Assisting bereaved families through the grieving process is a challenging task for funeral staff. In addition to managing ceremony preparations, they are responsible for providing solace and support to those in mourning. Balancing these responsibilities while running the business can have a significant impact on the emotional well-being of funeral staff.
We spoke to Joseph Thomas, a seasoned funeral expert, to give us insight into how funeral staff maintain their mental health. Joseph has spent his life surrounded by the funeral service environment. As a fifth generation death-care professional, current mortuary college instructor, and long-time comedy enthusiast, he has helped countless grieving families find peace and upcoming professionals find their path. In this interview, Joseph shares his personal experience in the industry, strategies for maintaining mental health, and humor’s effectiveness in coping.
The following interview was conducted alongside Joseph Thomas. Some responses have been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Amy Liebaert: Funeral directing is in your blood, but have you always felt a calling to the industry?
Joseph Thomas: Absolutely not. I grew up on a steady diet of SNL reruns, The Kids in the Hall, Monty Python, and a lot of standup comedy. My goal from the time I was young was to be an actor and comedian. I even went to college to major in Theatre, but I changed after my first year when my great uncle died. At his funeral, I saw the impact he’d had on his community through his work at the funeral home, so I decided to major in Business and join the rest of my family. Accounting classes were a special kind of torture for me, so in the middle of my undergraduate work, I left to attend mortuary college in Nashville and came back as an English Major for my bachelor’s degree.
AL: Beyond legacy, what made you realize that you had a passion for helping others?
JT: Well, I think the comedy thing stemmed from two things, one selfless and one more selfish: a desire to make people feel good, or at least better, and a love of attention. Moving back to my hometown and working in the funeral home, in all honesty, checked both of those boxes. I was in a position to help people feel better in what might be the worst time in their lives, and I used jokes and laughter to do so— appropriately, of course. The biggest thing for me, though, was working with grieving people and seeing them brighten up as our discussion progressed. It was rewarding to watch people walk in sad and leave laughing.
AL: There’s a misconception that those working in death-care are immune to grief. How has this stoic expectation affected your relationship with mourning?
JT: I think it’s confusing to people because, while we’re obviously not immune, we do tend to show our grief differently—at least that’s been my experience. When my uncle died last November, I remember the first thing I said was, “Well, who’s going to be in charge of the arrangements?” That was fine in the moment, but without making the decision to process grief, funeral directors can get themselves into some tough psychological and emotional situations. It’s easy to approach personal losses the way we do all the other ones because to do otherwise is unfamiliar and can be scary. We’ve got the same temptation to ignore our own grief but with a much more convenient way to do it which isn't always a great combination.
AL: I’ve heard burnout is a major issue in death-care. What is your experience?
JT: My experience is that I worked for 13 years at the same funeral home with my parents…almost every day. That alone was tough, but especially combined with the fact that I was working in the same facility that my grandfather had managed since 1955 (this was 2004 when I started). When he became ill and I returned from college showing up looking, acting, thinking, and sounding just like him but younger, I started to feel pressure to live up to his legacy. My burnout didn’t stem from overworking, but from over-feeling, over-thinking, and general agonizing. On top of that, any time I was emotionally drained the older funeral directors would remind me how much harder they had it, all while showing disappointment that I was letting down the family name. Their comments brought about feelings of inadequacy: If they could handle it, then why can’t I? Eventually, I decided to leave funeral service, and my hometown, completely. We moved to Memphis, and I tried to find my place. The nagging reality was that funeral service was my place, but I could not allow myself to do it the way I had in the past, so I returned but with boundaries.
AL: On days where getting out of bed and confronting heavy emotions feels overwhelming, how do you perform your duties without sacrificing your sanity?
JT: With my current positions, which are funeral/cemetery sales manager and mortuary college instructor, I don’t work with grieving folks nearly as often which can be simultaneously a positive and a negative. As far as maintaining sanity, a student had emailed me that she had a quote from my Funeral Service Counseling class hanging over her desk at work. The quote was, “Seriously, get a hobby,” which isn’t nearly as profound as I’d hoped, but it’s still really important. I have to find things totally unrelated to work and make time for them. My thing, as I mentioned earlier, is comedy. If I’m picking the movie for a family movie night, it’s going to be a comedy. I also perform in Memphis’s lone improv and sketch comedy troupe, The Bluff City Liars, and write short pieces for whatever humor publications will pick them up. The duties are what they are, and a lot of them are emotionally draining, so finding something totally separate outside of work is invaluable.
AL: Work-life balance is a term that gets tossed around a lot in the industry. Since grief does not just exist 9-5, how do you maintain a healthy separation from work and its emotions?
JT: Separation has to be intentional, and I feel like it comes from the knowledge that, while it’s a very important and sensitive job, it’s still a job. The thing that affected me the most was that my grandfather managed the funeral home in my hometown for nearly 50 years and just eight years after he died, I was already encountering people who didn’t know anything about him. I thought about people who are so devoted to their jobs that they neglect other things and how the same thing will happen to them eventually. If legacies are that fleeting, why would I dedicate my entire being to either? I think it goes back to having something outside of funeral service that you enjoy and making time for it. If all you do is work around sadness and then go home to dwell on it, I don’t think it matters how rewarding the job is. It’s going to take a toll.
AL: Some may say comedy and the funeral business are on opposite sides of the spectrum - what are your thoughts?
JT: I disagree completely. The funeral services I’ve experienced where people leave feeling better— the ones where people make comments like, “That was one of the best services I’ve ever attended,” are the ones where there is at least a dose of laughter, whether it’s from recollections from childhood friends or even the minister messing up a name. Second, when I interviewed the founder of the satirical news site, The Onion, a couple of years ago for my old podcast, he made a wonderful point on the relationship between the two. It was that, because we don’t expect funny things to happen in the funeral home, anything funny that does happen is magnified. It’s exponentially funnier than in a coffee shop or grocery store.
AL: No one really understands the complexity of emotion in death-care quite like your peers. Do you often turn to other death-care professionals for support?
JT: Personally, I don’t turn to too much of anyone—not because I don’t need to, but because I’ve never been good at it. It’s something I’m trying to improve about myself, and I am getting better…slowly. There is value, though, in leaning on others in the profession. It reminds us that we’re not alone in feeling what we feel. When you remove isolation from the equation, it makes everything a little more palatable.
AL: If you could give current and future funeral directors only one piece of advice to maintain their mental health, what would it be?
JT: I’m cheating here because it’s actually multiple pieces of advice that I’ve structured as one sentence (one of the perks of being an English major), but I’d say remember these things: Make time for yourself because you are more than your job, learn to laugh even when things are uncomfortable, and seriously, get a hobby.
Finding mental clarity in a fast-paced and emotionally strenuous environment can prove to be difficult. That’s why incorporating coping mechanisms such as humor and hobbies can make all the difference when it comes to reducing burnout and managing grief. At Cadence, we understand the importance of self-care and hope that Joseph's insights will help others in the industry prioritize their well-being. If you’d like to add to this conversation or provide us insights from your own experiences, click here.
Interview with Joseph Thomas, funeral sales manager and mortuary college instructor.