While my best friend was grilling sirloins at Ponderosa Steakhouse and after I’d already tried filling “Papa,” “Mama,” and “Teen” baskets at the A&W restaurant in Ithaca, NY, I went down to Herson’s Funeral Home and asked the esteemed Mr. Matthew J. Herson himself for a job.
He hired me for $3.33 an hour. I was 18 years old and not only did I find my niche, I was in my glory!
For the next four years, I did it all. No, really …
I. Did. It. All.
I drove the hearse with the, ah hem, “client” riding in back. I picked up bereaved families in the Herson’s new 1976 silver Cadillac. I set up chairs, greeted guests, and picked up new caskets for delivery to Herson’s. I vacuumed the chapel, washed cars, and mowed the Herson’s lawn at their fine home near Cayuga Lake, one of the renowned Finger Lakes of UpState NY.
But there’s more. Much, much more.
I picked up the deceased right where life had ended for them. It was a grandpa who fell asleep watching a Yankee game on his couch and never woke up and then an elderly lady in her nursing home bed. Sadly, on some days, it was a young dad in the morgue following a tragic auto accident and Cornell students who’d chosen to end it all in the gorgeous gorges of Ithaca.
Somebody had to do this all-hours-of-the-day work—and for me it sure beat flipping burgers.
I recall one time, Mrs. Herson phoning my home at 4am. After my dad answered the phone and came to wake me up, I bounded down the stairs, ran through the living room, and into the kitchen where the phone was affixed to the wall (yep, I’m that old) with so much energy that Mrs. Herson’s opening words were, “Wow, I could hear you coming!”
That’s exactly right, Boss, because I love this business and everything about it!
And then there was the embalming. Oh my, did I mention I’d found my … passion!?!
The first time I was called in to help the on-staff mortician embalm (a woman in her 90’s), he stopped me just outside the door to the embalming room and said, “Now, John, the first time I assisted in one of these I almost fainted. So if you start feeling queasy, feel free to step out.”
No stepping out was required for this young man!
I asked a million questions—fascinated by every aspect of the process—and before I knew it I was doing stuff and seeing stuff in that room that few 18-year-olds dreamed of doing or seeing.
I suspect many of you would not find any of this to be your “cup of tea.”
But I went on to help embalm so many people during my Cornell years, that my gal, Karen—now my wife of 33 years as of 6/21/13—became so accustomed to the smell of formaldehyde on me she almost stopped noticing it.
Now, you might be wondering why I didn’t turn my college years’ work experience into a career. Honestly, I’m not sure what caused me to choose a different path, especially since the Herson’s graciously offered to put me through mortuary science school.
I suppose upon graduating from Cornell in 1980, it seemed natural to step from the campus into the business world. The problem was this: It wasn’t much fun. My new corporate “8-5” desk job was just that—a job. Oh, how I missed the funeral home where the hours flew by like minutes because I was being challenged, learning every day, truly serving people, and having fun!
Thank goodness I found all of that again when in 1986 I fell into a career selling training. How fortunate am I to have experienced this twice in my life! Everyone should be so blessed.
What about you? Do you have a job where you’re waiting for your next paid vacation day or do you have a career where the years are flying by faster than most people’s Monday mornings!?
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