Thinking Outside the Coffin

An interview with Funeral Director Carolyn Thompson

It’s autumn, and death is in the air. Dried, brown leaves crunch underfoot as summer gardens succumb to the first frost. Suburban front yards are dotted with tombstones, while skeletons, zombies and other ghouls ring doorbells in pursuit of candy. Wiccans prepare for Samhain, that time of year when the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is said to be thinnest. In many ways, October is the ideal time to talk about death. Unfortunately, it’s a conversation few people want to have.

Pittsburgh funeral director Carolyn Thompson is out to change that. Here she shares her views on planning for the end of your life.

How did you become interested in the funeral business?

I was a caterer for 15 years, so I spent a lot of time thinking about “life events.” After my mother died, I started thinking about “end of life events”. People want their weddings to be uniquely about them; why wouldn’t they want the same for their funeral? In 2010, I attended the Pittsburgh Institute of Mortuary Science (PIMS). I worked at a local funeral home and got my license in 2012, and then went back to PIMS to teach. My passion in funeral service is looking at the future of the industry in relation to memorialization and personalization. Essentially, how we can redirect the industry to better serve our families?

What were the most surprising things you learned in school?

Initially, I was very interested in green (natural) burial. I was surprised to develop an appreciation for embalming and the opportunity it can provide in some unusual situations for people to be able to view their loved ones one more time. Mortuary school helped me develop a respect for embalming, but the biggest surprise was discovering that I actually enjoyed the process.

Has working as a funeral director changed your views about death?

I think I’ve always been pretty accepting of death, but funeral service really drives home the reality that we don’t get to pick what we get in life. Some of us get 90 years, and some of us get far less, and there isn’t often a rhyme or reason why. What really matters is what we do with the time that we get.

What are the best and worst parts of the job?

People would ask me, “Why do you want to be a funeral director? You’ll always be at a funeral!” But that’s actually the best part for me. I’m always at a family gathering, hearing amazing stories about people’s lives, witnessing reunions and seeing some of the best in people. It’s also a tremendous privilege to be able to be there for people on the worst day of their lives. It’s so gratifying to hear that you made a difference for someone.

The worst part of the job was the hours! I love sleep and being on call was tough. But when the phone rings at 3 am, you have to get up and put on a suit and go out – rain or shine!

The hardest thing by far for me was the deaths of babies and children. There is no blueprint in life for when children die. It’s incredibly painful for everyone around that family, including the funeral home staff, and it takes a lot of emotional energy to be present for the family and deal with your own feelings in the situation. I think all the things you have to discuss with the family at those times are things that no one ever wants to imagine having to think about.


Everyone jokes about Pittsburgh being ‘10 years behind the times’ in fashion, food, etc. Is this true in the deathcare industry as well?

Well, yes. Pittsburgh is very traditional in many respects, including funeral service. For example, the national cremation rate is on the rise and just about 50% on average; Pittsburgh is just under 35%, while places like Seattle are closer to 80%. Traditional viewings and burials are very common in Pittsburgh, awhile some of the newer trends like holding services in art galleries, parks or other outside venues are only just starting to become popular. We’re also starting to see funeral celebrants becoming an option that people choose in place of a member of the clergy, especially if the deceased or their family isn’t religious. Funeral service is moving toward personalization and more meaningful memorialization, and Pittsburgh is headed that way, too

How will marriage equality affect the funeral industry?

Marriage equality will have a huge impact in our LGBTQ community when it comes to funeral service. The person with the legal right of disposition, which for single adults often means their parents or children, makes funeral arrangements. With unmarried same-sex couples, one person’s family may step in at the time of death and disregard the rights of their partner. Before
marriage equality in PA, in my own experience, I was happily surprised to see funeral directors trying very hard to do everything they could do to help LGBTQ families keep as much control as possible. However, we’ve all heard horror stories of someone who lost a partner and the decedent’s family shut them out as though their relationship never existed. Same-sex marriage will at least give same-sex families the same legal rights. Many of the issues between all families at the time of need are based on lack of pre-planning, so it is important for all people to communicate their wishes and to make arrangements for their end of life.

You’ve talked a lot about alternatives to the traditional funeral. What are some of the changes you’d like to see more people embrace?

I believe funerals should be a celebration of a person’s life. That doesn’t mean that every funeral should be a party (though I hope that mine will be someday!) but rather the focus should be on creating a meaningful tribute. Funeral celebrants are a great step in that direction; a celebrant crafts a service that speaks to a person’s life, family, accomplishments and passions by incorporating meaningful stories, photographs, music, hobbies and memorabilia. I also think taking the funeral out of the funeral home is something that more people should consider and something more funeral homes should offer as an option. Why not have your funeral or memorial at a favorite gallery, restaurant, or club? When we consider our life events, we personalize every detail down to the color of our napkins; why not do that for end of life events, too?

What are the biggest mistakes people make when it comes to death planning?

Well, not doing it is, of course, the main issue. I know people don’t like to talk about death, but (and I hate to be the person who is always pointing this out) we’re all going to die someday.

Another big mistake people make is saying, “Oh you don’t need to have a funeral for me when I’m gone! Just cremate me (or bury me)!” It’s necessary for people to be able to mourn their loves ones and funerals or memorials are how we start that process. Telling your loved ones not to do anything creates a message that they then have to disobey in order to do what they need to grieve. What we should say is, “Do something simple for me, but also do what you need to do to have closure.”

Things to Do Before You Die

Many of us have a “bucket list” — a checklist of places to visit and activities to try before we die. While these often include dream vacations and fun adventures, Carolyn thinks everyone should spend at least a little part of their life planning for the end. Here are four things she encourages everyone to do now:

  • Talk to your doctor about creating an Advanced Healthcare Directive (“living will”) that specifies which medical treatments you do and don’t want towards the end of your life, and names a healthcare agent to make decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated.
  • Think about what you’d like to have done with your remains. Do you want to be buried in a family plot? Would you rather be cremated and have your ashes scattered in a special place? Do you plan to donate your organs, or perhaps even give your entire body to science?
  • Talk honestly with your loved ones about your wishes (and theirs) regarding funerals. Do you prefer an open or closed casket viewing (or neither)? Religious rites? Music? Donations to charity in lieu of flowers? Maybe a party, group activity or memorial service somewhere other than a funeral home is more your style? Don’t be afraid to talk about what would be most meaningful to you. Once you know what you want, make sure your loved ones know it as well. People mistakenly assume their last wishes only need to be specified in their will, however the will is often not read until after the funeral.
  • Talk to a funeral home about pre-planning a funeral, whether or not you’ll be paying for it now. If nothing else, it will help you understand the kinds of decisions you’ll need to make later on.