Popular culture rarely depicts the undertaker as a "hail fellow well met" kind of person. Instead, they’re usually portrayed as quiet, humorless and reserved – even morose characters, individuals who stoically and methodically bury the dead in melancholy fashion.
If that’s your impression of funeral directors, temporarily suspend your preconceived notions and meet my old friend, Mike Costigan, an undertaker and man who is more a minister than a mortician.
In fact, after catching up with him recently – I had not spoken with him in decades – it occurred to me that a person who regularly deals with death has a lot to teach us about life.
Mike and I both grew up in Baldwin on Long Island, though a generation apart. Ironically, we held the same job in high school, both working as the evening receptionist at St. Christopher’s Rectory, the home of the parish priests.
As it turned out, the trajectory of Mike’s whole life changed when Dick Pensa, who ran one of the funeral homes in town, came by the rectory one evening and casually mentioned he was looking to hire a new receptionist in his office. It was the summer of 1980 and Mike jumped at the opportunity.
“I went from taking calls from parishioners who were in danger of dying to receiving calls from people whose loved ones had just died,” he recalled. "But both jobs were about people – and I loved trying to help families. I liked trying to solve people’s problems."
Mike’s responsibilities quickly expanded from answering the phone and greeting people to transporting bodies and meeting with the deceased’s loved ones. He went to college and pursued and received all the necessary licensing and certifications.
It’s been 39 years since that August evening and Mike’s career in the death care business has taken him up and down the east coast. He’s now owner and operator of the Good Samaritan Funeral Home in Denver, North Carolina, a small community 25 miles north of Charlotte.
What has he learned about life from working so closely with death?
Here are just three things.
1. You must mourn your loss – but you must also move on. Death often comes unexpectedly, like a thief in the night. "When I show up, the person is dead," he said matter-of-factly. "But my job is to help get the families living again." Everybody needs something to look forward to – a goal to grasp for. "You need to dream," he said. "Your spouse may have meant the world to you, but you’re still part of this world and you have to make the most of each day."
2. Everybody wants to be known – even the person who seems content to sit alone. Mike arrived at a house one day after receiving a call to visit with an elderly woman. She was sitting in the dark. He assumed she wanted to plan her service but he quickly learned she just wanted to lash out. She was hostile to the Christian faith and bitter about her many losses early in life. Mike mostly listened and engaged in small talk.
He was touched by her plight and came back the next week – and the next. For over a month they chatted each Wednesday and she warmed to his presence. But she kept demanding answers for all of her misfortune.
“I don’t have an answer,” Mike told her. “But I can tell you God loves you. And He will one day give you back your mother, father, brother. You had them for only a few years – but you’ll soon have them for all eternity.”
When she died on Easter Sunday, the old woman requested that Mike preach the homily.
3. The best investments aren’t in the bank – they’re in people. Over the years, Mike became friendly with a widowed woman who had an extremely large family. He knew her story and followed the ups and downs of the clan’s many children as they grew and established successful careers in medicine, law and business. Following her death, the kids came by the funeral home to plan the service.
"Our mother was very poor," one of the adult children lamented. "We can’t afford much."
Mike proceeded to remind them of their childhoods, of their sacrificial mother who rose at 4 a.m. and literally worked all day, cleaning, cooking, washing, checking their homework and cheering them on in their athletic endeavors. "Your mom and dad didn’t put their investments in the bank," he told them. "They invested in you. You were their investments."
"Everybody has a story," Mike told me. "One of the best things we can do is encourage them to tell it."
A man of deep Christian faith, Costigan is both comfortable and content knowing there are many things he doesn’t know about, especially why death comes early to some and late to others. "God has wide shoulders," he says. "Only God knows. But He just doesn’t say much."
Whenever he meets with clients, he reminds them they’re really not talking about death – they’re talking about life.
"Our faith says we’re alive even after we die here on earth," Costigan noted, echoing the words of the hymnist who once wrote, "Christ is alive! Let Christians sing.The cross stands empty to the sky. Let streets and homes with praises ring. Love, drowned in death, shall never die."