17 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Funeral Directors

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iStock

Despite the fact that almost everyone will need the services of the "dismal trade" at some point in their lives, the specific job duties of funeral directors often remain shrouded in mystery. Mental Floss talked to several to learn some little-known facts about the profession, from what happens behind the doors of the embalming room to the real reason you might want to think twice about that “protective” casket.

1. THEY DRIVE MINIVANS.

“The reason you don't see the dead being picked up in your daily life is because we're stealth like that,” Jeff Jorgenson of Elemental Cremation & Burial in Seattle tells Mental Floss. “We are soccer moms and we are legion! Actually, we just use soccer-mom vehicles: Minivans are the transportation of the dead. We rarely drive hearses—those are ceremonial vehicles only.”

2. THAT SWEET LOOK ON THE DECEASED’S FACE TOOK SOME WORK.

Funeral directors say that the most important part of preparing a body for a viewing is the “setting of the features”—creating a peaceful facial expression with a pleasant smile. But while it might look nice at the end, the work creating that appearance can be grisly. Morticians stuff the throat and nose with cotton and then suture the mouth shut, either using a curved needle and thread to stitch between the jawbone and nasal cavity or using a needle injector machine to accomplish a similar job more quickly. Small spiked cups are also inserted under the eyelids to keep the lids closed and the eyes from caving in.

Of course, some bodies take more restoration than others. One mortician says that to prepare a decapitated corpse for an open-casket viewing, he uses a wooden dowel to rejoin the head and body, then sutures the neck back together.

3. THEY MIGHT MAKE A TRIP TO THE DRUGSTORE. 

In her best-selling book Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, mortician Caitlin Doughty says: “If the usual methods of setting the features aren’t sufficient to keep the eyes closed or the mouth shut, superglue is a secret weapon.” In Grave Matters, author Mark Harris points out that superglue can also be used to close up any puncture marks from needles on a corpse. Brooklyn funeral director Amy Cunningham of Fitting Tribute Funeral Services tells Mental Floss: “If you need to keep a deceased person’s hands folded neatly at their abdomen, but their arms keep falling down into the sides of the casket, you can gently bind their thumbs with a ponytail tie.”

4. COMPARISON SHOPPING IS KEY.

Sixth-generation funeral director Caleb Wilde, known for his popular blog Confessions of a Funeral Director, shares this story with us: “About a year ago, a husband and wife died about four months apart. The wife knew us, so we buried her, and the husband knew the funeral home in a neighboring town, so they buried him. They both had the same funeral, same casket, vault, etc. The family called us to let us know that the other funeral home charged $3000 more. Same value, different cost. Call around to different funeral homes. Shop. Ask for the GPL [General Price List]. Remember, cost doesn’t always equal value.”

5. YOU MIGHT WANT TO THINK TWICE ABOUT “PROTECTIVE” CASKETS.

Some caskets that have vacuum-seal rubber gaskets are marketed as “protective” or resistant to the “entry of outside elements.” As Harris details in Grave Matters, this creates conditions that encourage the growth of anaerobic bacteria, which break the body down by putrefying it, “turning soft body parts to mush and bloating the corpse with foul-smelling gas … Inside the sealed casket, the result is a funereal version of the decay that’s found in swamp bottoms and the bowels of unturned compost piles.”

6. SOMETIMES CASKETS EXPLODE.

In fact, the aforementioned buildup of methane gas can cause what people in the industry call “exploding casket syndrome,” where the gas will literally blow the lids off of caskets and doors off of crypts. Some casket makers have added Tupperware-style “burping” features to their sealer models to release the accumulated gases. Harris spoke with a former cemetery owner who told him that those “protective” sealer caskets are “routinely unsealed after the family leaves … to relieve the inevitable buildup of gases within the casket.” Staff may also just leave the caskets unlocked, not engaging the seal to begin with, in an attempt to avoid those “fetid conditions inside the casket.”

7. SOMETIMES PACEMAKERS EXPLODE, TOO.

If a pacemaker is left in a body when cremated, “it can explode and can cause upward of $10,000 of damage to the retort [cremation machine],” Wilde says. “So, pacemakers need to be removed before cremation. And don’t worry, the funeral directors/cremationists will do the removal for you.”

8. SOME FUNERAL DIRECTORS RARELY SEE THE DEAD.

Jorgenson says, “The bulk of what funeral directors do is paper-pushing—filing death certificates, getting permits, editing obituaries, and sending them to the paper. [Some] will only see a dead person when they are delivered for a service. In the case of some funeral homes, a [corporate] funeral director could literally go years without seeing a dead person.”

9. THEY SEE THINGS THROUGH ROSE-COLORED LIGHT BULBS.

While the formaldehyde embalmers use does contain a rosy dye to restore color to graying, lifeless flesh, it’s not always sufficient. According to Cunningham, “mortuary schools teach color theory and stage lighting—how to use colored gels over the ceiling lights.” Doughty also mentions that bodies are often set out for visitation displayed under rose-colored light bulbs.

10. IT ALL GOES RIGHT DOWN THE DRAIN.

You’d think all the chemicals and body fluids involved in embalming would be disposed of like biohazard, but it’s industry practice to just wash it all off the table, right into the drain. Harris points out that just one embalming can generate 120 gallons of “funeral waste”—blood, fecal matter, and the former contents of internal organs, in addition to any chemicals in the preservation fluid itself—and it all ends up in the public sewer system, to be eventually released into waterways. Although, as Wilde points out, “Blood isn’t any worse than the other things that go down the loo.”

11. FORMALDEHYDE MIGHT BE DYING A SLOW DEATH.

In addition to causing relatively minor problems, such as sinus issues and rashes (including one called “embalmer’s eczema”), formaldehyde is a carcinogen. The U.S. National Toxicology Program, among other groups, has said that people with high levels of exposure—such as embalmers—are at a higher risk for nasopharyngeal cancer, myeloid leukemia, and other forms of cancer.

Usually, criticism comes from outside the death-care industry, but that’s starting to change. In the May 2016 issue of The Director, the official publication of the National Funeral Directors Association, Carol Lynn Green, the NFDA’s environmental-compliance counsel, writes, “there is no dispute that formaldehyde poses a health risk.” She says that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is gearing up to make their workplace regulations stricter, and recommends that funeral homes start to transition to preservation products that don’t use the dangerous gas.

12. YOU CAN’T REALLY BE BURIED UNDER A TREE.

Some consumers who dislike the idea of embalming, or have environmental concerns, choose a “green” burial. Alongside that often comes a romantic idea about being buried beneath a favorite tree—perhaps a stately oak, for example. Sarah Wambold, an Austin funeral director and green burial expert, tells Mental Floss: “A body must be buried at least four feet from a tree to protect its root system. It’s a bit of an adjustment for people who are committed to the image of being buried under a tree, but that’s not always the most green option for the tree. Wouldn't they rather allow the tree to continue to live?” You can, however, plant new trees or shrubs atop a grave after a burial, and the roots will grow down over the body.

13. AT LEAST ONE FUNERAL DIRECTOR WANTS TO TEACH YOU TO PREPARE DEAD BODIES YOURSELF.

Caitlin Doughty

Doughty, who runs a funeral home called Undertaking LA, told WIRED“I’m a licensed mortician, but I want to teach people that they don’t need me.” She advocates people learning to take care of their own dead at home, and says she wants the public to become comfortable with the way death looks naturally: “A chemically preserved body looks like a wax replica of a person. Bodies are supposed to be drooping and turning very pale and sinking in while decomposing. Within a day or so after they’ve died, you should be able to see that this person has very much left the building. That’s the point. I think dead bodies should look dead. It helps with the grieving process.”

Doughty encourages the idea of home funerals, which are legal in all 50 states (although 10 states require the involvement of a funeral director). For more information, check out the Home Funeral Alliance.

14. IT’S HARD TO BE THEIR FRIEND.

Any friend might disappoint you once in a while, but funeral directors will probably do it more often, according to Wilde. “We might miss your birthday party; we might have to leave in the middle of dinner. Death has this way of keeping an untimely schedule, and as death’s minions, we’re tied to that schedule. Whether it be in the middle of the night, or in the middle of your wedding, when death calls, we have to respond.”

15. NO ONE WANTS TO PROFIT FROM THE DEATHS OF CHILDREN.

“It is a tradition in the funeral industry to provide funerals to the families of stillborn babies and very young infants at cost,” Cunningham says. “Funeral directors do not care to make a profit on the deaths of children, and in fact, the death of a young child saddens the whole firm more than almost anything else.”

The funeral industry also includes a number of charitable projects devoted to helping parents after a child’s death. A volunteer group called Little Angel Gowns makes burial garments for babies out of donated wedding dresses, and provides them at no cost to hospitals and funeral homes. The Tears Foundation assists grieving parents in paying for burial or cremation expenses after losing a baby. Eloise Woods, a natural burial ground in Texas, will bury infants at no charge.

16. YOUR GRANDFATHER’S HIP JOINT MIGHT BECOME A NEW ROAD SIGN.

According to Doughty, families can ask for replacement medical parts back after a cremation, but most do not. Hip and knee implants are often melted down and recycled for road signs and car parts, among other things. Unfortunately, she says, breast implants usually melt all over the cremation machine.

17. SOME FUNERAL HOMES EMPLOY THERAPY DOGS.

A large part of a funeral director’s job is comforting the bereaved. Some use grief-therapy dogs to give the families a furry shoulder to cry on. For one example, check out Lulu the golden doodle.

All photos courtesy iStock unless otherwise noted.

This story originally ran in 2016.

9 Secrets of Uber Drivers

iStock/South_agency
iStock/South_agency

Where would we be without Uber drivers? Probably still stuck at the pub or in some taxi line, wishing we were home in our pajamas instead. But while many of us take Uber rides all the time, we often don't know much about the experience of driving for the company. Mental Floss looked into what it takes to become an Uber driver, why they dread four-star reviews, and and why they just might profit if you vomit.

1. It’s pretty easy to become an Uber driver ...

There are only a few basic requirements to become an Uber driver. Applicants must have an eligible four-door vehicle, a valid U.S. driver’s license, and at least a year of licensed driving experience in the U.S., or three years if the driver is under 23 years old. Of course, they must also be of legal driving age. Applicants’ driving records and criminal history are checked via an online screening process. (Some critics of Uber have called for stricter security screening, arguing that drivers should be fingerprinted to better identify bad actors. In response, Uber has said that fingerprinting would pose “an unnecessary burden and cost.”) The process is usually relatively fast. Nichole Visnesky, a student who used to drive for Uber part-time in Greenville, North Carolina, said her application was approved within 24 hours, and she was driving shortly thereafter. “The car that I was driving wasn’t even in my name at the time, but it was still OK,” she tells Mental Floss.

2. ... But driving for Uber isn’t for everyone.

While it’s easy to get up and running as a driver, the job isn’t suited to everyone’s personality and skill set. For one, it requires good customer service skills, according to Catherine, a former Uber driver in Pittsburgh. Like any job in retail or food service, that sometimes means biting your tongue when dealing with difficult customers. “A friend tried to [drive for Uber] but got into an argument. Obviously it’s not for her,” Catherine tells Mental Floss. And because driving requires some physical rigidity and mental focus, it can be draining, too. “You get very tired because you’re constantly driving, sitting in the car, and you do have to pay attention,” Catherine says. “I would not have been able to do it full-time.”

3. Uber Drivers disagree about whether or not the pay is worth it.

If you peruse the “r/uberdrivers” forum on Reddit, you’re bound to see some differing opinions on the pay scale, which varies depending on “when, where, and how often you drive,” according to Uber. “Driving for Uber is a waste of time. Only do it if you’re homeless/jobless,” one Reddit user wrote last year. Shortly before the company's May 2019 IPO, many Uber drivers even went on strike to demand higher wages and better working conditions. (According to a 2018 study by the Economic Policy Institute, Uber driver compensation averages about $11.77 per hour, after deducting for Uber's fees and driver expenses.)

Yet both Visnesky and Catherine say they have had positive experiences. Catherine said she drove in the evenings and on weekends and earned anywhere between $200 and $800 per week, depending on how many hours she put in. She said the pay was enough to help her get through a tough time financially. “I love driving, so it was a perfect way to make money on my own terms and make more money than I would make in a store,” Catherine said. Visnesky said she mostly drove on Fridays and Saturdays and earned between $80 and $470 per weekend.

4. A four-star review can get an Uber Driver fired.

The Uber app
Melies The Bunny, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Maybe your Uber driver missed a couple of turns, so you decide to rate them four stars (out of a possible five) at the end of your trip. You may think this is still a pretty good review, but your driver probably feels differently. “Uber doesn’t educate its passengers as to what the rating system means, and how they should be applying it,” an Uber driver named Bob, who wished to be identified only by his first name, told PBS. “And I understand it’s perfectly reasonable in a five-star rating system to reserve your fifth star for the best situations, you know? Michelin stars for example. A four-star review in any normal situation would seem great! And, unfortunately, a four-star review on Uber’s system is a vote to have the driver fired.” That’s because drivers’ accounts can be deactivated if their ratings dip below a certain threshold; this varies by location, but is roughly around 4.6 stars. According to Uber, “There is a minimum average rating in each city. This is because there are cultural differences in the way people in different cities rate each other.”

5. Some Uber drivers put party lights in their car to make passengers happy (and get better ratings and tips).

Many of Visnesky’s passengers were drunk college students, so she decided to make their ride a little more memorable. “I eventually got lights to go under my floorboards, and they would get in my car and be like, ‘Whoa it’s the party Uber!’ They would be so stoked for it,” she says. Not only did it serve as a good icebreaker for conversation, but it also helped her ratings. Kahseem Panchoo, who at one point drove for Uber in New York City, also tricked out his 2013 Chevy Suburban by installing a light strip and disco ball. "Since people love to party, it matches their mood," Panchoo told the New York Daily News in 2016. "If they're going to a party or if they're coming from a party, they get excited." (It paid off, too. On one particular night, he received a $100 tip.) Bottles of water, snacks, and phone chargers are also surefire ways to impress passengers. Visnesky said she invested in two kinds of chargers for her car—one for Android and one for iPhone users.

6. Uber drivers might turn a profit if you barf in their car.

Three girls get out of a car
iStock.com/Rawpixel

A typical Friday night for Visnesky usually involved shepherding drunk students around town, so she always kept plastic bags, disinfectant wipes, and other cleaning supplies on hand. During the year and a half that she drove for Uber, two people threw up in her car on two different occasions. One person was too drunk to know what had happened, and the other laughed and said, “I feel so much better now.” Though she let the first person slide, she filed a claim for damages in the latter case. She took a picture of the mess and sent it to Uber, and the customer was charged accordingly. “I was given like $80 for damages but I probably didn’t spend more than a few dollars to clean it,” Visnesky said, explaining that she just went to a car wash and wiped down her seats. “I only charged them because they were such jerks about it and laughed afterwards.”

7. Returning lost items can be a major inconvenience for Uber drivers.

According to Uber, the average driver returns 11 lost items per year. Phones, cameras, and wallets are the most commonly forgotten items, but there have also been reports of a mannequin, deer antlers, and fish tank (with fish and water inside) turning up in the backseat of a car, according to Uber’s Lost & Found Index for 2019. Naturally, the larger the object, the more difficult it is to return—and prior to 2017, Uber drivers weren’t compensated for returning objects. “It can be inconvenient,” Catherine says. She has gone out of her way to return both a phone and a wallet to separate passengers. However, Uber eventually started charging riders $15 for each lost item that was returned, and riders were also given the option of tipping their driver. Still, drivers have to fill out a form in the app when they return an item, then wait three to five days to receive the $15.

8. If they’ve gone out of their way to be friendly or helpful, Uber drivers think you should tip them.

The option to tip drivers wasn’t built into the Uber app until 2017; by then, the precedent may have already been set. Both Visnesky and Catherine said younger, college-aged passengers typically never tip. While neither of the women said tipping should be viewed as mandatory, they both agreed that tips are welcomed in exchange for good customer service. “I do think if I’ve gone out of my way or you’ve kind of made it a hassle, maybe you should consider that when you’re paying me,” Visnesky said.

9. Some Uber drivers want passengers to be more courteous when discussing new movies and TV shows.

Two women talk in a car
iStock.com/RyanJLane

Let’s suppose that you and a friend just watched Avengers: Endgame and you’re dying to discuss it during the Uber ride home. Just be mindful that your driver might also be dying to see it, and probably doesn’t want to have the ending spoiled for them. “I would be really upset if someone ruined Game of Thrones for me,” Visnesky said. When in doubt, ask your driver if it’s okay to talk about a certain show or movie. You might even get a five-star passenger rating for taking this extra step.

13 Secrets of Substitute Teachers

iStock.com/shironosov
iStock.com/shironosov

Whether they’re recent college graduates or retirees, substitute teachers are a diverse bunch with a range of academic specialties and skills. No matter their background, they often arrive at work unsure of exactly who and what they’ll be teaching—but they usually have some tricks up their sleeves to get oriented quickly. Mental Floss spoke to a few subs to get the inside scoop on everything from why they love pregnant teachers to how they spot troublemaker pupils.

1. Morning people get more substitute teaching jobs than night owls.

Substitute teachers must be willing to have a (very) flexible schedule, and it helps if they’re morning people. As early as 5:00 a.m., subs get a phone call—automated or from someone who works in the school’s office—offering them a job for that day. If they accept, they have an hour or two to get out of bed, get ready, and report to work. Some schools now use an email notification system, but early morning phone calls are more effective given the time-sensitive, often unexpected nature of substitute teaching.

2. First impressions are important when it comes to substitute teaching.

A young female teacher in front of a white board talking to a group of students
iStock.com/SolStock

According to Kevin, a substitute teacher who works at schools in Southern California, dealing with new groups of students can be challenging. “It’s very hard to establish authority in the classroom. As a newcomer, you’re the foreigner,” he explains.

To immediately establish their authority, some substitute teachers practice speaking with a powerful voice, exhibit confident body language, and shut down any disruptions swiftly and decisively. But no matter how confident a sub is, some students will take advantage of the teacher’s unfamiliarity with the class. “It’s hard to write up a student who you can’t name. In a high school setting, you usually get 30 to 38 students a period for five or six periods. That’s a lot of students who may or may not want to test their bounds that day,” Kevin says.

3. Subs are an eclectic bunch.

Substitute teachers range in age from recent college grads working toward their teaching certification to elderly retired people. But what unites them is a love of teaching. Beverly, a substitute teacher who has taught for over 56 years, says that subbing keeps her sharp and active. “I do it for mental stimulation and because it’s a terrific service. You have to stay stimulated and involved with people,” she says. “I find youngsters to be so forthright and honest. The kids light up my life.”

Besides being a variety of ages, substitute teachers also come from a variety of professions. “You can’t believe how many teachers used to be lawyers but couldn’t stand it,” Beverly says. Everyone from former nurses and flight attendants to chemical engineers have earned their teaching certificates and become subs, bringing their real-world experience into the classroom.

4. There's a reason a substitute teacher's face might look familiar.

In schools in Los Angeles and New York, many struggling actors work as substitute teachers because they can balance teaching gigs with auditions and short-term film shoots. Like actors, subs must be able to speak in front of groups of people, improvise when they don’t have good instructions, and be quick on their feet when something goes wrong.

5. Substitute teachers aren't a fan of school holidays.

Because substitute teachers don’t have a set salary and work one day at a time, many of them face financial uncertainty, especially when holidays roll around. “Holidays can be devastating financially,” Kevin explains. When a school has the whole week of Thanksgiving off, subs don’t see that as a chance to relax. “In reality, a quarter of your paycheck for that month is gone,” Kevin says. “When you have student loans, insurance, etc. to pay, that extra little bit taken off your paycheck may mean you’re just scraping by.”

6. Substitute teachers have tricks to learn names quickly.

A primary school teacher helping a young boy in the classroom
iStock.com/JohnnyGreig

Facing a classroom of unfamiliar faces can be daunting, but subs have a few tricks up their sleeves to memorize student names in a flash. While some subs make seating charts as they take attendance, others use mnemonic devices to remember troublemakers’ monikers. Beverly admits that she doesn’t use anything fancy, but because she substitute-teaches math and science classes at the same school, she sees the same kids year after year. “I see the same youngsters out of junior high and into high school, but I do have a seating chart as well. They’re always amazed when I know their names,” she explains.

7. They love pregnant teachers.

Subs seeking job stability hit the jackpot when full-time teachers get pregnant. “At the school I currently work at, there’s a woman who is subbing for the whole semester for a second grade teacher who is out on maternity leave,” says Kyle, a science teacher who worked as a sub before getting a full-time teaching gig. Besides pregnancies, long-term health challenges and injuries can present an opportunity for subs to get a steady gig. Beverly says she once took over for an entire semester because of another teacher’s broken hip.

8. Some substitute teachers are quite familiar with busywork.

Novelist Nicholson Baker, who wrote about his experience going undercover as a substitute teacher at six schools, describes the astonishingly large amount of busywork that subs must assign students. “I passed [work sheets] out by the thousands,” he noted in The New York Times.

While Baker laments the “fluff knowledge” and vocabulary lists that subs are expected to force students to memorize and regurgitate, some subs do teach lesson plans. Kyle, who has a math and science background, explains that some teachers felt comfortable with him teaching the lesson plan so the students wouldn’t fall behind. “I’d teach it and assign homework accordingly for what we covered in class,” he says. But he admits that for middle school or non-science classes, he would sometimes simply be given a video to show the kids, or a work sheet or quiz to pass out.

9. The reputation of a substitute teacher can precede them.

High school professor asking students to answer question
iStock.com/Steve Debenport

Once a sub has taught at the same school a few times, they can develop a reputation—good or bad—among students. “When I first started subbing, I was 23 or 24, so I wasn’t much older than these kids—especially the seniors—and I think they saw me more as a peer than an authority figure,” Kyle explains. “I thought if I kept a light and fun atmosphere, kids would show their appreciation with respect. But that’s not how kids’ minds work. If you give a little, they’ll want more. So I became stricter and sterner as I went on,” he adds.

10. Substitute teachers can often spot troublemakers fast.

Although it might seem obvious which students are talking out of turn or giving the sub a hard time, substitute teachers have another way to quickly identify any mischievous students. “Usually, if a teacher has a really outrageous student, they’ll leave a note of warning for the sub. Sometimes the teacher will also leave a list of who the helpful students are,” Beverly says.

11. Substitute teachers may deal with inappropriate student behavior.

Kyle says that due to his young age and easygoing nature, some students tried to push the boundaries and act inappropriately with him: “[Students] would talk about or say things in front of me that I know they would never say in front of a teacher. I was once asked to party with some of the kids. Girls would try and flirt with me.” While male students typically tried to talk to him about basketball, female students frequently asked him if he had a girlfriend. “I would lose control of classrooms sometimes. Kids would get very wild, and sometimes would say inappropriate or abusive things to other students without fear of discipline,” he admits.

12. Substitute teachers are honored on a special day in November.

The National Education Association established the annual Substitute Educators Day on the third Friday in November to honor subs around the country. Besides bringing awareness to the work that substitute teachers do, Substitute Educators Day supports subs in trying to get health benefits, professional development, and fair wages.

13. Substitute teachers can make lasting impressions on their students.

Although most subs don’t see the same kids day after day, they can have a meaningful impact upon their students’ lives. “As an outsider, especially a younger teacher, students will often listen to you as someone who recently was in their shoes. Sometimes you talk to them one-on-one and give them a new perspective on why they should care about their schoolwork,” Kevin says.

And some students listen to their sub’s advice on studying and planning for the future. According to Kevin, students have approached him as he walked down the halls to thank him for encouraging them to get better grades.

“These experiences are few and far between, but it’s crazy to think that even these small talks with students can actually have a lasting impression,” he says.

This story was republished in 2019.

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