Life Lessons From a Funeral Home

As a child, it was hard for me to envision what my future would look like. I’m sure I considered being a teacher once, and pondered possibilities of a future as a dancer, veterinarian, chef, and astronaut through the years.

So I’m sure you can imagine how surprised I was to find myself working in a funeral home as a young adult.

It wasn’t exactly the dream job I had envisioned, but since my husband was a mortician, it made sense at the time. He, along with several other directors, prepared bodies for burial and planned services of every type and size you can imagine. Meanwhile, I worked in the office designing memorial folders, performing administrative tasks, and being the main customer service contact for anyone who walked through the door.

My husband and I practically grew up there. While most of our friends enjoyed jobs that were far less serious, we spent the last half of our 20s and our early 30s working with the families of the deceased and helping them pick up the pieces.

I left the industry to start my own business after seven years, but now that I look back, I can truly say that job was the inspiration for some of life’s greatest lessons. Not only did I learn to care for people who were often experiencing the worst day of their lives, but I also gained a unique perspective on what it really means to die – and not just for the deceased, but for those who remain.

Five Life Lessons

Through the ups and downs, the tragedies and joys, and the late nights and early mornings, I learned to see life and death in an entirely different way. I learned that life isn’t fair, but that it was my duty to make the most of the time I have left. Here are some of the lessons I learned, and why they may be impossible to forget:

1. Don’t Wait Until Retirement to Live

We all know how important it is to save for retirement, but how would you feel if you died just before you had the chance to enjoy it? I can’t tell you how many times I witnessed that exact scenario. And often times, the remaining spouse was left grieving not only their loss, but for the retirement dreams they had worked on for decades — plans that were, all of a sudden, impossible.

One family in particular will always be in the back of my mind. After 30 years of marriage, both husband and wife were ready to retire at the year’s end. They had a cruise to Alaska planned, along with a cross-country RV trip and itinerary full of exciting stops. When the wife died suddenly of an aneurysm at 59 — just months before retirement — her husband was left devastated.

“We raised our kids and saved our whole lives for this,” he shared as he made funeral plans the morning after she died. I could tell by the look in his eyes that he would rather be anywhere else on Earth that day, and I couldn’t blame him. His retirement date was fast approaching and, all of a sudden, he knew he would spend his golden years alone.

Not that this family did anything wrong, but watching so many people miss out on their retirement dreams made me seriously question the way I was living. It made me stop and ask myself, “If I died today, would I feel fulfilled? Would I feel like I had taken advantage of all that life has to offer?”

The answer to these questions was, and still is, no, which is why I try to pack as much action into our lives now while we’re still young. It’s the reason we travel; it’s the reason we spend as much time with our kids as we can possibly get away with.

Watching so many people die right before retirement made me realize that there is only so much planning one can do. So here’s what I learned: Never wait to live; you may have a lot less time than you think.

2. Always Have Enough Life Insurance

Before I started working in a funeral home, I assumed most people had life insurance — or at least enough savings to take care of their final arrangements. Unfortunately, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Over the years, I witnessed numerous families struggle to come up with enough money to hold a basic burial or pay for a basic cremation. Even worse, I watched helplessly as dozens of families charged their entire funeral bill on a credit card because, no matter what, they couldn’t raise the funds to pay the bill.

Still, the funeral bill is usually the least of the worries when someone dies without life insurance. Not having enough money for a funeral is bad enough, but can you imagine losing your spouse – and their income — with no warning and no backup plan? I saw that exact scenario play out far too many times to count, and results were never pretty — and always devastating.

My husband and I took out life insurance shortly after we began our careers, and have continued to add coverage as we had children and increased our earnings over the years. And after seeing what I saw, I encourage everyone I know to buy as much life insurance as they deem necessary. Term life insurance is relatively cheap to buy, but the consequences of not having it can last a lifetime.

3. Never Stop Saving

Still, financial security isn’t only about having enough life insurance – it’s about saving and investing, too. According to a 2014 study from Bankrate, a third of Americans have nothing saved for retirement. Even worse, more than 25% of respondents ages 50 to 64 have yet to start saving at all.

Those statistics are horrifying, but what makes them much scarier is putting a face to them. And that’s exactly what working in a funeral home did. We buried countless mothers, fathers, and brothers who were still working full-time jobs in their 70s, along with hundreds of others who died so poor they left nothing behind — not even a dime to pay for their final expenses.

This is where the lessons get confusing. It’s true that it is important to have life insurance in case you die young, but there’s a flipside to that. You may live much longer than you ever dreamed. So prepare for the worst, but save for the best-case scenario, too. Or else, you could end up working until you die — or worse — living in poverty in old age.

4. Tell Your Spouse You Love Him Every Day

Widows who lose their spouses after decades of marriage can say things so profound it takes your breath away. I distinctly remember helping a friend after she lost her husband of 50 years. She grabbed my arm and forced me to listen to what she had to say.

“Tell your husband you love him every day,” she said. “One day he’ll be gone and you would do anything to have him back.”

I’ve seen it time and time again, both through those who died in tragic accidents in their 30s and 40s and through those who survived decades of marriage only to perish due to old age or poor health. Either way, the loss is tragic, and those who remain are left wondering if they had done enough — if they had loved enough.

I can only hope I get decades with my husband, but if I don’t, I want to know I made the most of the time we had. And that’s why I tell my husband I love him every day – even on our worst days. One day he will be gone, perhaps before I am, and I won’t have the option to tell him anything ever again. Knowing that now is a huge gift, and one I don’t intend to squander.

5. The Real Currency Is Time, Not Money

And that’s where the final lesson comes into play. We spend our whole lives thinking money is the true measure of success and happiness, when really, money means nothing when you die. All we really have, and all we have ever had, is time.

While we’re alive, our time on Earth can seem limitless. Unfortunately, it is far from infinite, but most of us don’t realize that until it is too late.

As I watched people mourn their loved ones over the years — as I watched them bury their children, siblings, mothers, and wives, I realized that the time we have together on this Earth is priceless.

Watching young mothers mourn their lost children or babies helped me learn to snuggle mine closer – it taught me to hug them longer. Watching women bury their husbands after decades of marriage made me learn to appreciate my husband much more now, and every single day since. And watching people bury their parents taught me to call my parents more often, to visit them, and to make sure they see their grandchildren as much as they can.

Because when someone dies, there is truly no going back. There are no second chances. All we have now is the time ahead of us, and once someone is gone, only the memories will remain.

Lessons on Death and Dying

It’s easy to go through life without thinking about death until someone you know dies. But I learned that it’s okay to think of death more often and, even more important, to plan for it. After all, death is inevitable, and the choices we make now can not only make it easier for our families to grieve, but can also leave them in better financial shape as well.

So instead of keeping the thought of death in the back of my mind, I learned to analyze my fear of death and see it for what it really is. And what I learned is this: I’m not actually afraid of dying. My real fear is not really living in the first place.

I’m not afraid to leave this Earth; I’m afraid of things like wishing I spent more time with my kids, going to bed angry, and realizing I could have done things differently when it is already far too late. I’m afraid of making financial mistakes that will leave me penniless, and I’m petrified of wasting life’s real currency — time.

The lessons I learned in the mortuary business are ones that will stick with me for a lifetime. Over the years, I learned that you don’t always get a second chance, that life can be unfair, and that every moment we have with the people we love is precious. We’re all dying, but until that day comes, I plan to spend my time truly living.

What life lessons have you learned that have changed your life for the better? 

Holly Johnson

Contributing Writer

Holly Johnson is a frugality expert and award-winning writer who is obsessed with personal finance and getting the most out of life. A lifelong resident of Indiana, she enjoys gardening, reading, and traveling the world with her husband and two children. In addition to The Simple Dollar, Holly writes for well-known publications such as U.S. News & World Report Travel, PolicyGenius, Travel Pulse, and Frugal Travel Guy. Holly also owns Club Thrifty.