Words Are Hard

Writer, Messenger, and Professional Weirdo

Tag Archives: Death Care

Erm, excuse me…

Usually when our customers forward their lines it’s because they leave the office and go home for the night.  But one or two of our customers actually do things the old fashioned way and by old fashioned I mean they really do still live in the funeral home.  So when they forward their lines at night it’s because they want to sleep.  But there are a couple who, when the phone rings, will hear it, let it ring to us and then call us five minutes later to find out what the call was.

No seriously.

You can set your watch by it.  I usually take my time, even waiting up to a minute after finishing the call, to let the director on those specific accounts call us.  Most of the time they do.  At three in the morning we really only take one type of call and while it saves them from paying for us to call them about it, all I can picture every single time they call in, is this:

I still don't have my paycheck and they took my death call.

I still haven’t gotten my paycheck and they took my death call.

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“Oh, how awful!”

This pretty much sums up 2013 for me.

But the Halloweenies got into the spirit of things.

I sincerely hope that, however you celebrate it, the holiday season was a good one for you.  It was a good one for me!  Mostly.  I worked all of it.  But then I’m easy to please and the post-holiday breakdown didn’t happen until the morning of the 26th when EVERYBODY DECIDED THAT SIX AM WAS THE PERFECT TIME TO ASSUME OFFICES ARE OPEN.

People.  If the sun hasn’t come up yet and nobody is dead: go back to sleep.

Sometime in the last couple months (probably November) I took a call and ever since taking that call it’s been preying on my mind, like a brain worm.  Since I’ve been scatterbrained and other things have been popping up hither and yon, I haven’t gotten a chance to write about it, but here – let me paraphrase it for you:

Me: Good Morning. This is [FUNERAL CHAPEL HOME PLACE], my name is [REDACTED because Olivia is a pen name yo] how can I help you?

Caller: Hello?  Can I speak to [DIRECTOR]?

((It’s about 2am, so you know.  Eyebrows.))

Me: I’m sorry, s/he is not in at the moment, may I take a message or did you need to speak to someone right away?  I have [REDACTED – who was not the director she asked for] on call for emergencies.

Caller:  Oh.  Oh dear.  No, s/he just told me to call when my family member, [REDACTED], passed away.  I just wanted to give a head’s up.

((I actually do not roll my eyes at this point, because grieving family members get breaks.  They just do.  I hate it when they call in death calls because they never have any of the info and I feel awful asking them dozens of personal questions, but they’re upset and doing what they were told, so it’s a get out of jail free card.))

Me: Oh!  Alright, well, I can certainly reach someone for you–

Caller:  Oh no, please don’t bother them.  We’re not ready or anything, this is just a head’s up for …well, for whoever.

Me: ((Patience padawan…)) Alright, well, what usually happens is when the facility is ready they go ahead and give us a call.  We have a removal person that we can contact at that point who will come out and pick them up.  If you like, I can take what information you have and get a hold of them for you?

Caller: Is that the director?

Me: No, in this case it’s a separate in-house removal person that we contact for death calls. I can certainly reach a director if you need to speak to them though.  May I have your name please?

Caller: I don’t want to give that out just yet.  The facility can call when they’re ready?  We’re just getting ready to go up there now, so they should be ready when we get there.  So …this is just a head’s up, I guess.  No need to bother anyone.

((At this point, in case it’s not obvious, we’re speaking at cross purposes.  I really can’t help her, and it’s sort of drilled into us that we’re to take messages all the time, hence all the “no seriously do you want me to reach someone?” questions.  See, head’s up calls are messages, that will be cleared, provided I have the info.))

Me: If I take a message now I will have to page someone, so if you want to hold off and just want to have the facility call–

Caller: Wait, so you’re just an answering machine?

((Congrats random answering service drone, you’ve been upgraded to a T-1000 answering MACHINE!))

Me: I’m with their after hours service, yes.

Caller: Oh!  Oh, how awful.

I wish I could make this one up, but that last line is a direct quote.  And yes, if you’re reading it in a certain upper crust, prim and proper accent, you’re reading it correctly.  In fact, it’s the only quote I really remember because it bothered me that much.  The rest is paraphrased but essentially breaks down to someone not understanding that she actually was jumping the gun.  Badly.  After that, she muttered some more things and hung up on me.  About an hour later we did get the call from the facility, so no business lost, I guess?

If you think I’m taking the comment the wrong way, let me assure you, from tone and context (let’s not get into the things she muttered after the awful comment), she was just mortified that she had to talk to a service.  I don’t know why.  I don’t pretend to understand, but when she found out I was a lowly worker drone, she just couldn’t take it.

Look, up until that point, the caller was extremely nice, if a bit scatterbrained, and also gets the “grieving family get out of jail free” card.  But two things here:

1.  No, what I do is not awful.  What I do makes sure you got to talk to a living, breathing human (now with action punch empathy!) at two o’clock in the morning.  Not a voice mail box.  Not a calling tree.  Do not pass GO.  Do not collect $200.  Go straight to person.  Sometimes people are surprised when that happens, but it’s always a pleasant surprise and you know what?  I enjoy that part of my job.  I’m the filter between slightly scatterbrained family members who called not really knowing what they wanted and the directors.

But you know, filters can get worn out, which is why #2 is so degrading:

2. I am not this:

DELETE DELETE DELETE

DELETE DELETE DELETE

Or this:

Though let's be fair: I wouldn't say no...

Though let’s be fair: I wouldn’t say no…

And I am definitely, most assuredly, no seriously please knock it the fuck off, NOT THIS:

JLKJSFDALKFHALSKFHAKLHGLSHDGLHSD STOP IT

JLKJSFDALKFHALSKFHAKLHGLSHDGLHSD STOP IT

I am a human being.  Nothing gets you put on my shitlist faster than asking if I am an answering machine.  If you can’t tell the difference between a person and a machine then Skynet can’t wipe out humanity fast enough because frankly, I can’t with you anymore.  I can’t even English.  That’s how mad that question makes me.

It makes me wish I was this.  And then they would all pay.

It makes me wish I was this.

Damn those birds.

So to recap: Please never assume the person you’re talking to is a cyborg, unless they introduce themselves as Siri and even then it’s probably best to err on the side of them having a fully functioning organic heart, brain, nervous system, and other assorted squishy bits.  We’ll love you for it!  Thanks!

I’m just calling to give you a heads up…

There is no other phrase that I hear while working that makes me cringe quite as much. There are times it’s fine, but most of the “heads up!” calls amount to the caller waking someone up at three o’clock in the morning for no good reason. This is especially true if the deceased is at a facility with access to a morgue.

Most of the time when I get “heads up!” calls, it’s because the nurses will call before they even arrive at the home of the deceased. They want to save themselves some time because they don’t want to wait around for the removal people to show up.  They’re trying to time it so that the removal people show up about fifteen minutes after the nurse does. To the best of my knowledge this is rarely, if ever, successful and is only really appropriate in the following situation:

  • The funeral director will be making removal personally.
  • The funeral director is more than an hour away from the home and will be traveling there themselves instead of calling a more local funeral home to make the removal (otherwise known as a trade call). This is common in very rural communities.
  • The nurse is less than an hour away from the home, will be there early enough to get the paperwork done, and has made sure that the family is ready.

That’s it, really. In that case, by all means, get the director up and moving. If, however, the director is local, or they’re using a local funeral home or removal service, then chances are you’re waking them up to say: “Hey I’m going to be calling you later about this one body that hasn’t even been pronounced yet.”

They can’t do anything in that case and, chances are, they’re just going to go back to bed, grumbling under their breath and calling you names. Many places I answer for have instructions in place that say if the body isn’t ready (and if it hasn’t been pronounced, it isn’t ready) that we don’t even bother calling it out until it is. The only exception to that rule is if the family wants to talk to a director, but if you’re not at the home, how do you know if they do or not?

A lot of the time I’ll hedge when I get these calls and say something like, “Well, I can take the information now and get it to the director, or we can hold off until you get to the home and everyone is ready…”

Every time.  Without fail.  The nurse will (obviously not thinking this through) have me wake up the director who will then growl, “Okay,” and go back to bed.  I’m getting the impression that the nurse thinks the director doesn’t go back to bed, but I can assure you, when we get the second, “Okay ready now!” call, I’m waking them up again.  I know this because just waking up people have a distinct, groggy tone in their voice and a tendency to go “Mrfff,” “Grphf,” and “Fffstphk.”

Any hospice nurse worth their weight in student loans should know that a body cannot be moved from the place of death until it has been pronounced. In fact, five seconds with Google will tell you the same thing. Guess what can’t be done if you’re not there to do it? Right.

I also notice that a lot of nurses who do this (call before even getting to the home) will just sort of assume that the body will be ready shortly after being pronounced. Never mind any family members that are coming from a ways away that want to view the body before the funeral home arrives. Never mind any religious or cultural concerns. Never mind a husband or wife who just wants to spend a few more hours with their dearly departed for whatever reason. Never mind actually bothering to ask the family any of that. Just come and get the stiff!

This often ends in several calls back and forth saying the body is ready, then it’s not, then it is, then it’s not. Trying to jump ahead in the queue often leads to things getting messed up and wires getting crossed. It’s unprofessional. It makes the director look unprofessional and it puts a couple extra bucks in our bank account because we charge for every call we take and every one we have to make.

…On second thought, go ahead and make all those calls. Momma needs a new Playstation.

Anatomy of a Death Call

1:04am: “I’m just calling to give you a heads up. The family isn’t here so the body isn’t ready yet. We’ll give you a call when they leave.”

1:08am: The director is called and the call is cleared.

1:31am: “Okay!  The body is ready for pickup.”

1:33am: The director is called and the call is cleared.

1:40am: “Hi, I’m with the donor network/eye bank. We will be approaching the family regarding donation. Please hold off on removal.”

1:42am: The director is called and the call is cleared.

2:00am: “Hi, I called almost an hour ago regarding Mr. Doe. Do you have an eta? I’m sorry? Oh. Yes. Well we’re ready now.”

2:02am: The director is called and the call is cleared.

2:05am: “Hello, I’m with the donor network/eye bank. Just letting you know that the family has declined donation and the body is ready for removal now.”

2:06am: The director is called and the call is cleared.

2:45am: “Um hi, yes, um. I called regarding a Mr. John Doe about two hours ago. So it turns out the family gave us the wrong number and will be using a different funeral home. You can disregard the call. Sorry about that.”

2:46am: The director is called and has a nervous breakdown.

Ummm

So this is a thing that happened.

Full disclosure: This is not a funeral home whose phones I have ever answered but the “it’s taking too long to get the cremains back!” is a message I’ve taken many, many, many times for several dozen different places.

Unfortunately where I am I can’t watch the video and it doesn’t say in the article how long the families were kept waiting.  To be honest though, I think anything over a week is too long and I’ve talked to families who’ve been kept waiting several weeks.  Understandably, they were less than thrilled.

Of course my first instinct is to shield the director because he pays for the service that gives me a paycheck and there are several people in the world who don’t understand that the one thing funeral homes don’t usually do is pick the body up and immediately chuck it in the fire.  I have talked to nurses who make sure I know to tell the director to not cremate the body until the family has had a chance to view it.

So.  Um.  Speaking of people who should know better

Things that I know that I can’t actually tell you while I have you on the phone because I’m expected to play a certain degree of dumb: A funeral home cannot (and will not) cremate a body until all the i’s are dotted and t’s crossed.  If they don’t wait until that’s done, they’re either in a place where the laws are really relaxed (not likely) or in big trouble because that is a HUGE no no.  Oy.

So I’ve heard anywhere from 24 hours (if it’s prearranged and the family/doctor/coroner has already signed off on it and even then, while close, it’s not a pick up-chuck into fire situation) to a week.  If it takes anything more than that people start getting irritated because memorial services start getting pushed back.  Burials don’t happen (yes, people bury urns – my grandfather was cremated and buried in a garbage disposal at his request …that should tell you everything about my sense of humor right there).  Stuff like that.

And like I said, my first instinct is to shield the director, but I can’t wrap my head around this one.  How long did the families wait?  The wording on the article is weird and sounds like the bodies were actually just stashed in the shop.  If that’s the case: dude wtf?!

Also: Y’know.  Randomly.  I think the comment on the article calling for the directors to be jailed for life is a tad excessive.  Perspective, my darlings.  The dead don’t care if they’re left hanging before the barbeque.  They ain’t goin’ anywhere on account of a sudden case of dead.

I feel for the families.  I do.  Every time I take that sort of message I feel bad, because I am a human being with who still knows what the word empathy means.  But the dead have no such feels to give.  They weren’t killed by the director.  They were just left hanging, and there is a massive world of difference between the two.

I also note that nobody’s pointed this out:

WTF is a funeral home doing with a second hand store?  Think about that for a minute.  Do you really want to shop there?

Really?

Black Cooper Sander Funeral Home, Hollister, C...

Black Cooper Sander Funeral Home, Hollister, California motorcycle rally, 2007 (Photo credit: Wikipedia) We don’t answer for this funeral home right now, but I totally would. Because it’s awesome.

 

How not to call a funeral home at midnight

I mentioned on Monday that I work for ten hours a night answering other people’s telephones.  This is true.  I’ve been doing this for almost three years now, and working almost exclusively at night for over two.  What this means is that when dealing with the funeral home accounts that make up the majority of our business, I’ve talked to my fair share of nurses.

Let’s be blunt.  Nursing – especially hospice nursing – is a very difficult, and mostly thankless career and you definitely don’t get paid enough for it.  About 95% of the nurses I talk to are nice, professional, and know exactly what needs to be done and when.  They may not like being called out at 4am to pronounce a patient, but they are wise enough not to shoot the messenger.  To these nurses I say: I love you.  You are, in every sense of the word, a hero.

To the other 5% I say: How the hell did you graduate from nursing school?

Seriously.

I have spoken to hospice nurses who didn’t know what the phrase “next of kin” means.  Who didn’t understand why I would ask for something as silly as a contact number for the next of kin.  Who didn’t understand what I was asking for when I asked for the time of death.  Yes.  Those nurses.

So for the 5% who need a crash course, stick around and I’ll try to make it informative.  If this all seems like common sense, I agree with you.  Go ahead and enjoy the complementary wine and massage by our very own cabana boy, Antonio.

Pour vous.

What to do when reporting a death to a funeral home.

  1. Stop being annoyedLook, I get it.  Nobody likes being woken up in the middle of the night (or day, in my case).  In the middle of winter it’s cold.  It’s miserable.  Some poor bugger has died and the family is upset.  I get that.  So when I ask questions it’s not because I want to make your job harder.  I realize you want to get off the line asap so you can go home.  Here’s what you can do:
  2. Know where you are.  This is probably the most important bit.  If you are at a facility please for the love of puppies don’t tell me “they know where it is!”  That is not what I asked.  I asked for an address because records.  If I don’t ask for an address, it’s because we don’t need one.  Please have the address of the facility ready before you call.  If I can Google it faster than you can look it up or ask someone (which you should have done before you called!) then we have an issue.
  3. Know where you’re calling.  Several places I answer for have more than one location.  I am going to ask you which location the family wants to use.  When I ask you that question I don’t want you to tell me where you are.  We’ll get to that!
  4. Hey!  Listen!  When I ask you for a room number please don’t give me the phone number.
  5. Have all the info ready before you hit dial.  If you have a face sheet, get the face sheet.  If you are at a hospital or facility where charts are a thing, please have the chart handy.   If I ask for a piece of information you don’t have immediately the magic words are: “I don’ t have that information.”  or  “I don’t know.”  Do not waste my time and yours by digging through stacks upon stacks of paperwork to try and find a social security number when your facility/office doesn’t even keep those on record.  Note that this does not apply to information like addresses and phone numbers.  These things are pretty easy to find.  No excuses there!
  6. Let me ask the questionsI have a computer template that I use and isn’t exactly easy to jump around on super fast.  So when you’re throwing date of birth and time of death and next of kin at me in rapid succession and all out of order I’m going to have to ask you to repeat about half of it.  There is no set order every time.  Every funeral home is different and while the questions may all be mostly the same, with some places asking for more info and some places wanting less, they come at different times.  You will save time, get off the line faster, and we’ll both be a lot happier if you just let me do most of the talking.
  7. I am going to verify everything.  That’s my job.  Getting information and making sure it is correct is my job.  So yes, I am going to spell last names back to you using phonetics and yes, I am going to repeat every phone number and address.  Don’t interrupt me, and for the love of everything do NOT (seriously do NOT) wait for me to finish spelling back the name and then proceed to spell it again using a different set of phonetics.  Just say yes or no.  If no then at that time you can go ahead with the phonetics if you need to.  It’s not hard.  You know when I won’t spell things back?  When you use phonetics the first go-round.  That makes it very clear on my end and I will be very grateful.  I will have to double check all the numbers though, sorry.
  8. Please hold.  For some reason, and I don’t know why, death calls always roam around space and time in packs, waiting for the moment when we get one to drop four more on us.  Depending on the time of night there are anywhere from two to three of us here (the day shift gets a whole lot more than that, but they’re a lot busier).  Trust me when I say I hate putting you on hold as much as you hate being on hold.  I can see the counter and start twitching at the one minute mark.  This is why it’s very important that the ducks are all lined up in a nice row before making the call.  Chances are it’s not just me you’re making wait.  The faster we can get this done, the less time people have to wait listening to our awful hold music.
  9. Area codes are important.  Every time someone gives me a phone number without an area code a fairy doesn’t get its wings.  I don’t care that “everyone knows” what area code you’re in.  Most places we answer for have locations in multiple area codes.  Just gimme the freakin thing and stop rolling your eyes.  I can hear you doing that.  Also remember the template thing?  Yeah, phone numbers are required to have area codes.  If you don’t give me one it slows us both down because I have to correct the formatting.
  10. I don’t want to talk to the family.  There is absolutely nothing I, myself, can do for the family.  I am not a director.  I’m a messenger.  If the family wants to talk to a director I can certainly have the director call.  Always.  It is never a problem.  But I don’t want to talk to the family myself, because asking them how heavy their loved one happens to be is rude and a question you, as a professional, should be answering.  As a note: there is one (just one!) city that shall remain nameless whose hospitals are notorious for making the family contact the funeral home to arrange pick up from the hospital.  I have been told that this is because families will often tell the hospital one thing and then change their minds in the morning, making things messy.  Since this city seems to be the only city ever to have this problem forgive me for raising an eyebrow and thinking your nurses and staff are just really [explicative deleted] lazy.
  11. Nine times out of ten we want them in the morgue.  Every funeral home is different but the majority I work with will prefer to pick up from the morgue during business hours if at all possible.  In fact, there are several who have “tough luck pal” policies.  Morgue is full?  Too bad.  In many cases they use removal services (I’ve noticed that it’s mostly the ones located in larger cities) and night time removals cost them extra, so they won’t unless absolutely necessary (and sometimes not even then).  However, every funeral home is different and some change their minds depending on the phase of the moon so if you aren’t sure please ask.  If I don’t know (and I often don’t) I will have a director call you to let you know what they would prefer.  Pretty much all funeral homes will make removal from homes 24/7.  I have yet to run across one that won’t.
  12. When to ask for an ETA.  ETA in this context stands for Estimated Time of Arrival (yes, I’ve had to explain that so hush).  At the end of every death call my exact question, no matter what is, “Is there anything else I should let the directors know right away?”  That is the time to ask for an ETA.  If I have one, I will gladly give it to you.  Otherwise I will make a note in my handy-dandy “additional info” box and let the director know you’d like a call back.  Do not wait until I say “Thank you.  I’ll get this information to the director.  Good bye!” to interrupt me before I hang up and ask for an ETA.  Just don’t.  Chances are I’m not even in the template anymore because I’m digging up the contact instructions for the on call.  Note: That is also the time to tell me the family would like to talk to the director ASAP, or the deceased will need two people for the removal because they’re on the second floor or they’re heavy.  Anything additional that’s important.  MRSA?  That is very important (for non-nurses: don’t Google that if you don’t know what it is).
  13. If you want an ETA please ask for an ETA.  Self explanatory.  Most places won’t call you back unless you ask them too.  Some are nice and will make courtesy calls.  Don’t expect them all to.  And don’t get mad when they don’t.  Just call us an we’ll page them.  Problem solved!
  14. Be honest.  Is this your first time calling to report a death?  Is your computer/smart phone glitchy and running slow?  Don’t have the chart because the supervisor and/or doctor ran off with it?  Are you outside with a bad cell connection and no paperwork because you’re at Zombie Apocalypse Ground Zero and your patient ate the paperwork?  No problem!  Just let me know.  We can work with just about anything.  Don’t have a piece of info?  Don’t panic!  Just let me know upfront.  Things will go so much smoother and I won’t get mad at you.  I promise!  My patience is pretty infinite in those situations.
  15. Know your lingo!  Time of death is pretty self explanatory.  What time did you pronounce?  If you can pronounce the death, then there’s not much excuse for not knowing what I mean, right?  Generally speaking I want the pronounced time anyway, but if you give me that and the actual time that’s fine.  Chances are I only have room for one though, so unless the account says differently, it’s the pronounced time I go with (I know, I know the death certificate wants both depending on what state you’re in…).  Next of kin is convoluted, but generally giving us the closest able family member (spouse or kids usually) will suffice for the immediate future.  They can figure it out in the morning but they need to know who to call.

That’s it.  See?  It’s not hard.  You and I are both professionals.  I enjoy my job so help me help you and we can help make a very difficult time for a family just a little easier.

Congratulations on passing the course!  Antonio will now see to your needs:

…Ladies.

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