It was not the way things were supposed to be.
As a teenager, you’d mapped out your life with a timetable. You’d travel there, visit this, see things you wanted to see and experience that which you desired before resuming your schedule. It would be a meaningful life, filled with adventure. But, as in the new book “Confessions of a Funeral Director” by Caleb Wilde (c.2017, HarperOne, $25.99, 193 pages), had you planned for a meaningful ending?
Caleb Wilde was born into death.
His father was a fifth-generation funeral director; his mother would’ve been a fourth-generation funeral director. Both sets of grandparents lived in their respective funeral homes and as he grew up, Wilde played near caskets and enjoyed family dinners in a room that doubled as seating for funerals. Death, for him, was no big deal.
Except that it was.
He couldn’t help but think about death, as he lay awake in his bedroom above a funeral home. In his mind, he turned over issues of God and death, hellfire and eternity until he ultimately decided that his “childhood God was a God who was broken apart,” and he decided to do something about it. Eschewing the family business, Wilde went instead on a search to “create good” and to “reimagine God to be different from [a] God who had the power to stop tragedy but chose not to do it.”
But death wasn’t done. Though pulled toward a faith-based lifestyle, Wilde instead returned to the family business. He’d done so “Somewhat reluctantly,” but he’d come to see the possibility of participating in “healing the world” through small acts at a small funeral home – although he still had much to learn.
From a man who seemed to know everybody in their Pennsylvania town, Wilde saw that “anyone can… be a part of the death-care process.” At a nursing home, he participated in a unique method of honoring the dead. From a grieving friend, he learned that there are many ways to worship. And he came to understand that “it’s not the ending that defines us, but how we live out our narrative.”
Six feet. Or maybe more; at any rate, “Confessions of a Funeral Director” is deep. It’s also thoughtful. And refreshing.
Most memoirs by funeral directors take an anecdotal turn at some point, and author Caleb Wilde’s book is no exception: he widely sprinkles client stories inside his own but here, each is taken as a lesson and a reason for introspection. Yes, observant readers may spot an occasional smile, but this is more a memoir for questioners in faith (particularly as related to current events) and for those who have what Wilde calls a “death negative narrative,” which is the notion that “all deaths [are] bad.”
If you’re willing to spend time in thought, you’ll find a serene, silent opposite to that here, and maybe some comfort for our times. Not all deaths are bad, and if you need to know it today, then “Confessions of a Funeral Director” is how a meditative book should be.
The bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.