WYD Podcast With Funeral Director and Embalmer, Dale Jackson

Dale Jackson—a licensed embalmer and funeral director with 46 years of experience and counting—shares his story (SPOILER: and his own near-death experience at 13:13) and lessons learned from his time helping families through the loss of a loved one.
Dale Jackson Funeral Director


When You Die Podcast with Dale Jackson — Podcast Transcription

In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, we all shall be changed. The earthly must put on the heavenly. The corruptible must put on incorruption, and neither height nor depth, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things seen or unseen, shall ever separate us from the love of God. – The Bible

Johanna Lunn: This is the When You Die podcast. If it has to do with death and dying, we’re talking about it. I am Johanna Lunn, your host.

With me today is Dale Jackson, a licensed embalmer and funeral director with 46 years of experience and counting. Welcome Dale and thank you for joining me.

DJ: I don’t often talk about myself, so…

JL: [laughs] No, that’s good, that’s good!

DJ: But this has been a profession for me for 46 years. Serving those in a time of need, when folks are most vulnerable, when we’ve just lost someone near and dear to us. And the ability to maybe help people through the most difficult times of their lives is a great gift and a blessing.

JL: Well, the first time you’re meeting someone, they’re in crisis.

DJ: Exactly. And not everyone is able to approach someone in a state of duress because of the loss of someone near and dear to them. But it’s been a great gift, and it’s been very rewarding over those years. I’ve developed some great professional liaisons with folks. And when folks are appreciative for what you’re trying to do to help them through this difficult time … it’s been rewarding.

And they feel blessed to have been able to have someone take them by the hand, lead them through these difficulties. When a death occurs, suddenly we have a problem. We have a body. What do we do? Where do we go? How, who, what, when and where? What goes on? Especially for those who haven’t had the discussion at the dinner table. Usually, when it comes to death and dying people say, “Oh, we don’t talk about that here.” And it’s shoved under the dinner table. And, unfortunately, it becomes a burden to those who haven’t gone through that discussion prior to being faced with a death.

JL: Well, how do you lead someone through when they haven’t talked about it? Because death has been a pretty taboo subject in the last fifty to eighty years, really.

DJ: You make them aware of what is available, because they’re looking for some guidance. They may ask for cremation, and so, we lead them through the different venues. Cremation is the end result, but there are many ways to achieve that. Is it immediate cremation? No visitation or viewing? The ashes are returned, the family picks them up.

Is it cremation where there is a visitation and viewing, a traditional funeral service, then cremation and then subsequent burial of the loved one’s ashes, or internment in a vault or niche? Or are family are going to pick up the cremated remains and take them, for example, to some place meaningful to them.

I’ve had families say, “No, we’re going to pick them up. We’re going to do our own thing.” And I’d say, “Well, would you consider if there’s a family burial plot somewhere, that maybe a portion of those cremated remains could be interred with maybe a parent, or a grandparent, or relative? So, that a monument, even a flat marker with their name, could be placed in the ground to show that they’ve lived, breathed. That they’ve lived here, worked here and they were actually in existence here as a human being. Whereas, if you pick them up, you scatter them somewhere. Well, cemeteries are designed such that you just can’t place a monument here, there, or anywhere to acknowledge the person or loved one has actually been here.

I’ve had several families say, “It’s so nice that we do have the family cemetery that we can go visit at any time.” And for our generations that have followed, they can connect to their roots, and they have that connection, “I am who I am, because of….” Whereas families who do not have that genealogy find it somewhat difficult.

JL: And do you think it’s for the first generation, or the second, or more? I think, in a way, we’re moving into that space where ritual helps us to move forward, right? So, whether there’s a ceremony or not, where the ashes or the body may lie is important. I guess cremation is an increasingly popular option, right now.

DJ: Yes. When I started in funeral service, back close to 50 years ago, if we were contacted, there was a death in a family, and we were called upon to serve, it was automatic traditional embalming, visitation, viewing, traditional service, followed by traditional burial with a casket and the body.

Today, when the phone rings we hold off, until the family comes, to see what direction they wish to proceed. But, as I mentioned earlier, you kind of take them by the hand, present the different options that are available to them and from which they can make their selection and choose what would be best for their particular need. Only then would we proceed with their wants.

I had a situation in which a death of a student occurred, and the Dad came in wanting cremation. “I want cremation. I will come in and pick up the ashes after cremation is completed. And that’s what I want.” So, I guess I tried to provide some guidance. I said, “Well, she was a student?” “Yes.” “And so, she was active in school?” “Oh, yes. She was on this team and that team and a cheer leader,” and so on.

And I said, “Well, have you considered that there are others outside your family unit who are considered extended family, who have a connection with her, and they’ve known her their whole lives, right from kindergarten, right through?” And I said, “There are stories there that will be lost forever if the people are denied an opportunity to express these connections. And I think you need to hear those. And you can give them that opportunity. If, for example, you have a visitation with maybe her urn present, you could have her uniforms from sports, a pictorial collage, a video of family photos, and from there, arrange to have a tribute in her memory. To show a life lived. Her life did have meaning, and you need that for closure.”

“Are you prepared for the next six months, eight months, at the post office, at the mall, at the grocery store, people coming up to you, because they were denied that opportunity at a service? Are you prepared to receive the condolences at that time, scattered out over months? ‘I’m so sorry. I didn’t have a chance to say….’”

“But if you have, for example, a visitation in an afternoon, from two to four, and maybe an evening, from six to eight, to allow community to come and share with you this expression of their love for her and share those stories that will be lost forever ….” I said, “You need that.” He was kind of, how can I say, somewhat set back by this. I could tell he hadn’t really thought things through. And then family members said, “You listen to this man. He knows what he’s talking about. You consider what he’s saying.”

He agreed to do that. It was advertised. The greeting would be there for folks who wished to come and pay their respects. There were close to 2,000 students, teachers, friends of the family. They came on that one day. It was nonstop. When it was over, he came to me with tears in his eyes, and he said, “Dale, I thought I knew what I wanted, but you knew what I needed.” And he said, “I don’t know how to thank you.”

JL: We don’t really know how to grieve anymore.

DJ: Yes.

JL: And it’s so painful to lose a child, to lose your partner, to lose a good friend. It’s really easy to just say, “I want out of here. I don’t want anything to do with it.”

DJ: Exactly.

JL: In a way, you’ve been in that business of helping people to take that step into healthy grieving, haven’t you?

DJ: We all grieve in different ways, and everyone’s affected in different ways. Some, because of not having the base, or the knowledge (I hate using the word ignorance), but if you’re not exposed to these things through your childhood and being involved in a family gathering, as we do for when there’s a baptism or a birthday or holiday events where everybody’s included, then you don’t know.

JL: Mm-hmm.

DJ: But when it comes to a death in the family, often younger ones are the ones that are, out of the parent’s ignorance, the most hurt. “Well, we’re not going to expose them to this, because this is too heart breaking.” The intention of doing so is kind, but the long-term effects, well, the child suddenly feels, “Well, I’m not invited. I’m not going to this. I guess Grandpa didn’t love me, or Grandma didn’t really like me, so, that’s why I’m not included.” But yet, they see this as a family event, as the birthday party, the Christmas turkey dinner, or this type of thing. So often they, through the eyes of the child, view things differently than the parent.

JL: Mm-hmm.

DJ: When a death occurs, that’s part of our natural process. As to be born, is to die. But the reality is we feel quite comfortable with where we are now, in this body, and it’s hard to visualize other than that. So, therefore, it’s hard for people to understand that it continues. I have a great belief it just does not stop here.

JL: Mm-hmm.

DJ: I had an experience as a child where I actually left this body, and I went to the other side, if you will. And this is no drugs or alcohol. This was just one of those accidents. I choked on something. I actually was suffocating. And I had left this physical body. And I can still remember the travels. And I went to another place, and it was very similar to here. It was in a meadow, actually, as crazy as this sounds, but length, width and height are three-dimensional, that’s what we have here.

JL: Right.

DJ: What I saw was length, width and height, but there was another dimension added to it. Everything was four-dimensional. I didn’t see any people. I can still remember that. It was bright and sunny, really golden and beautiful, calm, peaceful. And then suddenly, that was behind me, and I was travelling literally through space, and I could see in the distance, a round object with a corona around it. This was at night, and I was focusing towards this.

JL: Mm-hmm.

DJ: And I believe what it was was the Earth. And then eventually it got closer and closer. And I can still remember coming down, and seeing my town from above, and then kind of just honing into the family home, where all this was going on. And I can still remember going through the roof, through the ceiling, and seeing myself laying there, and then I hit my physical body, and there was like a… [deep inhalation]… a big breath, and suddenly I was locked in.

JL: Wow.

DJ: And that’s through the eyes of a child. Now, later on my Dad said, “You know, we’ll pay for everything, go through Med school.” By accident, I kind of just fell into studying the three years mortuary science.

JL: Well, I was going to ask you if having had that experience, if it, you know, kind of…

DJ: …Influenced?

JL: Yes, if it influenced your feelings about…

DJ: I have no fear whatsoever of when I play my last trumpet, if you will, and take my last breath. I have no fear whatsoever of the next step.

JL: What a gift that is.

DJ: It is. It’s a calming reassurance, I guess. And having attended as a funeral director, either assisting or conducting, easily well over 10,000 funerals in my lifetime, and having been exposed to the liturgies and the beliefs of the different religions, there’s one passage from the Bible, in particular, that I can relate to. It is, “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, we all shall be changed. The earthly must put on the heavenly. The corruptible must put on incorruption, and neither height nor depth nor angels nor principalities nor things seen nor unseen shall ever separate us from the love of God.” That I could relate to. The experience that I had – it makes sense to me.

JL: Well, you experienced this…

DJ: …firsthand…

JL: …firsthand.

DJ: [laughs]

JL: So, that’s not hearsay or story.

DJ: No.

JL: That’s a pretty direct knowing?

DJ: Yes, yes. Definitely. And it’s comforting. And as strong as the beliefs that you have may be, to feel the loss of someone, and to acknowledge that, it’s hard to say goodbye for the final time. That’s difficult. Yes.

JL: Mm-hmm.

DJ: I remember a young family; they had just lost their infant. I said, “You’ve had the baby shower. You’ve set up your crib. New trimmings for the little one in the baby’s room. Your first one.” Then I said, “Suddenly, this has all been pulled out from under you.” And I said, “Mom, you’re looking at Dad, saying, ‘What was wrong with you?’ And Dad, you’re looking at Mom, saying, ‘Well, you know, was there something wrong with Mom?’”

And I said, “I can tell you, there’s nothing wrong with either one of you. It’s one of those things you’re going to beat yourselves up about if you try looking for answers, because you’ll never find an answer for that. There is no answer.” I said, “I’ve been through it. I know what I’m talking about.” But I said, “You can search for something that is not there and drive yourself crazy. But you will not find the answer to that. But you can give each other the support that you need.”

JL: Hmm.

DJ: “Comfort each other, and don’t give up.”

JL: Hmm.

DJ: I said, “We were blessed after our first miscarriage. We were blessed with the little fellow.” And I said, “You know, that was like raising ten, and if you really want one, I’ve got one I will give you.”

JL: [laughs]

DJ: The parents looked at me, and they burst out laughing. And they had been under duress for days and days. They finally smiled; then they realized. I said, “Don’t give up. You cannot find the answer, but you have to accept it and move on.”

JL: Humor is a real healing gift, isn’t it?

DJ: It helped me, too, in that process of taking them by the hand, and leading them through it. And it was over a year later that I got a phone call at work, and they said, “Dale, we had to call you. We just had a little boy.”

JL: Oh.

DJ: “We named him Dale.” I remember them saying at the hospital, “We never had anybody talk to us like this, on our level. It was always, you know, sort of a different level.”

JL: A little more clinical, maybe?

DJ: Yes.

JL: Yes.

DJ: And it was more human, if you will, and they could relate to that. So, there was that bond and that trust.

JL: You are not at all immune to the pain and suffering of the people that come to you. It sounds like you’re very much in the trenches in an honest and direct kind of way.

DJ: As a human being.

JL: Yes.

DJ: Now, I can look back and say, “I’m the patriarch of my family.”

JL: Hmm.

DJ: There were six in our family, plus my parents. I’m the last of those. I’ve witnessed all those funerals over the years. No aunts, no uncles, no grandparents. They’re all gone. And when holidays come, I can see where families somewhat take a step back and reminisce and say, “Oh, if it only was like it used to be.”

JL: Right. Right.

DJ: And it’s no longer. You have to step up to the plate…

JL: Right.

DJ: …and say, “I cherish those memories…”

JL: Yes.

DJ: “… and I’ll hold them near and dear…”

JL: Yes.

DJ: “… and I’ll never let go.”

JL: Yep.

DJ: To help sustain you I’ve often said to families that you can spend all your time driving a car looking in the rearview mirror, and where’s the car going to go? Or you can put your focus where you’re going, and reflect in the rearview mirror now and then, because it keeps you on track. At the same time, it gives you that guidance based on your previous experiences to help you through.

JL: When people come to you and, say a loved one hasn’t just died…

DJ: …Yes…

JL: …But they’re being proactive, and they’re looking out for their future. They want to make arrangements in advance.

DJ: Yes.

JL: What do they ask you?

DJ: Well, one of the things might be if Mom or Dad is in a nursing home 100 miles away, but they lived here their whole life. But if they die there, can we make arrangements with you to facilitate looking after everything? To which the answer is yes. We would do the transfer of the remains from the place of death and bring them into our care.

People sometimes say, “Mom or Dad just died at home, would you please come?” Our first question is, “Has the doctor been notified?” People have to realize we cannot just process our staff or vehicles to go to a home unless there is the guarantee of a death certificate. That is the funeral director’s “go ahead,” if you will.

JL: Mm-hmm.

DJ: That they are able to proceed. In the event of a terminal illness.

JL: Mm-hmm.

DJ: Then often the hospice staff at the home will notify the doctor that the death has occurred at home. Then often the doctors at hospice, with great knowledge of the person’s medical history, are able to write the death certificate, and we, with that permission, will do the transfer, and then we’ll secure the death certificate the next day.

JL: Mm-hmm.

DJ: But again, we have to be guaranteed, or it has to be acknowledged, “Yes, doctor so-and-so will sign, and it’s okay to do that.”

JL: Mm-hmm.

DJ: “Do that transfer.”

JL: Mm-hmm.

DJ: It eliminates any misgivings as to the cause of death.

JL: Mm-hmm.

DJ: Or the circumstances around the death.

JL: Mm-hmm. I think it helps all of us, not just myself, really understand a little bit more about what happens when you die.

DJ: As a funeral director, mortician, undertaker – all those words, I guess, theoretically mean the same thing – we have a deeper appreciation, or I have a deeper appreciation, for life itself and the things that are important in life.

The family and friends, that’s what life’s about. And helping each other. We’re all in it together. We’re all here to help each other, and that’s what the true meaning of life is.

I appreciate your time. Hopefully, we didn’t go off on too many tangents.

JL: Oh no, I think it’s rich and good. And yes, thank you for what you do, too.

DJ: Oh, thank you. Thank you.

JL: This conversation is brought to you by the When You Die Project, from existential afterlife questions to palliative care, and the nuts and bolts of green burial, if it has to do with death, we’re talking about it. Whenyoudie.org.


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