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Today we have a Q and A Session with Amber Lenore Winckler a pioneering Woman Funeral Director in the Funeral Industry in California. Her work “Final Bath” is the best Book published looking inside the Traditional Funeral Business.
What made you decide to go into the funeral profession? What is your professional experience and/or background?
The first time I became aware of the profession, I was 15 years old. My Mom came across a newspaper article about Cypress College of Mortuary Science. I was fascinated by the program and since that time have never had a question that I wanted to be a mortician.
I graduated from Cypress College of Mortuary Science in 1995. I hold current California licenses as an Embalmer, Funeral Director, and Crematory Manager. I was the General Manager of Alhiser-Comer Mortuary in Escondido for 8 years. I was the first woman ever hired by the San Diego Medical Examiner as a Forensic Autopsy Assistant, where I worked for 5 years. I am currently a trade Embalmer for a couple of local mortuaries, where I also perform restoration, cosmetics, and casketing.
Why did you write these books? Are your books based on real experiences?
I have been an avid journal writer since I was 15 years old. Through the process of going back and reading my journal entries, I realized that themes were naturally developing— employee burnout, for instance. The process of burnout and its many methods of negative coping amongst death-care workers is something I feel strongly about revealing in my work. Every single one of us has to cope in some way; we have all had to find a way to deal with the horrifying things we may have witnessed that day, and then go home and eat dinner and take out the trash like everyone else.
Both of these novels are taken from my journals, although I altered many of the people, places, and timelines both for privacy and for a more readable storyline.
You first wrote THE FINAL BATH in 1998; what made you decide to publish it almost eleven years later (in 2009)?
I was still young and full of false bravado when I first wrote THE FINAL BATH. I shelved it because the writing had a self-aggrandizing and a lack of humility that literally made me nauseous. I didn’t want to put out another ‘see how great and caring I am’ book about funeral service. Ten years after I wrote the original draft, I finally felt secure enough to tell the story how it really happened— with me in my completely imperfect, van-crashing, sweater-staining state of being. I wasn’t embarrassed anymore that I didn’t start off as the best mortician in the world, and I found the new version more authentic and readable (evidenced by the fact that I could get through it without my stomach turning…)
INTO THE HANDS OF STRANGERS follows the same character out of the funeral home and into the Medical Examiner, but is decidedly darker than your first novel. What effect did the Medical Examiner environment have on your writing and your characters?
At the mortuary I saw a variety of deaths, but mainly the cause and manner were primarily natural. We performed a variety of tasks, including meeting with families and conducting funeral services. At the Medical Examiner, the deaths are more concentrated in the tragic— even the natural deaths were completely unexpected. Every homicide, suicide, motor-vehicle accident, alcohol-related, (the list goes on)… ended up on those tables. Autopsy Assistants assist on autopsies for the entirety of their shift. There are no families to interact with, no green cemeteries to stand in. You start with this type of atmosphere, then throw in endless County bureaucracy, failed attempts at pushing diversity, and a system that pays everyone the same no matter what work ethic they manifest— and you end up with INTO THE HANDS OF STRANGERS. Admittedly, it is a much more brutal book to read. Some have reacted strongly to the changes in my main character, Louise, but I use Louise to show what type of toll the job can take.
What will you choose, a green burial, traditional funeral or cremation?
I have cemetery property at a local park. I plan to be buried without body preparation, in a wood casket. I find comfort in the concept of decomposition as a natural process; dust returns to dust.
Do you have plans for more books?
I have finished a third book called THE DISTRIBUTION OF FLUIDS, a collection of fictional short stories that is slated for publication in 2011. I am currently working on a fourth book.
Has burnout affected your funeral services career? Can burnout be avoided in this profession?
This is the million dollar question… Burnout definitely affected my decision to leave the Medical Examiner environment; which I discuss more in depth in INTO THE HANDS OF STRANGERS. Some personalities appear to weather the profession better than others. It appears to me that as long as a workers home and/or social life remain stable (and let’s face it, whose life doesn’t face upset from time to time?), then the stress at work is tolerable. When stress mounts on both fronts, burnout becomes a serious threat. And by stress in the death profession, it can mean anything from a horrific tragic death, to tension with a boss or co-worker with daily death and despair as merely a backdrop. Morticians are tough breed, and I believe that most of us are called to this type of work, but our emotional needs and mental health are rarely addressed.
What major funeral service issues do you think most need addressing?
First and most definitely burnout of the workforce. How do we keep good people from dying out on the front lines after just a few years?
Second, the resistance of some traditional funeral homes to change their staffing, merchandise, pricing, and services to better reflect and appeal to the modern consumer.
What advice would you give to women seeking to enter the profession?
I receive many letters from women asking this question. Some fear being under-estimated and relegated to front office work. I have just one answer: don’t make a big deal about being a woman. Do your work, do it as good or better as the guy next to you and you will ultimately succeed. Respect is earned. Pay attention to the seasoned workers who understand the physics of lifting and use pivot points instead of brute strength. You don’t need to be able to lift a thousand pounds to be valuable; you can navigate most situations by using your brain. The profession needs women; we are naturally compassionate and great multi-taskers. I encourage all interested women to not be intimidated or afraid to enter this profession if you think it may be your calling.
Funeral industry|Funeral News| Funeral blog by Your Funeral Guy
- About My Job: The Mortician (andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com)