Mar 07, 2015
If you haven’t had a chance to listen to the FuneralProChat podcast with Gene Steele on Trade Embalming in New York City, a portion of the interview was recently published in American Funeral Director (March 2015). Gene began working in a funeral home at the age of 14. After graduating from McAllister in 2003, he went on become a trade embalmer, helping funeral homes in the city with embalming work, removals and conducting services. In this interview, Gene sat down with Steven C. Turner to discuss his early experiences in funeral service, the day-to-day responsibilities of his job as well as the rewards and challenges of working in the city.
Funeral Pro Chat is a new podcast series where funeral professionals discuss funeral trends, news and customs. The goal of Funeral Pro Chat is to inform and enlighten funeral professionals on a range of subjects that interest them. American Funeral Director will periodically provide edited excerpts from the podcasts to spur the discussion on topical issues affecting the industry.
Funeral service, it’s not a job, it’s a calling.
Steven C. Turner chats with Gene Steele about the changing nature of funeral traditions in New York City and his career as a Trade Embalmer
Steven C. Turner: I am Steven C Turner and I am honored to have as my guest, my friend and fellow New Yorker, Gene Steele. How are you Gene?
Gene Steele: I’m fine, Steven. How are you?
Steven: I’m doing well, thanks. Gene is a Funeral Director and a Trade Embalmer in New York City. Tell us a little about yourself, Gene.
Gene: I am a licensed funeral director in New York City and I started working in a funeral home at age of 14. I graduated from McAllister in 2003, went on my own in 2005 and have been working as a Trade Embalmer since. It’s been exciting, it’s been trying, and sometimes it’s been sort of dangerous, but I wouldn’t give it up for anything.
Steven: Dangerous? What do you mean by that, Gene?
Gene: I’ll give you an example- I went on a removal in Brooklyn, and when I got to the house a police officer was there, because the son of the deceased appeared unstable. He was walking back and forth saying that if anyone touches his mother, he was going to’ cause them harm. He was threatening me not to touch the body. He was very emotionally stressed.
Steven: So, how did you calm him down?
Gene: I just talking to him calmly. I didn’t get into it with him. I didn’t address anger with anger. I showed him true concern, and I asked, “Why would you call the funeral home if you wanted somebody to take your mother, then when I get here, you don’t anyone to touch her? You know- I understand that your mother has died and that your heart is hurting, but, I’m only here to help you. I’m not here to cause you any harm, so you can’t hurt me for only doing what you asked.
Steven: So you reached out with kindness?
Gene: I reached into the part of his heart that was bleeding out in pain, praying for myself that God would give me the strength to be a peaceful voice to him. I said, “ I know it’s difficult that I’m standing front of you now and now the reality’s sort of setting in. Is it possible that you would like to spend a little more time with your Mother in private? I’ll just wait outside until you’re ready” He agreed to it, and he said, “Thank you.” Then he went inside and I heard him talking to her and saying a prayer, and he came out and got me and apologized. I went in and took care of his Mom. But, it could easily have gone another way.
Steven: So the story ended well. That’s good to hear. Now tell us what a Trade Embalmer does and why you chose to focus on embalming.
Gene: Being a Trade Embalmer, I specialize in embalming, removals and sometimes do entire funerals. I do love the science and art of embalming, and I also love to see it all work together.
Steven: Is this common in a city like New York, to specialize in embalming and what are the challenges, if any?
Gene: A lot of it is economics. It is a common practice and has been for decades. There are funeral directors who strictly embalming and some people do removals. In New York, it’s something that’s always happened and you don’t have an expensive funeral home to worry about.
Steven: What are the challenges?
Gene: One of the challenges about embalming is that you have to work around people’s time requests. However, if I couldn’t get something done within the time frame that a funeral home would like, I would not take on the job. I would advise them to call the next person in line, because if you can’t have the time to properly perform the embalming, I prefer to pass on it. Trade work requires a lot of attention, time, skills and intelligence, but it also requires a lot from your body.
Steven: Gene, you work out of New York City. Do you concentrate on one specific borough, or do you work in all 5 boroughs?
Gene: I’ve worked for 3 funeral homes in Brooklyn, 2 in Queens, a couple in Harlem, and a few in the Bronx during the height of my trade career. Now I’m just working in Brooklyn and the Bronx.
Steven: I know that your passion is funeral service, but what do you like to do when your work day is over?
Gene: I have hobbies. I like to go to the shooting range once in a while and I like to practice my calligraphy. Those are a couple of the things that I do to wind down.
Steven: Great. Gene, when you decided that funeral service was your calling, was there something from your childhood that helped you make that choice?
Gene: When I was 14 yrs., I had applied for summer jobs. I really wanted to work, but I just couldn’t find- summer youth employment. My mother talked about her brother who was a funeral director in North Carolina. Seemed interesting, so I went to the funeral home near where I lived. There was a gentleman who used to sit outside the funeral home always chewing a cigar and I asked him if I could have a job. And that was the beginning of a long story for me.
Steven: Thanks for sharing. If you didn’t choose funeral service, is there any other path you would have chosen?
Gene: I chose funeral service at the age of fourteen. At the age of 18, I went to work for the city and I continued for 17 years. Then I came back and worked in funeral service. So, funeral service was and is my first love.
Steven: Interesting journey. A lot of funeral directors have funny stories. Do you have one that comes to mind?
Gene: Yeah, there was one service years ago, late at night. My hearse driver walked away and I couldn’t find him. My funeral programs were locked in the hearse on the front seat, and I couldn’t get to them. So, I crawled inside and got the programs. But, when I tried to get out, I realized there were no handles on the inside of the doors. I was locked in and it was 5 minutes before the service. I saw a woman smoking a cigarette, so I started tapping on the windows and she looked at me, slowly dropped her cigarette and she ran away. Minutes later a kid about 13 yrs. came by on a bicycle, and tapped on the window. I said “Please open the door, I’m locked in. He burst out laughing and asked for money. I had to go in my pocket and come up with a 5 dollar bill for this kid to open the door. Then, as he opened the door, my hearse driver is back from the store with a bag of chips and a soda. Of course when I told him I got I got locked in the hearse, he burst out laughing too. He went back and told everybody in the funeral home and the story circulated around Brooklyn for years- how I got locked in the back of the hearse.
Steven: That is funny, Gene how has the funeral business has changed over the years?
Gene: Well, the actual funeral business itself hasn’t changed. The families and what they want has changed over the years.
Steven: Tell me about that.
Gene: There have been an increasing number of cremations. Many funeral homes are just now realizing that it doesn’t just have to be direct cremation. If we speak with our families and let them know that they can still have a proper funeral service with a cremation, it helps them with closure. The public has also changed a lot and they are trying to save money. The baby boomers paid for insurance policies, and now the young generations don’t carry insurance. So they’re paying for funerals, cash out of pocket. This limits their options.
Steven: How do you handle situations where families come to you with no insurance, but still want your services?
Gene: Back in the day, families would pay for the funeral before the day of service or viewing. Those days are gone. We need to educate the public about the importance of getting insurance and doing pre-need (pre arranging a funeral service in advance.) A lot of people don’t value having an insurance policy. They think at death you can just say, “I don’t have it”, and things will magically be taken care of. It’s sad to hear people say, “We don’t have the money, but we want to have a funeral “. If we don’t educate them now, the problem will get a lot worse – for all of us. Especially in the New York area.
Steven: I see your point. What are the major health concerns involved in the funeral industry?
Gene: Well, Steven, you have to be careful with your health, because this job is very demanding. It’s not a regular 9 to 5 job. When you’re working in trade, you work all kind of hours and situations. 8 years ago, I’d just gotten my registration to perform funerals and one of my very first funerals happened to have been my own brother who committed suicide.
Steven: Oh, I’m so sorry Gene.
Gene: Thank you. Now I’m dealing with my mother,his wife, his children and my own pain. As a funeral director- my pain was put on the back burner. Avoiding my own pain, I dove into my work. I got no sleep and I didn’t take care of myself. A couple years later, it caught up with me and it landed me in the hospital with my blood pressure being 256 over 129. I was very stressed out.
Steven: My goodness.
Gene: I was in serious trouble. They checked my vital organs, which were compromised and my kidneys were failing. But, being a workaholic, I left the hospital and I ran back into the embalming room. I wasn’t paying attention to my health and 9 months later, I was back in the E.R. This time I couldn’t breathe, my lungs were filled with fluids and I was very ill. One thing I recognize now is that money isn’t worth it. It’s not worth your health. You have to address your emotions, not bury them in your work, which a lot of us do. The bank isn’t who you pray to. You need to pray to our own creator. You have to humble yourself and understand that you’re not superhuman.
Steven: God bless you, Gene. How you feeling now, brother?
Gene: I’m okay. I’m on a kidney transplant waiting list. I finally asked myself “Why am I killing myself? I have nothing more to prove.
Steven: I hope it works out, Gene. We’ll pray for you.
Gene: Thank you. I appreciate it. We all understand how demanding this business can be. It’s very easy to bury your own issues into your work to avoid having to deal with yourself, especially with physical pains. It’s taught me a very important lesson, to take time to care for yourself.
Steven: That is so true. Being that I’m a cancer survivor myself, I know exactly what you’re talking about.
Gene: Yes, sir. I know you’ve had your battles.
Steven: I’d like to thank you for chatting with me, and let’s meet in New York and break bread, how’s that?
Gene: That sounds like a plan to me. I’d really enjoy meeting you and Nancy.
Steven: How would you like to share your contact information with our listeners?
Gene: You can reach me on Facebook. It’s SteelelFD.
Steven: Thank you Gene. And you can contact me on Facebook or www.funeralprochat.com.
Gene: You’re more than welcome, Steven. I appreciate it. Thank you.
Steven: And I’m Steven C. Turner. Thank you for your time this time, until next time.
Click here to listen to the full Podcast and hear the interview in it’s entirety.
Funeral Pro Chat is a production of Burban Turner Media
© Nancy Burban 2014
About The Author
Jess Farren (Fowler)
Jess Farren (Fowler) is a Public Relations Specialist and Staff Writer who has been a part of the ASD team since 2003. Jess manages ASD’s company blog and has been published in several funeral trade magazines. She has written articles on a variety of subjects including communication, business planning, technology, marketing and funeral trends. You can contact Jess directly at Jess@myASD.com