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Death Calls

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By Kessa Baylor

I never paid attention to the number of people who die each day in Philadelphia and its surrounding counties until I began working as a funeral home answering service representative.

I would start my day with a quick stop to a local Dunkin Donuts for a cup of hot chocolate, and then drive up Baltimore Pike half awake and half numb to the job I would need to perform. Like a robot I would walk to my desk and log on to the computer system. I would wave to a few co-workers or say a dry hello or good morning.

Then, just like clock work my line would begin to ring: a crying mother who lost her only son to suicide, a coroner who needed the undertaker to meet him at a home or, in many cases, a police officer calling to inform the funeral director that they were waiting for the coroner to pronounce the deceased dead.

Funeral_Services566.jpgThe call center where I worked served several hundred funeral homes in Pennsylvania. When the funeral home was closed or unavailable to answer the calls, they were automatically switched to our numbers.  We answered as if we were actually part of the funeral home called.

We took death calls from family members, coroners, hospitals and hospice units. Then we contacted the funeral director or undertaker so they could reach out to the family or go to the scene for body removal or transport.

We took messages from individuals who were in the process of planning a funeral for their loved ones. We also gave obituary information or funeral date and times for anyone calling in to know.

As I took each message, I forced myself to think of this as only a job. I wanted to detach my emotions from the task and force a routine 'condolences for your loss' speech. I found this impossible to do when asking such questions as when was the deceased date of birth? Or when was the time of their passing? The deceased became an object, no longer a person who lived, loved and felt but now was only a hollow shell. A shell the funeral director would stand to gain thousands of dollars from. A shell that would be placed in a box and remembered for a moment while life carried on around them.

One day in the office my supervisor's voice rang out loud and clear. "Congratulations everyone we took a total of 10,000 death calls yesterday.  Keep up the good work!" The office clapped and a few cheered while I began to think of insurance policies and making prearrangements. My life was slowly become consumed with death and the afterlife. My conversations were filled with talks of death and how I thought I might go. I could hear crying in my sleep and fear slowly tried to grip my heart.

I expressed my feelings to a colleague who answered in a simple and matter of fact voice. "You'll get use to it."  But my fear was that I would get used to it. I didn't want to start thinking more about death than about life. I want to enjoy my life today, this moment. I wanted to value the life of another. I wanted to see my children grow up and then grow old. I wanted to love, stronger than I ever loved before.

I never got used to the calls and often I cried when callers cried. I offered sincere apologies and I listened for a few extra moments when the caller had something to say. I even offered a silent prayer. The company's goal was to never lose a death call because it meant thousands of dollars lost for the funeral director. I was haunted with not wanting to take a death call and the fear of losing one as well. The job was not for the faint of heart and weak of mind. The job was particularly hard when I begin to experience death in my family. I would take calls from family members asking for obituary information. While they cried I wanted to tell them that it was me on the other end but I couldn't. I anonymously gave the information, reminding myself to call them later -- a later that would never come.

Somewhere in the middle of taking hundreds of death calls each day I stopped living. I allowed fear to paralyze my joy for living. I no longer thought hanging out with my friends was fun. I didn't enjoy the taste of my favorite strawberry cheesecake dessert. My favorite Brazilian singer Seu Jorge no longer sounded the same.

I was slowly turning into the deceased, a hollow shell void of emotion, joy or happiness.

Finally, I made the decision that I would take my final death call before my family ended up making one.

 

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