I sell headstones…

Part of my daily work consists of dealing with the bereaved. I sell headstones. No wonder I’m such a cheery soul. You’d have thought that during my 4 years of service this would be something I’ve become ‘conditioned’ to. Only I haven’t. If anything it gets worse. There is nothing wrong with thinking, or talking, about death. In fact, I would say that most people avoid it – almost to the point where we avoid it too much. I’m not sure if it’s a British thing, or just a people thing, but some of us just seem to think we’ll live forever. Hope? Or perhaps it’s just too horrifying to contemplate our own mortality. Bury your head in the sand, pretend it will never happen. Faced with the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve realised, any which way you look at it, it has all become too much for my sensitive soul. I seem to absorb the emotion of others, feel things that don’t belong to me. It’s not MY sadness, my awkwardness, my anger, my grief… so how does it end up becoming mine? Sometimes I love that side of me – the ‘white witch’, the sixth sense, the gut instinct – always one step ahead. I am the person who struggles with huge crowds, has developed an awesome bullshit radar and has learned to cut energy vampires out of my life as quick as they walk in (there is no worse a person than those who try to ride on the back of others ‘goodness’. I hate Fake).

I have become wise. But I have also become sad in the process. I have no idea what to do with all of this emotion of death. It plagues my dreams and I constantly worry about how I will cope. Would cope. I have a lot of precious people in my life, as we all do. What would I do if they weren’t there anymore? It is always on my mind.

The angry, awkward customers are not so bad. I can deal with those. Be annoyed with me because I told you the church rules and it doesn’t fit with your ideal of a headstone. This I can cope with. I know you’re not mad at me (or the church) you’re just mad at death. Fling it, I’ll deflect it. I can cope with that.

Then there are the hopeless ones (in the nicest possible way). Delicate and fragile. Death makes us so. Mostly this seems to be those who have lost a life-long partner, their lives forever intertwined, people who have to relearn life skills at the latter stages of life because they have relied so heavily on someone else to do these tasks for them. Those who don’t know how to pay the bills, drive, shop, cook, clean. They tell me their troubles and I automatically want to help, but this is not my job. And sometimes, I know, the best thing for these people is to very quickly learn how to do all of these things they’ve never been able to do. Tough love, I guess. But hang on… Not my people, not my problem… right?

And then I worry about my Dad as I’m not sure he can make a sandwich [just a side issue. No-one has died].

Then there are those who still cannot utter the words they want to leave on the memorial because they are too consumed with grief. They choke on the words and cry uncontrollably and I wonder, which stage of grief is this? Are they ready to order the headstone? are they thinking straight? are they going to be OK? Only, I pass a tissue and hope they don’t stay too long at the ‘memorial sales desk’, for I’m about on the brink.. and if I burst into tears too then it’s all curtains (pardon the pun) and I really haven’t done a great job. I wait ’til they’ve gone, wipe away my own tears and find my stiff upper lip from wherever it went. Pull yourself together my love.

I see lots of very brave people. Death is heartache. There are many lives taken too soon, but then, what is too soon? It’s all subjective surely? But the show must go on. Where’s that Stiff upper lip?

Then there are my favourites. These are the people who talk fondly, and quite often with some hilarity and mickey taking, of the deceased. These are my favourite… but also the ones who affect me the most. Oh, to be remembered with a laugh and a smile – you can literally see the essence of that person come back to life in the eyes of the loved ones – and this brings a tear to my eye and a lump in my throat more than anything else. “Can we get an etching of a bottle of gin and a pack of Embassy on the stone, as they were the only hobbies he had?” Or “Can we put the dogs names on the stone with him as I think he loved them more than his wife?” OR “Can we leave a space for his Mrs.. something like ‘ AND ‘ER INDOORS’ will do.” This touches me mostly, I guess, as it reminds me of my own family. I hope people take the mickey out of me when I’m gone. The big, tall, ginger, socially awkward weirdo I am. The perfect epitaph.

So, I’ve made the decision to walk away, as I just can’t be forced to comprehend death on a daily basis. My time is up (selling the headstones – the rest I shall leave up to fate) and I’m moving on. Life is for the living and I am not ready to be permanently amongst the dead just yet (and yes, we literally sometimes have dead ‘Boris’ ashes in the office).

What do you do for a living?… “I see dead people.” In the pain of the deceased.

And, on this very cheery note, I shall leave you with some inspiration. One thing being around death has taught me is this – it ain’t no dress rehearsal. Cliche. Truth.


by Linda Ellis

I read of a man who stood to speak at a funeral of a friend

He referred to the dates on the tombstone from the beginning… to the end.

He noted that first came the date of birth and spoke of the following date with tears,

but said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time they spent alive on earth

and now only those who loved them know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not, how much we own, the cars… the house… the cash.

What matters is how we lived and loved and how we spend our dash.

So think about this long and hard; are there things you’d like to change?

For you never know how much time is left that still can be rearranged.

To be less quick to anger and show appreciation more

and love the people in our lives like we’ve never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect and more often wear a smile… remembering that this special dash might only last a little while.

So when your eulogy is being read, with your life’s actions to rehash,

would you be proud of the things they say about how you lived your dash?

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