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Take Note: Joél Simone Anthony on the challenges and rewards of a career in the funeral industry

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As a licensed funeral director and sacred grief practitioner, Joél Simone Anthony helps guide individuals and organizations through difficult conversations about death, dying, end of life, funeral and burial planning. Her professional approach is rooted in ancient and ancestral wisdom passed down generation to generation. Anthony considers it her life’s work to educate everyone, regardless of their faith, race, age, or status, that death, dying, and grief are a sacred and transformative part of our journeys as human beings. She talked with WPSU’s Lindsey Whissel Fenton about her lifelong fascination with death and dying, about the challenges and rewards of a career in the funeral industry, and about what the rest of us should know when it comes to choosing a deathcare provider.

Anthony recently hosted Minimizing Burnout in Death Care Professionals, a webinar that’s part of Speaking Grief initiative, a public media initiative produced by WPSU with philanthropic support from the New York Life Foundation. To learn more about her work, visit her website.

Here’s the conversation with Joél Simone Anthony:

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Welcome to Take Note on WPSU. From my home studio, I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton. As a licensed funeral director and sacred grief practitioner, Joél Simone Anthony helps guide individuals and organizations through difficult conversations about death, dying, end of life, and funeral and burial planning. Her professional approach is rooted in ancient and ancestral wisdom passed down from generation to generation. Joél considers it her life's work to educate everyone, regardless of their faith, race, age or status, that death and dying and grief are a sacred and transformative part of our journeys as human beings. Joél, Welcome to Take Note.

Joél Simone Anthony: Thank you for having me.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Death and grief have been part of your life. I've heard you describe yourself, even from a very young age ,as being morbidly curious. So, I'm thinking about when you're a little kid and you get the inevitable, “What do you want to be when you grow up” question… did little five-year-old Joél respond? “I want to be a funeral director”?

Joél Simone Anthony: I played funeral home with my cousins. I was the one that took care of all the dead people that died and I made everybody die and die dramatically. I was the one that gave everybody hugs at our play funeral. And that covered everybody with sheets when it was time to bury them. So yes, five-year-old Joél was definitely very morbidly curious. I am using my phone right now to record this, but I'll have to send you a picture that I drew when I was eight years old. My grandmother kept it and I forgot about it until I was in mortuary school. So, talk about alignment. It's me in a cemetery with a microphone, talking to the graves, and it says, “I am the Grave Woman.” So, with my life and my work is a form of self-fulfilling prophecy. I also believe it is a part of ancestral legacy, as well as ancestral fulfillment of destiny.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: You know, I'm thinking of if some other children other families show their parents that picture, I feel like they would be like, “Okay, let's, let's have you talk to somebody,” but it sounds like your family was there for it.

Joél Simone Anthony: To an extent. I think my mom thought something was wrong for a while. But, luckily for me, I had an uncle, my Uncle Mark, who was a funeral director from the time I was maybe six or seven to the time he passed away in 2015. And he worked down in Florida. I went and spent every opportunity that I could with him. In the funeral home, he taught me about respect for the deceased about this funeral home being a sacred place about the work that he did being sacred and special. And, you know, important, even though a lot of people were afraid of it. And he answered all of my questions very honestly and didn't try to shield me away from anything that I wanted to see in the funeral home because he understood that, you know, death isn't a bad thing. And the way that we do deaths in this country requires the deceased to be cared for, in a particular way. And he wanted me to learn about that because I was curious.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: You wear many hats in the death and grief space. You're an embalmer, a licensed funeral director, a sacred grief practitioner, just to name a few. And, you describe yourself as an empath, which for anyone who's not familiar, that that's someone whose empathy is such that they actually take on the feelings of others as if they're their own. While I imagine that this makes you particularly good at what you do, the flip side is that empaths are highly sensitive to the energy, the emotions, the experiences of others. How do you protect yourself with such such constant exposure to others emotions and another's emotions at a very intense moments of their life?

Joél Simone Anthony: It has taken a lot of practice. I have, I have learned to lean very, very, very, very deeply on an into my own spiritual practice, which isn't necessarily associated with any religion. I do my best to practice mindfulness, which causes me to be one hundred percent present, or as much as I can be present, when I'm doing the work that I love, which isn't very difficult. But then when I'm not doing that work, I'm not doing that work, which is very, very difficult because not only is funeral service, my occupation, it is my business. And if there are any entrepreneurs listening, you know that you never get a break from your business. But I have had to learn that, “This is when I'm at work. This is when I'm with my husband. This is when I'm with my family. This is when I'm just Being.” But at the same time…I don't want to use the word self-care, but taking care of myself and recognizing, okay, this is really had an effect on me and I need to process these emotions. And, what is the best way for me to practice ritual to process these emotions, I incorporate a lot of ritual into my day on all levels? I have a very, very, very strong support system in the form my husband, my family, and also mental health professional that I can call and talk to about things when they get to be too much. And I've had to learn to enforce and practice the art of setting boundaries.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: I'm curious, why don't you like the term self-care?

Joél Simone Anthony: I feel like it's become massages and pedicures when that's really not what it is. It's become convoluted and limited to girls’ nights. And, you know, glasses of wine when taking care of yourself can be simply saying, “You know what? I'm not going to answer the phone today.” Or, “I'm going to sit on the couch and watch Housewives until I fall asleep.” Or, “I'm just going to go make sure I get outside and get some fresh air today.”

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Estimates are that about 50% of funeral directors quit the profession within the first five years, and you've remained in your practice for 12 and seem to be doing well thriving and still loving what you do. So, just what are you seeing as someone sort of on the inside of this, that's contributing to this, this really rapid burnout?

Joél Simone Anthony: I think that the deathcare industry is a conducive environment for chaos internally, if you are not a person who is self-aware, and who has the courage to establish boundaries. And, by that, I mean, death doesn't have office hours. Death happens 24/7. It happens on holidays. And when a lot of us get into this industry were so eager to prove ourselves, especially as women and especially as women of color, we want to be respected, we want to especially when you hold an embalmers license, you want to prove that you can do anything that a man is doing or do anything that you know anyone else on your team is doing. And you care about people. And because you love what you do, I mean, people don't sign up to work with dead bodies, because we want to make money. That it's it's a lie that, you know, we're making millions of dollars, just you know, involving people, it doesn't happen that way. But that is a recipe for disaster because a lot of people are short staffed, especially due to COVID. A lot of people are going outside of the country and seeking contract work, which pays a lot better, or working with corporations that have set schedules to an extent. But there are only so many positions with that. So those of us that are working in private funeral homes, we're on call 24/7. Or we're missing milestone events with our family or holidays with our family. So, we're becoming isolated internally, maybe not understanding that we're taking on everyone else's everything. And then we start to self-medicate or participate in self harming behavior, which can be overeating, oversleeping, when we can, drinking, abusing drugs and you get into this spiral. But in your heart, you're like, “I'm helping people.” Or it's simply the notion that, “Well, this is my job, I chose this. This is my destiny and my purpose. I'm not allowed to feel stressed.” It's almost like a soldier. “This is my mission. This is my assignment.” And this is non-negotiable, that I have to do these things. And what I tell people is that, at the end of the day, you're still human. And if you were to drop that on this job right now, they would literally have someone else in your shoes before they wrote your obituary. So yeah. I hope that answered your question. But I think what I am seeing that a lot of those people that you were talking about, that quit within the first five years, I think they had a misconception of what the deathcare industry was, or it was simply too much and not the caring for the deceased, but the work demands, the demands on our physical bodies is astronomical. Caskets aren't light. Deceased individuals aren't light. Flowers weigh a lot, you know? So, it there's so many things. There's so many contributing factors that I think contribute to burnout. But I think, as an industry, just like with the medical profession, COVID woke us up to a lot of things. And now, funeral homes, corporations and schools are incorporating not necessarily information about self-care, but educate education about mental health.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: I've heard you speak before, too, about the fact that deathcare education is not inclusive of BIPOC communities. What are some areas or examples you can give and how that shows up?

Joél Simone Anthony: Sure. I'm a black woman, I have natural hair; my hair is not chemically treated. I wear my hair in a variety of hairstyles at any given day, my hair could be completely, completely different. It could be braided, I could have locks one day, and I could pass a way in any of those moments. And if I were to pass away right now, in the town that I live in, there are two black funeral homes, right? But there's also two white funeral homes. And I say that literally, there's two funeral homes where the black people go in there two funeral homes where the white people go, and the other communities get in, where they can. Literally, this is what happens. And not just in my community, but in communities around the country. But let's say that my family decides that they want to go to one of the funeral homes and service white individuals, right? What are they gonna do with my hair? How am I gonna look if if being viewed as something that I wanted? What are they gonna do with my skin and my makeup, they don't teach care of BIPOC bodies, specifically for hair and cosmetic care in mortuary school, which is why I created courses on doing that, that tell the story. All the time. When people ask about this, there was a young lady I was working for a very big corporation, she passed away she came into the funeral home with what's called box braids, which are braids that are attached to her hair at the scalp. And the funeral director was an older white gentleman. And he was literally cutting her braids out from her scalp. And, by the grace of God, I walked in, and he was doing it like starting in the back. But I was like, you know, “Do you realize you're cutting all of her hair off?” Her family didn't want the braids in her hair. He's like, “Well, how am I supposed to get them out?” He had no idea. That frustrates me because we are trained in mortuary school to shampoo and condition hair, right? Who does that on a daily basis? Black people don't do that every day. Hispanic people don't do that every day. Native Americans don't do that every day. But white people do that every day, just about. So, who is this level of education geared towards caring for? When we're mortuary school, we get these plastic heads a standard kit, which contains six colors, which if you mix them to be a brown or dark hued color look very funky. They're not designed to encompass the range of melanin that people of color have. And so, if you're not learning the school, the skills and mortuary school and you go into funeral home settings where people are, you know, the embalmers are literally busy backed up nowadays, because of COVID, who has time to teach you and walk you through the art of creating color to match BIPOC skin? So, I mean, I could just go on for days about the non-inclusivity of death care education. But I offer courses and information for those that are seeking this level of care for their decisions that they work within the families that they serve. And I can say with confidence and with relief that I've had several schools reach out in the past few months to contract with me about licensing some of these courses, and I'm open to speak with anyone. But I think this should be standard education.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Also, yeah, following up with that on what you would say what guidance or you know, encouragement would you offer to someone from a BIPOC community who's interested in pursuing a career and death care but maybe feeling discouraged by the lack of inclusivity?

Joél Simone Anthony: Be the light. If you're in class, and you know, or see something that, you know, is can be uniquely applied to your community, speak up on it. Educate those around you. I don't think that there's a mature a college professor or school professor that would be opposed to learning more and then sharing information that would help the other students in that environment. The problem isn't the educators it's the system. The curriculum is built around passing that national board exam. So, until the American Board of Funeral Service and those that write that exam, see this is valuable information, I doubt that it will change. Like I said, there are program directors that are reaching out to offer this as supplemental education. This isn't a part of the standard education.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: If you're just joining us, this is Take Note on W PSU. I'm Lindsey Whissel. Fenton and our guest is Funeral Director and Sacred Grief Practitioner Joél Simone Anthony, also known as the Grave Woman. Joél, you've talked about COVID, and the changes that that brought and as we spoke, before we began this interview, I shared that I've actually been wanting to do an interview with a funeral director. But in the time of COVID, a lot of the responses I got were, “I am maxed out,” you know, “That sounds great, but I don't have capacity.” How has your practice been affected by COVID?

Joél Simone Anthony: You know, I think COVID is one of the worst and best things that has happened to the deathcare industry, the worst, because it's unnatural, to walk into a room and see bodies literally stacked from the floor to the ceiling, or for a truck to pull up to your funeral home at 18 wheeler truck and just be full of bodies. That's unnatural. That, like no one I don't think anyone could imagine that. However, it's the best thing that could have happened because honestly, the deathcare industry was about 20 to 35 years behind the rest of the world, as far as the use of technology. And what I mean by that is that there were counties that were literally doing paper death certificates, not using electronic filing systems for death certificates, which created more error, lost documented documentation, and just a plethora of other issues. But because we had to become more innovative in the way that we met with families due to protect ourselves and the families, we were limited in the number of people that could come to services to celebrate the life of diseased. And because we were basically stripped of the ability to offer ritualistic and traditional practices, we had to lean on technologies like zoom DocuSign, virtual arrangement conferences, go outside of our industry and look at what other industries were doing to pivot during COVID. And I think that the deathcare industry is actually better because of COVID, than it was two years ago. And I think that professionals are now more open minded than they were before.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: I would imagine, as with any job, the more experience you have, the better you become at what you do. What's something you know now that you didn't know earlier in your career, or that you'd go back and tell yourself, you know, your first year on the job?

Joél Simone Anthony: I was stupid enough to try to give reasons or provide answers for people when people died. And I know now that that's not my job, it's not my place, and I'm not responsible for that. And you talk about that burnout, a lot of that mental anguish came from trying to do that, and realizing I was putting my foot in my mouth, out of wanting to help and having the best intentions. But I think now as a professional, I am a lot more comfortable with silence. And honoring that families need silence sometimes.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: I'm gonna shift gears a bit and kind of pick your brain a little for for all of us, listening about our own plans and arrangements and approach to death and dying and death care. So, sometimes death is sudden and unexpected, and people are scrambling to get arrangements done and might not have time to, for lack of a better term, shop around. But when there is a little bit more time to plan, say in the case of someone with a long-term illness, what should someone look for in their funeral director?

Joél Simone Anthony: You know, that's a really hard question to ask, too. Because unlike shopping for a car, or seeking out a physician, unless you have a relationship with a funeral home, you really don't get to pick your funeral director. It's like somebody could come into the funeral home I work with and say,” Hey, I is Joél here, right? I may be there, but I may be working with six other families and just not able to work with that family specifically unless they're willing to wait. But you shouldn't work with anyone who pressures you. It's easy to look for what you shouldn't do and what you should do if that makes sense. You don't want to work with anyone who puts pressure on your any firm, funeral home, funeral parlor whatever. They refer to themselves as crematory whoever that pressures you to make decisions or pressures you to spit In money, or is completely lackadaisical almost like, well, I don't care what you do, as long as you do it here, you know, you also don't want to work with an individual or a company or institution that makes you feel uncomfortable in any way. Our job is to act as comforters, it is to make this part of your journey, as easy as we can, which is something that's hard to say, because it's not an easy thing to do at all. You don't want to work with someone who talks down to you, or rushes you, or doesn't listen to what you're saying, follow your gut. Word of mouth is great. But I've worked with families that just didn't connect with me for whatever reason. I, I don't want to label this as racist. But in my mind, at the time it was, I was working with a corporation that predominantly served at our location, white and Jewish families. Someone had been murdered by someone who shared the same skin color as me. And the family just did not want to work with me. And at the time I saw that is racist. But the truth was, as hard as it is for, for me to say and accept, it just wasn't the time or place for me to try to convince them that not everyone that looks like me, does the things that resulted in your loved ones passing. And so they asked to work with another director without talking about the issue of color. But I think the manager kind of knew what was happening and sending a white man to work with them. Was that fair? No. But was that my moment to be a civil rights activist? Absolutely not. So don't work with any firm or anyone that doesn't honor what it is that you're experiencing. I've been on the other side of that table, where someone who shares the same skin color as me, was murdered by someone that shared the same skin color as you. And I wanted to do everything in my power to protect that family from any additional trauma surrounding that loss. And that's when I my perspective changed on that previous experience. So, when you walk into a funeral home, if you feel anything that just doesn't feel right, you have the right to choose another firm. Even if your loved ones there, you can request that they'd be moved to someone else, it surprises me how many people don't know that you can request that your loved one be sent to a different funeral home. Now that may result in monetary cost at your request. But yeah. This kind of goes without saying, but if you walk into a funeral home, and it just smells bad, I wouldn't want my mom or loved one there are a lot of times people choose the funeral home that they work with due to previous experience, if not that proximity to their home, because they want to feel close to their loved ones. Because the family has gone there for years. Or, like in small towns like this one, the funeral home actually reaches out to people. But yeah, Google, I tell people not to lean on Google, because reviews can be misleading. But you can google funeral homes in my area. And sometimes I've had people literally tell me, “I liked your voice when you answered the phone. I've called 10 funeral homes, and I liked your voice.” And so, again, follow your gut. I believe that this grief and loss in this entire experience goes so far beyond our intellectual capacity, it goes into our spiritual and emotional being on such a deep level. So, I guess the bottom line is go where you feel good. And you won't know how you feel until you make the hardest decision of picking up that phone and saying, “This has happened.” And if you don't feel good about the conversation you're having just hang up. You don't have to give an explanation. You don't owe us an explanation.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: You mentioned money. And, what advice do you have for someone who's in a situation where they are struggling to provide a funeral or other celebration of life for a cared about person because of financial challenges?

Joél Simone Anthony: I think the first thing that I will say is that there are resources out there to help with end of life. financial matters. I don't speak about any of those resources specifically because I'm not associated with any of them. But Google, you know, help for paying for a funeral. There are several nonprofits there several Have philanthropic groups that cover the cost of funerals. The biggest way to avoid that is through pre planning and pre-funding. And, again, most of us get into this business because we care about people. And we understand that people die in many ways and many circumstances and a lot of people die without resources to care for their end of life needs. I've seen more Funeral Home owners work with families than I ever have seen them, turn them away. So being honest and realistic about what your expectations are, especially when finances are limited.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Before we wrap up, what's one thing we can each do to become a little bit more comfortable with that maybe maybe there's a prompt you can give us to get us thinking or, or even talking about death?

Joél Simone Anthony: Our own or the those that we love?

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Either or.

Joél Simone Anthony: For yourself, or for ourselves, I think the biggest thing we can do to become more comfortable with death is accepted as a part of our human reality. What that looks like for you, I don't know, or for anyone, I don't know. For me, it looks like observing nature. And where I live here in the south, I have the privilege of seeing the seasons change. And to me, that is always a reminder that just like the seasons of nature, the seasons of life change. And each day is a seasonal change. I would also encourage everyone to develop some type of spiritual practice, not religious, but spiritual practice, that they feel good about, with our families or with those that we love. The way that I always get people talking is to tell them to start going through. You don't even really even have to go through the photo album, but just start going through pictures on social media with those that you love. Eventually, you're going to come across a picture with someone who's no longer here in that conversation about death and dying and grief is going to open up naturally. And it will make it a lot more natural conversation than just sitting down with a group of people unless you're with some weirdos like me and saying let's talk about this.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Joél Simone Anthony, thank you so much for talking with us.

Joél Simone Anthony: Thank you for having me.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton: Joél Simone Anthony is a licensed funeral director and sacred grief practitioner. She recently hosted a webinar for WPSU speaking grief initiative on avoiding burnout and death care professions. To view that discussion, or to learn more about Joel's work. Visit w psu.org/take note from my home studio. I'm Lindsey Whissel Fenton, WPSU.

Lindsey Whissel Fenton is a senior producer/director at WPSU. An award-winning storyteller, she has explored a wide range of issues through her work in public media. Most recently, she produced and directed Speaking Grief, a multi-platform public media initiative that works to create a more grief-aware society; she continues to produce content for the project's social media presence.
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