When You Die
Podcast with Andre Roupp
Andre Roupp: Death certainly teaches us to not waste our time, the God-given time we have here on Earth. We need to give a lot of love to those that are important to us in our lives, especially to our family, to our close friends, to give all that we can.
Johanna Lunn: This is the When You Die podcast. If it has to do with death and dying, we’re talking about it. Today’s host is Kelley Edwards.
Kelley Edwards: On the Podcast today, we are talking life and death in the funeral home. We are joined by Andre Roupp. Andre is the supervisor and funeral director of the Roupp Funeral Home in Mifflinburg, Pennsylvania. It is a family funeral home, and, Andre, thank you so much for joining us.
This is something that you’ve grown up with. Death has been your life, basically.
AR: [chuckles] It is. I have grown up with it. My grandfather was a licensed funeral director for 66 years, in both New York State and in upstate Pennsylvania. So, that’s my mother’s father. He passed away in 2002. My mom grew up in a funeral home with her two sisters, and then I grew up in a funeral home, the upstairs at my grandfather’s funeral home.
It’s been a life career, I guess. When I went to college for a short time, undergrad and then mortuary school, I lived in a funeral home there.
KE: It’s like you just can’t get away from it.
AR: That’s right.
KE: So, I’m going to ask you: do you think that gives you an advantage just in terms of dealing with death? One of the things we talk about a lot is, the conversation of death has been taken away from us in our society. How do we deal with it, how do we get children to deal with it? Is that giving you an advantage because it was always normalized?
AR: I don’t know if it was ever normalized, but it was never hidden from me. At a very young age, the truth about life here on Earth, and whether it’s an older person dying or a younger person, it’d come to light very early in my life. I think that was an understanding that I caught on early. You get a little bit of a better feeling of exactly what families are feeling when they come to you and what they’re going through.
I struggle when saying that I know exactly what they’re going through. I don’t. I would hope that I would use some empathy and give my best idea of what they’re going through, because none of us really know. All of us are reacting to different situations very differently.
KE: That’s so important. We have to acknowledge that grief is different on every level for everybody.
I would love to come back to that, but before I do, I’d like to get into the day-to-day. What does a funeral director do?
AR: We’re certainly a 24-hour service. In my younger years, and as the business was growing, often I would be doing it myself. I’m very lucky and very fortunate now to have a great team here at the funeral home that really understands the day-to-day operations.
We’re a 24-hour service, so that when called upon, when a family needs our assistance, whether it’s two in the afternoon or two in the morning, we’re here to react and be there promptly. And not only just in a physical way. Such as, “Okay, we’re here to pick up your loved one.” Often people just need to hear a voice of comfort. Someone might say, “I don’t know where to go from here, I need your help.” That, I think, is the biggest thing. I’ve often had friends call me personally on my cell phone, in a very traumatic situation, and say “I need your help.” So, we’re here for that.
We are also a business. We have lots of regular paperwork that we have to do, and we have office time. That is day-to-day as well.
Throughout a situation of helping a family, from the initial phone call to sitting down with the families and loved ones, to setting up the arrangements, to making all the contacts, we try to take all the busy work out of their hands so that they can continue to grieve and not have to worry about it. Contacts like clergy, flower suppliers, facilities, and cemeteries. All these contacts.
After making arrangements with families, we’re writing obituaries. We’re moving constantly. We also like to pride ourselves that we don’t over push on connecting with families. Once they leave, after the arrangement conference, I think they feel pretty confident. We do keep in contact with them. We have pre-service contact, phone calls, and what they can expect the next day during the service. Many times, families have never experienced a funeral, and they don’t know what they’re going to be walking into.
We even like to offer some time at the funeral home prior to the service so that they have their own time. So that they’re acclimated and have their own time to grieve and let it soak in a bit.
KE: Do you find, then, in most cases that you let the family lead? Or do they want to be lead? Or is it a combination?
AR: I think it’s a combination, but initially, when we meet with a family it’s a great time for us to sit back and listen. It’s often a time when a family really wants to communicate, to talk about what their dad has been through: his cancer treatments, what kind of a situation it was, maybe it was an accident. Often, we come in and family members are gathering and grieving and hugging and telling stories before we even get into talking about business and arrangements. We let them lead and just feel how it’s moving. There also does come a time when we have to say, “This is where we can go from here and these are some options. But, of course, if you have ideas, we’re very flexible. We want to do what’s right for you.”
KE: When you talk about a celebration of life and honouring someone’s life, trust has to be one of the most important components here.
AR: For sure. We live in a small town, under 4,000 people. The majority of the time when a family comes to us, we already have some sort of personal contact, one way or another. That is great. Whether it’s me personally or a member of my team, when a family comes in and they see a friendly, familiar face, someone they went to high school with, someone they’ve been friends with a long time, that helps. That helps with the trust issue. No, it’s not an issue, it’s a trust category.
AR: That component is to be able to let your guard down and say, “Okay, I feel comfortable.”
KE: So, how hard is it for you as a person who has a relationship of some sort with most people coming in? You have to maintain that professionalism, but there has to be some sort of an emotional impact on you.
AR: There certainly is. Unfortunately, in this last year a couple of really good friends my age passed away. I know their families very well. I’ve had other people outside the families ask me, “How are you able to do that? How can you do that?” It’s not easy, by any means, but the fact is that it is the one thing that I can do to help them. I take great pride in doing that very well. It means I’m going the extra mile in whatever I can do.
It stinks. There’s nothing great about it, but it’s the one thing I can do. I actually have knowledge about what could be helpful.
You know what? Darn it, I’ll be a little selfish and say I take a little pride in that, in helping where I can with those that are very close to me.
KE: I think that’s actually a really good selling point in this. Well, selling is not the right word, but knowing that that trust is there automatically. That’s an advantage to being in a small community.
AR: Absolutely. You see, small communities, and this one in particular, come together and help those that need help.
KE: When we talk about having to accommodate people, I’m sure there are times when you’d have to learn new skills or learn new ways to achieve that accommodation. I’m thinking particularly of people of different faiths or different cultures.
AR: Sure. Even though we’re in a small area, a small community, we have a wide variety of faiths and traditions. We really need to be educated on all of them and be flexible in moving from one to the other. We’ve become very familiar with different churches and different faiths and what they believe in and what they do and how they proceed in the funeral process. We work very closely with bishops and pastors and ministers and any kind of clergy or leaders of churches. You also come into play often when, maybe, someone wasn’t connected to a church but they’re looking for some sort of connection during the time of losing a loved one.
We’re lucky enough, also, to have a pastor on staff here at the funeral home that, in time of need, we’ve called on many times. In fact, he’s been with me where a person has passed at home and prayed with those that were looking for that support. We just need to grow as the traditions grow and change with different faiths.
KE: That’s something I wanted to ask you, too, because you have been doing this, and it’s been part of your life for so long. What changes have you seen? I mean, it’s ever-growing.
AR: In a matter of a little over 20 years, my gosh, technology has changed quite a bit of what we do. We started moving forward, of course, with technology with Covid and the last year of the pandemic. What’s been happening in the world around us has boosted us even further. Here at the funeral home, our team meets once a week, and we just try and brainstorm what we can do to stay ahead of that curve.
There are many things. We just went through a $25,000 project here at the funeral home with our audio/video set up using high-definition cameras. We’re able to record services and put them on our website. Then we can broadcast them via Facebook, record them, and give families the recording.
We’ve found in the last year, of course, that families are concerned about large crowds. Maybe it’s the family themselves that are concerned about many people coming in and hugging and crying and being close. Maybe it’s the person attending the service that says, “I don’t know if I really want to get into a crowd like that.” In this case, they’re welcome to send a condolence through our website. They might send a condolence that we will actually hand write and place next to a personalized candle here at the funeral home. The family takes those notes home.
We’re trying to stay ahead. Times are changing rapidly. Things loosen a little bit. People are coming back to the funeral homes. Just as in other industries like gyms or churches, there’s going to be a portion that doesn’t come back. I think this is here to stay.
KE: It’s also good for people who can’t travel. Now they can. It’s a way they can be involved.
AR: Absolutely. They can be involved. [laughter] We’ve done Facetimes where we’re scanning the crowd and everybody’s saying hello to someone from afar. It’s just something that didn’t happen 20 years ago. A different great touch and feel, and we have to take advantage of that technology.
KE: When we talk about grief, you’re seeing people at their absolute worst when they come to see you. There are so many different emotions that you have to process and deal with. Is there anything that you have learned or that you have seen that still surprises you?
AR: I guess the next turn around the corner could be the next surprise. We’re always looking for that next great adventure or the next great surprise, but you don’t know how you may react to grief. Certainly, it’s different at different times. There could be anger, denial, extreme sadness. People react differently. They could be very secluded. They don’t want to see anybody. Or they may say, “I’m gonna go out on the town so I don’t have to deal with it.” We really have to keep our eyes and ears open and our mouths shut often. [laughter]
KE: [laughter] I think we could all use a little of that.
AR: We use our training the best we can to assist where we can.
KE: Right now, especially in the time of Covid and this communal grief where people can’t be together, we do find ways as human beings. We have to adapt. We have to express our grief in that sense. Do you find that people now are thinking more about death? I know that funeral homes offer advanced planning. Has Covid played a part in this, that people who are not even terminally ill are now thinking more about that?
AR: Yes, yes. Younger people. I’m 45. People much younger than me are coming in and saying, “I have a couple of young children. I don’t know what may happen tomorrow. I want to make sure everything is taken care of financially. I want my wishes known. I want to be able to combine all of this important information and make sure that my emergency contacts have copies so that I can go along and keep on living. God forbid something should happen.” It’s happening more often.
When you mention Covid, people start thinking about their own mortality more, I think. Myself included. You start thinking, my gosh, what could happen? We’ve had many cases where people have come in and expressed exactly that. There’re many levels of pre-arranging. You may just be gaining a little knowledge of what’s available. It might be compiling information. It might be financially securing themselves for final expenses. There are lots of different levels, and what fits is different for everybody.
KE: And we’re thinking about it more.
AR: We sure are.
KE: We talk about a death-positive environment. That’s what we want. We want people to have these conversations and not be creeped out. Do you get that a lot from people? Are people creeped out when you talk to them about death?
AR: [laughter] I’ve had, just recently, someone say, “I just don’t want to go into the funeral home.” [laughter] His family said, “It’s okay. It’s actually kind of pleasant in there. You’re going to be okay.” He said, “No, it’s just the thought. As a little kid I went in, and I’ve been scared since.” People carry that with them; they really do.
I have often spoken to spouses alone. Whether it’s the husband or the wife, one of them has come in and left the spouse at home and said, “I think it’s better that we just talk about this alone, because Mr. Jones, he just isn’t quite ready yet.” And that’s okay.
KE: That’s also an important message. Everything is okay. However you deal with it, however you want to look at death, the fact is, it’s coming.
AR: It is. For all of us, we’re all headed in that direction. It’s important for us all to be prepared at what level we really feel is important. Whether that’s spiritually prepared in terms of our faith, financial security, or whether that’s preparedness for our family. I think that’s important for all of us.
KE: What would you say if you were giving someone advice about that particular thing? What do you want people to know about end-of-life planning and things that, maybe, people don’t realize or something that they overlook or don’t even think about?
AR: Sure. It’s different on different levels, but certainly we’ve seen this. Unfortunately, maybe somebody who has worked their entire life, hard work, saved their money, put their money in savings, and they’re going into a nursing home. And their money is not protected. The nursing home is going to use that savings for the payment of their stay.
A lot of times, you’re really looking to protect money so there is money remaining for their final expenses. That’s something that you can go to your funeral home and discuss, or you can talk to an attorney about it. But it’s really important to make sure your money is where it needs to be so that people are able to use it after working a hard career, a hard life.
KE: Is there any time you have ever experienced when people didn’t know their loved ones’ last wishes? Is that common?
AR: Many times. Many times. And what makes it even more difficult is if a family of four or five or six children comes in, and Mr. Jones will say, “What did mom want? I don’t know, she never talked about it.” Two of the children will say, “I think we should do cremation,” and two of the children will say, “Oh, no, mom did not want cremation. She definitely wanted a full traditional burial and mass.” And then the other two say, “I don’t care. I don’t know.” [laughter]
KE: [laughter] That’s got to make your job a little bit harder!
AR: It does make it a little bit difficult, because someone does have to make the final decision on how to move forward, and it is difficult to say, “Gosh, I don’t want to move forward with cremation if that was something that she really didn’t believe in.” It’s often something that people don’t talk about. It’s okay to talk about it. It’s okay to talk about it in a private family setting at home or here at the funeral home. It’s best when you do discuss it to get something in writing.
KE: That’s a very good point. There’s an expression, I don’t know if you’ve heard this, but it says, “Talking about death isn’t going to kill you any more than talking about birth control is going to get you pregnant.” You need to talk about these things. Very important. You’re not going to jinx yourselves.
We do struggle with our mortality. I think that it must be almost, sometimes, like pulling teeth in your business to try and get that to the finish line, in a sense.
AR: I think, again, going back to being prepared financially, being prepared with communication with your family, being prepared with your faith does not necessarily make everything go smoothly, but it certainly does give that assurance that, you know what, mom was good. She had everything prepared, and she was good with where she was in her life and with where her faith was, and I am comfortable with that.
A family gave me a thank you note last week that said, “We are so glad that mom and dad came in and made their plans, because it was done. Financially, all of their selections of what they wanted was in writing, and we agreed with all of it. It just made it easy for us, that we could proceed with grieving of mom and dad passing.” A good testament there.
KE: It’s one of the most important things, I think, that you just said. The people, because they have to spend all this time worrying about details, don’t grieve. They don’t have that time to really spend in the grief.
AR: Examples are of families putting their time in with making choices and financial decisions, and they’ve gone through the funeral process, and they haven’t cried. That may happen even if you were prepared. The funeral is over, the ceremony is over, and they are moving forward with another part of the grief process. And they say, “You know what, I haven’t cried yet. I haven’t even been able to wrap my head around this yet. I’ve been so involved. I’ve had to go down to the attorney, I was over here….”
You want to take the time to step back. There’s enough of that stuff in our lives. We don’t need that to be overwhelming and too stressful so that it overcomes the moment of mom or dad or your loved one dying, so that it interrupts memorializing and remembering and celebrating their life. Just taking that moment, not to enjoy the moment, but to use the moment in your family’s benefit moving forward.
KE: This is very interesting. I find that I probably have a different idea, as many people do, as to what a funeral director is, based on things you see in movies and television. Do you find that there are any misconceptions about the funeral director? Do you get that a lot?
AR: Oh yeah. If I speak with somebody on the phone that I don’t know, and then we meet, they say, “Oh my gosh, you’re a young guy! [laughter] You’re not an old, creepy guy with a top hat!”
KE: That’s right. It is not creepy or serious without a sense of humour!
AR: We don’t have cobwebs in the corner, and dark drapes everywhere, and the door doesn’t squeak. It’s not like The Munsters. It’s different. We do take a lot of pride here, too, that when you walk into the funeral home here, that you’re comfortable. It’s a comfortable setting. It’s well lit. You feel at home. That’s a big part of it, and I have a lot of great assistance here that helps make sure that is the case. If you think about it, if you walk into a situation, an environment that is cold or not inviting, you’re uncomfortable. There’s anxiety. There’s uncertainty. [laughter]
KE: Yes, definitely.
AR: We want to make you comfortable, so that you can breathe and feel comfortable moving forward, just like you’re at home.
KE: It’s an awfully big responsibility.
Andre, this is great. Our time is coming to an end. It sounds strange to say, but it’s been an enjoyable conversation. [laughter] Before we go, I want to ask you: because you see a lot of death and very many different aspects of death, what do you think death teaches us?
AR: Death certainly teaches us to not waste our time, the God-given time that we have here on Earth. That doesn’t mean, like, oh, we’ve got to get a lot of stuff done today. Certainly, you hear often that life is short, and sometimes a lot shorter than what you feel it should be.
We just really need to take our time and step back and understand that we need to give a lot of love to those who are important to us in our lives, especially to our family, to our close friends, to give all that we can, and leave a great impression here. The short time that we have on this Earth to leave a great impression, hopefully it’s something that will carry on in memories and a great legacy for many decades to come.
KE: That’s kind of what we should all aspire to, isn’t it?
AR: Yes, for sure.
KE: Well, Andre Roupp, I want to thank you so much for taking the time. I know it is a very busy, 24/7, kind of a deal for you, so we do appreciate it. It’s great for us to be able to shine the light a little bit on what you do. We so appreciate that.
Thank you so much.
AR: I appreciate you with your outlet here, and hopefully this can help many to know a little bit about what the funeral industry is about. And life and death. Thank you.
KE: Thank you.
Kelley Edwards is a freelance writer based out of Halifax Nova Scotia. She has a love of bad cats and good coffee.