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Undertaken: Transcript

Anita Rao 0:07
As a kid of two immigrant parents, a lot of my experiences with death have been at a distance. I didn't attend any of my four grandparents' funerals, because each was an ocean and multiple fights away. But in 2019, my dad's younger sister died, and his role in planning that funeral and cremation service gave me a front row seat to the world of death care, with all its moving parts. My aunt's end-of-life ceremony was a combination of open casket viewing prayers, offerings and adornment of her physical body, and then cremation. I was pretty terrified to walk up to my aunt's open casket, and then so moved when I saw her looking exactly as she would have wanted to: dressed in a sari, wearing gold jewelry, and her personal style of makeup — right down to the signature black eyeliner. I remember wondering who got her body ready, and how they knew to do it just right.

Nothing about that day was easy. Watching my dad break down and caress his sister's cheek, seeing my two cousins say goodbye to their mom. But thanks to the many folks working behind the scenes, we could focus on what we were there for: to grieve. This is Embodied, our show tackling sex, relationships and your health. I'm Anita Rao.

The work of funeral directors combines business, psychology, law and science. And while it's a profession necessitated by the facts of life, it's one that's undergoing a big transition. The median age for workers in funeral homes, crematoriums and cemeteries is close to 50 years old. And according to a 2020 survey, over half of the 55-plus constituent plans to retire by 2025. So who's going to be shaping the death care landscape in the years to come? It's folks like a recent recipient of California's Young Funeral Director of the Year Award.

Young Funeral Director of the Year Award Clip 2:12
In one of almost a dozen, dozens, of nominations received, this one person said of Jasmine, "Jasmine is a powerhouse of a funeral director and a shining example of what every one of us should strive to achieve. She knows the wisdom and fortitude of someone twice her age."

Anita Rao 2:35
That honoree was then 23-year-old Jasmine Berrios. And now 25-year-old Jasmine is here with me today. Hey, Jasmine, welcome to Embodied.

Jasmine Berrios 2:44
Hi, Anita. Happy to be here.

Anita Rao 2:46
So you're a licensed funeral director and embalmer in the state of California, you've been in the industry for more than five years. But your journey to getting here started when you were 11. You met a family friend who worked as an embalmer, take us back to that conversation and why it had such a big impact on you.

Jasmine Berrios 3:04
Yeah, I mean, it did start when I was about 11. It was during a family party, this family friend, you know, who just so happened to be there asked me the typical question that you asked children like, "Oh, what do you want to be when you grow up?" And I kind of told him, I didn't really know, that I was interested in science and helping people. So then we get into a conversation. And he asks, "Well, are you interested in the medical profession? Do you want to be like a doctor? A nurse?" And I was like, "No, not, not really." And he then says, "I'm an embalmer. Do you know what that is?" And I'm — obviously I say no. And so then he goes into explaining to me what he does, and seeing the industry through his eyes — I mean, he just captured me with a sentence, really. And he had just told me, he uses science to help one person on his table, and he cast a wide net on their family. And ever since then, I just, that's kind of how it all started. I've never looked back ever since.

Anita Rao 4:01
So you were 11, you were young, and you were telling people in your life that you wanted to do this work. And I know that like school counselors and parents, everyone was like, "Okay, this is just a phase, Jasmine is gonna grow out of this." But you you didn't. What was it that made you feel confident that this was what you wanted to pursue?

Jasmine Berrios 4:19
I just knew. I think that I was just so moved by being there for others. And I just, I wanted to be the hand that you held through the dark. I just was very passionate about being there for people and it also kind of satiated my need for the hard sciences. And I just, I knew that this was for me regardless on how anybody else felt.

Anita Rao 4:42
So when you turned 18 years old, a close friend of yours died and that ended up being the first funeral that you actually went to. Tell me a bit more about that experience and how it shaped your desire to get into this work.

Jasmine Berrios 4:57
Yeah, you know, when she died it was my first death experience really with a human. And she was my best friend, and it was gradual. You know, it was an accident, and then seeing her at the hospital setting, and then actually being there when they removed her ventilation was a whole different process. But I knew I needed to be there for her, to see her through her transition. She looked so different. And then actually going to the funeral and visitation. I mean, seeing her in the casket, she looked so beautiful. I mean, she looked as I remembered her. Less swollen, no bruising, no scrapes, her makeup, her eyeliner was perfect. Like how she would do it. It gave me peace. It — I didn't leave with the image of her in the hospital. I left with her, as I remember her always. And so just seeing her in the casket was a very peaceful experience for me. And I was so grateful to have been there. I was scared. I was so nervous to walk up to her casket, I had no idea what I was going to see, I'd never been to a funeral. And it was just a little awkward, even. You know, you don't even know when is the right time to walk up, and her family's Filipino, they're so, so kind. They're like, "It's okay, Jasmine, just come up, just come here, like, you can see her, come up." And, you know, I'm just very nervous. And so I think I just waited for, you know, another group of friends to come in. And we kind of did it together. And it's something I'm so grateful I had the opportunity for, and I just knew I wanted to provide that for others.

Anita Rao 6:34
So when you're in that moment, at a funeral like that, there's, there's so many people that are there that are walking you through all of this, that as kind of a layperson it's hard to know kind of who is doing what. Who's responsible for what. And I know that a lot of people have these kinds of questions for you. You talk a lot about your work on TikTok. So maybe just start with the basics for us, like what does a funeral director do? What is their role in a day like that in the process of dying?

Jasmine Berrios 7:03
Well, it usually starts with the first call. You may contact the first notification with the families when they're calling the funeral home notifying us that somebody has died and they would like us to bring their loved one into our care. We take down all the vital information that we need, get any appropriate paperwork signed so we can bring the person into our care. We bring the person into our care, have an appointment, talk about what they would like — whether that be burial, cremation, water cremation — and talk about what they'd like for the funeral services, down to the color of the flowers. So then after that point, I thankfully have the opportunity to then embalm the body, execute the funeral and move forward with either cremation or burial.

Anita Rao 7:49
So you are a licensed embalmer. In some states it is a separate license, so not all funeral directors are necessarily embalmers. Talk to me about how the two jobs are different.

Jasmine Berrios 8:01
Correct. So in the state of California, they do separate the licenses. So a funeral director typically is the person doing the paperwork and they're very family-facing, whereas embalmers can have the choice to not be family-facing. They could be the people that are only behind the scenes in the prep room, you know, doing the transfer of remains, picking people up from their place of death, bringing them back, doing the actual preparation of the body — whether that be someone who's unembalmed and maybe they just want their hair and body washed and the person who actually performs the embalming and does the cosmetics, the dressing. So the embalmer can definitely be very behind the scenes.

Anita Rao 8:41
Yeah, there are kind of differences in every state. But as you've said, there's kind of a common, I guess, a common set of job responsibilities that each of these roles hold. There's also kind of a common educational process. People get some kind of post-secondary education, they spend some time as an apprentice, they pass a licensing exam. What was mortuary school like for you? Like, what does it look like to get trained for a job like this?

Jasmine Berrios 9:07
Oh, I loved mortuary school. It was the — I loved mortuary school. I mean, I would truly sit in my seat before class began, and I would think to myself how grateful I am to be in the place that I wanted to be in for so long. And then we would go into learning about hardwoods and softwoods and casket parts and how, you know, this inch of the casket is specifically called this and so, even the fabrics of the casket — I mean all the way down to different funeral rites, accounting, it was so diverse. And also we would learn about organic chemistry and pathology. And so it, it really goes down into the hard sciences and chemistry because of all the chemicals that we're utilizing in our solutions to be able to choose the right one for every individual case, because everyone's bodies are very different. And the manner of your death will also help us determine what solution for this particular case.

Anita Rao 9:22
There are so many different aspects of this job that you are learning how to do. The technical, the legal, the scientific, the psychological and emotional. What was most daunting when you started as an apprentice kind of making that transition from mortuary school?

Jasmine Berrios 10:21
You know, I actually did my apprenticeship during mortuary school. I don't recommend it. I mean, it was working full time, while also being a student full time, it was very difficult. But I was so scared that I was going to mess up. I was going to accidentally swell someone, I was going to accidentally, you know, dye them too hot of a pink. And so all of these fears came up because you are the line that deciphers whether that family is going to have an open casket funeral or not, or if they're going to have a good experience or not. And it's a lot of pressure. So as an apprentice, I felt very scared that I was going to do something that my supervising embalmer could not undo. But thankfully, I had a lot of support and reassurance, you know, on her end of you know, "Whatever you can do, I can fix," you know, so, but it still never shook away the nerves. So it was really hard going through my apprenticeship if I'm being honest.

Anita Rao 11:25
Find out more about the challenges and rewards of working in the funeral industry when Embodied returns with Undertaken. We'll meet another funeral director and trace her path from death positive childhood to death educator. That's all just after this break.

Welcome back to Embodied, our show about sex, relationships and your health. I'm Anita Rao, and today, a conversation about death care with young folks in the funeral profession. We left off learning about the day to day work of funeral directors, which can vary from waking up at 2 a.m. to collect a body, to setting up for a funeral service, to spending hours at an embalming table. The days are long, and the job is physically and psychologically demanding. But there's a common reason why folks are drawn to this work: a desire to care for others. That's what we heard from our colleague, journalist Naomi Brown.

Naomi Brown 12:33
I have always been interested in death and dying, since I was a little girl. I think it started when I saw the funeral photo for Martin Luther King Jr., and I was probably, like, 6 or 7. And I just remember thinking, like, "Wow, he doesn't look like he's dead. He looks like he's just sleeping." But then I also remember thinking, "This guy is never coming back." When I went back to school in 2015, I got a job at a funeral home. And it was amazing. I got to see how funerals operated and I got to see what the embalmers did. It made me realize that this is what I want to do as a second career. It just showed me a different side of death that I hadn't seen or hadn't even thought of. Seeing how different groups mourn their loved ones, the Hindus, white people, Black people, Latino people. That's a whole thing in and of itself that I found interesting. I want to be able to help people get through the toughest time in their lives. Because whether you love this person or you're indifferent to the person who died or you hate the person who died, it's going to affect you in some way or the other, whether it's finances, whether it's memories, whether it's unresolved feelings. And if I can help make that easier for somebody, then that's what I want to do.

Anita Rao 14:28
Someone else who had that same deep level of curiosity about death and dying as a young kid is Joél Simone Maldonado. Aka The Grave Woman, the name she uses on her podcast and social media channels. Hey, Joél, welcome to the show.

Joél Simone Maldonado 14:42
Hi Anita, thank you so much for having me.

Anita Rao 14:45
So you have been in this death care profession for almost 15 years and like we were talking about with Jasmine, your passion for this work really has roots that go all the way back to your childhood. Tell me about young Joél and why she had this deep curiosity about death.

Joél Simone Maldonado 15:02
Definitely. So young Joél had an uncle named Uncle Mark. And Uncle Mark was a mortician who worked in Florida. And whenever Uncle Mark would come home for the holidays, or whenever he had the chance to take a break, I would bombard him with questions about the funeral home. I wanted to know everything. What happened to people when they passed away? What happened to their organs? What was an autopsy? What did you do with the organs after they were removed? How did you put people back together after they had been shot or been in tragic accidents? And Uncle Mark would answer each and every one of my questions with patience and detail, to the point where I asked him, could I go to the funeral home with him. And my family thought that perhaps after I went that curiosity would go away, because I'd be afraid. But instead, it grew and grew and grew to the point where every break that I got from school, I was going to Florida to spend time with Uncle Mark at the funeral home.

Anita Rao 16:04
I love this. What did you observe about kind of his style and artistry in the profession when you were hanging out with him in, like, the embalming room?

Joél Simone Maldonado 16:13
Oh, my gosh, the number one thing that I would observe was Uncle Mark's respect. Not only for the deceased, but for their families. One thing that he really impressed upon me was that death is to be respected, and therefore, his job, now our job as funeral directors, was important. And that we owed reverence and respect to the deceased and their families. I was also very attracted to the way that he would talk to people. A lot of times when someone passes away, we get really uncomfortable and expressing condolences, and we get really afraid to ask questions or uncomfortable with their emotion. But I observed that Uncle Mark would just talk to people, like you would in any other conversation, and people really resonated with that and opened up to him.

Anita Rao 17:03
In addition to these trips to spend time with your uncle, you also had a family that was really death positive, that was very involved in kind of helping folks in your community. And a family that was deeply rooted in particular death practices and customs. Tell me a bit about your family and the environment around death that you grew up in?

Joél Simone Maldonado 17:24
Definitely. So I am from Beaufort, South Carolina, which is called the Gullah and Geechee culture. And what the Gullah and Geechee culture is, is, it's the, the representation of our African roots. Because where I live, there's an area called the Port Royal Sound, which is where many of us as African American people were bought as enslaved people. And so a lot of those traditions and customs that were practiced in our homeland, are still very much so alive here today. And my family, my mother, my grandmother and other women in my community that were very important to me growing up, belonged to what was called the Missionary Society at our church. And what the Missionary Society does is — or did at that time — was they went out and basically took care of people that were in transition. We would visit people at nursing homes, pray for them, cleanse them, bathe them, offer spiritual, uplifting energy to them, as well as clean their homes, cook food for people when someone had passed away, and tend to family members who have lost loved ones through cleaning their homes, helping them take care of their children and doing small things that really mean a lot when someone passes away. So I grew up doing that not even realizing that in one shape or another that was almost like death doula-ship.

Anita Rao 18:51
Yeah, I mean, and you continue to kind of explore realms of this job without really knowing that you were doing it necessarily. You went to vocational high school and you got licensure in cosmetology and barbering. Talk to me about that and how that affected the direction that you wanted to take with your career.

Joél Simone Maldonado 19:10
Definitely, thank you for asking about that. When I was in the ninth grade, I was given the opportunity to attend the Academy for Career Excellence, which is a vocational school here, in my 10th grade year. And so upon enrolling that I met the instructor, the master haircare instructor, his name was Mr. Marwin McKnight, and Mr. McKnight really impressed upon us the fact that the original barbers performed bloodletting when barbering first started. And bloodletting was essentially the removal of blood to cure diseases. And that always stuck with me for some reason, I'm not sure why. And he also told us that a lot of times that people that come into barber shops and hair salons, they're not coming just to get their hair done, they're coming to feel better and they're coming to be taken care of. And that in combination with the experience with the funeral home planted a seed in my mind that I can't only do this for the living, I can do this for the dead. And so I've always known that I wanted to be like my Uncle Mark, I just never imagined that I would now be in the position to be teaching those things that I taught at vocational school about hair and makeup, cosmetics, caring for people and making people feel better and look better.

Anita Rao 20:33
So there's so much that goes into this, you mentioned all of the aspects of taking care of the physical body. And there's so much that you learn in mortuary school, but when you were actually in mortuary school it became clear to you that you weren't necessarily being prepared for how to celebrate and memorialize a diverse range of bodies and cultures. And you do a lot of education now yourself specifically through an organization you founded called the Black Death, Grief and Cultural Care Academy. So talk to me about some of the things that you want to teach the next generation of funeral directors that you didn't really learn yourself in mortuary school.

Joél Simone Maldonado 21:13
Yes, the Black Death, Grief and Cultural Care Academy was founded because in mortuary school, and in my work as a funeral director, I worked for a corporation and we got a tremendous amount of diverse clientele. It was called the Prep Center. And I noticed that my peers that were seasoned in the industry did not know how to do simple things like care for Black hair, or properly care for locs and twist or remove braids, or even do cosmetics on individuals that look like me. Not only that, I saw that some of my counterparts were very uncomfortable having conversations with Black families about their loss and about their grief experience. And unfortunately, I witnessed things that I consider to be unprofessional and disrespectful. And my response to that was to begin to educate. Again, educators had been very important to me, they came in the form of my Uncle Mark, Mr. McKnight, my mother, my grandmother and so I channeled that anger into having conversations with my peers. And it wasn't until I met my mentor, Ms. Anita Grant, that I realized I could teach these skills to other death care professionals across the world. And so now, the goal is to enlighten and enhance death care professionals' experience so that when someone comes into the funeral home that doesn't necessarily look like them, pray like them, speak like them or celebrate life like them, they'll have tools and resources that we provide that help them to have not only technical skills, but conversational skills.

Anita Rao 23:02
I want to bring Jasmine Berrios back into this part of the conversation too. Jasmine as a licensed funeral director and embalmer in California, you work at a funeral home that works with a wide array of families. And like Joél was saying, it means so much when you feel like your family member is taken care of in a way that is culturally sensitive, culturally competent. I remember, yeah, like what I said about seeing my aunt tied properly in a sari, I was like, that's amazing and means so much to our family. What are some of the, like, experiences that you had where you've had to learn to do something different because of a family's specific preference? And what's it like to do that kind of culturally competent care?

Jasmine Berrios 23:44
Well I'd like to agree with Joél on multiple points in terms of funeral service, education, I feel like it maybe didn't prepare me enough for what the realities of, of working with different cultures actually looked like, in terms of preparing of the body. Not really the funeral, but more so in how to deal with locs, how to, you know, take care of braids, how to do a saree, you know, and not all sarees are the same. Yes, like, and having those very clear conversations with the families as to how would you like the saree to be pleated? Or, you know, can you give me a photo of how she normally wore it? Or, you know, where do you want the bindi? It's very clear conversations and expectations. And when I first started, I was honest with the families. And I would even ask them to, if they felt comfortable, being with me during the dressing or the makeup process or any of the cosmetic processes where they felt comfortable enough to be in the room with me was something I highly appreciated because then I learned from them almost. And so we kind of did it together and you kind of grow a deeper relationship with a family, because now you are taking care of their dead together. And it's such a sacred, almost bonding moment between you and this family. But I've utilized that to then add that into my tool belt for, you know, future families I serve, who maybe don't want to be a part of that process. And Joél's very right, there are counterparts that are not comfortable serving people from different cultures, because they, you know, expect a different funeral or have different expectations for what they want their loved one to look like, or how they want the funeral to be ran. And it is sad to see, and for me, it's such an honor to be able to learn different cultures and to perform that funeral rite. I think it's a privilege to be a part of that different culture and to be a part of that specific death rite.

Anita Rao 25:51
Yeah, it's, I love the way that you describe that as a collaboration process. And Joél I'm curious about, I mean, what that's like. I can imagine that sometimes it doesn't go exactly according to plan. Like, have there been any times where you've made a mistake as a funeral director preparing a body? And how do you learn from that?

Joél Simone Maldonado 26:10
Oh, my gosh, have I made mistakes. Oh, goodness, yes. I'll give a simple mistake, something as simple as removing a nose hair or chin hair, not realizing that, that's that person's identifying feature to their loved ones. And I learned very quickly to get consent prior to removing hairs or anything that seems misplaced to me that one thing could be the thing that helps someone identify their loved one. Fortunately for me, I was able to use a hair extension

Anita Rao 26:47
Oh, wow.

Joél Simone Maldonado 26:47
to replace that hair, getting very creative. I think that people don't understand how much creativity and art, artistic creativity goes into the embalming process, into caring for the deceased, so being able to get creative and correct that mistake, thank goodness. But sometimes there are mistakes, like mentioned before, like swelling someone or not being able to remove edema, or using the incorrect chemicals that create colors that you have to correct with cosmetics, I've made so many mistakes.

Anita Rao 27:24
So there's so much that you all are doing in terms of the physical caring of the body, but there's also so many other aspects of the job and Jasmine, you're really open on your TikTok about all of the legal things that can make this job really stressful that I never would have thought about because they're really not visible to the public. Could you talk about some of those things that you have to do and have to make sure you do right and how you handle that?

Jasmine Berrios 27:51
Sure. I mean, it all kind of begins at the beginning. So we, in California, we follow a 7100 health and safety code on who is legally allowed to determine the type of funeral arrangements and the type of disposition for the person. And as we all know, not everybody has a perfect family. And there's a lot of family dynamics. For example, if there are multiple children involved, and they're all, you know, legal next of kin, and let's say two of the brothers have been estranged from the deceased, for I don't know how long but now you have to give the bad news to the siblings that are in front of you letting them know, well, they have equal rights as well. And we, we need their input. You become the bad guy, because you are now giving them some of the worst news that they didn't know that now they're legally having to oblige. And so for me, it's really unfortunate having these conversations because it's difficult for everyone. And I think I tell the family, at times, I'm honest, and I say, "You know, it would be easier for me not to follow this law, but I cannot do anything to change the law. It is as it is, these are my boundaries, you know, my hands are pretty much tied," and which is why I try to do as much death education to my knowledge to my state on the internet, and as much as possible to avoid these situations for families. I don't need them going through this on top of their grief, it's really difficult to watch them go through more than what they have to if they would have just known this information ahead of time.

Anita Rao 29:21
Totally. There's so much planning that is involved. And it's hard to do that in those moments of really deep grief. And Joél I know that this kind of experience up close to so much of the early stages of grief for folks has shaped how you think about grief and talk about what grief is. Could you tell us a little bit about that and how your perspective on grief has shifted because of this work?

Joél Simone Maldonado 29:48
So I tell people all the time, that grief is not so much of an emotion. It's an experience. And that was something that I actually learned from one of my clients who had come to me to work on some grief that she was dealing with, and I just — everyone's relationship with loss, whether it be the loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, a pet, anything, any type of loss is so different and so unique. And so I try to approach the conversation about grief, as individualistic as possible. I think a lot of times we try to compare our journeys with grief to the seven stages of grief that people are taught on the internet, which people don't realize was created to address anticipatory grief, when someone has the opportunity to say goodbye and to help their loved one transition, when that's not the case for everyone. Sometimes loved ones are taken from us suddenly and without warning. And if you're comparing your grief journey to someone else who's had that opportunity to say goodbye when you didn't, what good does that do for your experience in your journey with grief? And so I try to just have conversations with individuals and also help them create rituals and address the spiritual not so much dogmatic but the spiritual essence of the grief journey.

Anita Rao 31:19
Grappling with grief, working with families and their most difficult moments, handling regulations and paperwork — it is a lot packed into one job. So what are the unique strengths young people are bringing to this role? We're gonna get into that on Embodied, just after this break.

I'm Anita Rao, and you're listening to Embodied, a show about sex, relationships and health that takes on the taboo. For much of contemporary history, the vast majority of folks in the professional funeral services industry have been male and older. But a younger and more diverse cohort of funeral home workers are now adding their voices and perspectives to the industry. That's what our producer Kaia saw when she visited a young funeral director on the job in Durham, North Carolina.

Christopher Weaver 32:09
So this area here, it'd be where we would meet the families. And also this is what we call the conference room. I know last year, we met almost about 100 families last year, close to it. My name is Christopher Weaver. I'm 30 years old and we're at Weaver and Peaks Memorial Funeral Care. I was born in the business, my dad has been in the business for — up until the time he passed, over 40 years. So I've always been around funeral service from the time that I was born. You kind of understand that you're meant for something when it's pulling on your heartstrings. No matter how much you deviate from something, every one of us has a purpose. And I figured out this was my purpose. And I enjoy serving. This area here, if I can find the light, so this will be considered like a viewing area. So we're preparing for a funeral tomorrow. And so we, family has already came and viewed the body and gave us the approval and everything is set for tomorrow.

Out of 100% I will say at least 75% of us are, are young. A lot of people around my age have seen funerals, been to funerals. They've seen what has been around for the past few years. And I like to say people are hungry for something new. They're, they're looking for something, looking for a change. And I believe that's what we bring to the funeral industry in this area. What we do here at Weaver and Peaks. We try to cater to the families, personalize our funerals. We do a lot of things on the caskets, pictures on the top, names on them. We like to make funeral service colorful. It's not just black and white here. I tell the staff all the time, if after someone walks in this in this building, and they don't feel like they've been cared for then we failed at our job. That's why we're our new generation of funeral care. And that's why you hear care so much in what we talked about because we're noticing more and more that people need what we provide.

Anita Rao 34:42
That new energy and approach to death care work is embodied in the two people we've been talking to: Joél Simone Maldonado and Jasmine Berrios. So Jasmine, you are in your mid 20s. What role do you see young folks playing in shaping the direction of the funeral services industry right now?

Jasmine Berrios 35:02
I really think that young folks have a different opportunity that maybe the generations before us did not, in the sense that social media has been a catalyst for conversation of death care, death education and demystifying death. Our consumers are more educated, they understand that they have more options, whether that be with you or on the internet. And so what Millennials want is going to be so different than what their parents wanted. What Gen Z wants is even so different than what Millennials want. And I've had the privilege to serve both. So it's been really interesting to see the type of funerals that they would like and how involved they are, and how comfortable they are sometimes to even have these conversations. So I think that we have a different opportunity. Definitely.

Anita Rao 35:56
I know that this is really an aging field with an aging workforce at a time when our population is also much older, and there is an increasing demand for funeral services. So I'm curious about, like, what would it take to invite more young people into the profession, and Joél maybe some of the changes that you would want to see that would make it a more welcoming profession to younger folks.

Joél Simone Maldonado 36:22
I think younger people are breaking some of the unspoken rules of our industry, for example, caring for ourselves. Self-care has to be a priority for our industry to be inviting. Because people are younger and younger getting into this industry, that means that people are going to be starting families in this industry. And one of the unspoken rules was that you don't take time off for anything. I know, older embalmers and older funeral directors that were at work when their children were born. And I can't imagine that being the case for the younger generations coming into the industry. I think another thing that would make our industry a lot more inviting is that if we just started telling the truth about some things, accepting that we don't have to do things traditionally, there are other options and things don't have to be so expensive or secretive.

Anita Rao 37:20
Yeah, you mentioned taking a break. And I want to ask you about that from a personal perspective. I know that a few years into your time in the industry, you did decide to step away for a while for mental health reasons. Talk to me about that. What signaled to you that you needed to step away? And what was that experience like?

Joél Simone Maldonado 37:40
I'm a pretty upbeat person, a pretty positive person. And shortly after my uncle passed away, and after burying what seemed to be countless young Black men due to gun violence in the Atlanta area, I found myself doing things that just weren't in line with the core of who I know I am. Being impatient, being apathetic, at one point drinking excessively. And that was a trigger to me, especially since my Uncle Mark, the gentleman I was mentioning earlier, basically drank himself to death. I knew that that was not a path that I wanted to go down. And so I took some time off to seek out mental health resources and get back in alignment with myself. And it was the best thing that I could have done for myself personally, and for my career.

Anita Rao 38:32
Yeah, I mean, the burnout rate for this profession is really high. I was pretty stunned at some of the estimates that like half of funeral directors quit the profession within the first five years, which is — seems like a pretty alarming statistic. Jasmine, I want to put to you a question about, like, what solutions you'd like to see help manage the demands of this job, and, and maybe which of those that you're trying to implement for yourself?

Jasmine Berrios 38:58
You know, I think Joél was very right to say that this generation cares about their mental health. And they will decipher that boundary with the funeral profession as to how much is enough. Because the older generations are so used to dedicating their entire life to this. And those generations tend to judge the younger generations and say, well, they don't want to work. And that's not true. We want to be happy and also have a work life balance. And I don't think that's absurd. There's a revolving joke saying that our occupational hazard is cirrhosis of the liver due to alcoholism, but it's because of how aggressive, honestly, the attitudes and being in funeral service is. It's this high expectation that you need to dedicate your life to the industry or else you are not for it. And I believe that the newer generations are having appropriate boundaries, and saying "No, actually, I'm not going to be working tirelessly from 6 a.m. to 12 a.m. Or I want to take a vacation." And as management, you should be able to work within those limitations or have more staff. I think it'll just take some new thinking in terms of how to manage shifts and manage personnel. But there's not enough people who even want to be in the profession. Thankfully, I think I've found myself now, five years later, having more appropriate boundaries in terms of taking care of myself and not allowing myself just to completely be engulfed in this because I can't care for others if I can't care for myself.

Anita Rao 39:23
You have a TikTok video that really caught my eye where you talked about the pros and cons of dating a mortician. And it's kind of tongue in cheek, but there's, there's some real truths in there about kind of the demands of your job. How does this work affect your dating life?

Jasmine Berrios 40:55
Oh, man, how doesn't it? I think it's very, you know, it's always like a first date and you tell someone what they do. And they're like, "Are you serious?" And I'm like, "A little bit. Yeah." And so, they're so curious, though. And you know, you have this whole long conversation, but then it's uncomfortable when I'm canceling a date because a death occurred. And I have to leave because, for me, the family will take precedent. There's some things where of course, there's appropriate boundaries for if there's something more important in my life. But it's sad to say, but for a date, I will always put my family first. And so I have canceled dates. And people get very frustrated, and I'm working long hours, sometimes I'm leaving the funeral home at 1 a.m. And they were anticipating to have dinner with me, or they're frustrated because I'm on my phone answering emails. And so it has become very difficult to date because the lack of understanding of you know how much you are needed in this type of line of work.

Anita Rao 41:55
Totally. Joél, you've been married for a couple of years. What have you noticed about how the nature of this work informs how you connect with other people? And do you have any advice for Jasmine?

Joél Simone Maldonado 42:03
There's hope. There's someone out there that will understand Jasmine, I promise you, don't give up. But yes, I've been married for just over two years. And this line of work has completely shifted the way that I engage with people. I give people a lot more grace. Because at the end of the day, we truly do not know what someone else is going through, someone could have literally lost their best friend or their mom, and they're nasty to you as a response, or they're impatient with you as a response. I've also become very aware of the fact that the world does not revolve around me. I think prior to going to mortuary school, I was selfish. And I was unaware of how fragile life is. But this industry has completely changed that.

Anita Rao 43:03
I know that you are a big advocate for folks actively planning for their own death, researching funeral homes, writing out directives for what they want for their own bodies really, kind of taking charge of those things so that people know what they want. I'd love to know, Joél what are some of the desires that you have? And how have you communicated those to your loved ones.

Joél Simone Maldonado 43:27
My desires are fairly simple. I thought I wanted to be cremated, but my husband is Bahá'í. And that is something that is not allowed in his faith. And I do want us to be together. So I'm reconsidering that. But I want to be celebrated in a way that reflects my life. If I'm cremated, I'd like my family to take a trip annually and spread my ashes in places that I like to visit. For me travel is my self-care. And I want that to be a tradition or something that my family carries on. I'd just like to be celebrated and remembered the way that I live.

Anita Rao 44:08
I love that. Jasmine, I know that you already have particular embalmers picked out and lined up I think? Tell me more about about what you have planned and prepared already for your own death.

Jasmine Berrios 44:20
I do. And I've been very clear with my family and I do have an advanced health care directive listing an agent so, and that person is very well aware. I have a whole Google document on, you know, what I want to wear, references to my makeup, references to what type of makeup that I use, the brands, how I want my hair to look, how I want to smell, because all of those things are familiarities in terms of when people see me they're like, "Yep, Jasmine has that black eyeliner, she smells like this, and her hair is straight." And that's what I want. They know the type of coffin that I want. And my family knows I want an open casket viewing and whoever comes into the funeral home that wants to see my deceased human remains must say something about me. Good, bad, neutral, but you're there to continuously learn about the person too. That's the most beautiful part about the service is still learning about the person that you love, even though they're gone, because now you see them through a different lens. And that's what I want. I want people to be able to mourn, but also kind of find a little bit of peace during the funeral, of learning more about me and not leaving — they will leave sad and, and they'll leave with despair. But I mean, still taking pieces of peace with them when when they leave.

Anita Rao 44:21
It seems like you have you know, confronted all of the realities of of death in many ways by the day to day work that you do, by how thoughtful that you have been about what you want. Do you feel like there is a bigger shift in the conversation about death and dying? Or do you see it potentially shifting to being a more positive thing that folks talk about more openly?

Jasmine Berrios 46:06
I see it as more of an open conversation definitely, in terms of even people I meet when I'm grocery shopping, or getting my hair done, or any time I interact with someone and they asked me what I do, and I tell them, it opens up this huge line of questions. And I'm not sure if that's the experience older professionals had, because I've had conversations with them where they say people quite literally leave the room when they say what they do. And that they say that they're in funeral service because they made them uncomfortable. But that has never been my experience. My experience has been people's eyes get really wide and they're almost excited that they found someone to talk about this with. People have been more open to talk about their services and death and their experiences in in funeral service.

Anita Rao 46:57
Joél I know that death can be a really scary thing for a lot of people and scary to talk about, scary to think about, but I'd love to know about your fears and how doing this work has shaped any fear or feelings that you have toward death or how you die.

Joél Simone Maldonado 47:18
My fear is really twofold. I don't ever want my experience or my last experience with someone to be negative if I can help it, and so that's one part of it. And the other part is I used to fear dying, now more than anything I fear dying incomplete or dying not empty. Not having expressed every idea, every emotion, every I love you, every smile, every, anything that you can think of, even every tear, every disappointment, I want to experience it all. All that I can. And so, yeah, those are my fears.

Anita Rao 48:10
Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio-WUNC, a listener-supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast, consider a contribution at now. A big thank you to Jasmine and Joél for this conversation. And a special thanks to Naomi Brown and Christopher Weaver for their contributions to this episode.

The show was produced by Kaia Findlay and edited by Amanda Magnus. Paige Miranda also produces for our show. Skylar Chadwick is our intern and Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer. Quilla wrote our theme music.

If you have any thoughts after listening to this episode or any other we would love to hear them. Leave us a voicemail in our virtual mailbox Speakpipe. You could also write us a review and let us know why you listen, or text your favorite episode to a friend — all great ways to support our show.

Until next time, I'm Anita Rao taking on the taboo with you.

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