“I feel like a survivor”: Inside the funeral industry’s 2021 national convention

After a busy year, morticians let loose at their annual gathering in Nashville.

Photos by Diana lee Zadlo
Photos by Diana lee Zadlo
Sleep when you're dead

The theme of the National Funeral Directors Association’s 2021 convention and expo was “Together Again!” That may sound like an oddly upbeat slogan following a global pandemic, but morticians like to party as much as anyone — especially after a big year for business. So this October, roughly 5,000 funeral service providers from around the country descended on Nashville, trading in their mortuary makeup and three-piece suits for cowboy hats and boots.

On a surprisingly chilly morning, I joined them at Music City Center, the city’s sprawling convention facility and, for the next few days, the beating heart of the American funeral industry. The enormous hallways were clogged with reunions, as former students chatted with their mentors, funeral home owners met their favorite vendors in the flesh, and fans introduced themselves to niche podcasters and social media stars. “Funeral directors, we’re not the most popular kids at the party,” Glenda Stansbury, a licensed funeral director and embalmer in Oklahoma, told me, with her signature raspy laugh. But in the riverside city, with its total lack of COVID restrictions, the pandemic’s last responders could finally let loose.

All photos by Diana lee Zadlo

Since America’s funeral directors last met in person in 2019, many have had the single busiest stretch of their careers, caring for the more than 760,000 Americans who have died of COVID — on top of the expected deaths from cancer, heart disease, and old age. Early in the pandemic, funeral directors struggled to access proper personal protective equipment, putting themselves and their families at risk of infection. Despite their best efforts to meet the needs of their customers, they were often foiled, as many communities temporarily banned funerals and bodies piled up in mobile morgues.

The pandemic hasn’t been the only thing driving change in funeral service, a tradition-bound industry long dominated by middle-aged white men. Over the last decade, female mortuary school students have overtaken their male counterparts and, upon graduation, brought a new, TikTok-able sensibility to the industry. In June 2020, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Aimee Stephens, a transgender funeral director who was fired from a Michigan funeral home after she announced she would be living and working as a woman, when it determined the 1964 Civil Rights Act protects workers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. And this spring, the first human composting facilities opened in Washington State, launching one of the first truly new methods of final disposition in the U.S. — and one explicitly motivated by environmental concerns.

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These shifting demographics were reflected in my conference schedule — to a degree. A conversation about respecting LGBTQ+ clients and staff was on the agenda for the second time in NFDA history, and Monica Torres, better known on Instagram as Cold Hands, would be one of the first women to lead an embalming technical education session. But this was a convention center divided, or at least a little bit confused. Also on the docket: a session laying out what Facebook is and another on funerals for law enforcement featuring slides with a tattered thin blue line flag.

That’s the way this convention has always been, Stansbury assured me. There is evidence of progress pouring in from the margins, she said. At the same time, “the NFDA continues to be the dinosaur that they’ve always been.”

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For most of American history, mourning rites around the world were carried out within the community. But in the late 19th century, the funeral industry began to industrialize. Family members, who once helped to prepare the bodies of the dead, build their caskets, and carry them to the nearest burial ground, were sidelined as businessmen established trade journals, mortuary schools, and other hallmarks of professionalism, including the NFDA. Today, the association represents more than 20,000 American funeral service professionals and almost 11,000 funeral homes. While most of us do our best to avoid thinking about our inevitable demise, they dedicate their lives to the dead.

By the time I’d arrived on the scene on Sunday, a few hundred attendees had already been circulating as part of NFDA board meetings and preconvention training for celebrants, cremators, and more. But the main events were just about to kick off. In front of a gleaming city block-long wall of glass, I grabbed my lanyard and one of three color-coded COVID buttons that would signal my openness to human interaction. I chose yellow: “Cautiously Optimistic.”

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Over the next few hours, I was bombarded with new information. A row of bookcases with titles like Talking with Young Children About Death and Digital Legacy: Take Control of Your Online Afterlife offered insight into the common questions customers bring to funeral directors. In a presentation designed to efficiently share the NFDA’s latest consumer research, I felt like a peeping Tom, eyeballing the industry’s biggest fears. “There is a group out there who think they can do a funeral without you,” one presenter told the crowd, presumably referring to trends like the home funeral movement, which aims to deindustrialize deathcare and center the corpse in community. “That is an alarming situation.” In a presentation on alkaline hydrolysis, a relatively new method for chemically reducing bodies to liquid and bone, I heard the speaker recommend the process for miscarried fetuses, which might otherwise be too small to preserve.

Totally overwhelmed and with only a dwindling pack of M&Ms for nourishment, I was relieved to finally arrive at the entertainment portion of the evening. Outside, in a makeshift, open-air beer garden between the convention center and the Country Music Hall of Fame, hundreds of funeral service providers lined up around the block. They were there to listen to Runaway June, a local country music group. But from my vantage on the sparsely-populated dance floor, the crowd was concentrated around the cash bar. I stuck around just long enough to watch them don their Batesville Casket Company and Legacy.com-branded cowboy hats, and then headed back to my hotel hours before any of the other attendees would even think about sleep.

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The convention was off to an early start on Monday, as funeral directors filtered into conference rooms for 7:30 a.m. continuing education sessions, eye bags puffed and gasoline-strength coffee in hand. I’d decided to sit in on a presentation titled “Connecting with the LGBTQ+ Community.”

At the front of the room, Sara Murphy, a death educator and suicidologist, and Timothy McLoone, a gay funeral director in Pennsylvania, opened their slides and began to circulate packets defining dozens of relevant concepts, from “assigned named” to “transmisogyny.” Then, just a few minutes in, they asked if anyone in the room had questions, prompting a Greek chorus of white men singing “more of a comment than a question.”

The first guy to stand up and speak, as I remember it, said that he would have to go back to college to learn everything in the packet, and that all this stuff would send him into an early retirement. Another guy offered that he felt everyone benefited from his decision to make bathrooms in his funeral home gender-neutral. And then a few guys after that circled right back around, crying, I don’t bring my sexuality into everything!

“I feel like I’m in a Parks & Rec public meeting,” I texted a friend.

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Eventually it seemed like the queer people and allies in the room had finally had enough. Alexandra Jo, the culture and content manager for Parting Stone, which solidifies cremated remains, interjected to say that it is, in fact, okay to ask people what their pronouns are, despite the fear some in the room were expressing of saying the wrong thing. One person, who was visibly shaken, said they had experienced homophobia throughout their life, and a couple of Seattle-based funeral pros turned to comfort them. Toward the very end, a 19-year-old mortuary student named A.J. Stocker, who is gay, basically put the room on notice: The majority of his classmates were queer, he said, and they are coming for your jobs.

That, it seems, was part of what Murphy and McLoone wanted everyone to understand: that LGBTQ colleagues and customers were already here. The limited survey data available suggests that the funeral service has long been the 11th queerest profession in the U.S. And a handful of people in the room already had personal experience serving queer decedents — often of the heartbreaking variety, including cases where the legal next of kin made decisions that ran counter to the dead person’s wishes and those of their chosen family.

That is what the “white guys in the room need to hear,” Stansbury, who was attending as a friend of McLoone’s and a staunch ally, told me. “That’s why I was up at 8 frigging o’clock in the morning.”

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At noon, the doors to the expo hall opened quietly, but it felt like someone had fired a starting gun, as people poured into the space, clamoring for the attention of their favorite suit makers, urn sellers, and embalming fluid providers.

My guide on the floor was Jimmy Olson, owner of the Olson Funeral Home and Cremation Service in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. In addition to covering roughly 130 cases (read: deaths) in his community each year, Olson is also an NFDA spokesperson and a leader in green burial practices. “For me to be away for five days, I had to have six people cover things for me,” he later told me, including his Gen Z niece, herself an apprentice funeral director, and a handful of other local licensed funeral directors who regularly help each other out in a pinch. For many in the funeral industry, this was their only “vacation” of the year.

Olson started us out at a breakneck pace, striding past the glass caskets and flower cars and an inconceivable variety of urns. He took me to a playpen full of therapy dogs; to Parting Stone, where the founder was gifting visitors a sample rock, each one made from the cremated remains of an animal; and to a suite of digital vendors, offering everything from automated tribute videos to electronic guest books.

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At the alkaline hydrolysis booth, Samantha Sieber, the vice president of research at Bio-Response Solutions and one of the convention presenters, gave us a virtual tour of an aquamation chamber, which can turn a human body into water and bone in a matter of hours. The process, touted for its eco-credibility, is currently legal in more than 20 states, but Wisconsin is not one of them, Olson told me. His most recent effort to introduce a bill is opposed by a small but powerful group of Catholics who think the process, which some have inaccurately described as “flushing most of a person’s body down the sewer,” as disrespectful to the dead.

Eventually, Olson stopped, at my urging, in front of an irresistible unmanned mortuary school display. Four fake human heads were laid out on the table in front of us, each with dramatic simulated injuries that a student would need to learn to repair ahead of a viewing. When I asked Olson how he thought they had died, he was initially dismissive, but I kept pushing. “Well,” he finally relented. From left to right: gunshot wound, a bad fall, a car accident resulting in some serious road rash, and a stabbing.

“It’s pretty obvious,” Olson told me.

All photos by Diana lee Zadlo

That night, after everyone had vacated Music City Center, smaller groups began to gather in more intimate venues throughout the city. Such off-book events are as important as anything on the convention agenda, several regular attendees told me. “As a kid, I remember getting candy from vendors like Halloween,” said NFDA spokesperson Walker Posey, whose family has owned Posey Funeral Directors in North Augusta, South Carolina, since 1879. “Our parents would go to dinners at night,” he adds, “and we’d have a common babysitter who would watch us in a hotel room.” Now, he’s the one meeting up with colleagues and friends in the evenings.

At the Westin hotel bar Murphy and McLoone met with attendees of their LGBTQ session to “continue the conversation.” Mostly, they just wanted to provide an opportunity for people to “see each other,” McLoone told me. “We've sort of been hiding in plain sight for so long,” he said, referring to queer funeral directors, “and it's important to not only be out, you know, within the profession, but I hope also out front.” For those who stopped by, it proved “we do have a whole lot of people who are either in the community or allies of the community,” Stansbury said, “and it's about time we started figuring out ways to work together.”

But it’s clear that merging the funeral industry’s dualities — the progressive contingent and the professional mainstream, the daytime seminars and the nighttime gatherings — into a unified whole will be challenging. Throwing away tired notions of “dignity” might be a good place to start.

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Traditionally, funeral directors directed, selling families on the same mahogany casket-floral arrangement combo they deemed most appropriate, said Ryan Thogmartin, a self-identified “hustler” and founder of DISRUPT Media, a social media management company, who spent the week handing out poker chips emblazoned with a caricature of himself in lieu of traditional business cards. ​​But if people “want to send their ashes to outer space, or have a kegger for their funeral reception in the middle of a cemetery, who are we as the professionals to say whether that is dignified or not?” In his view, “dignity lies with the consumer.”

After decades of delay, the change is coming quicker than ever. “The next five years are going to be really interesting,” Stansbury said. “Because that group [of white male owners] is getting older and going to sell or go away or die.” They will be replaced by women, bilingual people, queer people — a whole range of funeral directors who can do a traditional embalming and burial, plus a cremation, an aquamation, a human composting, and any other service a family might dream up.

It's important to not only be out, you know, within the profession, but I hope also out front. - Timothy McLoone

Despite their differences, funeral directors keep coming back together. They’re the only ones who truly understand the 2 a.m. phone calls and the lonely hours in the prep room. Throughout the convention, I heard an undertaker’s job described as supporting people on the worst day of their lives, every day. Even to the people for whom deathcare is a calling, the work can take its toll. “I feel like a survivor,” Torres, the embalmer and Instagram influencer, told me about making it this far in the pandemic. “I'm just glad to be able to be back here.”

At 11 a.m. on Tuesday, right before I caught my flight home, I sat in on the annual service of remembrance. There, in an enormous ballroom, convention attendants, a designated chaplain, the Tennessee Funeral Directors Choir, and others gathered to honor the several hundred members of the funeral profession and their family members who had died in the last year, many of them as a direct result of COVID-19. “I hate conventions with a passion, but I love them,” Stansbury told me. “It is nice to be in a safe space where everybody that walks by understands the joys and the sorrows of what you do.”

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Photos by Diana lee Zadlo