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Working to Live: How Being a Mortician Reshaped My Money Mindset

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I used to embalm people like you.

Well, they weren’t exactly like you. They were similar to you… except they were dead.

Creepy, I know.

And as you might expect, these experiences changed my life forever… but not always in the ways you might expect.

Here’s the thing: People think morticians spend their time dealing with the dead, but most of my time was actually spent working with the living.

Yes, I picked up deceased people from houses, hospitals, and nursing homes. I embalmed them and got them dressed. I even placed them in their casket, making them look as lifelike as possible so their families could say their final goodbyes.

While I often thought about what they may have been like when they were alive, it was the living with whom I made a real connection. As I searched for ways to comfort them and connect with their grief, they often told me stories about their loved ones – trying to explain what made them a unique and special soul.

Looking back on over a decade of my life spent in funeral service, it was in these moments – when grief-stricken families were desperately trying deal with their emotions by sharing their life stories – that I actually learned the most about my own life and decisions.

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Living to Work

I loved my job. I really did. The hours were long, the work was stressful, and the pay was decent. But, every day I was privileged to go to work and come home feeling like I did something good for others. (Well, almost every day.)

Serving those in grief almost became an obsession. And, since Holly and I both worked at the mortuary, it was easy to get lost in our jobs and forget about our own lives. Sure, I wasn’t always happy to work through the night, run home to take a shower, throw on a suit, and head back to work. Yeah, missing birthdays and weddings was difficult. Of course, getting called away from my family’s Christmas dinner sucked. But the job demanded it.

I was happy to serve. People needed my help. And, as with many things in the funeral industry, these moments always provided perspective. No matter the inconvenience my job wreaked on my life, the families I was serving were experiencing pains far worse.

Being a mortician was my life, and – for better or worse – everything else revolved around it.

Dreams Unrealized, Time Gone By too Fast

Becoming a funeral director was never my dream job. Not even close. I entered the profession after my teenage brother died in a car accident. Going through the funeral process was a positive healing experience for me, and I wanted to help others process the familiar feelings that my own family went through.

As I got to know the families and their loved ones who had died, I often thought back to my brother. While meeting with those who lost teenagers, I thought about how my brother never got to experience his dreams. Their parents reminded me of my own, and how they were robbed of their own dreams for my brother – dreams I never fully understood until I became a father.

Then, there were the families who had more time with their loved ones but still never lived the life they wanted. Some worked their entire lives, expecting to live out their dreams after retirement. Many of them never made it. Others were determined to live life until their last breath, dying at peace with all they accomplished and without any regrets.

Day after day, my work provided a constant reminder that we’re all going to die. The stories I heard almost all followed a familiar theme: You don’t have as much time as you might think. Use it wisely.

That truth stirred in my mind for years, but I never did much about it. Instead, I just kept trudging forward, determined to dedicate my life to serving those in grief…while still running away from my own.

Making Choices

After a particularly difficult week in which I buried two babies and a teenager, it seemed like everything became clear. Suddenly, the lessons I’d been learning all of these years crashed down on me swiftly and without warning.

What was I doing with my life? What did I really want? Was I doing all that I could to achieve that, and how would I be remembered if I died today?

The questions were right there in front of me all along. But, for some reason, they finally hit home. I wanted to be one of those people who lived without any regrets. I wanted my life to be spectacular. I wanted to live now and not wait until a tomorrow that may never come.

My choices were clear and there was no turning back.

Discovering Our Dreams

After years in the funeral industry, Holly and I finally started to decide what was really important in our lives. We knew we wanted to work for ourselves. We knew we wanted to be great parents, spend more time with our kids, and pay for part of their college. We realized we wanted to travel the world, and we knew we wanted to be able to do it while we were still young. We also wanted to retire and had already been saving for that goal

So, how could we make all that happen? What steps did we need to take and what changes needed to be made in order to get there?

We started thinking about the families we’d served and how they had lived their lives prior to a death. What differentiated those who died without regret from those who maybe didn’t?

The answer: Time. Money. Freedom.

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How Time, Money, and Freedom Affect Our Dreams

As we thought about it more, we realized we needed to overcome these three separate but interconnected issues.

Time

Our years in funeral service taught us to respect our time. The time we have on Earth is finite. Once the moment is gone, we can never get it back. After serving family after family who thought they had more time with their loved ones, we finally realized that time is the most important thing we have. We vowed to treat it that way going forward.

Money

It occurred to us that we’d been throwing away our money on things we didn’t really want or need. Car loans, meals out, and money just disappearing into thin air – we were wasting thousands a month on things that didn’t even matter to us. And since it took enormous amounts of time to earn that money, in effect, we were also wasting our time and stealing money that could be used toward living out our dreams. While it isn’t the most important thing in life, we came to realize that money is a useful tool that could help us live the life we wanted. The more wisely we used it, the more options we would have.

Freedom

Freedom is usually a product of both time and money. When you manage your time wisely but your money poorly, you’re locked into working longer hours to pay for things you don’t need or want. Your financial situation limits your ability to live the life you desire. If you manage your money wisely but don’t respect that your time is finite, you may end up working your life away or wasting the time you have by putting off life until tomorrow. In our case, our freedom was limited by both our decisions with time and money.

4 Ways We Changed Our Life

For years, these realities had been there for us to see. But now, after staring them in the face, we had to either take action or die knowing we could have lived a life we truly wanted. Here’s what we did:

  1. We started respecting our time. – Instead of putting our dreams off until tomorrow, when we may not have the time or the health to accomplish them, we decided to make living the lives we wanted a priority now. We stopped dreaming about what tomorrow could bring and started planning for what we could do right away. To make that happen, we also had to start taking care of our money.
  2. We created a budget. – We realized using our money wisely meant we could live in the moment but still have enough to save for our future. Sound money management would also provide us with more options down the road – including buying or starting our own business. So, we seized control of our money by starting a budget and tracking our spending. For every potential expense we began asking: A) How much time did it take to earn that money? and B) What could that money do for our future goals?
  3. We ditched our debt. – After starting a budget, we realized a big chunk of our paychecks were going toward paying off debt every month. How were we ever supposed to get ahead if thousands were already spoken for? So, we focused our initial efforts on quickly paying off our remaining debt. From that point forward, we vowed not to use debt to buy things we didn’t need and couldn’t afford. Instead, we would use that money to buy the things and experiences we really wanted in life.
  4. We looked for ways to expand our freedom. –  After years of planning our lives around work, we were determined to find a way to plan our work around our lives. Working nights, weekends, and holidays for the occasional 3-day weekend and 10 days of PTO wasn’t going to cut it. We needed to get our priorities straight, and we needed to do it quickly. So, we looked for ways we could gain more freedom in the future. Creating this blog was part of that process.

The Result: Working to Live

Us in Venice, Italy.
Us in Venice, Italy.

When I look at my life now, I see myself and my family living out our dreams. Seizing control of our money, our time, and eliminating debt has allowed us to take risks and earn the freedom we craved. Because we learned to use our money wisely, we created the financial cushion needed to leave our jobs and pursue our online business. Now that we work from home, we have the freedom to travel the world while saving for our future. In fact, we travel about once a month, and it’s all because we made the decision to take control of our money and our lives.

Read Also: The Debt Snowball – Your Guide to Paying Off Debt Fast

I credit much of where we are to the valuable lessons I learned from my days at the funeral home. While my job was helping those grief-stricken families celebrate their loved ones, the reality is that – through their shared stories and experiences – they ended up teaching me how to live.

Of course, you don’t have to work in a funeral home to understand these truths. You can make the decision to live your life now, just like we did.

Stop spending your life away on things you don’t want or need. Seize control of your money and start living the life you dream of. Use the money you already make to reclaim your life and live it the way you want.

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28 Comments

  1. Absolutely love this blog post and everything that you said. I\’m so glad that I started personal finance blogging 5 years ago because I wouldn\’t be as happy as I am today, that\’s for sure. After my dad passed away, I promised myself that I would enjoy like more because tomorrow isn\’t guaranteed. BUT, I know that I should still be smart with money because money doesn\’t control me.

    1. Thanks Michelle! We have a similar philosophy. It is important for us to squeeze as much out of life now, but we still need to save for later. But, the ability to do that doesn’t just happen. You have to plan for it. Money is a tool to get what you want, and using it wisely gives you more options in many areas of life.

  2. I struggle with this a lot. In a lot of ways, I really do live to work because I find teaching so fulfilling. I have to continually remind myself that there are other parts of my life that I really do value and enjoy. And it’s hard to sacrifice time with my husband or with family on weekends. I’m trying to get a bit better at balancing but that’s easier said than done!

    I do think I’m going to skip summer school for the first time this year. 6 weeks of summer isn’t quite worth the $3,000 that I thought it was.

    1. It can be tough to balance a job you love with your life. It’s a struggle that many of us fight forever. IMO, that’s especially true when you work in a profession that is more of a “calling” – like teaching, nursing, funeral directing, etc. Thankfully, we were in a financial position where we even had the opportunity to make a choice. Of course, that all comes back to budgeting and wise money management.

  3. I’ve just been thinking about how we are working toward financial independence and whether I’m going overboard with that and sacrificing today for tomorrow’s plans. It’s a bit of a balancing act – we have to keep working to save capital, because how else are we going to generate the, I don’t know, $2.5M or more that we need to retire free and clear? But in the meantime our little JuggerBaby is growing up fast. More incentive to do better, I think, but also a bit of draw to spend quality time with zir now, before ze gets too big to care about spending time with us.

    And burying kids? My heart. I don’t know how you got through all that but as a parent now I just can’t quite wrap my head around seeing that kind of grief and helping people to navigate that.

    1. It is definitely a balancing act. We’re in a similar situation where we can’t just stop working. We have a long way to go until retirement, which makes it easy to forget about living in the now. So, we tend to work really hard so that we can play hard too. Getting out of debt and budgeting has helped us live now while saving for later. It’s amazing what you can do when you stop spending on stuff and start using your money for things you actually want.

  4. It takes a special person to do the kind of work you did. I’m happy for you and Holly that you’re now living out your dreams. Thanks for the sobering post.

    1. Thanks Mrs. Groovy! Everybody’s dreams are different, but hopefully we can inspire others to live theirs as well. Whatever those dreams are, sound money management gives people options and helps them get there.

  5. This is an excellent post Greg and I appreciate you sharing so much of your story. We often read the \”work for yourself\” or \”travel the world\” posts without the \”story\” that allows you to connect. Posts like this are a good reality check of that finite time we all have and you are an inspiration to making the best of that time!

  6. I’m sure you made a big difference in the lives of those grieving families. I went through a similar process after my husband almost died of septic shock some years ago. I was only 31, and it made me realize in a very concrete way that life is short – and tomorrow might not come. Since then I’ve gotten more clear on my goals, and treasured the time with my family even more than I ever would otherwise.

    1. Hey Liz,
      I’m sorry to hear about your husband. What a terrible thing to go through. Death certainly has a way of reminding you of what’s really important in life, though, doesn’t it?

  7. Great story! My neighbor growing up was a mortician and I always thought it would be such a terrible job having to deal with the dead every day. I never thought of it from this angle of helping the families through the grieving process. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thanks for the kind words. Its definitely more of a service industry, and I think almost all funeral directors look at their job as a chance to help others. I’d say most consider it a calling or a ministry.

  8. I had no idea about your brother, so sorry for your loss. It is interesting to hear how that was a catalyst for you getting into the funeral business. You definitely to have a heart to serve others and it shows. It is so cool to see you and Holly living out your dreams with your family. Keep up the great work!

    1. Thanks Deacon! Hopefully we can continue serving, just in another way now 😉

  9. Damn man… this was so SO good.

    You just laid it all out there like that… what a powerful story!

    So sad about your brother, ugh 🙁

  10. That was an odd job, by the way. It’s good that you had a great perspective with regard to your job. Few people can take embalming as part of their job. Good job. So sorry about your brother.

    1. It certainly isn’t a mainstream career, but it is a great profession filled with wonderful, caring people. Funeral homes are also one of those businesses where you don’t realize how important they are until you need them. Thanks for the kind words 🙂

  11. What great reflections, and way to go on acting on your dreams and finding what’s truly important to you. I think that is the hard part sometimes–figuring out those dreams and values, and then having the courage to act on them.

    1. Thanks Kalie! I agree, it can be tough to figure out what you actually want in life. And, as one of my friends and bosses once told me, “Dreams change over time.”

  12. Man, I think if I were surrounded by death all the time, I would also be pretty pensive. It’s good that you’ve gotten that kind of perspective and you’re taking action on it to live better. 🙂

    1. There are certainly days that make you think, and days where you just want to come home and hug your family. But, that is true with many service professions. I loved helping people, and I’m so glad for everybody I met – including my coworkers. I’m also thankful for the things I learned about life and business. The entire experience taught me a lot. Glad you enjoyed the piece.

  13. This was a very moving story. I’m very sorry for your loss, losing a sibling must have been an awful thing to live through. I’ll never forget the moment we got the news of my husband’s cousin’s passing. They were really more like brothers, actually. He was electrecuted at work and was only 29. He left a wife and two little kids behind.
    He went to work, thinking it was just another mundane day and then, boom…
    On a lighter note, we know a couple who also used to work in a funeral home. They have this dark sense of humor, almost too dark. I like it! I think working in this kind of environment changes you in many ways. It’s the same way with doctors, since they deal with death on a regular basis.

  14. I really enjoyed this article. I am also a mortician and understand the long hours and missing out on time with your family. I am also a CT technologist and I currently have three jobs to get out of debt. There are definitely days that I am so tired and run down I wonder if I’m going to be the next one on that embalming table. Your article has made me realize there is more to life than working all the time. I just paid off my car two days ago and I am debt free. I am looking at saving for emergencies and buying a house with cash next. It is a great feeling to be debt free and know that I don’t have to work as many hours and I can get back to living again.

    1. That’s awesome Laura!!! Congratulations! It sounds like it took a lot of effort and sacrifice, but you’ll be able to reap the rewards for the rest of your life. Great job, and thanks for all you do 🙂

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