Miranda Benge Hummeldorf is a young mortician from Kentucky who popped up on my radar when her epic video interview with Refinery29 came out. I was instantly intrigued by the combination of her sense of style and sincere approach to working with the dead. On her instagram and youtube channel she gives her viewers a peek behind the curtain of the funeral home she works at. I asked Miranda about her own experiences with loss and how she feels about the funeral industry.
Do you remember the very first time you were confronted with mortality?
Miranda: The earliest memory I have of someone dying was when I was around six years old. The person who had passed was my Great Aunt, but I never saw her after death, only before she got really sick. I learned of her passing during the day of her services, which I wasn’t taken to attend. I remember questioning what was going on to the adults that were showing up at my grandmother’s house after the services, but I only got very vague answers. After getting home I remember I was looking out my bedroom window… and talking to my Great Aunt. The only thing I remembering talking about was how I know she is with me still… and then I remember being afraid to turn around from the window because I was worried she would be standing behind me.
I must say that I was a fan of ghost stories at a very early age, so that influenced this behavior I’m sure. Still, it was a powerful moment. I don’t believe I had any clue about my own mortality at this time in my life. But this moment helped build the foundation of my comfort and understanding of death and grief which has made my own mortality more tolerable to think about. After my brother’s death in July 2018, I have comfort in death that I never felt before; I suppose that is from the hope of seeing him again.
What does death mean to you? Do you believe in an afterlife?
Death to me is “one brief moment and all will be as it was before”. This is pulled from the poem ‘Death is Nothing At All’ by Henry Scott-Holland. My beliefs on death and the afterlife have Christian and Jewish undertones, but I consider myself very spiritual and not tied down to one belief system. I do like to believe in an afterlife. My reasons for believing in an afterlife boil down to how special and magical it is to even be alive here on earth. The concept of being alive at this point in time on earth is just as crazy as the concept of being alive after death. I believe it is all connected, we are all connected, and that it’s not in our best interest to speculate on things we do not know.
“What I love about my job is being able to give families what I experienced with my Great Grandmother: a final memory picture of their loved one.”
What inspired you to become a mortician?
My Great Grandmother was my inspiration to become a mortician. Before she passed she had been very sick and had been in and out of the hospital for years. Before she had gotten sick, and even the beginning of her ailments, she had also been one to put herself together; make-up, hair done up nicely, jewelry, a beautiful outfit, the “whole nine yards”. She had an open casket at her services, and seeing her in her casket looking healthy, radiant, and like herself, that stuck with me.
It wasn’t until years later when I was in nursing school and not feeling like I was on the right path in life, that I had a revelation. I knew I wanted to help the public in some capacity and that’s when the image of my Great Grandmother popped into my head out of nowhere. That very evening I put my application into Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science, and the next week I was accepted into the program.
What do you love most about your job?
My passion is helping the deceased. Whether the deceased’s family chooses embalming with an open casket, no embalming, or cremation, the deceased’s care is my priority. What I love about my job is being able to give families what I experienced with my Great Grandmother: a final memory picture of their loved one.
From experience, this memory picture is so important. I feel bad for families whose last memory picture of their loved one is at the hospital or at the coroner’s office. I believe what I can provide for families is more than just in the moment at the funeral home. This memory picture will last their entire lifetime, and that’s why I’m so serious about doing my best work every single time. Even if the family chooses cremation, I make an effort to make the deceased presentable before the cremation occurs so the family can have a moment away from the public to have a final memory with their loved one.
Is there anything you dislike about it?
The funeral service is a business that has for the longest time been male-dominated, which still to this day is very much the standard. The older generation, which is commonly our most served clientele, sometimes even has a problem being served by a female funeral director. But I believe the times are changing.
I dislike that I have had to develop a thick skin in order to work in the funeral service, but I have made a negative into a positive. I am able to see what needs to change and how I can be a part of the change. It’s time for a female takeover, and I am happy to be a leader in this.
Was working with the deceased difficult for you in the beginning, or did it come naturally to you?
Working with the deceased never seemed like it would be scary or intimidating. I didn’t have any experience working in a funeral home or with the dead until I started at mortuary school. I remember my first encounter with a deceased. It was an elderly lady and we were to practice “raising vessels” on her. What raising vessels means is selecting a particular artery and/or vein, and then incising to find it, then pulling it to the surface, which then can be used to inject arterial fluid or drain the vein. Anyway, I remember selecting her left radial artery to raise, which is found on the back of the left wrist below the thumb area. I remember being apprehensive and gentle, thankfully my apprehension has gone away but I am still very gentle. Taking care of the dead has always seemed to come very naturally to me.
What role does the fear of death play in your life for you personally?
I feel like my fear of death was extinguished when I finally saw the reality of what happens to people’s bodies after death. I know the fear of death goes beyond just the physical presence of a dead body, but something about being exposed to the dead until final disposition is comforting and lets your mind rest easy. I think there is something to being involved in death care that can help your brain wrap around the reality of death.
How do you approach the fear of death of others through your work?
Being a mortician, I am mainly behind the scenes of the funeral home. I am sometimes fortunate enough to work with families who would like to be a part of their loved one’s care, such as helping with cosmetics or even dressing them. I have found that there is usually one family member that is adamant about doing this, but there is typically a few in the group that are a bit freaked out by the idea of the experience. I say to these people “your imagination is much worse than the reality”, and this is always the case. When these people go through the act of applying cosmetics or dressing they are always so grateful they did this for their loved one. These moments behind the scenes with your deceased are just more memories created.
“Embalming is not necessary, but its benefits can be remarkable. I have given parents the ability to see their children who were beyond recognizable after a car wreck, and I have let children see their father after he took his own life by shooting himself in the face.”
I think if people legitimately have a fear of death that they can’t shake and it is keeping them up at night, maybe they should seek professional care. Death naturally makes people uneasy, but if it becomes disruptive to your way of living, speaking to a professional might be best.
I think exposing yourself to death is a tremendous way to help calm death fears. Of course, the internet has a lot of death avenues to go down, not are all great but there are a lot of great resources out there. Just following a death positive group on Facebook and Instagram could help alleviate fears, and having a community behind you helps!
Throughout your career as a mortician, have you ever had any
paranormal experiences where you felt like you could sense the presence of, or communicate with a deceased person?
People do ask me if I have had any paranormal experiences while as a mortician, but I can’t say I have. I do believe I have had encounters with ghosts before, starting as a young girl all the way until I was about nineteen. After my Great Grandmother died, that was the last experience I noticed.
I had gotten to my Grandmother’s house, where my Great Grandmother was living before her death, entered the door and said “hello” to see if anyone was home. I then heard my deceased Great Grandmother say “hello” back, and found out no one was actually home at all. I freaked out, ran to the bathroom, and said out loud “please stop”. Nothing paranormal has happened since that moment. I feel like people judge people who claim to have other worldly experiences, even my husband is skeptical, but I know I lived it.
From watching your videos you appear to be pro-embalming, which is something a lot of people in the green funeral industry oppose nowadays. Can you explain why you believe in the benefits of embalming?
I am pro-whatever the family wants, pro-choice. I think embalming gets a horrible rep because people aren’t educating themselves past the negativity surrounding the formaldehyde. I don’t even know if people realize that formaldehyde-free embalming exists. Embalming is not necessary, but its benefits are remarkable for some cases. I have given fathers and mothers the ability to see their children who were beyond recognizable after a car wreck, I have let children see their father after he took his own life by shooting himself in the face. Without embalming, the “normal” appearance of some bodies after death cannot be achieved.
Embalming might not be for everyone, but green burial and cremation aren’t for everyone either. I think what the green funeral industry does is great and I wholeheartedly support their cause. I think having specialty niches in the funeral industry are important because there are certain needs that are not being met by the more traditional funeral homes. I feel like as long as it’s not illegal I will do anything for a family, that’s why I still embalm and that’s why there will always be a need for professional embalmers.
Is there anything you would like to see changed in the funeral industry?
Yes, there are things in the funeral industry that could use some improvement, but honestly things are changing today at a much higher rate than ever. Women are entering mortuary schools at a much higher rate than men, personalized service options are readily available, celebrant services are helping non-religious families find meaning in services, and to top it off, traditional funeral homes are inching their way to become more progressive to serve the everyday person. There is room for improvement, but I feel that’s why people like me are here: to further the growth of funeral service and to better serve our community.
What is your favorite death ritual from any culture or time in history?
My favorite period in time for death care is Victorian times in America, mainly because it’s interesting. Death was certainly an event, and home funerals were common but funeral parlors were a growing trend. A lot of the time the embalmer would go to the home at the time of death and do the embalming in the same room the person died in. After the embalmer was finished, the deceased would be dressed and “laid out” in the home’s parlor, usually the front room of the home. The family would have an emblem or wreath on their front door signifying a death had occurred. The mortician or funeral parlor involved would have someone in the community to distribute a death notice which would have “calling hours” which is when the community could visit the family and view the deceased. I think home funerals are my favorite way of presenting the deceased, but in today’s times space is an issue along with parking, so funeral homes are much more accommodating to this.
“There is room for improvement in the funeral industry, but I feel that’s why people like me are here: to further the growth of funeral service and to better serve our community.”
What are your wishes for your own funeral?
My own funeral will be simple. I don’t believe in making a funeral an event for the community, I like to keep it small and intimate, a shared experience for people who really mattered. I don’t mind if my family would like to have a public visitation for me, but the funeral service should be only for my close family and friends. I think community support has its benefits, but I find too many people can be a distraction to facing your own grief and makes it difficult to live and experience the moment.
To personalize the room, especially for my visitation, I would like my paintings and art to be brought to the funeral home and displayed. I would like a picture board and framed pictures of me out to be viewed, but no photo DVD playing because I think it makes people just stand in front of a television instead of mingling. During the visitation, I would like my Apple Music library on shuffle, or just 1960s hits playing in the background.
I would like to be embalmed and have an open casket. I would like my makeup to be done by my friend, Tara, and my hair done by my friend, Ashley. I, of course, request a red lip and heavy winged eyeliner, and my hair in my typical “Bettie Page-inspired” bangs and long black hair. I would like to wear a vintage dress from my closet, statement earrings, black tights, and black flats. I have my eye on the glitter caskets that now exist; I would love the royal purple one.
At my funeral, I want the poem “Death is Nothing At All” to be read because it has helped me ease my troubled heart. I would like the song “I’ll Be Seeing You” by Billie Holiday played during the middle of my services. I would like a minute of silence for people to silently say a prayer or reflect. I would want people at the funeral to be given a piece of paper to write down a message or thought to place in my casket at the end of services before the casket is closed. I would like someone to sing “St. James Infirmary” by Cab Calloway at my graveside.
I have way too much time to think about all this, as you can tell, but when you work with the dead all day your mind wonders.
Photo credits: Miranda’s own. Visit her instagram here and her youtube channel here.