Can’t Take It With You, #1: Sarah Wambold, Funeral Director (Plus, Hello!)
It’s hard to talk about money. It’s also hard to talk about death. And it’s really hard to talk about all the ways money and death seem to tangle themselves together. But since The Billfold was already down with one of these notoriously gnarly subjects, I figured the other might not be such a hard sell.
And so here we have this new column, “Can’t Take It With You.” I’ll be popping in once a month or so to share conversations with people whose life or work touches on death and money in unexpected ways. Or maybe totally expected ways, but unexplored ways. Like money, death is something most people know is there and unavoidable but would prefer to spend as little time thinking about as possible. I get it. And I get that, like money, it can be painful when you first start reckoning with death in any real way. And mostly it stays painful. But it’s good pain, useful pain, maybe even pain in service of something greater, even if you won’t be around to see it.
Sarah Wambold was more than willing to be my inaugural subject—which, having now talked to Sarah Wambold, isn’t surprising at all. She is not a squeamish person. She was just a kid when her mother suggested maybe she should think about a job as a funeral director when she grew up. She was apparently just really cool around death. (This is the exact opposite of how I was around death as a kid, which is one of the reasons I wanted to do this column: to get a little more cool about death.) (I’m decently cool about money.) After getting degrees in cinema and comparative literature from the University of Iowa, Wambold went straight into mortuary school, worked for a while as a funeral director in her home state of Wisconsin, then moved to Austin, Texas, where she plugged herself right into the local death community. Because of course Austin has a local death community.
For a while Wambold worked as a director at a traditional funeral home, then left the industry for a few years, and now volunteers as a consultant at a green burial cemetery while supporting herself as a freelance writer. She’s has also been working for years to found her own alternative funeral home/art gallery space in Austin. I learned about her and this project through a series of blog posts she wrote for The Order of the Good Death, a collective run by Caitlin Doughty, another young funeral director. Wambold and Doughty are just two of the many writers and death industry professionals and academics and laypeople and generally wonderful weirdos who have used the spacious unguardedness of the internet to encourage really meaningful explorations of the fact that we’re all going to die one day, and what that means for our lives and our pasts and our futures.
I’ll admit that my main reason for wanting to do this column—to get more cool with my own mortality, basically—is pretty selfish. But when it comes to something this universal, maybe “selfish” isn’t really a thing. It’s true, what we say about death and taxes. They’re both very stupidly certain. It’s a mess, but we’re all in it together. So whatever scrap of wisdom one of us might have pulled out of the tangle seems worth holding up for everyone else to take a look at. Maybe it’s not what you need. Or maybe it’s just the thing.
Anyway, I hope these conversations can be a starting point for many more. If you know someone who might be a good subject for a future installment, or if you think you are that someone, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.
For now, here’s the great Sarah Wambold.
I know over the past couple years there’s this online death community that has developed—is there an equivalent in Austin?
There’s definitely a great death community in Austin, and really along the same lines of what I’m interested in doing. There’s a great home funeral community and alternative funeral community, eco-friendly funeral community, that sort of thing. And there’s a traditional funeral community, as well, which I know quite a few people in. There really are people who are interested and supportive of talking about death and being involved in things to do with death and dying.
How did you get into all this? You studied at the University of Iowa—I guess they don’t have a mortuary business major, but you went somewhere later.
I think actually they do have like a pre-mortuary program. I took some pre-mortuary science classes at Iowa that were basically anatomy and chemistry classes, to prepare for mortuary school, so I didn’t have to take them. I was really interested in it in high school. Growing up, I had this demonstrated ease and interest in death and dying, and my mom suggested it to me as a child and I was like, “I don’t think so!” But then as I got older I was like, “Yeah.” I started working at a nursing home when I was in high school, and a friend of mine was really interested in being a funeral director and we got ourselves kind of obsessed with it, and she ended up becoming a funeral director and I went to school for it after college because it was like, “Well, what am I gonna do with a bachelor’s degree?” My great aunt had died and my mom went to the funeral in Milwaukee, which is where my family’s from, and the funeral director was like, “We have this apprenticeship program that we hire people from, and they have a full time job while they go to mortuary school.” So I started working for them. I basically applied right after I got back [after college], and then they hired me, and then the rest is history.
When you were in high school thinking about becoming a funeral director, were you thinking, “Oh, this will provide me with the money that I need to live as a human being?”
I definitely had that thought more after college when I got that job. I was like, “Oh, this is totally a pathway.” It seems pretty cut and dry, right? I mean, people die, people need people to process the dead—there will always be jobs. But as I got licensed I realized that was totally not the case. The funeral home that I was working for didn’t hire me as a director. I was like, “OK, what do I do?” I was already kind of over living in the north, so I moved to Austin, solely based on the weather. I was like, “Fine, I’ll just get a job as a funeral director in Austin.” That was a matter of getting another license—you have to get licensed in every state you go to. I applied to basically every funeral home in town. I’ve found if you don’t have a referral and you’re going from a different state into a completely new community where no one knows you, unless they’re desperately looking for somebody, it’s really hard to get hired. People just don’t leave their jobs very often in funeral homes. They do, I guess, but they always have somebody coming up, like an apprentice, that they can hire instead, without getting any fresh meat. So it’s a little bit difficult to come to a new place and get in at one of the really established places. I ended up working for a funeral home in Austin, and they didn’t have full-time positions—they just had this part-time and weekend management position available. I did that for a while, but I really needed full-time work. So I ended up having to leave it for a full-time job that wasn’t in the business after about a year of working there.
My education cost me, like, $6,000 and that was for two semesters of schooling. In Texas, my friend is going to have to pay $12,000-$15,000 for 12 months. A lot of people are really intent on becoming a funeral director because, one, it’s their calling or, two, it’s going to be a really stable career. And it can be, if you are willing to move for a job. If it’s a midsize place like Austin, a lot of people are already working in those jobs, and they’re not necessarily creating new ones all the time, because in these bigger areas they have a really efficient way of doing things and they don’t necessarily need tons of people to do it. So there aren’t always tons of jobs—that’s sort of the dark underside of it.
When you were working in the funeral home, how many hours a week did you work?
Blugh, so many, oh my god! I worked all the time. My schedule was Monday through Friday, like 8 to 5, and then I was on call every other night and every other weekend. Say you get a call at midnight and 4 a.m.—you basically get no sleep, and then you go right into work. And then your next night you’re off call, but you’re so fucking tired, you just go home and go to bed. And then you repeat the whole thing the next day.
What is the pay scale like?
It really varies. When I was in the business, working directly for somebody, I was making, like, $12 an hour as an apprentice, and that was in 2005. Then when I got hired as a licensed person I literally think I was making the same thing. I might have been making $13 an hour. It was not very much. I emailed my friend who is still working as a director and she was like, “When I got hired I only made $4 more than I was making as an apprentice, and I was super pissed off about it.” So I think probably $40,000-$50,000 a year? It’s an hourly thing, though. There might be some salaried people, but it seems pretty odd because your hours are so varied and you work overtime like crazy all the time.
What are you doing now? Are you still at the green burial place?
That’s definitely part of what I do. That’s actually not how I make money, though. Technically I can’t get paid to do that because I have a funeral director’s license. It’s all weird. She’s not a licensed funeral establishment, and if I were take money from families that would be considered taking money in return for performing some sort of funeral service, which is illegal if she doesn’t have the funeral establishment license. So I don’t work and get paid from her—I just volunteer at the cemetery.
So the problem is that she’s not licensed, but you are licensed.
Yeah, it’s such an issue—I’ve had this conversation with other funeral directors who are wanting to do alternative death practices. With my home funeral group here in Austin, they’re actually able to do more funeral service than I technically am because the law bars me from doing certain things without operating connected to an establishment. It’s very technical and weird. I’ve had conversations about, “Maybe I should just get rid of my funeral director’s license if I really wanna do what I wanna do.”
How much does it cost to keep up the license and how often do you have to relicense yourself?
It varies state to state, but I can tell you about Texas. I have to renew it every two years and it costs me $312 plus about $100 in continuing education to renew it. That’s because I have a dual license—I’m a licensed funeral director and embalmer. If it’s just one or the other I think it’s probably $160. A lot of times, if you’re working for a funeral home they’ll just cover the cost of your continuing ed and renewal. If you’re just sort of out there, doing it for yourself, then you pay.
So how do you make money? What’s your source of income, if it’s not funeral stuff?
I do freelance writing. It’s a fairly new lifestyle right now. I had a full-time job—I was a patient navigator at the Cancer Society for the last five years, and I finally was at a point where I felt like I could leave that job and freelance to support myself while I pursued my other goals. So right now it’s working. Like everyone else who freelances, there’s days where you’re like, “I can’t do this anymore.” I haven’t hit that breaking point too hard just yet. Right now I’m still really obsessed with not having to go back to a full time job where I can’t put a lot more of my energy into my own goals.
As someone who works with and has thought a lot about death and dying, who deals with the families of the deceased and with actual bodies—how does that affect the way you think about your own mortality?
I think about death probably a lot more than other people, but I don’t necessarily think I know more about death than anyone else. How do I think about my own mortality? I think about it in really practical terms, I guess. I can get really philosophical and out there, just in my own mind, but basically on a day-to-day basis I’m pretty realistic and I try to think about it pragmatically. I recently made a will, which I think is a really helpful and important process for people to go through. But it also made me really consider my own mortality in ways like, “What do I consider my quality of life and what would I consider not living for? Would I be OK with eating through a straw everyday, or would I rather have just died?” I think about stuff like that. Still, sometimes I’m a little freaked out, but it’s not terrible. I’m a little more intrigued, I would say, than freaked out.
Has that affected the way you live your life financially?
Yes, totally. Being a realistic person, I actually think I’m probably not going to die young and fade out and have someone else deal with my crap. I’m probably going to have to deal with this for a really long time, so I better have it together. Getting old is actually a way crazier thought to me than dying. I think about money all the time. Especially since I’ve had this idea, trying to work towards opening a business—I am obsessed with money. I’m obsessed with my own budget, I’m obsessed with my business’s budget, I’m obsessed with all of it, and just thinking about the long-term—that’s a little worse than death.
At least when you’re dead you don’t have to worry about it anymore.
Yeah, I mean, seriously. Ugh, what a relief. Prepping for this interview, I was going through all my documents and I was just about to have a heart attack, looking at the cost of some of this stuff that I have on my spreadsheets. I was like, “Oh my god, where is this money gonna come from?”
Where is it gonna come from? When you decide, “I’m gonna start a really interesting and completely new kind of funeral home out of nothing!” where does the money come from?
It’s either independent wealth, or an investor, or a loan. And I’m fine with every single one of those options. I don’t necessarily have the family money or the independent wealth that I need to get this started, but I don’t hate on the idea of a loan. I’m not against getting a loan, and I feel like when I’m ready—when I have a little more confidence about my bottom line and my business model—I will probably have to take out a loan. I just don’t want to, in the first 12 months, have to shut my business down and then it takes 12 years to pay off a loan. That’s really worrisome to me. So I’m being really careful about when I take those steps.
Another reason I really wanted to start the column was to put my idea out there, and to sort of explore what it takes to open a funeral home and what that means, what it looks like, and find other people through that. And I have been able to find a couple people who opened one from scratch, basically. The daily stress of money is really hard, and they’ve experimented with different pricing options, different package deals—and it’s not that nothing’s working, but it’s really hard in this business to get through those first couple years without having to like shut down completely. It’s not that there’s so much competition—it’s that people already do this work so efficiently and on such a bigger scale that you can just get pushed to the bottom pretty fast.
The more traditional funeral home model—do you think people are catching on to the fact that it’s kind of bullshit?
Yeah, totally. But they’re also still drawing a ton of business. There’s an older generation where that’s sort of their go-to. And there’s people who I see through helping at the cemetery—they have an interest in doing things alternatively, but when it comes down to it, it’s really hard to keep thinking that way when you’re under stress and you’re under grief. In a pinch, people are going to fall back on what’s tried and true. But when you’re not in that space and you’re talking about it, I think people are really intrigued by a new type of funeral home.
In one of your columns you mentioned SCI—Service Corporation International, the megalith of funeral industry. I’d never heard of it but it seemed like you had some feelings about it, and I was wondering if you could explain what their deal is.
They’re a corporation and they’re doing what they think is right in terms of funeral service. I see it as a really big bland watered-down option for people and it’s making a few select people extremely rich. What they do is buy up these already-struggling family funeral homes in smaller communities and sort of take over business for them and leave the family name on the sign so that people are under the impression that they’re getting a family business, a small independent service, but really it’s being operated completely but a corporation who might be sending a revolving door of directors through it. They have to make a certain amount of sales from every funeral—they have a whole staff of salespeople and they do a lot of pre-need, and they sort of have sucked up all of the business and their competition in the last 10 years. It’s pretty amazing.
They sound like the Walmart of the funeral industry.
I think that’s how it’s described, pretty much by everyone. Even within that model you can just get the director to sign your death certificate, haul your body and store it—they’re perfectly willing to do that, I’m sure. But you’re gonna pay their prices for it. And that’s fine. I’m not mad at that either. It’s just like, you’re not supporting your local business that you probably thought that you were. And I think there’s something to be said about that.
I liked that you said you were taking “poor woman’s MBA classes.” What have you had to learn about business? Did you have any background in business stuff when you started this?
No, not at all. The closest I had was working at a funeral home and charging people for a funeral. But I had no idea how to write a business plan, I had no idea about the language. Figuring out what kind of business I wanted to run was a really big thing—like, what classification? Did I want to be nonprofit, did I want to be for-profit, did I want to be LLC, did I want to be incorporated? Austin’s small business association offers all these courses on starting a small business—Quickbooks and building a business plan and all that—and that’s been pretty awesome. I’ve totally taken advantage of all of that and that’s how I’ve met a lot of people and gotten a lot of help and it’s been great.
How much money do you need? Like if some very rich person came to you and said, “I will write you a check for exactly the amount that you need,” what would you tell them?
People are like, “No way, you need way more money than that,” but looking at my business plan—which I went over with an adviser and we both kind of came to the same determination—$60,000 would actually be pretty decent to start with. They say to kind of double it, so maybe $120,000, just to be safe. $60,000 would definitely just get the doors open, but $120,000 to keep it open.
What do you need in terms of facilities to start it? Do you need a hearse? Do you need a fleet of hearses?
I definitely have a wish list, but this is actually the one that was handed to me at the Funeral Service Commission. I need: a prep room, which includes a rust-proof table and drains and an aspirator and embalming supplies. All of that would mean I need space, a physical space, which would also mean I need parking spots and hearses. And then I would need two caskets, one that’s more expensive than the other one. And then an urn. And me, the licensed professional.
How much does an average, regular funeral now cost? I think I saw that it was around $8,000 or $9,000.
I think $7,000 probably the median.
You can’t even get away with dying without having to pay something.
It’s true. We’re really fortunate that we have a group in Austin called the Funeral Consumer Alliance of Central Texas, and on their website they have an updated list where they get pricing from every funeral home in a four-county area and put it all on a spreadsheet and you can basically see, price wise, who’s the most expensive and who’s the least expensive, and then just pick based on what you can afford. There’s so much variation in what people charge for funerals, it’s really bizarre.
I went to the Eloise Woods website and I was looking at their pricing. I know there’s a lot of reasons why people would chose green burials— the environmental aspect and making it more personal and less institutional—but also it just seems like a much better deal, moneywise.
It’s ridiculously cheaper—and she actually just raised her prices, so even with the price raise, she’s way more affordable than all the other cemeteries. Cemetery costs are what really were shocking to me when I started working, when I was working in Wisconsin. Funeral homes and cemeteries are separate in that state. In Texas, you can own a funeral home and have a cemetery attached to it, and the money and everything can kind of stay within itself. In other states, they’re entirely separate entities and they cannot be owned by the same person—a funeral home cannot own a cemetery and vice versa. In Wisconsin we would meet with people for a funeral, they would pay us $10,000, and then they’d go over to the cemetery and pay another $10,000 for an opening cost and then a plot and a headstone and the lowering device, all this stuff. I remember people coming back being like, “Oh, I can’t afford a plot. What am I gonna do?” And then they’d end up choosing cremation because they literally couldn’t afford the ground.
Has spending so much time around all this made you consider what you want for your funeral?
If I’m a young person and still in Texas I’d like to be naturally buried, in a shroud or a loving blanket that I have not yet picked out, but maybe one day that’ll be my next thing. No casket—natural burial in the cemetery at Eloise Woods. Should I be an old person, I will move to Malaga and be buried in the cemetery there. I’d prefer natural burial, though.
I know this is something that you felt predisposed to as a child, but do you have to take extra precautions to deal with it emotionally? Do you go to therapy or have friends that you can at least hash weird shit out with?
Divorce and alcoholism are rampant in the industry, and so is burnout. And I probably have experienced all three of those things on lesser terms, having never been married or had to go to treatment for alcohol or anything like that. You feel yourself start to go nuts a little bit. Actually, probably the best thing that I did was getting away from it for the five years I was working a full-time job not in the industry, just exploring how I could get back into it in a way that wasn’t going to drive me crazy and that I was going to feel good about. When I left it, I kept up my license because I knew I wanted to come back. I miss it—I miss it so much. I couldn’t reconcile why I liked it so much and why it made me so unhappy to work in the business. I have kind of figured out why, and it’s—I have other ideas about what I want to do. The break that I took gave me the space to kind of take a step back and be like, “OK,” and prepare myself a little better emotionally, mature a little bit, just sort of deal with what I knew it was like.
I found a really good friend in Ellen, who works at the cemetery and runs it—she’s been a really informative and generous with her insight in starting a new business in the death industry and what it’s done to her, how she deals with it, and that’s been really good. It’s good to have people who also work in the industry that, yeah, we can all get together. The online community that I’ve met has been really awesome in terms of therapy, I suppose—just dealing with issues. And the two directors that I’ve talked to who have started their own funeral homes have also been really good.
I like that you took a break and your way of resetting as a navigator with cancer patients. Like, “Oh this’ll be a piece of cake.”
I know! The theme of my life is sort of “bodies,” and any manifestation of the body I am probably going to be interested in. That was sort of a conscious decision, I suppose, to stay connected to helping people through difficult times. I have found out that I’m really not a social worker, through that experience. I’m not very good at that. I actually found that job to be a lot more stressful than funeral service. Dealing with the living in crisis is definitely worse than dealing with the dead.
Death is weird because everybody’s going to deal with it at some point. It’s not even like, “Oh, I’m not ever gonna buy a car,” or, “I’m not ever gonna buy a house, so I don’t have to worry.” It’s like, “You’re gonna die.”
And the thing about funerals is—it really bothers people, to have to pay for a funeral. And I get that, in a sense. But it’s a service. If you’re not going to do it yourself, you should be able to pay someone for it. That’s the conclusion I came to with art, too. If you’re really into someone making art for you, you should be willing to pay them for it. It takes so much to keep a funeral home open. Literally nobody wants to think about a funeral director making money. That pisses everyone off, it seems like. That was another thing I used that column to explain: “This is why it’s so expensive sometimes to have a funeral, because look at what it takes to keep the doors open.” It is irritating that funerals have to be as high as they are. They don’t need to be as high as some of them are. But there comes a point where it’s like, “Yeah, that’s probably a reasonable price for what you just got.”
It’s like, “You can’t repair your air conditioning unit. You can’t do a funeral. You have to pay somebody to do this.”
I get mad when I have to change the oil in my car. I wish I could fuckin’ do that.
I feel like if you can embalm a body, you could probably change your oil.
I definitely can—I learned how to do it once. I just don’t have the space. And also I probably have forgotten how to do it.