Dirty Jobs: Helping families deal with death
By MARY JO WINTER / Cloverdale TOWNS Correspondent
As youngsters growing up in Michigan, Ron Henderson and his siblings were taught the importance of serving others, whether it was raking leaves from a neighbor’s yard or shoveling snow off their walkway.
Today, he continues that legacy of service to his community, both as a Rotarian and in his job as Funeral Director at Fred Young Mortuary in Cloverdale.
Henderson, 62, never planned to get into the funeral business. In fact, when he was offered a job at a local mortuary in 1969, he was already working part time at Sears while studying to become a Mechanical Engineer. He only took the job because the pay was the same and the commute was shorter
On his first day, his boss took him in the back door and through the chapel where a casket sat with a body inside. “I got my feet wet pretty quickly,” he says. “Other than seeing a family member at a mortuary, this was my first experience with death.”
Initially, his job consisted of running errands, delivering papers, mowing the grass and washing the funeral cars. The more comfortable he became, the more they let him do.
A few months into his new job, Henderson accompanied his boss on a call to pick up a lady at a nursing home. As he was helping lift her onto the gurney, her lungs filled with air, which, in turn, created a groaning sound as it passed over her vocal chords.
Although startled, Henderson claims he maintained his composure, but his boss later told him the look on his face had been priceless.
He considers landing that job at the mortuary “divine intervention” because it helped him discover his life-long career at an early age. He soon changed his major from engineering to business and then went on to mortuary school.
When Henderson started dating the girl who would eventually become his wife, he’d sometimes invite her to ride along with him to the airport when he had a body to ship. He would pick her up in his personal car and drive to the mortuary so they could transport the casket in the funeral home’s station wagon. He would then return her home in his car.
“It was a lot of driving,” he admits, “but gas was cheap back then – only about 24 cents a gallon – and it gave us time to be together.”
Henderson realizes his career choice is not for everyone. “Not everyone can handle it. It can be hard work, emotionally challenging and the hours can be very long.”
He says he wouldn’t trade what he does for anything. “Not a day goes by that I don’t look forward to going to work. I love doing what I do. It is such a privilege to help families through one of the most difficult periods of their life, and I am honored that they put their trust in me.”
Families are understandably upset when they first come to see him so there’s a lot of tenderness and hand-holding as he answers their questions and helps guide them through the process. “My job is to make sure everything is done right with no mistakes. We can’t re-do a funeral.”
Henderson handles every aspect of the funeral from having the body picked up and brought to the mortuary, to orchestrating the funeral service and making arrangements for the cremation or burial. He even types up the memory card templates.
Embalming is a big part of Henderson’s job, and he takes great care to make the deceased look as natural as possible. He then dresses them and places them in the casket.
In addition, he does the nails and make-up for both men and women, and for the men, he also cuts and styles their hair. He calls on Linda Amman and Martha Gardiner from R Salon in Cloverdale to style the ladies’ hair.
When it comes to the obituary, Henderson will write it if the family chooses, but he encourages them to write their own whenever possible.
“It’s a great exercise to find out what’s really important to them,” he says. “Things come out that might not otherwise come out during the normal course of conversation.”
Henderson believes people don’t always allow themselves time to grieve. “The funeral service is a vehicle to help people grieve and get on the road to healing. More and more, people are opting for cremation with a memorial service rather than the more traditional funeral.”
Having worked in large mortuaries where they handle numerous funerals each week, he says he likes the slower pace in Cloverdale because it gives him a chance to really spend time with his families. “Here I take care of people I’ve personally met and known over the last five years.”
On his rare days off, he enjoys playing a few rounds of golf. And much like when they were courting, he and his wife still take long, leisurely drives together. These days, though, their favorite destination is more likely to be one of the many state and national parks.
Henderson laughs when he recalls how his dad used to tell him to stay out of retail because he’d never have holidays off. “Funny thing is, I didn’t go into retail and, not only am I pretty much on call 24/7, I’ve worked every other holiday for the last 44 years.”