Funerals Unplugged - Podcast Episode Transcript

Funerals Unplugged - Podcast Episode Transcript

GAIL MARQUARDT:
Welcome to the Remembering a Life podcast. I'm your host, Gail Marquardt. Every month we have meaningful conversations about life, death, and how we want to be remembered with guests working in the end of life space. Today I am speaking with Benny Capaul, a licensed funeral director with his family funeral home Capaul Funeral Home in Ida, Michigan. Benny doesn't exactly fit the mold when it comes to what most people think of when they think of a funeral director, and that's one of the things we love about him. Today we're going to talk about why funerals and ceremony are as important today as they ever were, and how caring for bereaved families has evolved over the years. Welcome Benny, and thank you for joining me today.

BENNY CAPAUL:
Oh, I'm so excited to be here, Gail. Thank you so much for having me. Yes, absolutely. We're going to have such a great discussion today. I know it.

GAIL MARQUARDT:
We are. I'm thrilled that you've joined us. So let's start at the beginning. How did you become a funeral director? I understand you're part of a family funeral home legacy that dates back to 1936.

BENNY CAPAUL:
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, it's kind of wild actually. So my dad was a funeral director, grandpa, and great grandpa. I'm fourth generation here in Ida. We have been a staple in this town for a very long time, obviously, and I learned very young how important that individual can be in a community as much as it is a definite blessing to be a part of all these families. It's also very, very tough on not only my father, grandfather and great grandfathers, but their emotional empathy because of all the families and all the secondhand trauma that goes into it. Actually, when I was growing up, I did want to be a funeral director. I have an identical twin and he wanted to be a funeral director too. After high school, I decided that I didn't want to be a funeral director because I didn't like the whole 24 7 thing that did not seem fun to me.

I remember dad leaving and Christmases and birthdays and football games and all that when we were playing and just thinking, wow, I don't want to do that. I don't want to put my family through that. And my twin was like, well, I would like to do it. So my twin decided he was going to be the funeral director. I was going to be the psychologist, and then I realized, oh, you have to put 10 years of college to become a psychologist. So I decided halfway through my associates to switch, which of course sent me another two years in the science realm, and then he decided to switch. So we did a twin thing where he switched to psychology. I switched to mortuary science, and so I'm here and the reason I switched was because I remember a couple, because I've always worked at the funeral home, so whether it be when I was young, I was going on calls or doing the lawns or parking cars, the dreaded parking cars are kicking doors, we like to say, opening the door at visitation.

I remember an older couple coming up to me and they literally stopped me and they're like, I want you to know how important your dad is to this community. That was when I finally realized, okay, this is a calling. Yes, yes. It's a very demanding job, but it also is worth it and for me to not want to do it because of the 24 7 in that time, it hit me like a brick. I was being selfish when really I was being called to do this. So that's when I switched to become a full-time funeral director. So not only my funeral director too by the embalmer, obviously in the state of Michigan, but also I'm a death doula and death consultant too, and I also have a podcast with my twin where we talk about death. So like I said, he's a specialized psychologist that specializes in grief and loss. I'm a funeral director slash death consultant slash death doula. So we have some really meaningful conversations. So this is a perfect platform to talk about all of this. So thank you for having me. I really appreciate it.

GAIL MARQUARDT:
What an amazing story. So tell me more about the death doula. How long have you been a death doula and how does that kind of fit into the funeral service career that you have?

BENNY CAPAUL:
So I'm going to be completely honest with you. I think that to be a good, in my opinion, this is a subjective, this is not calling out anybody out there when you listen to this, but in my opinion, to be a death professional, which in my perspective that is somebody who is not only a funeral director, but a licensed embalmer. You have to not only be knowledgeable, but you have to keep becoming knowledgeable. The biggest problem that I foresee growing up in the death profession was how we sometimes don't get more involved in other death professionals instead of we have our own space. You have your own space. I was like, why aren't we just getting together? Why aren't hospice workers and palliative doctors, death, doulas, psychologists, counselors, and funeral directors all getting together and having a council? Because the idea is the more that we know what others do in the death profession, the better we're going to be death professionals.

So the more that I educate myself in the death profession itself, whether that be a doula or whether you take classes to become a hospice nurse or whatnot, you're going to learn more about how to actually help a family because the more you know can educate your family. So that's why I wanted to do it. Actually, we would do these things, these platforms at night Doc and I, my twin, and we found this doula that said, you guys should think about becoming a doula. And right away I was like, I've always wanted to look into that. So I went through the classes and part of the International Death Life movement, I am a certified death doula. I've only been a doula for about a year now, but honestly, it's really helped with learning more and more when it comes to especially what we do. So that's why I kind of got into it. And like I said, I'm learning and the great thing about the International Death Life movement is they have continual ed too. So not only do you get your certification, but they keep up on actually, okay, are you still learning the new procedures in your state and all that? So that's why I wanted to get into the death doula.

GAIL MARQUARDT:
And all those professions you mentioned, hospice, death doulas, funeral directors, even grief therapists, they're all on that end of life continuum, right?

BENNY CAPAUL:
A hundred percent.

GAIL MARQUARDT:
Yeah, it makes sense for all of you to collaborate. Though there's a lot more to you than being a funeral director and a death doula and a community leader, and your vibe is definitely not one that fits the stereotype of a funeral director. In fact, I understand when you're not serving families, people are likely to find you on stage behind the mic singing in your band, The Boy Detective. Is that an outlet for you?

BENNY CAPAUL:
Oh my gosh, The Boy Detective is an awesome outlet for me, and I think every death professional needs to have some sort of healthy coping mechanism for the grief, whether that be exercise, whether that be, and us staff professionals, we get it all the time through. Even I know the National Funeral Directors Association has done classes on how to healthfully get rid of the grief. And so what I learned through my tenure of being licensed under dad was I needed to have something. I needed something to get rid of all of the secondhand grief, because as we know, burnout is real. It's completely real in our profession, and I can't remember the specifics, so don't call me on it, but I remember when I was looking into it, I think it's like 70% of funeral directors aren't licensed after 10 years. And that shocked me because I was like, oh, when I first got into it, I was like, wow, that's crazy.

And then when I got into about five years, I'm like, okay, it's starting to make a little more sense because the world doesn't like to talk about that. And we're getting into a world that used to be community based that is becoming individualistic based. So it's a lot more work and a lot more trauma on a funeral professional than it's ever been in my opinion. And that has to do with a lot of just how the world is today and especially how America is. So yes, I'm on stage. I love to dance around 'em in a ska punk band called The Boy Detective. Feel free if you're ever in Michigan or Ohio or around this area. Sometimes I'll play some other states, but mostly Michigan and I have a blast doing it. So other than that, I'm a runner, and I also try to spend as much time with my kids and immerse myself and my two children and my beautiful wife who allows me to have the time to do all this. I am a very busy individual.

GAIL MARQUARDT:
It sure sounds that way. And it sounds like you found really good outlets for that grief you might experience in your profession. I think a lot of us think that funeral directors are trained for this, so it doesn't affect them. It might affect someone else. We see funeral directors being very serious and kind in the background at the funeral home, but there's no way that working with death every day can't affect you. Right?

BENNY CAPAUL:
Oh, a hundred percent. And you know what I like to do when I talk to, because I do a lot of talks at churches or high school, the first question I ask is, what's the first thing that come to your mind when I say funeral director? And of course they'll raise their hands and they'll say, death and gross and smells and all that. And I've done this with 18 year olds, but I've also done this with 60, 70 year olds, and they all say the same thing, somber, lethargic, very dull, dark, tall, bald, old. And I'm sitting there and I get done and I go, that's so interesting. None of you said father, none of you said brother, sister, friend. Because that's how society looks at us, because that's how they've been taught and trained. To look at a funeral director, a funeral director, and in the American’s perspective is a perfect definition of death.

Like Grim Reaper, that's who they are, and that's what they do. The sad part is when you actually deal with a funeral director, when you learn a funeral director is a human being. And we also have empathy. And in fact, what I find is, which is interesting, my twin did in his dissertation on the existentialism of a funeral director, and it was interesting when I was reading a lot of these very wise funeral directors was they find that they're more emotional as the years get on. So it's funny because people think that you become jaded as the years come on, but actually they get more emotional as the years get on. And it makes sense because when I started, I was dealing with the community's grandparents, great grandparents. Now I'm actually having the honor taking care of people I know in town or parents of my friends.

So now I'm starting to, oh my gosh, they've always been people to me. They've never been clients, they've been families, they've been people. But now it's like people that I'm coming day to day with and I'm losing. And COVID put a big damper on our job because we had to do things we never were taught how to do, and then we were forced to do things we didn't want to do. So it was very hard to be an educator and a death professional when we weren't allowed to actually do grief the way that we should as a community.

GAIL MARQUARDT:
Right. Yeah, the pandemic definitely changed the profession, hopefully in some ways for the better. I think a lot of people who couldn't have funerals during the pandemic started to realize the value of funerals. So maybe there's a silver lining there.

BENNY CAPAUL:
Oh, absolutely. And that was the beautiful thing when families would come in and say, you know what? We know just like everything else today, right? There's always that 50 50. There were some families that were very understanding and were like, we were glad that you followed the rules and you were keeping people safe, even though we may or may not have liked it. But then there was the individuals that didn't believe in it, so they thought we were part of the problem. And that was very tough for me as a professional, because at the end of the day, our job is to take care of the dead, but also protect the living from the dead as well. And so when we were getting told that we weren't doing or fulfilling our job, I was heartbroken, even though I know for a fact what I was doing was right it still really got to me. So on top of all the secondhand trauma, now you're also dealing with anger, outside anger that had nothing to do with what we were doing. So that was tough. That was a very tough time.

GAIL MARQUARDT:
That must've been really difficult. So you're a funeral director and this is your livelihood, but I've known enough funeral directors over the years to know that this is not a profession people go into just to be a business person. It's not for everyone. And the funeral directors I've gotten to know in this profession see the value and importance of gathering to say goodbye, and they're very passionate about that. What does that mean to you? Why is having some kind of gathering service or funeral so important?

BENNY CAPAUL:
Okay, so I'm going to go back to a thing I already said. So basically in my opinion, what has happened is we've gone from a community-based society to an individualist based society, also a faith-based society to a spiritual based society. There's two big things that are going on on top of cremation is becoming absolutely huge, which is I have no problem with. I think it's a wonderful type of disposition. The problem that I foresee is not doing anything, this whole direct burial through direct cremation, and it's not what you would think. It's not because I think that, oh, they're not supporting death or they're not making, my opinion is I'm dealing with the grandkids. The grandkids are coming in, they're saying, Hey, is there any last opportunity I could see Grandma, oh, I'm so sorry. She's already been taken to the crematory, and you can just see their faces go flat.

Now, I have the honor of having a twin brother that's in the psychology field, and a lot of his clients are based on some sort of not being able to get through grief closure. So what's interesting is when I'm talking to a lot of individuals that come in for pre-need or whatever, they'll say, I don't want people to have to deal with my death. I don't want my grandkids to have to deal with my death. And I kind of chuckle inside because in all honesty is they're going to deal with death whether you like it or not. So what I find is interesting is we as humans think we know what's best for everybody else. So instead of actually having a conversation with Doc, my twin and I try to tell people, before you make any decisions about anything, have an actual sit down with your family.

You might be shocked to find out that somebody in your family really needs something. You also might be shocked that nobody needs anything, but at least you have the conversation. What I find is a lot of the times kids will come in and be like, I had no idea Mom wanted that, and now I have to fulfill that because she's going to haunt me for the rest of my life if I don't do that, or he will haunt me. But the problem with that is those individuals now will never have the closure that they need if they don't have the closure. How are they supposed to give the closure to others? They've never received it. Therefore, how are they just like, if you're uneducated, you only know what you know. So if it gets to the point where it is all direct cremation, you have generations that have never experienced the funeral, they've never experienced the visitation.

Why is that so important? Here's the reasons, and I always get this from families after they always come to me and go, I had no idea how many people dad touched or mom touched. I had no idea this story existed. I had no idea that my kid, grandchild, grandson, godson, needed to say goodbye to grandpa or put a note in his pocket. These are things that funeral directors become very intimate with and they know. And so it really affects us because we know how the experience can really benefit individuals. I am a very, very big, big on mental health right now. Not only do I do funeral director, but I'm also on the board and president of two nonprofits, one Six Feet Over, which helps families after suicide, and the other one is Gabby's Grief Center. It's just a grief all surrounding grief platform here in my local community.

And what I find is, it's so interesting when I have conversations because I'll help lead groups or all that, and they'll say the same thing. I wish we would've had something or I wish I would've been able to do something more. The thing is, what I'm finding when I think is very interesting is it's not just based on money. I used to think, oh, people do that because it's funds. It's not that because they'll spend another three to four grand on a party after. So it's not money. It's based on, they don't see the value in having the body present and being shown. What they forget, and what our community has forgotten is when our great, great great grandparents were sick, you would take 'em in the home, you would take 'em in your home, you would feed them, clothe them, you would take care of them.
And so as grandkids, you would witness your grandparents dying. You would see that. You would see from step A to step Z, and then you would have the wake in the house, so everything was done in the house, and the community would come and you'd give gifts, and you would actually make dinners for the community. The community would shut down. That was another thing too. Even when I was young, I remember Ida, my small town, would actually close the shops and they'd put signs in that said, Gone to Funeral, and that was acceptable. You can't do that now, but why have we so much closed behind death? So what we're finding now is we have a more direct cremation. We don't talk about death. We don't talk about grief, and what are we seeing with mental health? Literally, the Surgeon General just put out a warning back in 2019 that we have a crisis, a mental crisis with high schoolers to the point where 38% of high schoolers will have a mental crisis before they graduate.

That's a third. That was before COVID. Can you imagine the number now? And see, that's the interesting part. Now, a lot of these studies haven't come out since COVID. We don't know what it looks like, but I can tell you that it's causing a lot more struggle when the grief when it comes to, because grief isn't just the death and loss of people, it's the death and loss of family divorce, the death and loss of a job. Your dad loses his job or gets laid off. Death and loss of life, lifestyle we had were shut down for a year and a half. So these are all things that are going into it. So if we're not communicating about death, if we're not grieving death, it's proper. The other thing that I always like to try to represent death is very similar to birth. And I always say this to high schoolers, and I always get a kick out of them.
I had the honor of being right there front row when my wife gave birth to my two beautiful children. Naturally, I wanted to be right there. I was like, Hey, I got some pre-med classes. I'm a funeral director. Is it okay if I be a part of this? And I say, it's funny when people say babies, it's cute. Oh, it's beautiful, it's cute, it's all this. And I'm like, do you think it's actually clean? It's not. It's messy, it's dirty. But yet again, that has such a positive connotation where death has such a nasty connotation to America, then why can't we have good grief? Because the thing is, as funeral directors is we see good grief. We see a wife or a spouse of 50, 60 years say, goodbye, and then I'll see you again, and I'll have this last dance as they whisper in their ear before the casket closed. We see all of this beautiful conversation. We see families actually get together and push away problems that they had because of death. We don't talk about that, but why?

GAIL MARQUARDT:
Yeah. It's interesting that you bring up these generational differences because we just did some research a few months ago, and we surveyed people as young as Gen Z and through the baby boomer generation about their perceptions of death dying in funerals. And most of the people we surveyed, 91% believe talking about death and dying is healthy and normal, but one in four are uncomfortable actually doing it. And nearly one third, 31% are not comfortable even thinking about their own mortality. What was unexpected for me was that Gen Z was the least comfortable talking about death, and I was expecting that generation to be pretty open about the topic, given that they seem pretty open about expressing themselves. So this plays into those generational differences that you are noticing as well.

BENNY CAPAUL:
One of the big difference too that I noticed is parents have always struggled with how to communicate death to their children. And so they tend to, whenever they come in for visitations or funerals or just arrangements, they'll ask those questions to dad. And I like, how do we communicate with our children? So the thing is this Gen Z makes kind of sense because they're probably not getting educated on the importance of talking about death. Their parents aren't sitting down at the dinner table and saying, Hey, I know this topic isn't great, but let's talk about if something happened to dad and I or mom and I or mom and mom or however you want to discuss that. If something happened to us, this is what you do. This is how you take care of it. This is what we would want. What would you want?
Having that open dialogue. And that's interesting because when I ask high schoolers, they're always like, no, we have never talked about death with our parents. And if we have, it's very brushed off. So it was nice after, I always have the high schoolers do a survey after, and I would say, out of the 400 high schoolers I've surveyed, 398 have said, thank you so much for having this open discussion where we don't feel like you're judging us and you're not saying it makes sense why we don't know what you're talking about. You're not making us sound like, oh, you should have been talking about this 10 years ago. And the idea is I didn't realize how lucky I was to have a dad that would come home when we had dinner and be like, oh, Mrs. Jones died. This is what she did in the town.

This is how we're going to celebrate her life. These weren't calls to my dad. These were people, these were actual individuals. So when we would pass, because my twin and I, we were boys, we were kids, so we liked to play Nerf guns in the casket room, get in trouble and all that jazz. And Dad would say, you got to get out of here, Mrs. So-and-so's coming in, and he would introduce us to the widow or widow work. And I didn't take it into consideration then, but I realized he was teaching us, this is what grief looks like. This is how death looks like. Don't hide from grief. He was always very supportive of crying, showing your emotions. He also told us all, you don't have to get into this business. I understand that it is not good for me to force you into this business because this business is not meant to be forced into.

It is a calling just like a clergy or anybody who deals hospice, nurse, anybody who deals with it, because you're dealing with families that are not in a lot of the time the right state of mind. So not only do you have to deal with your own empathy, you have to deal with their emotions and be able to communicate with them. And you're absolutely right. You brought up something about the sales part of being a funeral director. I did not get in this job to be a salesman. I'll be completely honest with you, Gail, I'm probably the worst when it comes to sales. I never understood. I had a classmate I remember, and they were talking about their JD PowerPoints or something, and he was like, how's your JD PowerPoint? I'm like, I couldn't tell you, but I would tell you, just ask any of the families that have had the honors taken care of. Because to me, that's all that matters. Yes, I understand. At the end of the day, I have a family, I got to take care of them. I got to keep the lights on in the building, and I got to pay our employees. I understand that, but I also was like, what a horrible thing for us as funeral directors to have to be like, I want to help you. I want to take care of you. Oh, by the way, here's this $10,000 bill. Now you got to take care of it.

GAIL MARQUARDT:
Right? And I know that one of the things that if you're not crazy about the sales part, I can sense the real passion in you when it comes to talking through with a family. What do you need? What would be helpful? You're talking about that we're not very comfortable about death and dying, and the thought of looking at our loved one after they've died can be really difficult and emotional. And as a result, many people refuse to view the body of someone who has died. And as you said, you have people coming in wanting to see someone, but the cremation has already happened. Our recent research supported this as well, with only 28% of people saying, viewing the body is important. But again, generational change, 36% of Gen Xers thought it was important. Only 19% of baby boomers said it's important. Again, why do you think so many baby boomers feel that way? And what might you say to someone about why they may want to reconsider?

BENNY CAPAUL:
It goes back to a couple of things. Baby boomers are watching what their other community members are doing, right? There's also now this, which is very strange, which we haven't gotten into, but I really think there's this power of persuasion that comes into it. I think there's a peer pressure now. Well, if Jim and Donna down the street had a direct cremation, I obviously have to have a direct cremation because if everybody else's, why am I doing something else? And then it goes into, am I spending too much money? I don't want my kids have to deal with my, I don't want my kids to have to take off work. That's the other problem we need to talk about too. That gets brought into this. How many days, Gail, do you know the average of how many days the occupations will let somebody offer bereavement? Do you know? Well, take a guess.

GAIL MARQUARDT:
I'd like to say three, but I'm going to say one.

BENNY CAPAUL:
So the average is three. Okay. Okay. But here's my address to you, Gail. I'm so sorry that you lost your dad. But listen, you're going to come back in four days and you're going to be all over with your grief.

How silly is that conversation? There's no way you're going to come back to work and be a good employee after three days. And that's the other thing. So you can have three days, but then after that, you have to take your own sick days, or you have to basically have to call off. And so the problem is, and I've heard this a lot of times too, I don't want to have my kids to have to call off. So that's the other thing. Occupations have gone. I remember when I first started, people could tell their job, Hey, my grandma died, and they're, oh, take the whole week off. I remember that. I remember that. I don't get that now. I don't hear that as much unless it's like a family owned business who's allowing somebody that they trust and has been in their business for a while.

Most of the time they don't do that. They don't get that. So then the other option is now it's an inconvenience to have a funeral, and that should be the last thing on these families minds. The other thing is where the nuclear family in one city staying together for 50, 60 years doesn't exist anymore. It used to be family state together. They were always in the same area. Now you have one son that's in Arizona. You got one son that's in Florida. You got one son that's in the Midwest. You got a daughter that's off in The Bahamas, and people don't want to take off for funerals anymore. Yet again, they don't see the value in it, therefore, they don't want to come, or they don't want to spend the money to get airplanes and all that, or have their family members do with that. So there's all these inconvenience too. That's a big difference. Then it was 50, 60 years ago.

GAIL MARQUARDT:
And I think people often think they can skip the funeral if they didn't know the person well, but you're actually going to the funeral to support the loved ones of that person.

BENNY CAPAUL:
Well, I find it interesting too that sometimes it's the people that aren't part of the family that really get hurt. For instance, here's a good example. People who literally left high school and went into Ford's or GM or whatever, they would literally, that was their life, their career was they would spend five, 12 hour shifts a week on the same line, doing the same thing for 30 plus years. They've spent more time sometimes with their coworkers than they have with their families. So by giving a direct cremation, you're not giving Joe's line buddy Jim, an opportunity to grief. So they call and be like, Hey, is there anything going on? And I'm so sorry. The family's decided. It's direct cremation. And you could just tell, oh, man, I wish there was an opportunity for me to not only say my condolences the family, but be able to say goodbye to my friend. That's the other thing too. And the problem is because how the law is, I'm not going against the law, but the family, the direct family is always in charge. So especially if the direct family didn't have a good relationship with their dad, they might want to just, let's get this over with where their dad might mean something to all these other people. So there's also that to take in consideration too.

GAIL MARQUARDT:
So many dynamics as we've been talking about, generationally, geographically, interpersonally, that really affect how we honor our loved ones and how that has shifted over time. Really interesting stuff. Thank you so much for all of your perspectives on that. I have one final question for you. Who are you remembering today?

BENNY CAPAUL:
Oh, I got a couple. Am I allowed to say a couple, or do I can only say one.

GAIL MARQUARDT:
You can definitely say a couple.

BENNY CAPAUL:
Okay. So I first want to give a shout out to my godfather, Edward Tyson. Wonderful man, brilliant man. Taught me a lot of morals, ethics, and how to grow up to be a true gentleman. He got Parkinson's, so I had to watch that side, and that was absolutely a nightmare. So anybody who deals with Parkinson's or had a family member, like my heart goes out to you. The other three I want to mention is my predecessors, Grandpa Bill and Grandpa Norm, for starting this funeral home and allowing dad and I to continue the awesome name. And then my great grandmother, Mildred Capaul. She was absolutely wonderful, and I am thinking about all of them as we conclude this. And can I end with a cool tagline that I've always used?

GAIL MARQUARDT:
Of course you can.

BENNY CAPAUL:
If you are not talking about death, you are truly not living.

GAIL MARQUARDT:
That is a perfect way to end our discussion today. Thank you so much for joining me today, Benny. This has been a really wonderful conversation.

BENNY CAPAUL:
Well, thank you, Gail, for having me. And I hope I didn't talk your ears too much off or get circled around the conversation a lot.

GAIL MARQUARDT:
I think we took it in a really interesting direction. So really, really good content. Thank you so much.

BENNY CAPAUL:
Thank you, Gail.

GAIL MARQUARDT:
To hear more from Benny, check out his podcast Let's Talk About Death. To learn more about honoring the lives of loved ones in meaningful ways, visit rememberingalife.com.

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