The Eternal Debate Compassion in Death
7th February, 2021

There should be compassion in death

Main Image: Fizkes/Getty Images

Can we feel a family’s grief as funeral and death-care professionals?

“I will not say: Do not weep; For not all tears are an evil.”

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Return of the King

I wanted to start by sharing the quote that I saw today which spurred me on to once again use blogging as a type of therapy and to express how I am feeling. The last blog post was very cathartic for me. It was like I had a weight off my shoulders for opening up on how I felt but also, it helped me process the feelings I have for myself as I put them into an order on the page. 


I do feel as though I should apologise that there has been such a large gap between my first blog post and this one. However, gulf in time aside, the blog post follows on quite seamlessly in some ways. Most notably in that I find myself once again reflecting on the human aspects of the profession. I feel like I also want to get a disclaimer in nice and early. This is entirely my opinion and view on how compassion and empathy can affect you personally. As with many things, you may or may not agree with me, but that is okay. 

I’ve written at length about being vocal about mental health within the profession but I sometimes find that being vocal about times when you feel emotionally affected by your profession can be met with similar negativity and coldness. I understand that if it affects you daily, in front of clients or to a point that it makes you unwell then you may need to assess what is right for you to do but in general, is allowing yourself to feel such a bad thing?

Anyone who works in the funeral or death-care profession can probably tell you that once in a while there is a family you care for or a situation which just strikes you differently, whether it be because the situation is close to home, a traumatic death or the death of a child. The one that you take home with you in your thoughts and in some instances, go on to never forget. There are a few things I want to reflect on here.

Do I think this is unhealthy behaviour for me? Is it wrong that in the last couple of weeks whilst dealing with one death in particular, I have found myself sobbing on a couple of occasions when I arrive home?

My short answer is no. I believe that if I were able to witness a truly heartbreaking situation at work but go on to walk away from it without giving it a second thought, even though it has tested my physical and mental ability, then I don’t feel that I should be the person to care for that family and most importantly, the deceased.

My long answer is; each family and deceased you care for is unique; from the circumstances in which the person has passed away, to how much (or in some cases how little) the client relies on you for support and guidance. There are so many variables which can influence the way in which you handle yourself. If I was left feeling personally affected, emotional and drained after every embalming and every meeting with a bereaved relative then I would need to consider if I were right for the role.

However, I am not. So, whilst on this particular occasion I have cried and allowed myself ‘to feel’ I do not believe that is detrimental to me. In fact, I feel it would have been far unhealthier if I had tried to hide from or bottle up the emotions I felt. 


I find myself wondering if sometimes the reason we do not feel as though we can express ourselves if we have found a case difficult to handle, is the fear that it may be viewed as martyrdom. That there may be people who think it is a false or exaggerated display to garner sympathy or ‘hero’ status. Comments I have seen online sometimes support this notion, usually within funeral profession social media groups. I don’t feel there is any degree of martyrdom by talking about how you feel your profession is impacting you.

We are human. Although we have chosen this profession and path, it doesn’t mean that we should become robotic and lose the ability to feel.

Whilst once again being back on the topic of social media responses, voicing you have found a case difficult is not uncommon to attract a typical “if you feel like that, you won’t last long” comment. I find I feel somewhat the opposite sentiment. The day I no longer have the ability to be compassionate, empathetic and caring, if the time comes where I stop being affected by death and grief, I will know I am no longer right for the profession.

I truly believe that one of the reasons I am so right for my occupation is because I truly care for my deceased, but also the people they have left behind. Although we see death day in and day out, although death is our normal, those we look after may be experiencing it for the first time. They may be afraid of it and it is quite the unknown, they deserve to be cared for by people who can empathise with that and not see them as a number.

At this point I almost feel compelled to say I know that this shouldn’t need to be said, and that this is the normal attitude for those in the funeral profession. If you’re offended by this, it makes me wonder why that would be? Are you part of the problem?

“I don’t know how you do it!”

I feel like this has to be up there with one of the most asked questions/statements when people find out what I do for my occupation. Everyone who works in the funeral and death-care professions must have been asked this at least once! This week, I have found myself thinking the same thing. How do we do it? Why do we do it?

Only, I know exactly why and how. No matter how terrible or heartbreaking it may seem to me, it is so much worse for those involved. If I can do anything to make the experience any easier, then that is what I want to do. This last week that I have in mind whilst I type, a week that involved many hours of embalming and restoration, throughout it I kept a focus in my mind. That if my efforts meant that her family could have the opportunity to say goodbye and see her one last time, then it was all worth it. 

There were tears as it seemed that no matter what I did, that a viewing was not going to be possible and that I was failing the family. It then came full circle and I realised that a viewing was going to be an option, to which I cried tears of relief. After the hours and the effort came the viewing, I dreamt about it the night before and felt anxious. After the visitation, they thanked me for my kindness and for caring for her, for the time they had been able to spend with her, holding her hand. They thanked me for making it possible to have the chance to say goodbye.

I came home and I cried for their loss, for their circumstances. I cried because human nature meant I applied their circumstances to my family and I couldn’t begin to imagine being in their shoes. It may not be our grief but we cannot help but to share it. I cried out of relief that I had provided them with the opportunity they so desperately needed.

I needed the outlet. So, although I allowed a case to come home with me, I did what they needed me to. At the same time, I did what I needed to do for myself and for that, I make no apologies. Not all tears are an evil.

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Rachel Carline

Rachel is a qualified, working embalmer, Member of the British Institute of Embalmers and co-host of The Eternal Debate Podcast. You can find her on Twitter at @RCarlineMBIE!
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