TWIN FALLS • A few years ago, Mike Parke thought he was going to die.
He needed a liver transplant, but the chances of getting one looked grim. Now with a new liver, he hasn’t forgotten his close encounter with death. It has, in fact, changed his perspective about what he does every day.
Parke is director of his own business — Parke’s Magic Valley Funeral Home in Twin Falls and Gooding.
His other title: mortician.
“It’s really a call to serve,” he said, sitting in the Twin Falls mortuary’s parlor. At times he became teary-eyed as he talked about his work.
A funeral director oversees funeral arrangements, works with grieving family members and does plenty of paperwork. A mortician prepares bodies of the deceased for burial or cremation.
Being a mortician isn’t an easy job. It’s one that requires long hours and late-night phone calls. Parke and fellow mortician Brett Buckley sat down with the Times-News to discuss their thoughts about their jobs, preparing dead bodies and the afterlife.
When Parke was 14, he wanted to become a doctor. Then his grandfather died and he changed his goal to mortician. Today, he views it as his life’s calling. It’s not just a job, Parke said. It’s a lifestyle.
For one thing, there’s not a lot of down time.
The men often are awakened in the night to pick up a body — often the body of an elderly person who died in sleep, but sometimes of someone involved with something more tragic.
Dealing frequently with death and tragedy is the toughest thing about being a mortician, Parke said — especially preparing the bodies of deceased children and working with their grieving parents.
“I hate senseless death,” he said. Old people are expected to die, children are not.
Parke’s wife, Cathryn, also works at the funeral home and said she’s become accustomed to the late-night calls.
Preparing a Body
Mortal bodies weren’t made to last.
There are a couple of ways to respectfully dispose of a person’s body. The most popular in the U.S. is burial, but some families choose cremation.
For burial, a body must be embalmed — its blood replaced with embalming fluid — within 24 hours of death, according to state law.
Embalmers, in this case Parke and Buckley, may reshape or reconstruct bodies using materials such as clay, cotton, plaster of Paris and wax. They also may apply cosmetics to provide a natural appearance, and dress the body.
“The body is so intricate,” said Parke, noting that the process can take anywhere from 20 minutes to four hours.
Lots of Paperwork
When not preparing a body or working with a family — such as helping choose caskets, urns or headstones — Parke is busy doing paperwork.
“Funeral directors handle the paperwork involved with the person’s death, including submitting papers to state authorities so that a formal death certificate may be issued and copies distributed to the heirs,” according to the U.S. Department of Labor. “They may help family members apply for veterans’ burial benefits or notify the Social Security Administration of the death. Also, funeral directors may apply for the transfer of any pensions, insurance policies or annuities on behalf of survivors.”
Parke said: “Working with a body is about 5 percent of our time. Forty-five percent is working with families, and 50 percent is paperwork.”
Belief in Afterlife
Parke wants to do what he can to honor the dead and respect the wishes of those who are left behind.
Part of that desire is because of his belief in God and the afterlife. Parke said he knows some funeral directors who do not believe in God, but he finds that odd.
Buckley shared similar sentiments, noting that his belief in the afterlife helps shape the kind of mortician he is. It helps make his job easier, he said, knowing there is something beyond this life.
Preparing bodies, helping arrange services and overseeing burials and cremations are the final tribute to deceased. These two morticians believe the spirits of the dead are aware of how their mortal bodies are being treated.
“I don’t know how people can do this line of work and not believe in a higher power,” Parke said. “I believe.”