Ben Oddo is a Nashville resident, writer and host of the senior interview podcast Me and All My Friends. In his recurring feature Conventional Wisdom, he’ll explore the many conventions and trade shows that Music City plays host to, from the esoteric to the mundane.

Life is full of big decisions. Where we choose to live. Whom we choose to love. Whether we want to be buried or have our remains shot into space.

These are just some of the things one considers at the 2021 National Funeral Directors Association Convention & Expo. It is here, on my 32nd birthday, that I find myself. One year closer to the grave. Pondering the finite nature of life from the back of a Coasson hearse. Beautiful vehicle, by the way. Camper-style. MSRP $40,000.

This year marks the 140th time the NFDA will gather to support one another in their mission to provide families with meaningful end-of-life services. At 20,000 members, the group is the world’s largest association of funeral service professionals, representing nearly 11,000 funeral homes in 50 countries. Topics of discussion among the self-described “last responders” include COVID’s impact on the industry, the decrease of body-present services, and in at least one instance, Celestis Memorial Spaceflights. 

Personally, I have never much cared for funerals. The overpowering smell of flowers, the silent glances, the body. Then there is the issue of the funeral directors themselves. Always trying to pass for a normal, well-adjusted person, even though we all know they touch dead people for a living. Apparently, I am not alone. 

“There was a survey done years ago — 80 percent of consumers when they hear the word ‘funeral home’ or ‘funeral director’ think of something negative,” says Ryan Thogmartin, owner of Disrupt Media, a social media marketing agency working to humanize the funeral home and break down stereotypes perpetuated by people like me. Thogmartin’s is one of a handful of companies at the conference pushing the industry into innovative new areas. There are alkaline hydrolysis specialists, green burial companies, cremation recyclers, artisans, grief therapy dogs. There’s even a Swedish author hawking his book Digital Legacy: Take Control of Your Online Afterlife about what happens to our digital “stuff” after we die. He signs a copy with the personalized note, “Thanks and talk soon.” 

Guiding me through the Funeral Industrial Complex is Walker Posey, a funeral director and fourth-generation owner of Posey Funeral Directors in North Augusta, S.C. Walker is young, dapper and, like Ryan, represents a new wave of industry leaders who are trying to use technology to better connect with families and make the funeral-planning process less cumbersome. 

“The general public doesn’t know how much goes into planning a service, and how much work that takes,” says Walker. “It’s just like planning a wedding.” 

Walker and I chat for more than an hour, and he walks me through the entire process, from receiving the so-called “death call” to carrying out the service. It is indeed like a wedding, if weddings were planned in two hours and had to be pulled off in a matter of days. 

Upon the planners’ meeting with the family, decisions must be made on the location, who is going to do it (Emcee? Minister? Multiple ministers?), whether it’s religious or humanistic, what kind of music and if it involves instruments. Is it going to be webcast? Is there a cemetery involved? Is a public visitation part of the event? Then there’s figuring out the transportation, catering, registry, the flowers (I say skip them). Meanwhile, Walker has already reached out to his stable of ministers to check their availability, arranged for musicians or military honors, begun writing the obituary, and submitted the death certificate. Inevitably, complicated family dynamics will emerge, and he must navigate those as well. And this is just the first of five or six events he will do that day.

“Everyone coming to you is having the worst day of their life,” says Walker. “So I'm taking that on a little bit, right? You feel the emotion of it, even when they're not mad at you, you’re dealing with someone who is grieving.”

Attending to the deceased comes after. “Embalming is both an art and a science,” he says of the process, which simply replaces our blood with a preservative chemical — formaldehyde — to slow the body’s decomposition. Walking around the convention, one gleans that not all embalmers are created equal, and that some are better at the restorative arts than others. “When you do it the right way, it makes such a difference. Ninety percent of the families in my location say, ‘Gosh, you made mom look so good. She looks 10 years younger.’”

At home that night, I pull up the Posey Funeral Directors website and study the smiling faces of Walker’s staff. What makes a man or woman (70 to 75 percent of the people entering the profession are women) want to get into this business? Obviously, family legacies are a big part of it. But you are constantly surrounded by grief. It’s macabre. Speaking with the attendees the next day, however, the answer becomes clear.

“You don't get into this industry because you have a fascination with death — you get into it because you deeply care about people,” says Justin Crowe, owner of Parting Stone, a company that makes decorative rocks out of cremation remains. Adds Keith Charles of Premier Specialty Markets, “It’s a privilege to sit with a family on the worst day of their life, and to help them have one step back to normalcy.”

More than just being event planners and licensed embalmers, funeral directors are people who live to serve. They help families properly honor and say goodbye to their loved ones so that those families can move forward in their grief. In more tragic cases — say, where the body is not viewable — their impact can be as simple yet profound as allowing the family to hold their loved one’s hand one last time.  

“It comes out years down the road when, you know, a little kid comes in and goes, ‘Man, my dad died when I was a kid,’” says Walker. “‘I'll never forget you helped me through that and it really made an impression on me.’ I mean, that's really rewarding. We make a difference in people's lives, and that's the only reason you're going to be successful in this business, is if you're doing it for that reason.”

Walker explains that if you’re doing it for the money — the average cost of a funeral is $7,640, but can quickly rise closer to $20,000 once you factor in cemetery and marker fees — you’re going to burn out.

My folly in attending the NFDA Convention is that I have been projecting my own fears onto the profession. Admittedly, I have not experienced a close personal loss, and so I have not seen this side of the funeral profession before — the one that is a godsend to a family during their time of need.

But next time someone uses the word “funeral home” or “funeral director” around me, I’ll be one of those 20 percent who think of something positive.

Below: Hear excerpts from interviews with experts gathered at the NFDA Convention & Expo. 

Like what you read?

Click here to make a contribution to the Scene and support local journalism!