Life

Interview with an Undertaker – Alex G – Medium

When Carrie Benedict Foley dies, she will be buried. A fairly traditional choice, she admits, but they’re traditional here.

She certainly won’t be cremated. The thought of being confetti-ed somewhere across the Atlantic Ocean underwhelms her. You can’t visit someone’s ashes at the bottom of the ocean. And that would be the best-case scenario. A lot of people neglect to scatter their relatives’ ashes at all. Carrie Benedict Foley is sure she will not spend her eternity as dust in an urn, collecting dust on someone’s Pottery Barn bedside table.

She’ll have a proper casket burial — either in metal or mahogany, she hasn’t decided yet. As for the epitaph, that’s up in the air too. But it’s gotta be something snappy.

“No ‘Loving Wife and Mother,’” she says. Her face scrunches at the thought. “That’s what everyone’s says.” Nothing’s set in stone yet, but she assures me she’s got a draft in the works.

Carrie Benedict Foley is not dying. At least not right now. But she is one of the few modern-day Americans to willfully contemplate her own death. The acting owner of Westchester Funeral Home, Foley plans her own funeral with the zeal of a brace- faced Judy Bloom character devising her dream wedding. She’ll brainstorm eulogy lines while she’s ferrying her kids to lacrosse practice. She’ll ensure she’s photographed at every family outing (mothers, she points out, never seem to have enough pictures when the time comes). And she admits she’ll make a mental note when she sees a good casket. “We like caskets like people like cars.”

As morticians go, she doesn’t have the “look.” Or at least, not in the way popular culture would have you believe. I’ll admit, I pictured someone far more imposing on the other end of my email correspondences. Someone older. Monotone presentation, with a stark white face, wrinkled like a used roadmap. Maybe wearing a monocle and an understated suit. Someone who looks like they’d only speak in riddles or ominous foreshadowing. Like the elderly neighbor in horror movies who says “No one’s gone into that house in over 50 years.” What I didn’t expect was Carrie Benedict Foley.

She is, at first glance, ripe with contradiction. Carrie sits in the armchair beside mine — all cross-legged propriety from the waist down, but her hands never lay idle. They mirror her uninterrupted stream of consciousness, mapping each word she says with an accompanying gesture. While your garden variety “hand talker” might have a bellowing voice to match, Foley’s breathless sentences come out in a soft, measured cadence. Like, library level. She is long-legged and even-tempered, with a

shock of blond hair, and the kind of downturned eyes that give their bearer an air of cool-headed serenity. Her gestalt says “California yoga mom” more than “licensed embalmer.” The only thing differentiating her from the west-coast-Whole-Foods mothers of my youth are the elongated vowels that punctuate her speech — “tawlking” for “talking,” “doying” for “dying”; the dead-ringer sounds of a native New Yorker.

Foley admits that people are usually taken aback when she informs them of her profession. When she introduces herself as Carrie The Funeral Director, there’s predictably a pregnant pause, followed by an onslaught of questions — So you work with dead people? Yes. Is it ever gross? Depends. You went to school for that? Mortuary Science school and a yearlong residency. Wait, you’ve touched a dead body? She answers each of them readily, a kind of public service.

Atop her list of frequently asked questions is simply “Why?” What possesses someone to work so intimately with something most people try to forget? Why make death your bread and butter?

I’ve come to her with much the same question.

In the front sitting room of Westchester Funeral Home, there hangs a framed photograph composite. It’s got six portraits, arranged chronologically, each in slightly sharper focus and clearer color than the last. Along the top reads “The Benedict Family in Funeral Service — Since 1832.” It is the first thing I notice. My eyes snake across the photographic timeline, assessing the sepia-toned muttonchops and receding hairlines of portrait’s past. I finally settle on the most recent picture — it’s Carrie’s. Right above the words, “A legacy of caring.”

It’s a family thing. Foley hails from a long line of undertakers. Six generations. Both her parents were directly involved in funeral services. Almost the entire time she was growing up, her father oversaw the business and her mother tended to administrative affairs.

Foley is hesitant to claim she grew up in the funeral services industry, (she rarely set foot in the funeral home before college) but concedes that her parents’ livelihood must have shaped her upbringing.

The lingo, for one thing, certainly seeps into everyday conversation. “Cemetery, casket, death, die. They were all words I didn’t really think about.” She learned early on about drug overdoses and domestic stabbings. Despite even the best efforts, it would’ve been difficult to keep Foley and her brother sheltered from the realities of death. The Benedicts deal in all aspects of post-mortem service, meaning the minute someone’s pronounced dead, they’re the ones who pick up the body. Foley’s parents were constantly ‘on-call,’ answering the phone at all hours, leaving prior engagements without a moment’s notice. No occasion was spared from potential interruption — Thanksgiving dinners, birthday celebrations. “The most memorable

was definitely the funeral my dad worked on my wedding day,” Carrie laughs. “I told him not to go to that one.” She throws her hands up in feigned exasperation. Whaddaya gonna do?

Anyone in a career like Carrie’s has seen the depths of human suffering. She also knows how easy it is to die. But her daily encounters with death have bred an imperturbable sensibility. She is staid, and notably unvexed, as she recounts a laundry list of cases she’s seen: terminal cancer, fatal car crashes, the occasional knife wound, and, more recently, a lot of overdoses. “I’ve seen a kid try heroin once and die.” She reports it all in classic Carrie fashion, sober and unflinching.

I realize she and I could not be less alike in our relationship to mortality. When you were raised Catholic like I was, most of life’s big questions can be answered with either guilt or fear. What happens when you die? Who knows, but it’ll be horrific! And that’s your fault. I’ve never found peace in death. Its immanence has been on my mind the minute I realized it could happen to me, or anyone around me. Foley’s attitude baffles me. I didn’t know it was possible to plan your own funeral or fail to blanch at a multi-car collision.

I decide to lay it all out there. “Are you afraid of death? Because I am. Even saying the word makes me uncomfortable.”

Foley pauses to think. “No,” she says. “But I am really afraid of spiders.”

For all her insouciance, Carrie Benedict Foley is far from cold. She recalls a family she saw last year — a mother and father, whose teenage child committed suicide — and she uses the word “unfathomable.” It’s the first hint of dismay I’ve noticed for the whole hour and a half we’ve been talking about death. This case was one of the few she found difficult. One of her primary roles is to provide consolation to the next of kin. To listen to their grief, understand it, and hopefully provide them with some semblance of safety.

“When something like that happens… when you can’t comprehend it, how do you console the living?” she says.

To Foley, death isn’t the upsetting part. It’s the affect it has on those who are still alive. Death is in its own way a kind of peace. But there’s something about the aftermath, the ability to help a community in bereavement, that reminds Carrie why she was drawn to funeral services in the first place. Carrie Benedict Foley’s livelihood deals in a collection of “lowest moments,” as she describes it. The families that come into her office, seeking burial arrangements for their departed relatives are steeped in loss, undergoing the ‘unfathomable.’

These people are why she’s in this business — the people of Tuckahoe, NY. It’s the neighborhood where Foley grew up. A halcyon Bronx River village, 1.5 miles long and eleven Metro-North stops from Grand Central Station. All red bricks and rolling

hills and neat suburban Tudors. If you typed “New England Town” into Google Images, this would be your search result. It’s the neighborhood that she’s raising her own children in today. And it’s the same 6,000-population town that houses the clients of Westchester Funeral Home. In directing their funerals, burying their public figures, and comforting their next of kin, Foley has found her way of celebrating the community that raised her. It’s how she forges new relationships and maintains connections. People she otherwise wouldn’t see outside of high school reunions are relieved to find themselves comforted by a familiar face.

“Like that guy in there,” she says, pointing through an open doorway into the next room. “I went to high school with his son.”

All I can see is the back half of the setup. A bunch of chairs are arranged, row-by- row, next to an easel holding a framed portrait I can barely make out. At once, it dawns on me.

“There’s a dead guy in the room next door?”

“Yup. The wake’s been going on all day.” She stands to help someone carry an edible arrangement across the hall. Before she leaves I ask how her how she thinks she’ll be remembered at her own funeral wake.

“I’d like to be remembered as someone who was there.”


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