Caleb Wilde, a sixth-generation mortician and creator of the hugely popular blog Confessions Of A Funeral Director, has a unique perspective on death – but he's trying to change that.
Photo Credit: Matt Eich via Matter | CC BY 2.0
Over at Matter, Eric Puchner serves up one of the more captivating profiles we've read in recent memory with a longform essay on Wilde, a man by turns funny and somber, cool and affable. The entire piece is excellent, but two things, in particular, stick out in my mind. The first is the arresting portrait it paints of life in the death business:
We popped into the Wilde Funeral Home, an enormous brown Victorian that's been in the family since 1928 and is one of the few businesses left on Main Street. Caleb has described the Wildes' business, unironically, as the "civic heart of the community." Caleb's grandfather was born there, when the family lived upstairs, and he claims to have embalmed his first body at the age of six. Caleb himself grew up playing hide and seek among the caskets. There are paintings on the walls of old Parkesburg, back when it was a prosperous iron town, and statuettes of quails looking lost and homeless on the tables. In the office is a gallery of stone-faced Wildes, stretching all the way back to Caleb's great-great-great grandfather, who established the family trade and — according to Wilde lore — sealed his fame in mortuary circles by preparing the body of Edward Gorsuch, the slave-owner killed in the Christiana riots. Even Caleb's mother, incredibly, comes from a line of undertakers. "I'm a thoroughbred," he told me.
The second is the notion that we are most of us surprisingly removed from the realities of death:
In our culture of face-lifts and fountain-of-youth diets, [Caleb] seems to have struck a nerve. It's his self-professed mission to reacquaint us with the fact that we're going to die, and that it's most likely not going to be pretty. "The professionalization of death," as he puts it in his funny and illuminating TED talk, "has left the rest of us death amateurs." As you can imagine, this doesn't sit too well with the average mortician, whose livelihood depends on this amateurism. Of course, Caleb is not your average mortician. He reads Kierkegaard and Grace Jantzen, the feminist theologian. There's a bit of the philosopher-poet about him. He calls death a "sacred space where we can embrace the silence." Perhaps there's no greater freedom, he says on his website, than to live life with a healthy relationship to death. Before he buries us, he wants to make us more human.
This notion that the majority of us are amateurs when it comes to death and end-of-life decisions is one I and others have been thinking about a lot, lately. If Puchner's essay strikes a chord in you, I highly recommend checking out Atul Gawande's new book, Being Mortal, which is one of the better treatments of these subjects I've read in recent memory.