“Prior to Covid, would you attend a wedding ceremony without the bride and groom? No. Well then why would you attend a funeral service without the body being present?” – Courtney Baloney, Funeral Director and Embalmer at Treasures of Life, a funeral services center in St. James Parish, Louisiana.
Last December, Digital Dying ran a lengthy interview with Courtney Baloney about his experience working as a funeral director in a unique part of America that has been among the regions hardest hit by the coronavirus: The Louisiana Funeral Director at the Center of Covid-19: An Exclusive Interview With Courtney Baloney. We are following up here with the second part of our extraordinary interview with Courtney.
Here he goes into detail on the issue of cremation, another potent topic in the funeral community and one that Covid-10 has brought back into focus. What constitutes a proper good-bye, and what role does the human body play in the funeral ceremony? Must a body be seen in person by those in grief? Is a body something that should be worked upon in death, made to look beautiful, and mastered like an art project? Or should the body be able to dissolve back into the earth in a more ‘natural’ manner?
We have written about these topics at length here at Digital Dying. Back in 2013, we interviewed Jason Engler, an author, and official historian at the Cremation Association of North America. And in 2018 we interviewed Josh Slocum, Executive Director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, a controversial funeral industry critic.
And we have written about everything in between, including robot morticians, green burials and mushroom suits, Asia’s futuristic columbarium, New Orleans Most ‘Extremely Embalmed’ corpse, the world’s most beautiful mummy, cremated remain burials in artificial coral reefs, cremated remains mixed into paint, and even cremated remains being launched into space. It is fair to say, cremation and embalming are topics we have covered near and far here at Digital Dying. Yet perhaps no one has expressed their views with as much empathy and power as Courtney.
In an age when the practice of embalming seems to regularly be on the receiving end of fresh criticism, and new modes and methods of death-care have blossomed, Courtney’s words add needed complexity to the issue, and will likely turn a few heads too. And if you want to read the first part of our interview with Courtney about his experience handling the coronavirus pandemic as a funeral director in rural Louisiana, you can find it here.
Stay safe and warm everyone, and enjoy this exclusive interview with funeral industry rock star Courtney Baloney!
Can you tell us more about just how you got into this profession?
I am a third-generation mortician and grew up in a family business. This is something I knew I always wanted to do from the moment I was able to have a recollection. When I tell you literally out the womb, that is what I mean. I was going on first-call transfers probably at the age of two or three years old. My grandfather would bring me to the funeral home and that was my daycare. We may have picked up death care certificates or made a hospital call. It wasn’t being forced into the family business, no, it was more like they had to tell me, ‘Boy, you too young!’ I was all hands on deck from an early age, putting on the gloves, going to conventions with my dad and my mom. Give me a pen and paper and I would draw a hearse with dead bodies. Some kids like Drew Brees, and want to throw around a football, other kids want to be Jordan. I wanted this.
Even as a kid I could start a discussion about death. I remember talking to people around here and they were like, ‘Young man what are you going to do for a living?’ And I’m like, ‘I’m gonna bury you.’ And they would be like, ‘What you mean you gonna bury me?’ And my mom would say, ‘No, he means he is going to follow in his father’s footsteps.’ I would be at school and I would get home and see the garage door up and the car was gone and I knew we had a call. I would think, ‘Well why didn’t he come get me!?’ I was upset that my dad didn’t pick me up at school to bring me on a call with him. When I opened my own funeral services business my god mom sent me a great meaningful card talking about me doing what I always wanted to do. She reminded me of a time I was nine years old on vacation at AstroWorld, and I would be crying and wondering what was going on back at the funeral home. I wanted them to put me on a flight to come back to the funeral home because I missed it so much.
I still get the jitters every time I get a call as if it is actually my first call. You would think the excitement would have died down by now but I still get excited. I am excited about all the relationships I have made, and about the learning experience. Of course, death and dying is inevitable, but the manner in how we treat these families is something that develops and goes on to another generation. I just find that so powerful. When I was younger I saw it more from a scientific point of view, but now I see it more from the family and relationship point of view. You know I am not the butcher in the meat shop cutting up meat. This is something where someone has entrusted to me their mom who for 92 some years has taken care of them, and now I have been entrusted to take care of her and prepare her for her final goodbye.
Can you talk more about overcoming the funeral industry’s bad name’?
It will be nine years in January that I stepped away from my family business. Before I left, starting in about 2008, I was trying to develop more relationships and expand my horizons with embalming, by doing trade shows and things like that. I opened Treasures of Life in 2008. I wanted a name that had meaning and really represented the business. Even today people are like Treasures of Life, where did you get that? It took at least a year of bubbling in my head. If a family had never met me and really had to go off a name they might say, wow, Treasures of Life, that is interesting, you are going to treat my loved one like a treasure.
I just have been in this industry for so long, I have seen the ups and downs. I have seen the negative impacts funeral homes have had. That is why it has become so impersonal because people in our industry and profession have taken advantage of families. They haven’t properly conveyed the value of a meaningful funeral. A funeral consummates the grieving process. It allows us to realize that this person has passed. This is why cremation rates have risen so high, due to a lack of compassion and a lack of care. The physical representation of the body and its appearance is so important.
If someone died of an illness or disease where it wasted someone’s remains and you entrusted Treasures of Life to care for them and Treasures of Life didn’t do anything extraordinary, and the family’s loved one looked as though they were dead, they looked as though they had suffered, verse looking as if they were at peace then that is a mark against me. I don’t want that. What I want is somebody to say, ‘Ah man, I know mom suffered in her illness, but those embalmers at that funeral home made our mom look okay. The way they had her hair and her makeup was beautiful, it just exploded, she looked great!’ That is the type of impression I want someone to walk away from Treasures of Life with. We want to preserve what we once had.
Cremation rates are rising across the country and there is regular criticism of embalming, yet you are a passionate defender of embalming. Can you talk about why the practice is so meaningful to you?
Cremation rates have risen because people are not giving a damn about the person they have on the funeral home operating table. My cremation rates are low because this is a traditional area. You have to treat the situation as though that it is something happening in your own home. Would you half-ass the job if it was your own mother? Would you stop because it was 6 pm and go home? But instead, folks get complacent and some are not as compassionate. And for some this just isn’t their calling. They just do what their boss tells them to do and nothing extra.
Embalming is a part of the funeral process that helps people in their grief. I think folks have been misled on embalming, or maybe just due to cultural differences, they have been confused. People say, ‘Oh, I can’t see him like that, we are just going to cremate him.’ Well, you are not canceling your grief, you are just prolonging your grief. They say, ‘Out of sight, out of mind,’ but for one thing, this was a human being. From the moment we are born till the moment we die, for any culture, we are born to say hello and goodbye. It is an unfortunate thing when we have a funeral without a body present because then one must ask the question, did you really get to say goodbye? Prior to Covid, would you attend a wedding ceremony without the bride and groom? No. Well then why would you attend a funeral service without the body being present?
There have been countless news articles and journal articles on this topic. Did they have a good funeral if they never saw the body? In my experience, if someone never saw the body there is always a niggling thought in the back of the mind. Think about the 9/11 tragedy. If you interview any of those families who lost a loved one, they are still thinking that one day their loved one is going to walk through the door, because they never got to have a final moment with the body. One of my mentors was at 9/11 doing forensics work. They would recover whatever they could recover. He talked of a moment when they recovered a piece of a finger, and how helpful that was, because that was something.
Tell us more about your mentor?
My mentor’s name is Vernie Fountain and this man has so much history. He was actually in the room when John F. Kennedy was being autopsied. During 9/11 he worked as a forensic investigator with medical officials in New York to actually retrieve the majority of what was left of those individuals. He has developed training manuals on mass fatalities and disaster response. He changed my life when it came to my embalming career. He also feels the same way I do about embalming and restoring individuals and meeting him was powerful because I didn’t think there were any other people who cared the way I did. I remember asking him what it would take to tell a family, ‘No’ and he said, ‘Not having a body present.’ And that is the way I feel too. The person would have to have been disintegrated in a bomb where there was nothing to go from, I mean nothing. That is how extreme and sincere and committed I am to this profession.
I went to mortuary school at Delgado Community College in New Orleans and started a master’s program at the University of Florida in forensics but there are technical skills and legal matters and issues as to how you can relate to and communicate with families that I learned most from Vernie. I also met a number of international colleagues through him. Vernie has an international embalming academy for advanced practitioners in Springfield Missouri where we have a chance to work on medically donated individuals. There we can recreate situations that deal with a worst-case scenario, like a gunshot wound, a car accident, or any disease that rearranges the face. Meeting these types of people is one of the best things that could have happened because through the coronavirus we have been sharing ideas and information.
Let’s get back to embalming, a lot of people have some very specific criticisms of the practice, based on environmental and sustainability issues, can you speak to that?
Some people argue against embalming because of the nature of it. Embalming is the only way I have been able to come out of the stressful situation of the coronavirus. Embalming to me provides a final healing for the family. It is not that I healed the disease, I was able to provide a lasting tribute to a family because of embalming.
One gentleman around here, he was struggling with depression, and he jumped off a bridge. It was a high bridge, and he was in the water for seven days. So if someone is in the water for seven days he is going to be heavily decomposed, and this gentleman was grossly swollen. This gentleman had been in the water for so long he got caught on the back of a boat propeller and it nearly sliced him in half. The damage was extensive. It was beyond the scope of the average embalmer. The average embalmer would have told the family it is going to be a closed casket funeral. And the nature of how the mind has been trained, the family will then say, if it is going to be closed casket, I might as well cremate. But my thoughts were, No, I am going elbow deep, and I am going to use everything in my power to bring this body to something the family can identify with.
The coroner had indeed told the mother they would have to do a closed casket. She said she had no idea how she was going to move on. There was nothing she could do, there was no funeral, there was nothing. But I was able to provide a funeral for his mother. And you know, to this day his mom still sends me cards. She tells me if she had listened to the coroner she would have had a closed casket and had to force herself to remember what he was like. So, what you did for me is you made it possible for me to see my son one more time. And what I tell you is, that was priceless. You can’t buy that. My family’s business was always known for great embalming, but being on my own now, I see even more just how important the experience of seeing the body one last time is for families.
I find that some folks in my profession look at a dismantled remains or remains that had some type of mass trauma or something high velocity, whether it be from gunshots or a car accident, and shy away. They treat the remains as if it were a vehicle, ‘Oh man, that car is totaled, there is nothing we can do for it.’ But you need to have passion. Otherwise, you won’t be able to take on a difficult job. God has a hand in this.
You seem to be taking a serious stance against cremations, can you explain that a bit more?
Look, there is nothing wrong with memorials. But a cremation is irreversible. We can’t turn that back. We had a service recently and the woman’s husband’s wishes were to be cremated but he didn’t express that to her family. So on the day of the funeral folks walk in and say, ‘Hey, where the casket? Where the body?’ And someone says, ‘He in that urn.’ You know what, immediately, instantly, ten folks walk out. They said, ‘Well, I don’t need to be here.’
That was another light that went off for me. I said, hey I need to notate that, put this down in my journal. So, if there is no body, people think, ‘How do you know he really died?’ People were coming to this service because they needed to see the body one last time, for their closure. I don’t think cremation gives closure. People are like, ‘I just want to remember him how I last saw him.’ Well, the last time you saw him, this person was 90 pounds and in life mostly he was 160 pounds. If you are going to remember him how you last saw him, you are going to be grieving him forever. Sometimes people grieve before because when their loved one is in hospice they are preparing for death and they say, ‘Oh my god it is a tumultuous task, I have to literally watch my loved one wither away in front of my own eyes.’ And say I am just gonna remember him how I last saw him, well that won’t be a good memory.
People say, we are going to pay all that money and we only see mama for two hours. And in the back of my mind I’m saying, wow, I am doing all that work for two hours. But it is so powerful because it is your mom. It is the person who brought you into this world, the last light on earth after 80 years this is what it looks like in the end, this is what death looks like. This was a life. Unfortunately, we all will have to die to pass through this life. But how are you cared for now, and how will you be remembered? We give people tributes. When we reach a certain milestone, when we have an award, when we get married, when we have children. So, when we pass from this life we have friends who come to celebrate. Wouldn’t a celebration be more meaningful if we were there, vs if we were not there?
Can you talk us through the specific details of your craft—and better explain the art of embalming?
In our profession, the face is the center of all things. People come in to see a human body, but the face is the center. That is the most important aspect of the funeral viewing. Folks are not coming to see how pretty your hands are, they come to see the face.
My goal is to do what I can to make someone more presentable. People have all types of anomalies and abnormalities on their bodies. Some people are proud of things and sometimes they are not so proud. And there is a way that embalmers have to either display or withhold the information. There are things I do behind the scenes that the family would never know about unless I told them. One of the first things I do before I even touch the body is, I pray. Of course, prayer is powerful to me. And I need to pray over this individual before I begin any work.
Then, I am going to disinfect the mouth, because of course if anything escapes it is going to infect me and the mouth is one of the easiest orifices to come in contact with. I use a special solution that kills anything that poses me a threat. Then I am going to brush the loved one’s teeth. Brush the teeth? Yes, I brush the teeth! People say, well why brush the teeth? They can’t see it. For me it is not about what you see, it is about the value of a human life. Every morning a person wakes up they brush their teeth, so just because this person ain’t living doesn’t mean I am not gonna do what this person did when they were living. I am also going to cut the toenails. I am going to do it because it is right, but I also have been snagged by a toenail before.
Getting back to the issue of cremation, and the coronavirus, have you found that Covid-19 has pushed more people toward cremation, either by choice or by restrictions imposed by the virus?
Some funeral homes here were telling families that they had to cremate, and that was not the case and in some cases, these families found out. Well, that is going to be the demise of that funeral home. We have been trained to know most formaldehyde kills any pathogenic bacteria and any microbiological, so why would you tell an individual you have to cremate someone with Covid-19? That has not been proven, you assumed. There was a suspicion people had to cremate, but it was not proven. I had one woman who was crying because she thought that she would have to cremate her father. I said, ‘Mam I am here to tell you they were misinformed.’
For a long time, they were not allowing remains to be viewed in the church. That didn’t make sense to me because it is not the casket that gives you Covid, it is the alive human beings breathing on each other that gives the Covid. Yes, Covid can still be in the dead body, but the body is going to be completely disinfected during the embalming process, and we pack the orifices. I have a rope and a stanchion surrounding the casket so you can’t come within six feet, and last but not least the body isn’t breathing so you don’t have the vapor and droplet transmission possibility.
What we do now because of Covid is we have the funeral service during the morning at the funeral home, then we bring the casket to the church but the casket has to be locked. And this, I realized, is another level of trust that a family has really placed in you. I could have donated that body to science, I could have gone and called an organ procurement agency. The family doesn’t even know that their loved one is really in that casket. I could have replaced their loved one with a bag of bricks but here we go, that is another level of trust that a family places in you. And as a funeral director, you could easily take advantage of the family, but you must choose the other.
You speak a lot about the importance of grieving and closure, and I am wondering exactly what those terms mean to you?
I don’t think people get closure when you lose a loved one. Realistically, you won’t get closure. You learn how to adapt. It is important to close off someone who was meaningful to you, and I am just speaking in terms of spiritually and psychologically. My dad was killed in a vehicle accident on New Years’ Eve of 1994. He has been deceased for 26 years and I still haven’t gotten closure. I haven’t gotten over bis death. I learned how to deal with his absence. I learned how to do things without him being present. But still to this day, I think, would my dad be in their embalming with me right now? I wonder what we would be doing together. That is the closure part. A funeral doesn’t bring closure. Nah, it just defines the meaning of what that person represents to you and provides a lasting tribute of how you remember that person.