the chain to have some of the lowest prices for groceries.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Since opening its very first store in Germany in 1961 and then coming to America in 1976, discount grocery chain Aldi has grown to over 1900 stores in 36 states. Using inventive cost-cutting measures—customers are responsible for returning their own carts and the store charges for bags unless you bring your own—the brand has become synonymous with quality at an affordable price.

Tasked with overseeing the long hours of daily operations are the company’s 25,000-plus store employees, who are typically part of a small team of 20 or fewer people per location. Aldi workers are expected to be proficient in everything from unloading pallets and stocking shelves to checking out customers at a speed that meets or exceeds standards—employees are even timed on how fast a customer pulls out their credit card.

To find out more about this challenging line of work, Mental Floss reached out to several current and former Aldi employees. Here’s what they had to say about memorizing barcode numbers, how many miles they walk during a typical shift, and why sitting down at the register is actually more efficient than standing.

1. Working at Aldi means walking. A lot.

At Aldi, employees aren’t given set roles when it comes to unloading, stocking, cleaning, or working the register. Everyone is expected to be able to do everything, which means a lot of physical effort. “Our job is considered physically demanding, because Aldi has very few employees running per shift, meaning there are more expectations placed on each of us,” Jonah, an Aldi employee in Pennsylvania, tells Mental Floss. “If you aren't ringing, you are expected to be cleaning, stocking, re-stocking, or organizing the shelves. There is no ‘down time.’”

That suits many employees just fine. “I don’t like to sit around and do nothing, and this job is the complete opposite,” Kyle, an Aldi employee in Virginia, tells Mental Floss. “I actually wear a Fitbit when I work, because I have been curious about how many steps I take. I average about 127,000 steps every [five-day] work week. I’d say an estimate is 25,400 steps a shift.”

2. Aldi employees sit down at the register for a very good reason.

An Aldi employee is pictured ringing out a customer in Chicago, Illinois in June 2017
Aldi employees are expected to ring customers out as quickly as possible.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Employees can sit on stools while ringing guests up at a register, but getting a little rest isn't the sole reason for the seat. “While [resting] is true, Aldi says that cashiers sit at the register because, according to their testing, it allows us to ring up items faster,” Jonah says.

3. Aldi employees are monitored for their ringing speed.

Part of the reason Aldi can get away with as few as three to five employees in a store at any one time is because customers can be processed quickly. Aldi typically sets performance standards for employees at the checkout, who might be expected to process as many as 1200 items per hour. “We are given reports at the end of each day for our ringing statistics,” Jonah says.

And that’s not the only performance metric used to evaluate workers. “Ringing is the only part where we get an actual report, but managers will tell us that we are expected to knock out two pallets per hour, or one pallet every half hour," Jonah says.

4. Aldi employees “train” customers to move quickly.

Part of an employee’s register performance review depends on how quickly they can get a customer away from the register and toward an area where they bag their own groceries. To do this, employees encourage customers to have their payment method ready and inserted into the card reader before their items are done being scanned. “Aldi is all about efficiency, and encouraging our customers to ‘pre-insert’ their card while we are ringing allows the payment process to be near instant, rather than having our customers wait for us to finish ringing and then pull out their card and insert it,” Jonah says.

5. Aldi employees need Tetris-type skills to load carts.

Aldi shopping carts are pictured in Chicago, Illinois in June 2017
There's even a science behind how an Aldi cart is loaded.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

When an employee rings up a customer, items are loaded from the cart to the conveyor belt and then back into the cart. Because heavier items need to be placed first, employees need to be strategic when placing products. “[We put] light items like eggs, bread, chips, etc. at the top of the cart and everything else on the bottom,” Sara, an Aldi employee in Indiana, tells Mental Floss. “However, it really just depends on the order that customers put their items on the belt.” (They prefer you put heavy items like bottled water first.)

For maximum efficiency, Jonah prefers customers take products out of their display boxes and avoid trying to bag their groceries while cashiers are still ringing them out. “It slows us down and causes a longer wait for everyone,” Jonah says.

6. Aldi employees memorize barcode numbers.

An Aldi shopping basket is pictured in Cardiff, United Kingdom in August 2018
Aldi employees know the barcode numbers for several products by heart.
Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

Ringing speed is so crucial to Aldi’s success—and an employee’s job performance—that many workers memorize barcode numbers to keep the line moving. “Items like milk and water have codes that we memorize,” Sara says. “For example, someone could be buying six gallons of milk, and instead of having the customer put all of them on the belt for us to scan one by one, we tell them to leave them in their cart and we key in the codes, making the checkout process faster.”

7. Aldi employees may or may not give you a quarter if you forget one.

Because it would take time and money to collect shopping carts, Aldi has a system where customers insert a quarter to unlock a cart from the collection area. When they return it, they get the quarter back. But not all customers remember to bring a quarter, and first-time shoppers might not even know they need one. And if they ask an Aldi employee to borrow one, they may or may not get it.

“I try not to give them a quarter because the quarters we give come out of our own registers,” Kyle says. “So if we don't get them back, we end up losing money out of our own drawer. If it's a first-time shopper, I gladly give them a quarter and explain to them why we have this system in place, and pretty much every person is very understanding on why we do it.”

If you’re short a quarter, don’t try shoving anything else in the slot. “People will try to use foreign currency that are the same size as quarters,” Kyle says. “Doesn't hurt us; it's just annoying to deal with.”

8. Aldi has a store phone, but customers shouldn’t bother calling.

Customers are pictured in front of an Aldi store in Edgewood, Maryland in December 2017
Aldi employees are too busy in the store to answer the phone.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Aldi keeps the phone numbers for individual stores unlisted, preferring that employees deal with customers already in the store. Limits are placed on when the phone can be used. “We do technically have a store phone, but this phone is strictly used for receiving calls from the warehouse, global help desk, and to our security company we use,” Kyle says.

9. Aldi’s return policy is something employees can find a little too generous.

Aldi has a unique return policy for items purchased in their stores. Under their Twice as Nice Guarantee, customers can return a product and not only get a replacement item but a refund, as well. “Our Twice as Nice Guarantee is a very good system; I'd say one of the best in grocery,” Kyle says. “That doesn't mean it's perfect, though. I have seen people abuse this system. It's happened in my own store numerous times.”

Kyle declines to explain how it’s abused, though anecdotal reports are that perfectly good items are sometimes brought back to exchange for the benefit of a new item plus the refund. Serial returners are sometimes flagged and told to ease up. (The policy is currently suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic but is expected to return in the future.)

10. Aldi employees are required to wear steel-toed boots.

Work boots are pictured
Aldi employees need to protect their feet from inventory mishaps.
banjongseal324/iStock via Getty Images

Check out the footwear of an Aldi employee and you’ll notice they have on steel-toed boots normally seen on construction sites or warehouse jobs. That’s because workers are expected to unload the massive inventory pallets that arrive regularly. “All associates are required to wear steel-toed boots because of the equipment we use on the job,” Kyle says. “We use pallet jacks and it is just a safety precaution.” (Aldi does reimburse workers for the boots.)

11. Aldi employees appreciate you taking the survey.

Customers are pictured inside of an Aldi store in Chicago, Illinois in June 2017
Aldi employees say that receipt surveys can make a real difference in stores.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

The customer surveys that appear on Aldi receipts might go ignored by many, but they serve a real purpose. Employees are expected to meet a store quota of completed surveys, and customers can actually influence the selection inside the store. “We encourage customers to fill them out if they want a certain item brought in since the surveys go straight to corporate,” Sara says.

Regardless of how they offer their input, customers can often get what they want. “One thing that may surprise people is that you have a very strong voice on what items we should carry in our stores,” Kyle says. “A prime example of this is the [L’Oven Fresh] Zero Net Carb Bread. It was an Aldi Finds [a limited-time item] and people wanted this item to be a normal item so badly, and the company listened.”