Catherine Mundy

Ms. Hinnant
English 1102
23 Feb. 2014
The Affects of Death on the Living
If you were to walk into the Bass-Smith funeral home in Hickory, NC, the one
located just off of highway127, you might be shocked by the culture within. This small
community of workers makes up a larger community of people who take care of the
deceased and their families. A few roles that are carried out in this funeral home consist
of directors, embalmers, and administrators.
This ethnography was intended to dig deeper into the lives of the workers. The
main focus of this essay was to see how these employees job affects the staff while they
are at work. In order for me to carry out these observations as efficiently as possible, the
employees were under the impression that the notes were being taken on the day-to-day
operations of the funeral home, and less on their behaviors.
Tone of the Workplace
As soon as an outsider would enter into Bass-Smith funeral home, they would
notice the neutral colors surrounding them. Not only were the walls and carpets neutral,
but even the clothes of the employees were in a darker tone. The men that were observed
wore black pants, black shoes, a white shirt and a nice tie. The women in the office also
dressed in a similar uniform—black pants, black skirts and neutral tops. The only colors
visible were in the various flower arrangements sent from as condolences for funerals.
Overall, the atmosphere of the color schemes made the environment serene, calm. The
Beth 3/13/14 3:46 PM
Comment [1]: uoou. I think this is a nice,
concise intiouuction with a cleaily laiu out
ieseaich question. Bowevei, you may want to auu
in "thesis" (i.e. how B0ES it affect theii
atmosphere of the interior design was paralleled by the expression of the employees--
equally calm and reserved. The workers' black shoes made little, if any, sounds; it was as
if the steady clicking of high heels were an understood taboo. While being toured
around, the clicking of my boots made a light tapping sound; however, in the quiet
ambiance of the halls and workers, it sounded as if they were booming through the
corridors. The overhead speakers were playing classical piano music playing quietly,
which had an almost soothing effect. As a family walked in, no one had to be told to be
quiet; it was an unspoken agreement between the families, the employees, and the
The tour began with David, one of the embalmers, showing around the main areas
of the building. As the tour moved into the casket room, he talked about the different
kinds of caskets for a couple of minutes before a family entering the casket room took
him by surprise. As the family entered, David at once stopped talking and stepped to the
corner of the room and then quietly exited from the same door that he had entered
through. Throughout the rest of the tour, David checked to make sure that he would not
again be running into any more clients. The tour guide also spoke in a quiet tone, loud
enough to be heard, but a hushed voice nonetheless. Throughout the time spent at Bass-
Smith, I came to the conclusion that their environment affects the workers. Even when
there were no clients in the funeral home, the employees stilled used calm tones. The
office was never loud with obnoxious laughter or songs. When the office was slow, the
employees worked quietly and still kept up the calm atmosphere that was produced by the
funeral home. From the way the employees acted, it was clear that their environment
affected the way they acted within the funeral home. As David was speaking he backup
Beth 3/13/14 3:47 PM
Comment [2]: Nice uesciiption heie.
this conclusion by telling me “[My] actions are most definitely influenced by the funeral
home, [I] know what a hard time my clients are going through and I wish to show them
respect by giving them privacy and comfort”.
How does a funeral home maintain such a wistful, ambiance even amidst the
chaos of juggling almost nine clients at a time? I observed two different types of funereal
environments: a lazy Sunday evening and a hectic Sunday morning, during which three
funerals occurred, and six more were to come. Seeing how the employees worked on
such antithetical days gave me a fully developed picture of the funeral home.
The slow day had at most three people in the office, on these days they had time
to show the researcher around and make generous amounts of small talk. The fact that
these employees had little to no work to get done was extremely noticeable. They
answered phones, and made small talk between the employees. On the other hand, the
busy day had six people working--including the owner of Bass-Smith Funeral Home. It
was interesting to how different these two days went. Once there were multiple jobs to
accomplish, it was evident how efficient the workers were. Kaye, the owner of Bass-
Smith funeral home, arrived promptly at 8 in the morning ready to tackle work that
seemed to be piling over. She entered the workplace and soon got to work labeling the
number of funerals they had coming this week. All of the employees had a job and got to
work as soon as they arrived. No one stood around or decided not to come into work that
day—they knew that people’s families were depending on them to take care of their
needs. Seeing the fact that more people, even the owner, were willing to come in when
the office was overloaded with funerals lead me to believe that these people are hard
Beth 3/13/14 3:49 PM
Comment [3]: I think you uo a nice job
constiucting meaning out of these obseivations.
Bowevei, I'm still inteiesteu to see if you uig
ueepei into how this enviionment affects the
woiks in a mental¡emotional sense.
workers that understand the importance of coming to work because of the role they play
at the end of a person’s life.
The employees of Bass-Smith funeral home also showed a great deal of
teamwork. They were all willing to help each other out on certain errands that needed to
be complete. The office seemed to work well together even when it was overcrowded
with multiple personals. Kaye offered to take a bouquet of flowers to a nearby church
while one funeral director was meeting with a family and the other was filling out the
paper work on the deceased clients. During Kaye’s interview, she mentioned, “The office
runs great because of my amazing staff and their ability to get things done without any
animosity within the funeral home.” Kaye’s view on how her funeral home runs was
clearly shown throughout the hours of observations. The employees were always nice to
each other and there was no gossiping about one coworker when he or she left the room.
The day-to-day operations seemed to go smoothly without any major problems or
Seeing the difference in staff size made me believe that the workers are willing to
come to work if the office is burdened with errands to run and missions to accomplish.
The fact that the owner came in on a Sunday to help out as much as possible gave off the
impression that she really cares about not only her job, but also her employees and
clients. As soon as Kaye walked in the door she began to label the paperwork on her
clients in the order that they were admitted to the funeral home. As she was numbering,
she came across two people who came in on the same day. Surprisingly, she remembered
who came in first and continued to count accordingly. The fact that she remembered the
Beth 3/13/14 3:50 PM
Comment [4]: This infoimation is inteiesting,
but I'm suie that I entiiely unueistanu how it
ielates back to youi ieseaich question.
exact order of admittance reveals the level of attention she gives her work. It also reveals
her level of mental accuracy, as this would have happened over a week ago. As people
would come in, anyone would be able to tell who is an employee and who is a client. The
air that these workers gave off to their clients is a perfect attitude for their occupations.
They somehow mastered the art of compassion mixed with a apologetic demeanor;
however, they did not come off as patronizing. The workers also had a well put-together
and strong exterior. In my interview with David he mentioned that: “ It is hard to find the
line between feeling apologetic toward your clients but also having to be the rock they
can lean on which requires you to be emotionally detached from the situation.”
As the employees answered the phone, their conversations would be filled with
yes ma’ams or sirs. The phrase “whatever works best for you” was also used many times.
You could tell just though their phone conversations that they were willing to work with
the clients and see that whatever they need or want is done. David opened and closed
doors for me in addition to having good manners such as saying excuse me or thank you.
To go more in depth, a light conversation with David started about operations in the
funeral home then I turned the subject deeper, which was about my uncle who had just
passed away. There was an immediate change in his demeanor. His facial expressions
became more focused on what was being said which made it seem like he was intently
listening to what I was saying. He let me speak and added in comments where they were
necessary. How he reacted to the story would make anyone feel extremely comfortable
while speaking with him.
Throughout the observations, it was shown multiple times that because these
employees work with delicate people, compassion is shown throughout the hours of note
Beth 3/13/14 3:51 PM
Comment [5]: I finu this quote incieuibly
inteiesting. Can you explain it to me a little moie.
Bo you have any moie obseivations that might
back its tiuth.
taking. For example, a woman came in during the observation period and talked about
how her daughter in law took an envelope that belonged to her. The worker that was
speaking with her kept a calm emotionally detached air about him but was understanding
and sympathic at the same time. He told her that he was extremely sorry and that he
wished he could have done something to stop the other woman. This profession has
taught the workers to stay emotionally neutral in these types of situations but at the same
time come off as having concern and support in their voice and actions. Within the hours
of note taking, it was clear that the workers at Bass-Smith funeral home had mastered this
art and that their environment only strengthen this characteristic.
Attention to Detail
The employees at the funeral home are extremely meticulous about the
appearance of their facility, as well as the records that are kept on file. As David was
showing me around, he was precautious with the record books and began to describe in
detail why and how these records are so important. Anyone would be able to sense the
amount of care and work that has gone into keeping up with all of the information the
books possess. The owner also put in tons of work to keep her company organized. For
example, when Kaye was on her way to take flowers to a church, she noticed a bunch of
cigarette butts lying on the ground. She kind of shook her head in a disagreeing fashion
and proceeded to pick up the ones around. She then disappeared into the building and
emerged with a scooper and a trash can. Not only did she clean the trash out of the road,
but she also picked it up out of the sand container and threw it in a wastebasket. This
small deed made me realize how much effort this lady puts in to keep the place looking
nice. Another example of her meticulousness occurred during the set-up for a viewing in
the home. She went through all of the rooms and made sure each one was perfectly in
order; she emptied the trash, and added or removed furniture from the room. Her
consideration relays that she wants these families to be as comfortable as they possibly
can. The fact that Kaye took time out of her day to pick up trash that was strewn about or
fix the chairs in the viewing room seems like she cares about how her organization is ran
and how people respond to her company. If she was more interested in the money, she
would not pay attention to the appearance of her facility, just more about accumulating
During David’s interview he stated: “I used to work for another funeral home
company. It was like the Wal-Mart of funeral homes. All they cared about was the
money, the families were just another number to them.” I asked him what he thought
about Bass-Smith and re replied: “Kaye is great and I love working here because honestly
my workers and myself are more concerned with the families that come through and less
about money.” The fact that their client’s comfort and happiness means the most to the
workers can be seen through their work ethic and attention to detail. The fact that the
employees have to deal with families of recently deceased people makes their
meticulousness in the workplace important because they are dealing with a concept that
no matter who you are in the world—you take it seriously.
Even though the employees work in an environment where most people connect it
with unhappiness and misery, the workers seemed to always keep a positive and light
attitude. While the office had a slow day, the employees would joke with each other and
keep the conversations light. When David gave his tour, he preceded to tell me about the
Beth 3/13/14 3:52 PM
Comment [6]: uoou. Nice meaning making
last kid who also was touring the funeral home for his senior project. In the middle of his
tour, the employee jokingly asked if he wanted to hop in the back of the hearse and try it
out. As David began to laugh, he explained how mortified the kid looked until he realized
that the question was a huge joke. The funeral home is like any other type of office; they
keep conversations playful yet they know when to get down to business. David would
also slide in a good-natured joke while he was giving the tour which lead me to believe
that working at Bass-Smith funeral home calls for the workers to acquire and exercise
their teasing side while they are not around clients. In David’s interview he stated that: “I
usually keep a light tone with my coworkers because it is necessary to not let the
atmosphere get you down.” This particular quote backed up my thought on why the
people deemed it vital to keep up playful banter between coworkers while they worked.
Being employed at Bass-Smith funeral home, the workers strive to keep a light demeanor
while talking to each other in order to counteract the negative vibes being emitted by the
Throughout these observations and interviews with the workers of Bass-Smith
funeral home, I have concluded that the environment these people work in affects the
way they communicate and act within the confines of the building. Their surroundings
not only affected the way they spoke or acted around their clients, but it also affected the
way they seemed to act around each other.

Beth 3/13/14 3:53 PM
Comment [7]: So aie you stating heie that
ueath affects the living in a positive way in this
Beth 3/13/14 3:54 PM
Comment [8]: I'm not suie the woiu "affects" is
enough heie. Is the affect positive, negative, oi a
mix of both. Nake suie you'ie speaking in
As you know, I’m incredibly interested in the topic you’ve chosen, and overall I do
think this is a strong working draft. Your language, though clear and concise, is
compelling and keeps me engaged with what you’re saying, and I like the way
you’ve decided to break apart your sections. I also think that, for the most part, you
do a nice job of constructing meaning based on your observations. This is often very
difficult to do and I applaud you for it.
All that being said, I do think there’s some room for improvement. My
biggest suggestion for revision is that you continue to work on strengthening your
language and your argument. There were some points throughout where I felt you
could explain things a bit more or add in more detail. It does seem that you’re
arguing that death affects the living (at least in this environment) in a positive way,
but I’m still curious to see if there were any negative effects that you may have
overlooked or failed to mention. Of course this might not be the case, and if so I’d
like to see you work through why you think these people are able to stay so strong in
such sad conditions. Overall I thought that your ethnography might have more
dimension to it, and right now I feel like it’s falling just a bit flat. Use the questions
and comments I’ve made in the margins to help you as you move along and don’t
hesitate to email me with any questions or concerns.