The Box: how to think different in the funeral business
Catharina Lindell is a third generation undertaker with one foot in the old traditional school, and the other one gearing up to break new ground in the funeral business—literally, on a bike.
This interview took place on the 16th of April, 2018.
“Well, I mean the undertaker business is very broad. We start working from the first phone call for help: someone died in their home and they need to be moved. And that could be any time of the day. Any hour. And there you start building a relationship to this person — and you really have to put yourself in their shoes. First of all, that they just lost someone. And are full of emotions, and even if the death was expected, or sudden, you’re never really prepared. And for them, just the choice of funeral home, who to call, and who these people are, the ‘undertakers,’ are difficult and scary questions. And, people worry over what it means to enter a funeral home. Like, are there coffins there? Is it very serious and strict? Etcetera. And then, there is that very delicate situation of when you actually come to the house with the hearse and in a very gentle, respectful way, we have to do something very practical in a very emotional space. Something very physically heavy sometimes, something very inconvenient, in narrow spaces, like stairs — and at the same time we must do this with quite often a hysterical family.”
“It’s a lot of behind the scenes work. In a way, it’s almost like party planning. You order flowers, and catering, you book things: musicians, speeches, the priest, whatever. All of this stuff that just needs to be perfect on that day of the funeral. What is actually a big job is to put the deceased in the coffin. When you transport the deceased from the home, it’s just a temporary move of the body to a cold place, to the morgue. Then, when the family is here at the funeral home, one of the million things they choose is what coffin to get. They choose what kind of coffin, what the deceased should wear, clothes, makeup, all of this. And then, we go back to the morgue with the empty coffin, with the clothes that they brought — and we lift the person inside, dress them, comb their hair, all of that. And that is also a very special part of the work. Maybe, I would say it’s our only real ‘hand craft.’ That’s what we take pride in.”
“The morgue, and the forensics, is just by the university area in Lund. It’s a completely different world. You meet a lot of other undertakers there, and we’re all in our little bubble, doing what we do. And then, when you’re done doing your work, and you have the coffin in the car, you open these car gates, and you meet a big flow of students; on bikes, and busses, you know, life. And life goes on. And they are all clueless of what is happening there behind the doors — death is so distant.
I find in Swedish culture, we are extremely distanced from death, though. For example, we have transported many muslims. And we don’t have to do anything during the pick-up, because they insist that they themselves carry the body. The whole family is involved together. From the bed, they all move the body down the stairs and they come to the hearse. And everyone wants to touch the deceased, because it’s an honour, and its the last thing they do for this person. While Swedes are terrified! They are scared of the dead body. As soon as the heart stops beating, it’s like it’s a corpse. So, we are very very distant in our culture. In fact, much more distant than our even our Scandinavian neighbours! We are unique in that way, and I would say one thing you can see clearly is the time between when you die, and when you get your burial. We have the world record for the longest time! We used to have a law which allowed the process to take two months, 60 days — and you know, that is a long time. While in Denmark, they bury within a week. And that’s just over the bridge! In many different cultures, also, funerals are usually massive. They are so big because even if the deceased are very distant, foreign relatives come from all over the world, to visit an old lady, their cousin or their cousin of a cousin — they travel from the states, Australia, etcetera. They stop their lives to make time for this. And that is not the case with Swedes. I think that says a lot about us and our culture — what is important to us. I was taking psychology in university, many years ago, and it was an international course. And I was trying to explain to a Turkish girl what I did, because I was working extra at the family funeral home back then. I said, ‘you know, funeral home, undertaker, where you collect dead bodies from the old folks’ home.’ And she was like, ‘what?’ They don’t have old folks homes! Because they take care of old folks themselves, and they definitely don’t have funeral homes.”
“I’m a third generation undertaker. It was my grandfather who started it, and then my mother, and then me. But, I swore to god I would never be in this business when I was a teenager. And you know, I was into painting and art, so I decided to study art and psychology, and I studied five years. And it was totally worth it. And during that time, when I was 21 or something, I needed extra money, and thought, ‘why not help out in the family business.’ There’s always help needed with this 24/7 transport. In the end, I found it so interesting, and I just became fascinated. Even though I was scared. I remember the first time, when I was going in to the morgue to collect a body, I was so nervous, and I got this tunnel vision. I fell on doorstep in, not very cool, and there were a lot of other undertakers there, and funeral cars, and so on, and it was just surreal. With the dead bodies everywhere. Transporting them around. It was really a new world. At that time, I was to collect this cute old lady, and dress her and so on. And I found it so… beautiful. And it was a huge honor. I thought to myself, ‘I’m the last person to see you, before this coffin is closed.’ And who am I? I’m no one, to her. Those things that are sometimes too hard, things that the family can’t do, I’m there to do it instead. Of course, this emotional work is challenging. And it changes you as a person. You will never really see things the same again after working with this.”
“When I was in my early 20s, we had a death the family — my mom’s boyfriend. He was also my best friend, and he was an undertaker too. And he died very suddenly. That put my mom in a crisis, obviously. She could not take care of the business. So, I was pushed into administration, even though I had only done behind-the-scenes work before. I had no choice. I knew it would be uncertain, and tough, and irregular, and I thought to myself, ‘why is this happening?’ But, in the end, I got what I wanted anyways. I knew in my heart I wanted to do this. I don’t know, but I think someone from above tested me, because that first month I was there, I was handling very challenging deaths. And my mom even said, ‘we never had these kinds of deaths during my 20 years.’ And I just got thrown at it, all at once. I was very insecure the first while — because I was so young! I was 23 when I officially became in charge. And most people in this business are men, and they are much older, and I thought to myself, ‘how am I a part of this? Am I tough enough; am I cut out for this?’ I was taught very traditionally by my mom. And I was afraid to step out and do things differently the first years. I was scared I wouldn’t be taken seriously. The first years, I was working on proving myself. And the other undertakers were very curious of me, ‘what is she about? How long can she last?’
But then…. I think it started with the bike. Somewhere along the way, I found out that there were things missing in the business, that there were gaps. There were things that could be improved, or done more personal. Or whatever, because you know, this business is changing, but it’s very very slowly changing. And just like I was, many of my colleagues are also afraid to do something wrong, because this work is so sensitive. They are tip-toeing around everything. But, I thought that when I got secure in my profession, when I knew that I could handle the work, and so on, I dared to show more of my personality. I don’t have to hide behind the black suit. Everyone knows here that I ride a bike, and walk around in my trashy jeans, with my dog, and that you can chit-chat with me and my colleague. As long as you do your job well and so on, you don’t have to be this stereotype of the stiff undertaker that shows no emotions. Maybe that’s why I’m happy – because I can be myself. I can be myself and I can do my job, and I get approval that it works, that people like it and they are also happy. I like to break people’s prejudices a lot. In this business and overall. You sort the people you meet in categories just to easily understand the world, that’s just built into us. But as long as you’re aware that that’s the case, you can negotiate the contradictions. Undertaker in one box and tall and blond in another. You can change where you draw the lines.”
“The bike represents something private and very very personal. I took my license three years ago, when I turned 30. And it was an inspiration from my grandmother — she died many years ago. She was a very strong woman, she drove a bike, and that was kind of rare in the 50s. She had her girlfriends, and they cruised around Sweden, and my grandfather, he had to sit behind, because he didn’t know how to ride. She was strong in many ways. She said to me never be dependent on a man — of course it’s ok emotionally or sexually and concerning love, because that is love and that is life — but don’t be dependent on him financially. And use birth control. Don’t get pregnant unless you want to. Educate yourself. So that was kind of my project for year 30, after learning and coping with this job. I just walked into a driving school and asked, ‘hey can you teach me?’ And then it started. I had no biker friends, nothing. And every little step was huge. Second gear, third gear. I spoke to my grandmother every day and said ‘yeah, we’re getting somewhere.’
So I started this group called the Black Angels, and they are only female riders. And there’s a story to this. So, 90% of funerals are cremations today, which means that the coffin, after everything is done and ready, needs to be transported to a crematorium. I don’t know how many times it has happened that the family leaves, and I’m just left there standing with the coffin. And I get some help from the janitors to help carry it. And then, I look back from the drivers seat, and say for instance, ‘ok, Kalle, it’s you and me now, and this is your last ride.’ And we go off to the crematorium. You know, I feel that it’s lonely. For him. You know, back to this question of, ‘who am I?’ Couldn’t he have some company, couldn’t the family members have carried him to the car at least? Because the Danes, they do that. They have cremations too, very often; but the family, friends, whatever, they carry the coffin out to the hearse. I wanted to do something around this part. So that’s where this black angels thing came in. What we do is follow the deceased between the funeral and crematorium. Before the funeral starts, we park the bikes very neatly outside the church, like a landing strip, and then the funeral goes on as usual. And then when the family carries out the coffin, we follow. And the slogan for the group is, ‘never alone.’
These women, they are real heroes. They come from all parts of Skåne. They come in rain and storm. They come a long way, and they have absolutely no relation to this person who is dead, but they do it anyways. And that’s pretty amazing. First, of course, it’s about respect for the dead, but then it’s also about this ‘never alone’ part — that you show proof of pure kindness, and pure love, and hope. There are some really nice people out there in the world, and they care. They drop their work, and they just show up. And that is quite rare in this stressed out society. Many of them, they are drawn to these questions for a reason. They all have their stories. And it’s not for everyone, because you get affected by this work. And I clarify that to everyone that wants to be a part of this; that they need to know what they are getting themselves into. Because you get very affected sitting there during a funeral. And then you have to be really focused to go out there and handle a bike.”
“And, it’s not just about bikes, it’s about what you can do if you just think a little bit outside the box. We are so scared of doing something wrong, the Swedes, we are so politically correct — and one of the most common questions I get here is: ‘how do you usually do it?’ or ‘what is the most common psalm?’ You know, and I say ‘well I can tell you how we usually do it, or you can tell me a little bit about Kalle. Who was Kalle? And we can start there.’ You would be surprised how scared people are. It’s up to us then as undertakers to show them the way. To give them someone they can trust with important things. And to give them permission to do things differently. And usually, it’s just very small things, little details that make a difference. Like, if this old lady really liked sewing, and then to put a sewing machine next to the coffin, it really touches the family. It’s a tiny little thing, but then it’s also a big thing to someone who is scared of stepping outside of the box. I tell everyone also that regarding this fear of what other people think — your funeral should be the last place where you should be concerned about what other people think. It’s just about about you and your life, and everything that you did, screw the rest.”
“We’ll see if my daughter becomes the fourth generation. She’s nine years old and comes with me everywhere — she’s often with me in the hearse, and sometimes I pick her up from school. Because the church where we have so many funerals is right next to the school. So, I come in the hearse, with the coffin in, and she and all her friends are standing behind the fence screaming ‘hello mommy!’ Sometimes, it’s late when the funerals end and I’m not finished in the church until around four o’clock and then I have to drive to Lund to the crematorium and I stop by pick up my daughter. And she looks back and sees the coffin and asks, ‘who’s that?’ and I say the name of the person, and then she asks, ‘is he old or young?’ and I say ‘ah he’s quite young.’ And then I say ‘I’m going to play some rock music now because he really liked that.’”